Monday, January 10, 2011

Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus

Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus. By Mary Bobbitt Townsend. Illustrated, photographs, maps, bibliography, index, 288 pp., 2010, Missouri,, 888-888-8900, $39.95, cloth.

Peter Osterhaus truly served the Union cause from the beginning to the end. He lead a battalion in the Camp Jackson Affair in St. Louis that started armed conflict in Missouri. He was also present when Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the Confederate forces of the trans-Mississippi theater to Edward Canby, signing the surrender document. In between he became one of only three German major generals, and the only one given the rank more for battlefield achievements than political considerations. Remarkably though his historical record has been largely ignored. In Yankee Warhorse the general’s great great granddaughter Mary Bobbitt Townsend finally tells the story of this accomplished general.

Osterhaus came to America to escape charges of treason after leading troops in the failed German revolution of 1848. He settled in Illinois and by the start of the Civil War was living in St. Louis. Following the Camp Jackson Affair his battalion fought at Boonville and Wilson’s Creek. At Pea Ridge he admirably commanded a division and helped secure the Union victory. He was then transferred to Grant’s army for the Vicksburg campaign and commanded a division in the battles of Arkansas Post, Port Gibson, Champion Hill and the assaults on Vicksburg on May 19th and 22nd. He was then given the task of defending the Union rear along the Big Black River during the siege.

One of the bright moments of his career happened after one of his lowest personal times. Prior to the Chattanooga campaign he went home to be with his dying wife but arrived too late. After making arrangements for his children he returned to the army in time to take part in the battles of Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap, where he was severely handled by Patrick Cleburne’s division. He continued in divisional command during the campaign for Atlanta and was given command of the Fifteenth Corps in the March to the Sea. He did not march through the Carolinas but was instead sent to Mobile Bay to assist General Canby with that campaign, serving as his chief of staff.

After the war he served as military governor of Mississippi during the early days of Reconstruction. In 1866 he began a diplomatic career for his new country with an appointment to the US Consul at Lyons, France. He had a few more diplomatic posts and eventually moved back to his old hometown of Koblenz, Germany. He died there in 1917 just before his adopted country entered World War I against his home country.

The book is pretty even handed, pointing out Osterhaus’ errors when needed and highlighting his successes too. It does not follow the typical pattern of descendent driven biographies that heap too much praise on success and ignore mistakes. The author is not as critical as some are of Osterhaus’ performance at Port Gibson but handles his mistakes at Ringgold Gap quite well. The maps lack a scale and do not use anything to denote elevation which is quite distracting considering that the terrain was a key aspect of most of Osterhaus’ battles.

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