The Officers: Carl Schurz (1829-1906)

Carl Schurz

Carl Schurz
Carl Schurz

Carl Schurz
Carl Schurz
Carl Schurz
Carl Schurz

In a letter to Carl Schurz on June 18, 1860, Mr. Lincoln wrote: “To the extent of our limited acquaintance no man stands nearer my heart than yourself.”1 Up to that point, Schurz had not been a political supporter of the President. He had been sufficiently prominent to second the nomination of William H. Seward at the Republican National Convention in Chicago the previous month. But over time and in his capacities as politician, diplomat and general, Schurz came to know Mr. Lincoln.

“Lincoln had great respect for the superior knowledge and culture of other persons. But he did not stand in awe of them,” wrote Schurz in his memoirs. “In fact, he did not stand in awe of anybody or anything in the sense of recognition of an apparent superiority that might have made him in the slightest degree surrender the independence of his own judgment or the freedom of his will. He would have approached the greatest man in the world – the greatest in point of mental capacity, or the greatest in point of station or power – with absolute unconcern, as if he had been dealing with such persons all his life. When he formed his Cabinet he chose the foremost leaders of his party, who at that period might well have been regarded as the foremost men of the country, without the slightest apprehension that their prestige or their ability might overshadow him. He always recognized the merit of others, but without any fear of detracting from his own.”

Schurz’s political influence was important to President Lincoln. Historian Hans L. Trefousse wrote that “there can be no question about Schurz’s effective advocacy of emancipation after the Republicans took power. From the very beginning of the war, he stressed the need for freeing the slaves. Reiterating his conviction in a dispatch to the State department from Madrid, he asked for his recall in order to urge it in person upon Lincoln. After his return, he addressed an emancipation society in New York with the President’s full knowledge, and rejoiced when on the same day Lincoln announced his proposal for compensated emancipation in the border states.”2

Schurz recalled: “I returned to Washington, and at once called upon Mr. Lincoln to report to him what I had seen and heard and what our friends proposed to do [hold a public meeting at Cooper Institute on March 6, 1862. ‘Good!’ said he. ‘And at that meeting you are going to make a speech?'” When Schurz replied in the affirmative, President Lincoln said: “Well, now go home and sketch that speech. Do it as quickly as you can. Then come and show me your arguments and we will talk it over.”3 Schurz wrote: “Three days after the emancipation meeting of the 6th of March, I returned to Washington and made my report to Mr. Lincoln. He was in high spirits over the event which, on the preceding day, had taken place in Hampton Roads….”4 Schurz recalled how President Lincoln described the confrontation between the Confederate ironclad Merrimack and the Union Monitor:

When I saw Mr. Lincoln the next day, his mind was still so full of the great event that it gave him evident delight to tell me the whole story. He described so vividly the arrival of the first tidings of disaster, and his own and the several cabinet members’ dismay at the awful prospect thus opened, and their sighs of relief when the telegraph announced the appearance of the ‘the little cheese-ox’ which drove the rebel goliath off the field, that I have been for years under the impression of having been personally in the President’s room when it all happened, and when the despatches successively arrived. A careful scrutiny of circumstances convinced me at last ? to my regret, I must confess ? that I was not at the White House that day, but the day following. This is one of the cases which have made me very anxious to verify my memory by all attainable outside evidence in writing this story.
Before leaving Mr. Lincoln, I gave him as good a report as I could of our emancipation meeting on the 6th of March, and of the general situation in New York. Mr. Lincoln expressed his satisfaction with what had been done, and trusted that the public discussion of the subject would go on so as to familiarize the public mind with what would inevitably come if the war continued. He was not altogether without hope that the proposition he had presented to the Southern States in his message of March 6th would find favorable consideration, at least in some of the Border States. He had made the proposition in perfect good faith; it was, perhaps, the last of the kind; and if they repelled it, theirs was the responsibility. I remember how grave he looked when he said this. The merry twinkle, which had glimmered in his deep-set eyes when he told the story of the little cheese-box, had altogether given way to an expression of deep melancholy, as he added: “An awful responsibility either way.”
The conversation then turned upon my own personal situation. I repeated to Mr. Lincoln that I wished to resign my position as Minister to Spain; that it was an intolerable thought to me to lead a life of ease and luxury and comparative idleness while the republic was fighting for its life, and most of the men of my age were in the field at the post of danger; and that now, our relations with Spain being in a satisfactory condition, and my business of reporting to him on the public sentiment in Europe, and of lending a helping hand in quickening the anti-slavery current being substantially accomplished, I was anxious to enter the army. Mr. Lincoln said that, remembering how reluctantly I had gone abroad last June he had thought about this himself, and had talked with Mr. Seward about it. Seward had told him that he was very well satisfied with my services; that I had won for myself a good position with the Spanish Government; and that he wanted me to go back to Madrid. Would I not consider the matter further for a week or two, or as long as I liked, and see Mr. Seward myself.? This, of course, I could not decline to do. Mr. Seward, when I called upon him, was very kind, even complimentary; invited me and Mrs. Schurz to dinner, and urged me strongly not to give up the mission – which was very gratifying to me, inasmuch as originally he had, for very good reasons, opposed my appointment. But in all our conversation he did not with a single word mention the subject of slavery, an omission which I could not but think significant and disquieting.
The more maturely I debated with myself the question of returning to Spain, the more firmly I became convinced that, in such times, the true place for a young and able-bodied man was in the field, and not in an easy chair. I waited a reasonable time, so as to avoid the appearance of treating Mr. Lincoln’s kindly admonition lightly, and then I told him that my mind was made up. ‘Well,’ said he, I hoped you have not forgotten that you are giving up a large salary and a distinguished and comfortable place to take one that pays little and will bring you plenty of work and discomfort and danger. Have you talked the matter over with that handsome, dear wife of yours?’ Mr. Lincoln had seen Mrs. Schurz several times, and had apparently been much pleased with her appearance and conversation. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘she thought it was pretty hard, but she is a good patriot.’ ‘If she agrees,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘then I do. I expected you to come to this decision, and I shall send your name to the Senate with the next batch of brigadiers, and I trust we can find you a suitable command.’ I was delighted, and thanked him most sincerely.”5

In November 1862, Schurz wrote a letter complaining about the government’s military policies. In the letter, Schurz said the Republican Party could “indulge in no delusions as to the true causes of our defeat in the elections…The people had sown confidence and reaped disaster and disappointment. They wanted a change, and…they sought it in the wrong direction. I entreat you, do not attribute to small incidents…what is a great historical event. It is best that you…should see the fact in its true light and appreciate its significance: the results of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof to the administration….” Schurz wrote that “Mr. Lincoln’s prompt reply took me to task for my criticism in his peculiar clean-cut, logical style, and there was in what he said an undertone of impatience, of irritation, unusual with him – this time, no doubt, induced by the extraordinary harassment to which he was subjected from all sides.”6 President Lincoln wrote:

Yours of the 8th, was, to-day, read to me by Mrs. S[churz]. We have the elections; and it is natural that each of us will believe, and say, it has been because his peculiar views was not made sufficiently prominent. I think I know what it was, but I may be mistaken. Three main causes told the whole story. 1. The democrats were left in a majority by our friends going to the war. 2. The democrats observed this & determined to re-instate themselves in power, and 3. Our newspapers’s, by vilifying and disparaging the administration, furnished them all the weapons to do it with. Certainly, the ill-success of the war had much to do with this.
You give a different set of reasons. If you had not made the following statements, I should not have suspected them to be true. ‘The defeat of the administration is the administrations own fault.’ (opinion) ‘It admitted its professed opponents to it counsels’ (Asserted as a fact) ‘It placed the Army, now a great power in this Republic, into the hands of its’ enemys’ (Asserted as a fact) ‘In all personal questions, to be hostile to the party of the Government, seemed, to be a title to consideration.’ (Asserted as a fact) ‘If to forget the great rule, that if you are true to your friends, your friends will be true to you, and that you make your enemies stronger by placing them upon an equality with your friends.’ ‘Is it surprising that the opponents of the administration should have got into their hands the government of the principal states, after they have had for a long time the principal management of the war, the great business of the national government.’
I can not dispute about the matter of opinion. On the the [sic] three matters (stated as facts) I shall be glad to have your evidence upon them when I shall meet you. The plain facts, as they appear to me, are these. The administration came into power, very largely in a minority of the popular vote. Notwithstanding this, it distributed to it’s party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did. The war came. The administration could not even start in this, without assistance outside of it’s party. It was mere nonsense to suppose a minority could put down a majority in rebellion. Mr Schurz (Now Gen. Schurz) was about here then & I do not recollect that he then considered all who were not republicans, were enemies of the government, and that none of them must be appointed to to [sic] military position. He will correct me if I am mistaken. It so happened that very few of our friends had a military education or were of the profession of arms. It would have been a question whether the war should be conducted on military knowledge, or on political affinity, only that our own friends (I think Mr. Schurz included) seemed to think that such a question was inadmissable. Accordingly I have scarcely appointed a democrat to a command, who was not urged by many republicans and opposed by none. I was so as to [George B.] McClellan. He was first brought forward by the Republican Governor of Ohio, & claimed, and contended for at the same time by the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania. I received recommendations from the republican delegations to congress, and I believe every one of them recommended a majority of democrats. But, after all many Republicans were appointed; and I mean no disparagement to them when I say I do not see that their superiority of success has been so marked as to throw great suspicion on the good faith of those who are not Republicans.7

