Alexander Schimmelfennig at Rinnthal

Schimmelfennig during the Civil War

To many Civil War aficinados, Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig is mainly known for hiding in a woodshed (or pigsty, depending on who is telling the story) during the Battle of Gettysburg. However, Schimmelfennig was an accomplished soldier who acquired not only a good combat record during the Civil War, but who, as a young man, was also involved in the fighting during the German revolutions of 1848 and 1849.

So what did he really do back then and what was his first combat experience like? As secondary literature on his time in Europe is scarce and sometimes contains errors, I decided to go back to the sources and assemble a more detailed account of his deeds. This is, of course, far from the last word on Schimmelfennig’s past, but I hope it will provide a solid starting point for further research.

Organising a Revolutionary Army

Georg Alexander Ferdinand Schimmelpfennig von der Oye (he was later to drop several parts of his name, among them the letter “p” in his surname) was born on July 20, 1824 at Bromberg in West Prussia (today Bydgoszcz in Poland). He came from a military family, with several relatives serving in the Prussian army. In June 1842, he also joined the service in the 29th Infantry Regiment (3. Rheinisches, von Horn). He was soon promoted to cadet and, in October 1843, to second lieutenant. On March 26, 1847, he was transferred to the 16th Infantry Regiment (3. Westfälisches, Freiherr v. Sparr) [1]. Prussian officer training was thorough and Schimmelpfennig seems to have been well versed in tactics as well as strategy – enough so that he could later give Carl Schurz a comprehensive course in military theory [2].

There is no indication that the young officer did, as is sometimes claimed, participate in the Schleswig-Holstein War. His regiment was stationed at Cologne and had acquired a somewhat bad reputation with the local population. In the summer of 1846 it was employed in violently quelling demonstrations occurring during the St. Martin’s Fair and in 1848 and 1849 it participated in suppressing local insurrections [3].

We can assume that Schimmelpfennig came into contact with political dissidents during his time in Cologne, if he had not formed political opinions before. At the time, Cologne was a hotbed of revolutionary activism, which was centered around the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, whose editor was Karl Marx. Unfortunately, I could not yet find out in what way Schimmelpfennig was involved in the events unfolding there. Ii is recorded, however, that he was dismissed from the Prussian army on October 7, 1848.

By the spring of 1849, he had found his way into the Palatinate, where the final chapter of the German revolution was to unfold. The background of what was to become known as the “Reichsverfassungskampagne” (campaign for the constitution of the Empire) is steeped in the somewhat naive hopes of democratic activists to secure a German Empire under a constitutional monarchy [4]. Several German states had accepted a constitution that would unite the German principalities under one monarch. The crown was offered to king Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia, who however declined, as he believed in the absolute power of kings and was not willing to submit his power to a constitution. In several German states, citizens rose to demand the enforcement of the constitution by arms. When Grand Duke Leopold of Baden asked the Prussians for help, the revolutionaries in Baden and in the Palatinate began to raise an army to confront the Prussian intervention force.

Young Schimmelpfennig seems to have cut a dashing figure. A contemporary described him as a small, lean man with blonde hair and a curled mustache, “aggressive, combative, a little haughty, but genial”. We don’t know if the traits later ascribed to him, namely a “somewhat soured” personality with a certain distrust of superiors, already manifested themselves. In any case, he was well educated and knowledgeable in military affairs [5].

This was probably the reason he got a position as a military commissioner after the command of the revolutionary army was given to a temporary military commission on May 20th, 1849. Another ex-Prussian officer, Friedrich von Anneke, was its chairman. But already one day later, a new Commander-in-Chief arrived, the former polish cavalry officer Franciszek Sznajde. The old soldier, however, was far from energetic. According to Carl Schurz, who served as an adjutant of Anneke, “he preferred to wield knife and fork rather than the sword” and apart from vague and almost unintelligible instructions (he spoke German very badly) he seems not to have had much influence on the campaign. The real work was done by the commission, which continued to raise an army [6].

Contemporary depiction of the insurgent troops. The woman is probably Mathilde Anneke, who served as an Aide-de-Camp to her husband.

Commissioners were sent out to raise a battalion in every borough. The core of this “Volkswehr” (irregular volunteers) was made up of professional soldiers who had joined the insurgents. The rest were locals, mainly workers, artisans and some farmers. Those were joined by student delegations and a hotchpotch of veterans from other revolutionary struggles. Outfitting and organising the troops was difficult: Weapons were lacking, so many men were only equipped with scythes, and the volunteers did not like the drill regime employed by the ex-Prussian officers. General Sznajde later stated that the troops could not even conduct basic manoeuvres such as marching in column. The men were unruly and hard to control. Uniforms were lacking, so with their beards, colourful shirts, feathered hats and old pistols and dirks in their belts they looked more like bandits than soldiers [7].

