Carl Schurz: Avid Nineteenth Century German-American Politician

An accomplished journalist and orator, German born Carl Christian Schurz became the first elected member of the United States Senate born in Germany in 1869. He was also a German revolutionary and American statesman along with being the U.S. Minister to Spain and the Secretary of the Interior. During the American Civil War, Schurz served as a General to the Union Army.

On March 2, 1829, Carl Christian Schurz was born in Liblar (now in Erftstadt), which was located in Rhenish Prussia. His mother, Marianne Jussen Schurz worked as both a public speaker and journalist, while his father, Christian Schurz, was a schoolteacher. Carl Schurz grew up learning piano from private instructors and attending the Jesuit Gymnasium of Cologne. Schurz was unable to graduate because of family financial problems causing him to be pulled out a year before. He did go back and take a special exam to graduate and go onto study at the University of Bonn.

Schurz and his professor at Bonn, Gottfried Kinkel, became close friends during Schurz’s time at the university. He joined Studentenverbindung Burschenschaft, a fraternity of university students all over the country who held liberal and nationalistic ideas and beliefs. Many well known figures such as Friedrich von Spielhagen and Adolf Strodtmann, among others. Schurz and Kinkel joined together to establish the Bonner Zeitung, a newspaper that advocated for democratic reforms, to share their responses on the revolutions of 1848, which were just starting to begin. Schurz contributed to the paper often while Kinkel was originally the editor. When Kinkel moved to Berlin to attend the Prussian Constitutional Convention, Schurz became the paper’s editor with Kinkle contributing to it as much as he could.

Along with others from the university, Schurz and Kinkel took up arms in defense because of the newly passed German constitution, as ordered by the Frankfurt rump parliament. Schurz met many people he would later see again during the American Civil War: Fritz Anneke, Friedrich Beust, Ludwig Blenker, Alexander Schimmelfennig, and Franz Sigel.

As the revolution continued on, Schurz joined the revolutionary army during the military campaign of 1849 in Palatinate and Baden. He became adjunct officer of the commander of the artillery, Fritz Anneke. Later on, Anneke and his wife would move to the U.S. and he served as a colonel in Wisconsin. His wife, Mathilde Franziska Anneke, was  supporter of the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements in the U.S. as well. Schurz was inside the fortress of Rastatt when the revolutionary army was defeated at the fortress in 1849. He managed to escape with the knowledge that the Prussians were planning to kill their prisoners. He traveled to Zürich, Switzerland. The following year, Schurz secretly returned to his home country of Prussia. He recused Kinkel from where he was being held as a prisoner at Spandau and led him to Edinburgh, Scotland. Afterwards, Schurz left for Paris, but was forced out of France when the police found him on the day before the coup d’état of 1851. So, Schurz left France and made his way to London. He would stay in London for not even a year, leaving in August 1852 after making a living by teaching German.

As he was still in London, Schurz met Margarethe Meyer. Margarethe was the sister-in-law to  Johannes Ronge, the New Catholics’ main founder. The two married in July of 1852 and left for the United States shortly thereafter. Together they had five children: Agathe, Marianne, Emma, Carl Lincoln, and Herbert. Many of those who were a part of the Revolution of 1848, Forty-Eighters, had emigrated to the United States from Europe. For some time, the couple lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but then moved to Watertown, Wisconsin. Schurz became interested in American politics as Margarethe began to work in education for early childhood. They started a small farm and joined the Irving Literary Society.  

Schurz found himself immersed into the politics of the abolitionist movement soon after moving to Wisconsin. He joined the Republican Party and tried to run for lieutenant-governor as a Republican, but was unsuccessful. Speaking on behalf of Abraham Lincoln, Schurz was able to boost Lincoln’s popularity as he made many German speeches during the Illinois campaign in 1858. There were many German-Americans in the United States at this time, so Schurz was able to influence them to lean towards Abraham Lincoln instead of Stephen A. Douglas for one of the Illinois U.S. Senate seats. At the time, Senators were not elected in 1858, but instead the Illinois General Assembly made the decision. However, Lincoln ended up losing the race.



