MIGHTY HISTORY

Why this Union general challenged Karl Marx to a duel

The history of Communism goes way far beyond the rise of Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet Union. The idea of a class struggle had been kicking around before Marx even started writing Das Kapital. In fact, the idea of a worker's paradise was much more popular in even the United States before the Bolsheviks went and killed the Americans' friend Tsar Nicholas II. There were even avowed Communists in the Union Army fighting the Civil War.


J. Edgar Hoover does not approve.

In the days well before the Communist revolutions that put the Red Scare into everyday Americans, everyday Americans weren't totally against the idea. One such American was Johann August Ernst von Willich, a Prussian-born American who emigrated to Ohio in 1853. Less than a decade after coming to his adopted homeland, the Civil War broke out, and the man who dropped his noble Prussian titles and settled on being August Willich, a newspaper editor from Cincinnati soon took up the Union blue as Brigadier General August Willich.

Before coming to the United States, however, he led a very different life.

Okay, maybe a similar life but for different reasons.

Born into a military family, Willich's father was a Prussian captain of the Hussars, an elite light cavalry regiment. His father was killed in the Napoleonic Wars that ravaged Europe in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. He was sent to live with a relative who sent him to military schools in Potsdam and Berlin. He was soon a distinguished Prussian Army Artillery officer. But his experiences in wartime Europe began to change his political views.

At a time when much of Europe was still raging over the idea of republicanism and democracy versus long-established monarchies, Willich was just turning Republican when he decided to leave the Prussian Army. After a brief court-martial, he was allowed to resign. Then he lent his martial skills to the wave of political uprisings engulfing Europe in 1848. From Spain in the West to Hungary in the East, and Sweden in the North to Italy in the South, regular working people were tired of the conditions of their daily lives, under the boot of absolute monarchs and began to rise against their entrenched kings and queens – with varying degrees of success.

Thomas Jefferson approves.

But Willich's views were much further to the left than mere Republicanism allowed. Willich was forced to flee to London after the uprisings of 1848 were largely put down. That suppression only strengthened his resolve and pushed him further. He became a Communist to the left of even Karl Marx, a man considered by Willich and his associates to be too conservative to be the face of the movement. While Willich's friends plotted to kill Marx, Willich simply insulted the writer publicly and challenged him to a duel. Marx declined, but a close friend of Marx decided to fight the duel – and was wounded for his troubles.

Willich then came to the United States working in Brooklyn before making the trek to Ohio. When the Civil War broke out, the onetime Prussian field commander raised an army of Prussian-Americans and took the field with the Union Army at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain, among other places. Willich would rise to the rank of Brevet Major General, having fought in the entirety of the Civil War.