Another depiction of the Volkswehr.

Schimmelpfennig organised a corps of “Volkswehr” at Zweibrücken in Western Palatinate. Eventually, his force seems to have numbered about 1500 men and 5 guns. On the whole, after six weeks of labour, the commission managed to assemble an army of about 7000-8000 men who were joined by Badish regulars who almost entirely had gone over to the revolutionaries. All in all, around 20.000 men were ready to confront the Prussian army [8].

The Battle of Rinnthal

The Prussian intervention force, which numbered about 50.000 men, intended a three-pronged attack with three corps. The insurgents on the other hand struggled to formulate a coherent counter strategy. Their forces were dispersed and their leaders seem to have had no overall plan [9].

The area of operations.

The campaign began when the Prussian First Corps invaded the Palatinate on June 12, 1849. Schimmelpfennig’s Corps was, at that time, positioned at Homburg. The Prussian vanguard swiftly moved against the town and a small detachment of skirmishers managed to drive Schimmelpfennig’s men out of their barricades without them offering resistance. The removal of the barricades, however, slowed the Prussian pursuit considerably, so the revolutionaries had enough time to fall back and rally at the village of Zweibrücken. The retreat seems to have been made in some disorder as the guns were temporarily lost, but could be recovered [10].

Schimmelpfennig’s plan was now to cover the mountain passes at Pirmasens and therefore hinder the Prussian advance on the city of Landau. On June 16, he arrived at the village of Rinnthal, where he took position. Early next morning, he ordered his men to barricade the entrances into Rinnthal. This place was a strategic choke point, as it lay on an important road leading along a narrow valley [11].

Willich in 1849.

There, they were joined by the veteran corps of August Willich, another ex-Prussian officer who would later become a general in the Civil War. His men, many of whom had already seen combat in 1848, arrived at Rinnthal in the morning of June 17. The assembled force had about 1600 men, among them the battle-hardened veterans of Willich’s corps, but also many men who were only armed with scythes [12].

Approaching from the west against them along the road in the narrow valley was the 2nd division of the 1st Prussian Army Corps under Maj. Gen. Karl Emil von Webern. It consisted of 5 battalions of infantry, one company of Jäger (light infantry), two squadrons of Ulans, 8 guns and a detachment of sappers, altogether almost 4000 men [13]. The Prussians conducted their attack methodically. As soon as they spotted the barricades, they sent the Jäger forward to provide covering fire for the sappers and some 30 farmers, who had been pressed into service and equipped with axes and shovels. Those were followed by a company of fusiliers and two small guns [14].

The valley west of Rinnthal was very narrow – about 65 yards – with a steep hillside to the South of the road and another, more gently sloped hill to the North. There was also a small creek with a stone bridge and a mill. This was where the barricades had been erected. According to the after action reports of the Prussian officers, the insurgents had also occupied the hills to both sides of the road and poured a lively fire into the approaching troops. This made it impossible for the Prussian artillery to deploy, so the guns were pulled back again. We can only assume that the sappers and farmers also fell back, as no further mention of them is made.

Apart from the continuous and effective fire from the barricades, the mill and the hills, the insurgents’ resistance seems to have been disorderly [15]. Schimmelpfennig’s scythe men were placed on the road and were hard to keep in check when receiving fire from the Prussian Jäger, who were trying to pin the defenders of the barricades. Another detachment of Jäger climbed the Northern heights to dislodge the insurgents’ sharpshooters. Then the Prussian commander ordered the fusiliers to charge over the bridge and take the barricades. In this, they quickly succeeded, driving the defenders back into the village proper. Now another company of fusiliers was sent to outflank the insurgents by taking the very steep Southern heights. There was some fighting over this hill, in which Friedrich Engels, who served as an adjutant to Willich, was personally involved. But the insurgents, armed only with flintlock muskets, could not withstand the fire from the superior Prussian needle rifles and finally broke and fled from their position. As a consequence, the village became untenable. While Prussian soldiers advanced on the heights to the left and right, a general retreat began. The insurgents fell back to Sarnsthal in good order, but as they continued to receive fire from the Prussians, the men finally broke and a rout ensued. Fortunately, again the Prussians did not pursue and the revolutionaries rallied in the village of Albersweiler.

