“Missouri, dear Sir, must be sustained. Pour troops into it. The noble Union men there must be protected[.] our Illinois troops are panting to cross over to help keep the peace. No Union man must be left to suffer henceforth.” – Gustave Koerner to Lincoln, May 17, 1861. View this and other documents from our Lincoln Connections Web page.
Gustave Koerner – Civil War Era; Koerner’s Regiment
Koerner was an inspiration to Germans and instrumental in raising the 43rd Illinois Regiment, Volunteers in the Civil War. Koerner asked President Lincoln to approve formation of a German regiment which Koerner was organizing. On August 8, 1861, Lincoln responded in a letter which expressed the chaos the federal government encountered in organizing its defense: “Without occupying our standpoint you can not conceive how this subject embarrasses us. We have promises out to more than 400 regiments, which, if they all come, are more than we want. If they all come, we can not take yours; if they do not all come, we shall want yours. And yet we have no possible means of knowing whether they will come or not. I hope you will make due allowance for the embarrassment produced.”
One week later Illinois Governor Richard Yates approved formation of the Illinois 43rd Infantry which became known as the Koerner unit.
Recruiting poster for the 43rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment, “Koerner’s Regiment,” for the Civil War.
For a discussion of the German soldiers who dealt with nativist feelings during the Civil War, including the 43rd Illinois Infantry and two other units, click this link to the masters theses of John Sarvela, Soldaten Des Westens An Analysis of the Wartime Experiences of Three German American Regiments from the St. Louis-Belleville Region, University of Southern Mississippi, Aquila, Spring, 2019 https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1680&context=masters_theses
Gustave Koerner attended President Lincoln’s inauguration and wrote to his wife Sophie,” Lincoln is president. In the presence of at least 10,000 people he took the oath and read with a firm voice his inaugural. I stood close to his chair; next to me stood Douglas ,while the weather was fine, it was nevertheless quite cold on that platform. Douglas had no overcoat and I saw he was shivering. I had not only a big overcoat on but also a thick traveling shawl, which I flung over him to make him comfortable.”
A few weeks later, when the crowd which had assembled at the Belleville Public Square heard the telegram read announcing the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, Koerner exclaimed, “ this is the last day of slavery.” In contrast, former Governor John Reynolds, a longtime Belleville resident, slave owner and southern sumpathizer, said, “the revolution in the south is the greatest demonstration of human greatness and grandeur that was ever performed on the globe.”
Belleville men responded to Lincoln’s call to arms by joining companies of the 9th Illinois infantry, the22nd infantry, Missouri 12th and Koerner’s 43rdinfantry. Koerner was called to Springfield at the start of the war to help Governor Richard Yates. As Yates assistant, Koerner was introduced to Ulysses Grant, who came to Springfield as a seasoned veteran of the Mexican war. Koerner suggested Grant be given a role in reviewing recruitment activities around the state. Koerner wrote “I must confess that Grant at that time did not look very prepossessing. Hardly of medium height, broad shouldered and rather short-necked, his features did not indicate any very high grade of intellectuality. He was very indifferently dressed, and did not at all look like a military man.” Governor Yates offered Grant the position of assistant quarter master and one month later Grant was in charge of a unit.
Koerner had written to Lincoln offering to raise two regiments of German soldiers. The uncertainty about the number of men needed at the beginning of the war was made clear in Lincoln’s letter of August 8, 1861, to Koerner :“Without occupying our standpoint you cannot conceive how this subject embarrasses us. We have promises out to more than 400 regiments, which, if they all come, are more than we want. If they all come, we cannot take yours; if they do not all come, we shall want yours. And yet, we have no possible means of knowing whether they will all come or not. I hope you will make due allowances for the embarrassment thus produced.”
Shortly after that, the 43rd was formed with approval from Governor Yates and made up of German immigrants from Belleville, Mascoutah, Shiloh, Lebanon and other areas of southwest Illinois and central Illinois.
