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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Schurz, Carl (1829-1906)

Definition:

b. Liblar, Germany, March 2, 1829
d. New York City, New York, May 14, 1906

Carl Schurz was a soldier, politician, and writer best remembered for his passionate support for liberal democracy. He helped elect President Lincoln, fought in the Civil War, served as a U.S. Senator, and denounced the Republican Party's shift toward conservatism in the late 19th century.

German Revolutionary and Republican Leader

Schurz was born in Germany and educated at the University of Bonn. His activities during the unsuccessful 1848 revolution against the German aristocracy forced him to flee the country in 1849. He reached the United States in 1852, settling first in Philadelphia and later (1855) in Watertown, Wisconsin, where he quickly became active in the anti-slavery movement and other liberal causes.

Schurz ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant-governor in 1857 and 1859. He was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln and in 1860 served as chairman of the Wisconsin delegation to the Republican National Convention.

He campaigned for Lincoln tirelessly throughout the East and Midwest. Lincoln appointed him ambassador to Spain. When the Civil War broke out, Schurz requested to come home and serve his country.

Civil War Service

Before returning to the U.S., his first act supporting the Union cause was to dissuade Spain from aiding the Confederacy. In May 1862 Schurz was commissioned a brigadier general. He fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chattanooga.  In 1864 he accepted an appointment as chief of staff for Gen. Henry Slocum’s Army of Georgia. He resigned from military service in May 1865.

Senator and Reformer

Schurz left Wisconsin after the Civil War to pursue political aspirations elsewhere. He worked in Detroit and St. Louis, where he edited a leading German-language newspaper.  He was elected U.S. Senator from Missouri in 1868, serving from 1869-1875. He then served as Secretary of the Interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes until 1881.

Throughout these years Schurz refused to bend to partisan politics and remained true to his own principles of liberal democracy. His uncompromising beliefs were not always popular with the changing Republican Party, from which he was gradually marginalized.

His dictum, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right,” has been often quoted during controversial times. Schurz moved to New York in 1881 where he edited the New York Evening Post. During the 1890s he was a regular contributor to Harpers Weekly. Schurz died in New York on May 14, 1906.

Links to Learn More

Schurz recalls coming to Wisconsin in 1853

Schurz explains the Republican Party's position on slavery in 1860

Sketch of Gen. Schurz's Civil War service by E. B. Quiner in his book, "Military History of Wisconsin" (Chicago, 1866)

View original documents related to Gen. Schurz

[Source: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (Washington, 2005); Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, 1965). ]
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