The fight had lasted about three-quarters of an hour. While the Prussians had only taken light casualties – nine wounded, two of them severely – the insurgents had sustained heavy losses, altogether about 60 men, with about 20 of them killed. Most of the casualties were taken during the retreat. Schimmelpfennig, who directed the fighting from his horse, was wounded in the knee early in the action. He had to be carried off in an ambulance and was unable to continue his command function. His ill-disciplined men were unwilling to accept Willich’s authority, so the corps partly dissolved during the army’s retreat [16].

The campaign continued for another month, with the insurgents pulling together their forces and making a desperate last stand at the river Murg. However, they never stood a chance against the numerically superior and much better equipped, trained and disciplined Prussian army. On July 11 and 12, the last remains of the revolutionary force crossed the border into Switzerland. Among them was Alexander Schimmelpfennig, for whom a long journey was beginning. It led him via Switzerland and England to the USA, where he found employment as a military engineer before joining the army as colonel of the 35th Pennsylvania Volunteers (later designated as the 74th Pennsylvania) in 1861.

The retreat to Switzerland.

Conclusions

Unfortunately, we have no testimony from Schimmelpfennig himself about the campaign and the fight at Rinnthal. The eyewitness Friedrich Engels judged his performance as rather bad. He states that Schimmelpfennig neglected to occupy the heights around Rinnthal, which led to the Prussians taking them without resistance. This, he argues, was one of the reasons why the battle was lost. However, Engels didn’t like Schimmelpfennig for political reasons and deemed all insurgent leaders as incompetent, with the sole exception of Willich [17]. If we look at the official reports of Prussian officers, a different picture emerges. All Prussian sources agree that the insurgents already held the heights when the 2nd division’s vanguard arrived, that the placement of the barricades and the troops on the heights put the attacking Prussians in a killing zone and that this prevented them from deploying their artillery. If occupying the heights was indeed Schimmelpfennig’s responsibility, he had accomplished the task satisfactory. He also seems to have shown personal courage, as being wounded early on meant that he was in the thick of the fighting from the beginning.

We can only speculate what the whole episode meant for Schimmelpfennig personally. At the least, it probably taught him important lessons about handling citizen soldiers – something that would no doubt come in handy when he took command of the 35th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1861. It also gave him experience in leadership and independent command. Finally, he probably gained confidence in himself – he now knew he could trust himself to behave courageously under fire. Schimmelpfennig’s experience in the revolution of 1849, therefore, provided a solid basis for his career in the American Civil War.


[1] Melchers, Johannes B.: Stammliste des Offizier-Korps des Infanterie-Regiments von Horn (3. Rheinisches) Nr. 29 1813-1901. Trier: Lintz 1901, p. 228. In the secondary literature and also in some sources Alexander Schimmelpfennig is sometimes confused with another man named Schimmelpfennig who joined the revolutionary movement, namely Reinhard Schimmelpfennig. Reinhard, who was a cousin of Alexander, participated in the April 1848 campaign in Baden as a subordinate of Georg Herwegh and was killed at the Battle of Dossenbach on April 27, 1848. See Corvin, Otto von: Ein Leben voller Abenteuer. Zweiter Band. Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Societäts-Druckerei 1924, p. 798. The only modern biography of Schimmelpfennig is Raphelson, Alfred C. „Alexander Schimmelfennig: A German-American Campaigner in the Civil War“. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 87, Nr. 2 (1963): 156–81.

[2] Schurz, Carl: The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. Volume one: 1829-1852. New York: The McClure Company 1907, p. 244. His high education is also stressed by Otto von Fritsch, who served on Schimmelfennig’s staff during the Civil War. See Butts, Joseph Tyler (ed.): A gallant captain of the civil war: being the record of the extraordinary adventures of Frederick Otto, baron von Fritsch. New York; London: F. T. Neely, 1902, p. 28.

[3] Geschichte des 3. westfälischen Infanterie-Regiments Nr. 16. Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn 1880, p. 167. See also Büsch, Otto (ed.): Handbuch der preussischen Geschichte. Band II. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter 1992, p. 227.

[4] For an overview of the convoluted political background, see Siemann, Wolfram: Die deutsche Revolution von 1848/49. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp 1985, pp. 204-218.

[5] Becker, M. J.: The Germans of 1849 in America. An Address delivered before The Monday Club of Columbus, Ohio, March 14, 1887. Mt. Vernon, OH: The Republican Printing House 1887, p. 27; Butts (ed.): A gallant captain of the civil war, p. 28.