Koerner was critical of Grant’s leadership at the battle of Belmont, Missouri, where the 22nd Illinois Infantry Regiment, made up of Belleville men, suffered casualties. “As foolishly conceived as it was miserable conducted. It was utterly without object and undertaken by Grant without orders from the commander of the department. In any other country Grant would have been removed from his position at once,” Koerner wrote.
Koerner also noted the loss of life in his 43rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, at the battle of Shiloh. “Confederates, 45,000 men, surprised our army of equal strength , drove us from our position some 2 and a half miles west of the landing to very near the river. Next day, battle renewed. Severe fighting for 36 hours and passing of the night in a cold and heavy shower had told terribly on our men. Koerner regiment suffered severely. It went into battle with about 525 men only, and its loss amounted to 197 men. Five officers were killed and wounded. “
After Shiloh, the 43rd Illinois, under Colonel Adolph Engelmann, brother of Koerner’s wife Sophie, checked the advance of confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest near Jackson, Tennessee, and after other maneuvers spent the remainder of their term capturing and then garrisoning Little Rock, Arkansas. They were mustered out of service November 20, 1865 at Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln appointed Koerner Minister to Spain in November of 1862. He returned to Belleville in July,1864. Koerner visited Lincoln in Washington in November, 1864. “When I last saw him, he was in the best of spirits. He saw “daylight” he said, told more amusing anecdotes than he had ever done before when I was with him, alluded however in feeling some of the gloomy and harassing periods he had passed through and which had almost broken his heart,” Koerner wrote in his memoirs.
Lincoln’s death was “ a national calamity” ,according to Koerner’s memoirs. Koerner served as a pallbearer at the funeral. The other pallbearers were political associates from Lincoln’s Whig party times, when, according to Koerner’s memoirs, “I was of course in decided opposition as a Democrat to Mr .Lincoln and his principles. Our personal relations during that time of political difference had been very friendly, however, and for some reason or other Lincoln had treated me with particular kindness and attention. I knew him well enough to have been able to detect certain weaknesses and defects in his character. The great and good however, largely preponderated. Mr. Seward said of Mr. Lincoln that he was the best man he ever knew. I should rather say he was the justest man I ever knew.”
James Shields was an important influence in Gustave Koerner’s life, both politically and as a personal relationship. GENERAL JAMES SHIELDS…WARRIOR, JURIST AND STATESMAN
By Jack Le Chien
Gustave Koerner crossed paths with many interesting people from 1833 to 1896 when he worked and lived in Belleville. One of the most dynamic characters Koerner knew was General James Shields.
Shields, born in 1806, emigrated to the U S in 1826 from Altmore, County Tyrone, Ireland, after receiving a private school education emphasizing classical studies. He taught school at Kaskaskia, Illinois and studied law, passing the bar in 1832. Adam Snyder, Democrat Congressman, was Koerner’s law partner. Shields and Snyder became acquainted and Snyder suggested Koerner and Shields form a partnership as Snyder was ready to retire. Koerner and Shields were both elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in the late 1830’s while practicing law in a two room building in the northwest corner of the Belleville public square.
