Interview: Dixon, “Radical Warrior”

27 10 2020

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I interviewed David T. Dixon previously with the release of The Lost Gettysburg Address.”You can read the interview here to learn about that book and to get a little background information on David that I won’t repeat here. His most recent work, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General, is available from the University of Tennessee Press, and you can order it on David’s site here. David took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.


BR: I’ve always been mildly intrigued by the story of, for lack of a better term, “Marxists” in the Union army. I got a little more of a boost when I ran across your man’s name while browsing a biography of Friedrich Engels. But for you, why the interest in August Willich? 

DTD: First of all, the term “Marxist” did not exist in the 1860s, as Karl Marx was little known outside of a small circle of radicals. His economic philosophies only gained widespread notice following his death. There were, as you mention, numerous communists and socialists in the Union Army, especially among exiled European revolutionaries. My interest in Willich stems not so much from his political orientation but more from his compelling life story and the need to bring outstanding but obscure general officers like him to the attention of Civil war enthusiasts.

BR: Can you give us a brief sketch of Willich’s life?

DTD: Willich was born into the Prussian lesser nobility known as Junkers. His father was a decorated cavalry solider in the Napoleonic Wars, but died early as a result of his war wounds, orphaning three-year-old August Willich. August grew up in the household of German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was called the father of German liberal theology. After attending the Prussian cadet schools and military academy, Willich embarked on a 17-year-career as a lieutenant in the Prussian artillery. Exposure to republican ideas, however, caused him to leave the army and rebel against his king in the revolutions of 1848 and 1849. While a political refugee in London, he fought a duel with an acolyte of fellow Communist League leader Karl Marx, whom Willich thought was not radical enough to overthrow the princes of Europe. Willich journeyed to America in 1853 and edited a German language newspaper in Cincinnati; the first daily labor paper in any language in the U.S. He was an ardent abolitionist and champion of workers and welcomed the coming of the Civil War as a war to destroy what he saw as a slaveholder aristocracy in the Confederate states and validate the principles of republican government and universal human rights. His experience and leadership talent in the military arts led him to advance quickly through the ranks from private in April 1861 to brigadier general in July 1862. He fought with great tactical skill and bravery in most of the largest engagements in the Western theatre until a sniper’s bullet ended his combat career at Resaca in May 1864. He died at St Marys, Ohio in January 1878. The New York Times praised Willich as “undoubtedly the ablest and bravest officer of German descent engaged in the war of rebellion.”

BR: What did you find while researching Willich that most surprised or impressed you?

DTD: I am most impressed by Willich’s extraordinary self-sacrifice and lifelong commitment to social justice. He renounced his noble status, alienated his family, abandoned a successful military career, foreswore marriage and children, and was exiled from his homeland all because he believed wholeheartedly in free government and human rights. He never strayed from his moral compass.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

DTD: Research on the book took about two years. The fact that so many German language primary sources were in barely legible Kurrentschrift handwriting or archaic Fraktur print and spread all over western Europe and America was more than challenging. I traveled to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland to walk in Willich’s footsteps and, of course, tramped the US Civil war battlefields where had had his most significant engagements. The best surprise, given that my bachelor general left no collection of personal papers, were the timely and intimate letters I found in numerous collections all over the world. This, combined with two pamphlets he wrote and his daily newspaper editorials, gave me plenty of material to work with. I knew I was “done” when I felt I could tell the story completely and add enough scholarly context to tell it intelligently. But of course, one is never really done with the research and I hope my book will encourage others, especially in Germany, to dig deeper and reveal answers to still unsolved mysteries about this man’s life.

BR: I’ve asked you this before, but can you describe your research and writing process? Particularly, how did writing your prior work affect how you approached this one.

DTD: So glad you asked this question. The process was very different from The Lost Gettysburg Address in two ways. In that first book, I had an embarrassment of riches in terms of primary sources; 45 boxes of personal letters to and from Charles Anderson at one archive alone! The challenge was what to include and exclude. As I mentioned, I really had to dig deep and wide for the Willich archival gold. Most importantly, I learned the value of peer collaboration in my Willich biography. I was fortunate to have a volunteer translator in Germany, a small platoon of expert peer readers, and formed a partnership with a German PhD candidate. He and I traveled in Europe and America together as he researched Willich for his dissertation.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DTD: I have been so pleased with the feedback so far. Early reviewers have been very kind and invitations for interviews and podcasts have been streaming in. Launching a book during a pandemic is challenging. All my in person speaking engagements either canceled or postponed, so I feel very fortunate that the book has received so much attention online.

BR: What’s next for you?

DTD: I have a book proposal ready to go and a fair bit of research completed on another biography. I will use that one as a case study to examine the impact of emotions of allegiance and Confederate dissent. With archives closed, the project is on ice, so I have spent more time publishing short form pieces in magazines and on the Emerging Civil War blog. Long term, I would really love to transition from university press publishing to a trade press to reach a much larger readership. All I need is a great story and a bit of serendipity. Wish me luck!


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