[6] Staroste: Tagebuch über die Ereignisse in der Pfalz und Baden im Jahre 1849. Band I. Potsdam: Riegel’sche Buch- und Musikalienhandlung 1852, p. 21f.; Schurz: Reminiscences, p. 189. Friedrich Engels had a very similar impression of the Polish general, see Engels, Friedrich: “Die deutsche Reichsverfassungskampagne,” in Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels: Werke. Band 7. Berlin: Dietz 1960, pp. 109-197: 155.

[7] Engels: “Reichsverfassungskampagne”, p. 164; Schurz: Reminiscences, p. 187f.; Anklag-Akte, errichtet durch die K. General-Staatsprokuratur der Pfalz, nebst Urtheit der Anklagekammer des k. Appellationsgerichtes der Pfalz in Zweibrücken vom 29. Juni 1850, in der Untersuchung gegen Martin Reichard, entlassener Notär in Speyer, und 332 Consorten, wegen bewaffneter Rebellion gegen die bewaffnete Macht, Hoch- und Staatsverraths &c. Zweibrücken: G. Ritter 1850, p. 72.; Giesler-Anneke, Mathilde F.: “Memoiren einer Frau aus dem badisch-pfälzischen Feldzug,” in German American Annals 16(3/4) 1918, pp. 73-140: 95.

[8] Engels: “Reichsverfassungskampagne”, p. 156; Staroste: Tagebuch über die Ereignisse in der Pfalz und Baden, p. 174.

[9] For an overview of the campaign, see Helmert, Heinz & Usczeck, Hansjürgen: Bewaffnete Volkskämpfe in Europa 1848/1849. Berlin: Militärverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik 1973, pp. 248-266.

[10] Staroste: Tagebuch über die Ereignisse in der Pfalz und Baden, p. 174f.; Operationen und Gefechts-Berichte aus dem Feldzuge in der Rhein-Pfalz und im Grossherzogthum Baden, im Jahre 1849. Beiheft zum Militair-Wochenblatt für Oktober, November und Dezember 1849. Berlin: Mittler & Sohn 1849, p. 17.

[11] Anklag-Akte, p. 238.

[12] The numbers do not really add up with the number mentioned before regarding the strength of Schimmelpfennig’s corps. We can only assume that Schimmelpfennig had lost parts of his force due to desertion and disorder after the skirmish at Homburg.

[13] Staroste: Tagebuch über die Ereignisse in der Pfalz und Baden im Jahre 1849. Band II. Potsdam: Riegel’sche Buch- und Musikalienhandlung 1853, p. 269.

[14] Staroste: Tagebuch, Band I, p. 192.

[15] The accounts we have from the insurgents’ side are either cursory (Becker, who was not personally present at the action) or a bit fanciful (Engels) and they contradict in some important points the Prussian records. My account mainly follows the Prussian officers’ reports as published in the supplements to the Militair-Wochenblatt and the book by Staroste. See Operationen und Gefechts-Berichte, pp. 18-19;  Staroste: Tagebuch, pp.192-194; Der Feldzug gegen die badisch-pfälzische Insurrection im Jahre 1849. Darmstadt: L. Pabst 1850, p. 266; Engels: “Reichsverfassungskampagne”, pp. 169-171; Becker, Johann Ph. & Essellen, Christian: Geschichte der süddeutschen Mai-Revolution des Jahres 1849. Genf: G. Becker 1849, pp. 308-310. 

[16] Becker: Germans of 1849, p. 28; Engels: “Reichsverfassungskampagne”, p. 171. We know that Schimmelpfennig was mounted because the ownership and fate of the horse, which had been requisitioned, was a topic of some interest in the criminal trial where Schimmelpfennig, together with many other insurgents, was sentenced to death in absentia. See Anklag-Akte, p. 115.

[17] Engels: “Reichsverfassungskampagne”, p. 170. Later, in the hothouse that was emigrant politics at London, Engels and Marx bitterly quarreled with the faction around Schimmelpfennig and Schurz.

The Year of Jubilee

The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (Colored) was one of the first African-American regiments to be raised in the war. Its origins lay in an abandoned experiment by Major General David Hunter to arm escaped slaves in order to defend his exposed position on the Atlantic coast. The experiment failed, mainly because Hunter’s approach was extremly heavy-handed, but it formed to core of what was to become the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. A company of its soldiers already conducted small raids on November 1862, but the regiment was not mustered in before January 31, 1863. [1]

On January 1, 1863, a big ceremony was held at Port Royal, South Carolina, to celebrate the coming into effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. At this event, the regiment received its flag, which was handed over to Sgt. Prince Rivers and Cpl. Robert Sutton. The flag bore the words “To the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. The Year of Jubilee Has Come.”