In Milwaukee, Schurz began to practice law and was admitted into the Wisconsin bar in 1858. He made a powerful speech against the Fugitive Slave Law arguing for states’ rights during the state campaign of 1859. With the intention to clear “nativism” from the Republican party, Schurz delivered another, even more powerful speech on April 18, 1859 in Boston at Faneuil Hall about “True Americanism” coming from an immigrant. Other Germans in Wisconsin tried to urge him to run for governor in 1859, but failed. Schurz was a Wisconsin spokeman during the 1860 Republican National Convention, which was actually voting for William H. Seward and not Lincoln. Schurz was also apart of the committee that gave Lincoln the news of his nomination for the Republican candidate for president.

President Lincoln made Schurz the ambassador to Spain in July of 1861 mainly because of Schurz’s record of a European revolutionary. Schurz stayed in Spain until December of 1861 when his time as ambassador ran up. He was able to successfully, but quietly, persuade Spain to no longer support the South.

When the American Civil War broke out in April 12, 1861, Schurz became a general for the Union Army upon his arrival from Spain. Schurz had persuaded President Lincoln to give him a commission in the Union, which the president did. As brigadier general of Union volunteers, Schurz took command of a division in June of 1862 that had once been led by John c. Frémont and Franz Sigel with his corps. Schurz fought in the Second battle of Bull Run that August with his division. In 1863, he was then promoted to a major general. Now, he was given the assignment of leading a division in the XI Corps, fighting with them in the battle of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg under General Oliver O. Howard. Because of the strategy used at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Schurz and Howard found themselves a disagreement, uneasiness brewing in both of them. The battle had ended with the infamous Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a high ranking member of the Confederate Army, and his Confederate corps routing Schurz and Howard’s XI Corps. On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the XI Corps only broke again.  The performance during both battles by the XI Corps, which was made up of different units of containing many German-Americans, was criticised heavily by the press. This only fueled the anti-immigrants, seeing that these units made up of mostly immigrants was not doing well.

After the unsuccessful battle for Schurz’s men, but the successful battle for the Union overall, Schurz and his division were deployed to Tennessee. There, he fought in the Battle of Chattanooga Between September 21-November 25, 1863. Schurz served alongside Joseph B. Foraker, another future Senator, among others such as John Patterson Rea and Luther Morris Buchwalter, who was the brother of Morris Lyon Buchwalter. Republican Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts served as a Congressional observer over the duration of the Chattanooga Campaign that autumn.  Sumner was put in command of a Corps of Instruction in Nashville and spent a brief amount of time in service as the war came to an end. When it ended in April of 1865, Sumner resigned immediately.

President Andrew Johnson had Schurz travel through the South in the summer of 1865 after the war to examine and study the conditions of the land. Schurz argued with Johnson because he supported an order made by General H.W. Slocum to forbid a militia organizing in Mississippi. President Johnson ended up ignoring the report from Schurz because of their quarrell.



Schurz moved to Detroit in 1866 to become the Detroit Post’s chief editor. After only a year though, he left Detroit and moved to St. Louis, where he became both editor and joint proprietor of the Westliche Post (Western Post), a newspaper written entirely in German, with Emil Preetorius. Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named for, was hired as Schurz’s cub reporter. That winter, he traveled back to Germany in 1867-68. He met and interviewed Otto von Bismarck. His account of this interview is one of the most remembered and interesting parts of his Reminiscences. And during the Presidential campaign of 1868, Schurz made many fierce speeches for “honest money” and against “repudiation”.

In 1868, Schurz became the first German born American to serve on the United States Senate when he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri. By making many speeches and orations, Schurz gained himself a reputation, Many of his speeches advocated for fiscal responsibility, government integrity, and anti-imperialism. He started the Liberal Republican movement in Missouri, breaking against the administration under President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. In 1870, B. Gratz Brown was elected Governor of Missouri from the Liberal Republicans.

Upon William P. Fessenden’s death in 1869, Schurz became a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He opposed President Grant’s Southern policy. Displaying his anti-imperialist views, he also opposed Grant’s thoughts on annexing Santo Domingo, which took place between 1869-1870. Schurz identified with investigation of arms sales along with cartridge manufacturing for the French army during the Franco-Prussian War under the committee.