In his autobiography, Schurz recalled how the President responded in November 1862 to Schurz’s repeated critical letters: “Two or three days after Mr. Lincoln’s letter had reached me, a special messenger from him brought me another communication from him, a short note in his own hand asking me to come to see him as soon as my duties would permit; he wished me, if possible, to call early in the morning before the usual crowd of visitors arrived. At once I obtained the necessary leave from my corps commander, and the next morning at seven I reported myself at the White House. I was promptly shown into the little room up-stairs which was at that time used for cabinet meetings ? the room with the Jackson portrait above the mantel-piece ? and found Mr. Lincoln seated in an arm chair before the open-grate fire, his feet in his gigantic morocco slippers. He greeted me cordially as of old and bade me pull up a chair and sit by his side. Then he brought his large hand with a slap down on my knee and said with a smile: ‘Now tell me, young man, whether you really think that I am as poor a fellow as you have made me out in your letter!’ I must confess, this reception disconcerted me. I looked into his face and felt something like a big lump in my throat. After a while I gathered up my wits and after a word of sorrow, if I had written anything that could have pained him, I explained to him my impressions of the situation and my reasons for writing to him as I had done. He listened with silent attention and when I stopped, said very seriously: ‘Well, I know that you are a warm anti-slavery man and a good friend to me. Now let me tell you all about it. Then he unfolded in his peculiar way his view of the then existing state of affairs, his hopes and his apprehensions, his troubles and embarrassments, making many quaint remarks about men and things. I regret I cannot remember all. Then he described how the criticisms coming down upon him from all sides chafed him, and how my letter, although containing some points that were well founded and useful, had touched him as a terse summing up of all the principal criticisms and offered him a good chance at me for a reply. Then, slapping my knee again, he broke out in a loud laugh and exclaimed: ‘Didn’t I give it to you hard in my letter? Didn’t I? But it didn’t hurt, did it? I did not mean to, and therefore I wanted you to come so quickly. He laughed again and seemed to enjoy the matter heartily. ‘Well, he added, ‘I guess we understand one another now, and it’s all right.’ When after a conversation of more than an hour I left him, I asked whether he still wished that I should write to him. ‘Why, certainly,’ he answered; ‘write me whenever the spirit moves you.’ We parted as better friends than ever.”8

Historian Trefousse concluded: “A radical of radicals, [Schurz] always sought to remind Lincoln of the need for thoroughgoing measures. But unlike most, he realized that the President was not really opposed to radicalism. He knew that in Abraham Lincoln the advanced elements of the party had a firm if somewhat more cautious and circumspect ally.”9

In February March 1864, Schurz was again torn between the political and military battlefields and sought a meeting with President Lincoln in Washington. He wrote President Lincoln in late February asking for permission to visit the nation’s capital. Schurz wrote Mr. Lincoln again on March 13: “If I can take an active part in the political contest consistently, with my position in the army, I shall be glad…expecting nothing for myself but to resume my old position…after the election. If a political activity be deemed inconsistent with my military position, I shall then have to make my choice…I wish to assure you here emphatically, that in neither case I would make any demands on the administration…” He added: “About this and several other matters of a political nature, I desired to have a conversation with you. At a time like this I would not consider it out of place to volunteering advice and opinion about a few points of some importance…It is somewhat difficult for me to understand why I do not receive this permission in reply to my letter…”10