“In stature, Shields was of medium height, very broad shouldered, and with rather long arms. His complexion was fair and healthy, his eyes gray and very sparkling. In a passion they seemed to shoot fire. His hair was dark brown and his features quite regular. In conversation he spoke rapidly and vivaciously, showing very little of the Irish brogue. He was not an orator, but a ready debater. His mind was discriminating. He succeeded better with the court than the jury and on the stump. Indeed, he very seldom addressed large crowds in election times,” Koerner wrote in his Memoirs. (1)
Dr. John Francis Snyder, Adam’s son, recalled the popularity of Shields and his friend Charley Mount in the late 1830’s. “A mutual attraction at once drew the lawyer and young Mount together in bonds of warm friendship. In a brief space of time they both enjoyed immense popularity, particularly in the younger stratum of Belleville society; were much admired by the young ladies, and became conspicuous figures in all their dancing parties and other social gatherings.” (2)
Snyder described how the two men fell for the daughter of their landlord, Jake Knoebel, manager of the Belleville House hotel. “In the intervals of political engagements at Belleville, both Charley Mount and Shields found time to fall in love with their landlord’s charming daughter. Charley, the most sentimental of the two, raved about her, styling her ‘angelic’, etc. Mr. Knoebel, a very quiet man of few words, but much strong, practical common sense, would, of course, never have permitted his daughter to marry either of them, regarding them as mere adventurers, having no fixed place of abode or visible property assets. The girl seemed to have shared her father’s views in that matter, and abruptly ended their romance by marrying Mr. Neuhoff, a wealthy German.”(3)
While in the legislature, Shields became friends with Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant”, who would later face Abraham Lincoln for the U S Senate. Their camaraderie was exhibited at a celebration in 1836 for the newly elected U S Senator, Judge Richard Young. “When the participants had been well oiled with “corn juice”, Douglas and Shields, to the intense merriment of the guests, climbed up on the table at one end, encircled each other’s waists, and to the time of a rollicking song, pirouetted down the whole length of the table, shouting, singing and kicking glasses, dishes and everything right and left, helter skelter.” (4)
In 1841, Shields, with Douglas’ influence, was appointed State Auditor and that required a residence at Springfield. Shields enjoyed the social scene and became the object of three anonymous newspaper items in 1842. One, written by Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, chided Shields for amorous advances at a Springfield event when he held a woman’s hand for fifteen minutes, apparently a violation of social decorum in that day. Shields took offense at the article and learned Abraham Lincoln also was involved. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln accepted and named Bloody Island across from Alton as the location where the two would fight with broadswords. After further negotiations, the duel was dropped and a trick played on those waiting on the banks at Alton. “It was not very long until the boat was seen returning to Alton. As it drew near I saw what was presumably a mortally wounded man lying in the bow of the boat. His shirt appeared to be bathed in blood. I distinguished Jacob Smith, a constable, fanning the supposed victim vigorously. The people on the bank held their breath in suspense, and guesses were feebly made as to which of the two men had been so terribly wounded. But suspense soon turned to chagrin and relief when it transpired that the supposed candidate for another world was nothing more or less than a log covered with a red shirt.” (5) Other witnesses reported Shields and Lincoln spoke amiably after the affair.
Shields was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1842 and served until 1845. He used his influence to have Koerner appointed to take his place. Koerner was on the court from 1845 to 1849.
Shields was appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington by President Polk. When war with Mexico broke out in 1846, Shields was named a Brigadier General and earned hero status at Cerro Gordo where he was shot through the lung. He lay dying when a Mexican battalion surgeon, who was a prisoner of war, was allowed to examine Shields. “He removed a silk handkerchief from his satchel, wrapped it around a ramrod and gently but firmly pressed the rod and handkerchief through Shields’ chest along the shrapnel track, into his lung. He then delicately removed the ramrod, leaving the silk cloth in place, inside the chest cavity. By passing the silk entirely through Shields’ body, the doctor was able to seal the wound. Once inside the chest, the silk expanded acting both as a matrix and compress to congeal the blood oozing from the lacerated lung.” (6)
Shields regained his health and led his men at the battle of Chapultepec where his arm was shattered. A painting by James Walker that hung in the halls of Congress for many years shows Shields in the middle of the fray of battle. Shields was given a hero’s welcome April 17, 1848, in St. Louis.
Shields next turned his ambitious eye to the U S Senate race in Illinois where incumbent Sidney Breese was seeking another term. Shields campaigned as a war hero and one observer noted “the piece of grapeshot that struck Shields has killed Breese’s chances of re-election.” (7) Shields had turned down an offer of the Governorship of the Oregon Territories, a ploy aimed at taking Shields out of the senate election, and Illinois legislators elected Shields January 12, 1849. (8)
Meanwhile, Koerner said Shields maintained his hometown ties. “When Shields was not in Washington, he spent all his time in Belleville. We had daily intercourse. He was my most intimate American friend.” (9) Koerner continued to rise in the Democrat party as a spokesman for the growing German population and was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1852.