The first Senator  to do so, Schurz offered Congress a bill on Civil Service Reform. He was opposed to enforcement from the federal military during Reconstruction (the time after the Civil War from about 1865-77) and protecting civil rights of African Americans in the U.S. Like many of those during the nineteenth century, Schurz strongly believed Europeans and whites were superior and feared miscegenation in America.

The Liberal Republican Party was officially formed in 1870 after being only a movement in 1868-69. The party was in opposition of President Grant’s ideas to annex Santo Domingo and destroy the Ku Klux Klan under the South’s Enforcement Acts with the military. Schurz presided over the Liberal Republican Party Convention in 1872 when Horace Greeley was nominated for president by the newly formed party. However, Schurz had wanted Charles Francis Adams or Lyman Trumbull to be the party’s candidate. That did not stop him from campaigning for Greeley and his part though. In the end, Grant won by many more votes than Greeley, who died not long after the election in November of 1872. Thomas Nast, an artist working for Harper’s Weekly, often targeted Schurz throughout his career in politics unfavorably.

Francis Cockrell, a former Confederacy member, ran against Schurz for the Senate seat in 1874 for the Democratic party and won. For some time, Schurz made a living by editing various newspapers after his defeat.

When President Rutherford B. Hayes was elected in 1876, he appointed Schurz Secretary of the Interior in 1877. Hayes often took advice from Schurz during speeches, cabinet meetings, and other things. Schurz worked hard to merit in the Civil Service, which he permitted no removals for unless it was for cause, along with requiring for clerkship candidates to undergo competitive exams. He also tried to remove political patronage, although he was unsuccessful.

Schurz tried hard to stop racism effects on Native Americans and clean up corruption. The Native Americans were forced to move from their land to smaller pieces of reservation land that turned out to be unsuitable for any possible economic and cultural development. Though him and President Hayes made promises to tribe chiefs, they were often forgotten.

General William Tecumseh was the main supporter of transferring the Office of Indian Affairs from the Interior department to the War Department during Schurz’s time as Interior Secretary. Schurz opposed moving the Indian Office, making the ultimate decision to keep it as a part of the Interior Department. But during his time at the post, the Office of Indian Affairs remained to be the most corrupt in his department. Positions in the Office were given based on political patronage. People saw this as them being granted licenses to use the Native American reservations for their own personal enrichment.  Quickly, Schurz came to the realization that to accomplish anything positive as Secretary, he must first rid the office of corruption. He dismissed many of the officers as wide-scale inspections of the service were done. Schurz also began civil service reforms, giving positions no longer based on political patronage but instead merit.

Though he originally continued to do what his predecessors did by moving Native Americans to reservations, Schurz changed his mind, promoting an assimilationist policy instead.

On March 7, 1881, Schurz left the Department of the Interior after serving for almost four years. James A. Garfield dismissed him three days after he officially became president. Schurz moved to New York where he began managing the New York Evening Post and The Nation with Horace White and Edwin L. Godkin. Henry Villard, who was also president of the Northern Pacific Railway, had just bought the two newspapers. But because Schurz had conflict with the two of them over editorial policies and employees, he left the Post in the fall of 1883.

During the Independent (Mugwump) movement in 1884 that was against James Blaine’s presidential nomination and the election of Grover Cleveland, Schurz acted as a leader. He was also general American representative of the Hamburg American Steamship Company for the four year period between 1888 and 1892. Schurz, in 1892, became the National Civil Service Reform League’s president and editor of Harper’s Weekly, succeeding George William Curtis for both positions. He left the latter in 1898, the former in 1901. Speaking for the Fusion anti-Tammany Hall ticket, Schurz made speeches in 1895 while still in New York. In 1896, he was in opposition of William Jennings Bryan’s presidential nominations.

But four years later, Schurz supported him because of Byran’s shared anti-imperialism views. Schurz then joined the American Anti-Imperialist League, established in June of 1898 when the U.S. was annexing the Philippines. After the Spanish-American war in 1898, he also encouraged President McKinley not to urge the land. Schurz, though a member of the Republican party, supported Democratic candidate Alton B. Parker in the Election of 1904.

On May 14, 1906, seventy-seven year old Carl Schurz passed away in New York City. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Of his many speeches throughout his career in American Politics, his most famous line remains to be My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”