What does this phrase mean?

The expression goes back to a custom mentioned in the Bible. There, the “Year of Jubilee” refers to a season of festival occuring every fifty years, where debts were forgiven, wealth was redistributed and all servants of Hebrew origin obtained their freedom. Educator and writer Maria Richards described it in 1858 as a year of festivities, which was announced by a trumpet proclaiming “liberty to the bondsman, plenty to the impoverished, home to the exile.” [2]

In the growing abolitionist movement of the antebellum period, this biblical idea took on a meaning that was narrower but at the same time more concise. No longer referring to a general social reform, it referred to the freeing of slaves in the U.S. and the abolition of the institution of slavery. William Goodell, a radical abolitionist, published a newspaper called American Jubilee during the 1850s and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison often signed his letters with phrases like “Yours to usher in the Jubilee”. [3]

Slaves coming into Union lines (LOC)

When the Civil War broke out, many slaves interpreted the events in an almost millennial way, seeing the events as heralding a new age brought forth through an awful conflegration. The notion and concept of Jubilee again provided a way to frame their hopes and make sense of what was happening in religious terms. Black congregations were heard to fervently sing the old methodist hymn “Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow”, which contained the verse: “The year of jubilee is come! Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.” Union cavalry officer Willard Glazier noted in October 1861 that many slaves come into the federal lines, entertaining “wild notions about a jubilee of liberty, for which they are praying and singing, and look upon us as their deliverers.” Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry described visiting “a jubilee meeting” held by African-Americans in May 1862. [4]

Northern composer and songwriter Henry C. Work, who had connections to the abolitionist movement, took up the term and further developed its meaning in his 1862 song “Kingdom Coming.” Using snippets of African-American speech he had heard, his song tells the story of a Union raid on the South Carolina coast from the perspective of the slaves. Intended as a humorous song, the lyrics exegerate the African-American accent and would probably be considered to be a kind of ‘blackface’ farce today. But the widely popular song also developed the idea of Jubilee in an significant way:

Say, darkies, hab you seen de massa, wid de muffstash on his face,
Go long de road some time dis mornin', like he gwine to leab de place?
He seen a smoke way up de ribber, whar de Linkum gunboats lay;
He took his hat, and lef' berry sudden, and I spec' he's run away!

CHORUS:
De massa run, ha, ha! De darkey stay, ho, ho!
It mus' be now de kingdom coming, an' de year ob Jubilo!

In Work’s song, the day of Jubilee is initiated and enforced by the Union army. It is not an event happening through divine providence or political campaigning, but because the Union war machine with its steam gunboats is fighting and driving away the slave holders. However, it not only gives agency to the Union soldiers, but also to the slaves themselves, which are depicted as taking over the plantation and locking the overseer into the cellar.

African-Americans of course had not waited for the Union army, but had employed their own agency to usher in the year of Jubilee. They knew that escaping from their owners and coming into Union lines, as Glazier wittnessed, already meant taking their fate into their own hands. For many African-American men, joining the Union army was another step in this process.

It is altogether fitting, then, that the regimental flag of the 1st S. C., which was sewn by members of the congregation from the antislavery Church of the Pilgrims in New York, bore the inscription: “The Year of Jubilee Has Come.” African-American soldiers fighting under it were always reminded that they themselves, former slaves, finally had the authority as well as the military power to contribute to the fight for freedom from their chains.


[1] For the history of the regiment see Saucer, John: An We Ob Jubilee: The First South Carolina Volunteers. Arcadia Publishing 2019 and Ash, Stephen V.: Firebrand of Liberty. The Story of Two Black Regiments that Changed the Course of the Civil War. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Co. 2008.

[2] Richards, Maria Tolman: The Year of Jubilee: Or, Familiar Phases of Hebrew Life. New York: Sheldon, Blakeman & Co. 1858, p. 117.

[3] Coffey, John: Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 125.

[4] Glazier, Willard W.: Three Years in the Federal Cavalry. New York: Ferguson & Co. 1873, p. 40; Rhodes, Robert Hunt (ed.): All for the Union. The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. New York: Random House 1992, p. 57.

