“I will not perform the ungrateful task of comparing cases of failure.”

Again and again I find myself drawn to the engagements at the Rappahannock river crossings in the week prior to the battle of Second Bull Run.  While some of my first posts dealt with Fauquier White Sulphur Springs, today’s post will end with a death at Freeman’s Ford.

The focus of my post today is Henry Bohlen, the questionable commander whose appearance throughout the spring and summer of 1862 in Colonel Kozlay’s 41st New York Infantry regimental journal is already familiar to readers of this blog.  Of course, while it is quick for us to assume that Kozlay will tell us the truth, as good historians we have to remember that his journal is potentially biased.  After all, Bohlen was his brigade commander and Kozlay could only relate either what he knew of Bohlen’s leadership firsthand or what he heard as camp gossip. 

Was the reputation related in Kozlay’s journal warranted or not?  So now we have to dig a little more and find some unbiased “just the facts” information on Henry Bohlen and try to reconcile the facts with the opinions of Kozlay and others.

Born in 1810 in Bremen, Germany, Henry Bohlen’s father was a naturalized U.S. citizen.  Bohlen went to school in Germany but his long-time residence was Philadelphia, where he became wealthy through the import of wine and liquor.  Like many generals in the Civil War, Henry Bohlen’s military experience was limited; although he cannot be categorized as a political general, his leadership credentials were more on the lines of wealth and influence in the German-American community than military expertise.

Bohlen’s Mexican War experience was as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General Worth.  In Europe at the outbreak of the Crimean War in the 1850s, he volunteered to serve on the French army staff.  Given permission to raise what became the 75th Pennsylvania Infantry, Henry Bohlen became its colonel and later was promoted to brigadier general.  In fact, he was the first foreign-born general in the Federal army.

I do not intend to spend time now outlining the experiences of the 75th Pennsylvania, but it is sufficient to say that the regiment was known for its discipline and drill while under Bohlen’s command.  It is only conjecture, but perhaps Bohlen was a good regimental commander and a poor brigade commander?  (This brings to mind Ambrose Burnside, superb corps commander but unsuccessful as commander of the Army of the Potomac.)

In the days before 2nd Bull Run, with the Federal army straddling the north bank of the Rappahannock and the Confederates probing along the opposite side, Bohlen’s brigade found itself at Freeman’s Ford.  Ordered across the river by General Carl Schurz, the division commander, for a reconnaissance mission, the brigade was led by the 74th Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvanians spread out in a skirmish line and soon came upon Confederate pickets from Trimble’s brigade.  In one of those odd twists of military assessment, the Federals thought they had stumbled on one Confederate regiment while the Confederates observed the mile-long skirmish line of the Pennsylvanians and thought perhaps a division or corps of Yankees was coming for them.  After driving in the enemy pickets, the Pennsylvanians found themselves facing an entire brigade of Texan infantry.

The 74th’s colonel, Alexander Schimmelfennig, realized a serious misjudgment had taken place and began a fighting retreat back to the Rappahannock.  Other regiments in Bohlen’s brigade were caught as well; some resisted like the 74th, others were punished (a mild term, I think) by the Confederates and fled back to the river.  The Federal troops found the Rappahannock to be shoulder deep now instead of waist deep.  The reader will recall from my Sulphur Springs posts that heavy rains had caused the river to rise.

Trying to rally his soldiers as they neared the river, Henry Bohlen was shot dead and his body fell into the water.  Rumors later abounded that he was shot by his own men.  However, I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that Henry Bohlen was either the victim of friendly fire or a purposeful shot to end his military career if not his life.  We can only presume that he was shot by Confederates.  He was riding a horse and was clearly an officer at the regimental or brigade level (the Confederates later recovered his body from the Rappahannock and assumed from his uniform that he was a colonel).

Bohlen was dead and it is left to our conjecture as to how he might have commanded his men a week later on the plains of Manassas or in 1863 at Chancellorsville.  With his wealth and influence would he have risen to division command?  Who knows…

I end this post in November 1862.  Carl Schurz, no stranger to Republican political influence while a Federal general, was engaged in correspondence with President Lincoln.  The recent congressional elections had gone poorly for the Republicans and Schurz believed this was due to Democrats in the army and Lincoln not giving friendly Republicans a chance at command.  At one point, Lincoln writes to Schurz reflecting on those commanders from both sides of the political aisle who gave their lives in 1861 and 1862–

I wish to disparage no one — certainly not those who sympathise with me; but I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers, than from those who are denounced as the contrary. It does seem to me that in the field the two classes have been very much alike, in what they have done, and what they have failed to do. In sealing their faith with their blood, Baker, and Lyon, and Bohlen, and Richardson, republicans, did all that men could do; but did they any more than Kearney, and Stevens, and Reno, and Mansfield,none of whom were Republicans, and some at least of whom, have been bitterly and repeatedly denounced to me as secession sympathizers? I will not perform the ungrateful task of comparing cases of failure.  (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mal:@field(DOCID+@lit(d1973100)))

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