Continuing on the theme of the 41st New York Infantry, I have some information (and, as usual, questions) about its commander, Leopold von Gilsa.
Leopold von Gilsa, after approximately 150 years, comes across as a mysterious figure. Do not infer that I consider von Gilsa a secretive or even sinister officer in the 11th Corps. In fact, I find references to von Gilsa, from biographical to military, very limited; that is what makes him mysterious. But, possibly, von Gilsa is not so much mysterious as he is relatively uncontroversial. Readers must judge for themselves.
Here is what I’ve been able to gather—
Leopold von Gilsa was born in 1824 in Prussia. He was a major in the Prussian army and served during the Schleswig-Holstein War of 1848-50. Von Gilsa, who was fighting on the Danish (and losing) side in this conflict, was exiled and, like so many other German officers in the Civil War, immigrated to the United States in the 1850s. He gave lectures, taught, and, when necessary to earn money, sang and played the piano in New York City.
At the outbreak of war in 1861, von Gilsa was one of the instrumental Germans who encouraged his fellow immigrants to enlist in the Union cause. He was commissioned as Colonel of the 41st New York Infantry, the DeKalb Zouaves. I have covered the history of the 41st in previous posts and will only highlight here some instances that reflect on von Gilsa.
Von Gilsa was severely wounded at the battle of Cross Keys, Virginia, on June 8, 1862; however, I have not yet found an account of his wounding. Robert K. Krick’s Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic, which covers both the Cross Keys and Port Republic battles in detail makes no mention of von Gilsa. Because of his wounds, he missed (perhaps fortunately?) the battle of Second Bull Run. Upon von Gilsa’s return to duty in September, he was placed in command of his brigade.
The brigade saw no combat until Chancellorsville in May 1863; as related in a previous post, the brigade was routed. Von Gilsa had a habit of swearing in German under stress and did so in the presence of General Howard after the Chancellorsville rout, causing Howard to think von Gilsa had gone insane.
In the days prior to the Gettysburg battle, von Gilsa was placed under arrest by his division commander, Francis Barlow, for either allowing straggling or refusing to follow marching orders. Barlow did not consider von Gilsa enough of a disciplinarian with his men, yet von Gilsa’s obituary calls him “a thorough disciplinarian, and was almost idolized by his men for his fairness and courage.” (New York Times obituary). It was only at 1 pm on July 1, 1863, with the sounds of battle to the north, that Barlow restored von Gilsa to command of his brigade. The news was so well-received by the men that even a Gettysburg resident heard the resulting commotion. “Far down the road, behind the passing regiments, a roar of cheers began. It rolled forward, faster than the running of the men who made it–like some high surge sweeping across the surface of a flowing sea. Its roar of cheering neared and neared, until we saw a group of officers coming at a brisk trot, with the mighty cheer always at their horses’ heels. Among them rode one man in colonel’s uniform who held his head high and smiled. He was an officer, a favorite with the soldiers, who had been under arrest until the eve of the battle. Now, released he was on his way into action, and the whole brigade that knew him was greeting him with the chorus of the lungs.” (reported on http://www.rocemabra.com/~roger/tagg/generals/general28.html)
As related before, the brigade was routed again on July 1 and had their lines temporarily broken on July 2. Gettysburg would be the end of von Gilsa’s brigade command and his last battle. As part of the restructuring of the Army of the Potomac, the brigade was sent to South Carolina and von Gilsa returned to command of the 41st New York.
The 41st’s veterans were mustered out in June 1864, but von Gilsa remained in the service near Washington, DC, until December 1865. Leopold von Gilsa ended his army service as he began it, a Colonel. The South Carolina climate had an ill effect on von Gilsa and he never fully recovered from his illnesses. He died in New York City on March 1, 1870, and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Details on von Gilsa’s service come up on a few websites, and usually it is the same information repeated again even, it seems, word for word. On the Library of Congress website, memory.loc.gov, von Gilsa’s name does not come up in search results. We have his obituary in the New York Times, photos of his gravesite on www.findagrave.com, and not much else. Even finding a photograph of him is challenging. Perhaps this is a good thing. Compared to other German officers he served with, e.g. Sigel, Schurz, even Adolph von Steinwehr, Leopold von Gilsa does not seem to have a record of correspondence to look back upon which display his character when seemingly slighted by political influences. His men respected him; 41st veterans came to his funeral. Franz Sigel even thought enough of him to attend his funeral and deliver a eulogy. Perhaps, with additional research, we will eventually find out some more information about this soldier.