Shields sought another term in the senate but the Democrat party was split over Douglas’ Kansas Nebraska Act which would allow expansion of slavery to new territories. Abraham Lincoln was a contender in the legislative election, but needed eight more votes to win. When it was clear he could not pick up the support, Lincoln asked his supporters to vote for Lyman Trumbull, formerly a lawyer from Belleville, and Trumbull emerged the winner. Koerner and Shields parted company on the expansion of slavery. “Shields felt very much mortified, particularly as I, being Lieutenant Governor, could not actively support him because I had from the start been violently opposed to the Kansas Nebraska bill…But his ill success was his own fault. Both I and Governor Bissell, (another Belleville lawyer), who was then a member of Congress, tried our best to prevent him from voting for the ill-omened bill, and I prophesied that it would defeat his election; I also told him from the start that I could not support him unless he severed his political connections with Douglas,” Koerner wrote. (10) Shields would not sever connections with Douglas, in fact, he was his best man when Douglas married Adele Cutts the following year.
Library of Congressphoto of general shields
Civil War General James Shields, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia.
Shields moved to Minnesota and became involved in land speculation. He targeted immigrant Irishmen to establish a community near Faribault, Minnesota, and by 1856 a community of 1,500 had sprouted and was named Shieldsville. The boom ended because of continuing problems with nearby Indian tribes and economic conditions. Shields again ventured into politics and was elected to the U S Senate from that state, serving in 1858 and 59. After serving his term he sought better health and financial opportunities in California. Shields married Mary Ann Carr, who was 30 years younger than he, on August 15, 1861. (11)
The Civil War arrived and Shields sought an appointment. He was commissioned Brigadier General of Union Volunteers in 1861. The experienced fighter was assigned to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and on March 23, 1862, he engaged Confederate General Thomas Stonewall Jackson at the battle of Kernstown, near Winchester. During the battle, Shields arm was broken by a shell fragment and he was knocked from his horse. He directed the remainder of the fighting from a cot and forced Jackson’s forces from the field. His victory over Jackson gave Shields the distinction of being the only Union general to defeat Stonewall Jackson. (12)
Library of Congress
Minnesota Senator James Shields
Shields, suffering pulmonary distress from his lung injury and pain from other war wounds, returned to California, but before long he was off to Missouri where he settled at Carrollton, practicing law and resuming his political activities. He was elected a state representative in 1874 and 79 and then served a term as railroad commissioner. When the sitting U S Senator died in office, Shields was chosen to replace him, making Missouri the third state he represented in the U S Senate. He is the only person to have represented three states in the U S Senate.shields minnesota capitol
Shields spent his last years at his home at Ottumwa, Wapello County, Iowa. He died June 1, 1879.
Koerner said of Shields:” He was exceedingly vain and very ambitious. But he was not given to intrigues, was careless about money, and in spite of his many opportunities to enrich himself, never accumulated property.”(13)
But Koerner respected the power of personality as he expressed these final thoughts on his friend’s life and career. “I believe he held more offices than any man in the United States. His most extraordinary career was a mystery to many. He really did not seek popularity, but yet had a sort of winning way about him that make him friends quite readily…I knew all of his weaknesses, and his vanity amused me. When asked why I liked him and fought for him so much, I really had no particular answer to make. It was his enthusiasm I believe; even his impulsiveness.” (14)
Statue of General James Shields in the Hall of Columns, U S Capitol, Washington, D C. It was donated by the state of Illinois in 1893.
Architect of the Capitol
1 Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-96 Life sketches written at the suggestion of his children, Thomas Mc Cormack, Torch Press, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1909, P. 414
2 John Francis Snyder: Selected Writings, Part II, P. 170, Illinois State Historical Society, Springfield, 1962
3 Ibid P. 174
4 Life of Stephe A. Douglas, Illinois State Historical Society Journal, P 299, Oct 1923-Jan 1924.
5 Courage and Country, James Shields: More than Irish luck, J. Sean Callan, Bloomington, IN, 2004, P 446
6 Ibid P 153
7 Ibid P 175
15 Ibid P 178
16 Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, P 417
17 Courage and Country, P 202
18 Ibid P 229
19 Ibid P 278
20 Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, P 415
21 Ibid P 416.