Opening the Ball

[We] marched to Gettysburg and when wee got thare wee formed A line of battle and soon the ball opned […]

[1]
Pvt. Jonathan F. Coghill

The phrase “the ball opened” was much used and well understood by Civil War soldiers and civilians alike. It referred to the moment a battle began, or, more specific, to the moment the balls – meaning the projectiles – started to fly. It is mostly used in reference to the individual describing the action. In the quote above, the battle of Gettysburg had started hours before, but “the ball opned” for Private Coghill of the 23rd North Carolina Infantry when he and his comrades were hit by a volley from the men of Baxter’s brigade hinding behind a stone wall on Oak Ridge.

The expression can be found in countless letters, diaries and memoirs. “The ball is opened again and we are, from what I see, to have another hot day”, Maj. Joseph H. Chennoweth of the 31st Virginia wrote when he marched into battle in the Shenandoah Valley on June 9, 1862. “On our right the ball has opened and heavy cannonading is now (3 PM) going on and off,” wrote Union artillery officer John Cheney during the Chattanooga campaign of November 1863. And again at the battle of Gettysburg, a private of the 150th Pennsylvania even taunted the rebels by shouting: “Come boys, choose your partners! The ball is about to open! Don’t you hear the music?” [2]

But why did those soldiers compare a battle with a ball, a social event that is usually seen as festive and cheerful?

On a first, superficial level, calling a battle a “ball” is an euphemism. The soldier is playing “old hand”, he is signalling his knowledge of military jargon and, at the same time, presenting himself as distanced from the dangers and horrors of the battlefield. He shows that he can make light of the horrors of war and therefore remain in control of his emotions – a central part of Victorian manliness. [3]

Arthur Wellesley, 1. Duke of Wellington

But may there be a deeper meaning to this metaphor? To answer this question, it would be interesting to trace the origins of the comparison. And indeed there is a piece of text that may have been the source of the phrase: namely a letter by one of the most famous generals of the time, the victor of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. This letter was written on August 8, 1815, less than a month after the battle, in answer to a request by an unknown writer – some think it might have been the novelist Walter Scott.

It seems that the inquirer presented a plan to write about the battle the general had just fought. This is what Wellington answered:

I have received your letter of the 2d, regarding the battle of Waterloo. The object you propose to yourself is very difficult of attainment and, if really attained, is not a little invidious. The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.

[4]
Hoppin, Augustus: The last ball of the season, 1858 (LOC)

What did Wellington mean? By drawing the comparison to the swirling social dynamics of a ball, he stresses the impossibility of describing a battle in its entirety, of giving a complete picture of what happened at a specific moment in time. Like a ball, a battle is an overwhelming experience that consists of many tiny occurences which are difficult to bring into order once the event is over. Wellington, the man who commanded the allied armies at Waterloo, in a way acknowledged the impossibility of giving a complete account of that event.

Of course I don’t know if this quote really is the origin of the comparison between battle and ball as it was invoked during the Civil War. The letter containing the quote was printed in at least three books that were widely disseminated before the war: it appeared in Edward Cotton’s A Voice from Waterloo (first published in 1846), Macaulay’s History of England (1848) and Clark’s Battles of England and Tales of the Wars (1848). It was also published in periodicals, such as The Athenaeum (November 17, 1838) and The Monthly Review (1839). We also know that Civil War soldiers liked to read books on military history and strategy and that works about famous generals were especially popular. So there might well be a connection between Wellington’s letter and the widespread use of the phrase during the Civil War.

In this light, the comparison between ball and battle may be more than just an euphemism. It may hint towards the deeper truth, namely the difficulty, maybe even the impossibility of giving a complete account of the events that happened in a battle.

This is something to keep in mind when reading or writing about history.


[1] Pvt. Jonathan Fuller Coghill, Company G, 23rd NC Infantry, July 9, 1863, available online at the Private Voices project.

[2] Cozzens, Peter: Shenandoah 1862. Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Chapeh Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 2008, p. 488; Armstrong, Gordon (ed.): Illinois Artillery Officer’s Civil War: The Diary and Letters of John Cheney. College Station: virtualbookworm.com 2005, p. 195; Martin, David G.: Gettysburg, July 1. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press 2003, p. 175.

[3] Foote, Lorien: The Gentlemen and the Roughs. Violence, Honor and Manhood in the Union Army. New York: New York University Press 2010, p. 57.

[4] Cotton, Edward: A voice from Waterloo. A history of the battle, on the 18th June 1815. London: B. L. Green 1849, p. 225-226.

[5] Kaser, David: Books and libraries in camp and battle. The Civil War experience. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1984, p. 16f.