Mr. Lincoln wrote Schurz the same day: “Allow me to suggest that if you wish to remain in the military service, it is very dangerous for you to get temporarily out of it; because with a major-general once out, it is next to impossible for even the President to get him in again….I would be very glad to have your service for the country in the approaching political canvass: but I fear we cannot properly have it without separating you from the military.”11

Schurz didn’t get the letter so President Lincoln wrote him again on March 23, with a copy of his first letter, adding: “I do not wish to be more specific about the difficulty of your coming to Washington. I think you can easily conjecture it. I perceive no objection to your making a political speech when you are where one is to be made; but quite surely speaking in the North, and fighting in the South, at the same time, are not possible. Nor could I be justified to detail any officer to the political campaign during it’s continuance, and then return him to the Army.”12

German-born presidential secretary John G. Nicolay sometimes acted as an emissary to the German-born Schurz, especially on questions concerning German-Americans. “I brought the subject of our conversation to the notice of the President and secretary of War last night. The latter promised to write this morning to Gen Halleck, and urge the utmost prudence and caution,” Nicolay wrote Schurz in February 1862. “At the President’s request I enclose you Gov. Koerner’s report to the President, together with copies of the correspondence, which will enable you to understand the exact condition of things.”13

During a political trip to New York in March 1864, presidential secretary Nicolay reported: “I called on Gen Schurz on my arrival here last Saturday, and have also seen him twice since. I found him very cordial, very friendly towards yourself, quite reasonable in his own wishes and requests, and liberal in his appreciation of the troubles and difficulties with which you have to contend. According to his own statements there is evidently a serious misapprehension, or misunderstanding about his alleged order interrupting the transportation of troops last fall, which at least deserves investigation before permanent blame is attached to him. I have promised to look into the matter for him when I return to Washington.”14

“The election over, I reported to the War Department for such duty as might be assigned to me,” wrote Schurz in his memoirs. “When I personally made my report, Secretary Stanton asked me to bear a confidential communication, not to be put on paper, to Mr. Lincoln, who had gone to City Point…I found Mr. Lincoln in excellent spirits. He was confident that the fall of Richmond, and with it the total collapse of the rebellion, would come in the near future. Also of the political situation, of which he spoke with great freedom, he took a hopeful view, much in contrast with the depression of mind which he had shown at our last meeting during the presidential campaign. He felt that his triumphant re-election had given him a moral authority stronger than that which he had possessed before, and he trusted that this strengthened authority, used with discretion and in a friendly and magnanimous spirit, would secure to his opinions concerning the measure of reconstruction he thought it wise to adopt, a friendlier consideration on the part of the leading Unionists in Congress and in the country. He did not say this in terms, but I gathered it from the tone of his utterances.”

Schurz spent much of the day with President Lincoln. “When I was ready to leave, he asked me what conveyance I had to take me back to Washington. I answered the government tug, on which I had come. ‘Oh,’ said he, you can do better than that. Mrs. Lincoln is here, and will start back for Washington in an hour or two. She has a comfortable steamboat to carry her, on which there will be plenty of room for both of you, if you keep the peace. You can accompany her, if you like.’ Mrs. Lincoln joining in the invitation, I accepted.”15


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 78 (Letter to Carl Schurz, June 18, 1860).
  2. Hans. L. Trefousse, “Carl Schurz Reconsidered”, Lincoln Herald, Spring 1981, Volume 83, No. 4, p. 566.
  3. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 327.
  4. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 327.
  5. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 328-330.
  6. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 393-394.
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 493-495 (Letter to Carl Schurz, November 10, 1862).
  8. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 395-396.
  9. Hans. L. Trefousse, “Carl Schurz Reconsidered”, Lincoln Herald, Spring 1981, Volume 83, No. 4, p. 566.
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 244 (Letter from Carl Schurz to Abraham Lincoln, March 13, 1864).
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 243-244 (Letter to Carl Schurz, March 13, 1864).
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 262 (Letter to Carl Schurz, March 23. 1864).
  13. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 68 (Letter to Carl Schurz, February 9, 1862).
  14. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 133 (Memorandum, March 30, 1864).
  15. Carl Schurz, Autobiography of Carl Schurz, p. 309-311.