The New York Times/Reminiscences of Carl Schurz

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Reminiscences of Carl Schurz
by Edward Cary
From The New York Times (Section: Saturday Review of Books) of December 14, 1907, p. BR832.


REMINISCENCES OF CARL SCHURZ


Second Volume of Valuable Contribution to Contemporary History
— Stormy Politics — A Revealing Picture of Lincoln — The
Story of Chancellorsville.
[1]


By EDWARD CARY

THESE volumes are happily named. They are not history, or biography, or even autobiography in a strict sense. They are the reminiscences of the author as to the experiences and events of a long and varied career, set down without any great effort at orderly completeness, some in careful and minute detail, others only briefly as they catch the interest of the narrator in the closing years of his life. They naturally, on this account, possess an intimacy and directness peculiarly attractive. This is enhanced by the fact that the reminiscences were at first intended only for Mr. Schurz's immediate family and close friends. One catches in them the glow and warmth of talks by the fireside in the long evenings, the play of affectionate sympathy, the eagerness of filial pride in the achievements of a remarkable life, the confiding responsiveness of one wholly sure of his audience. It is this that explains and justifies an arrangement of matter, an adjustment of perspective otherwise not easily understood. The result, let it be said at the outset, is, on the whole, charming. It is as if the reader were admitted to that delighted circle and permitted to listen to the story of a rich and varied life from the lips of him who was the hero of what we venture to call a moral Odyssey.

The present reviewer knew Mr. Schurz for more than twoscore years, worked earnestly with or against him in the public discussions and movements in which he took the lead, and learned to respect, trust, honor and love him without reserve. The reviewer cannot, therefore, receive quite the same impression from these pages as that of the reader who is wholly or in part a stranger to Mr. Schurz's personality. But he has no hesitation in commending them unqualifiedly to those who would study at close range a noble nature and great events and their mutual reaction. And it is not the least of the merits of these volumes that, in the career of one born under other skies and alien institutions, they convey, modestly but most impressively, a precious lesson in the essentials of American citizenship.

The first volume of the “Reminiscences” deals with the youth of Schurz, from his birth in 1829 to his arrival in the United States in 1852. It is rich in information concerning the life of the class from which he sprung, the small farmers and craftsmen of the Rhine Valley — he was born a dozen miles from Cologne — and concerning the hopes, toils, advantages, and hindrances of a lad of that class with high ideals thoroughly shared by his family. The picture is most attractive of that little household, of brave hearts, sound intellects, patient industry, loving loyalty, refined tastes, and withal a steady capacity for joyousness. In the drawing of this picture we see the working of an old man's memory, for it is much more detailed than that of more important matters occurring later, as when we are indulged in an account of young Schurz's first affair of the heart, which deeply occupied him in some most stirring and even momentous experiences, but which passed without his summoning courage to address the object of his boyish adoration. He was but nineteen, a student at Bonn, when he first became interested and entangled in the revolutionary movement in Prussia, coming under the influence of Prof. Gottfried Kinkel, whom he afterward rescued from the prison of Spandau, and who was in every way a most gifted and noble man, quite worthy of the splendid devotion he inspired in young Schurz. Despite his extreme youth, and despite also the modesty of this narrative, it is plain that Schurz did real service, showed rare qualities of mind and heart, and acquired a solid training which stood him in good part in his after career.

Certain of these qualities which do not usually go with youth are to be noted. Courage, enterprise, whole-hearted and unselfish devotion to the leaders and the ideals of the hour — these are not surprising. But with them Schurz at twenty showed rare soundness of judgment, a disposition to faithful and accurate study of public matters, an absence of sentimentality, sympathetic but shrewd appreciation of his fellows, and a striking blending of modesty and self-reliance which were really of the essence of a remarkable character.

The second volume of the “Reminiscences” begins with the arrival of Mr. Schurz in the United States in 1852, at the age of 23, and closes with the battle of Chancellorsville, in May, 1863. Even the latest occurrences here described are nearly half a century in the past, and those who have a personal memory of them are a rapidly dwindling number. The volume, therefore, is a most valuable contribution to the history of our country by one who took an eager and important part in the mighty events of his time, and yet who brought to the discussion of them something of the impartiality of a separate point of view. Mr. Schurz entered political life in America on the very eve of the political struggle for the extension of slavery, after the compromise of 1850, which was met by the Republican movement for the restriction of slavery, out of which arose the election of Mr. Lincoln, the pro-slavery rebellion, the re-establishment of the Union, and the abolition of slavery. This second volume gives an intensely interesting and illuminating, though somewhat rambling, account of the rise of the Republican movement, the realignment of parties on the outbreak of the war, the currents of sentiment and policy accompanying these momentous changes, and of some of the most important military operations of the second year of the war.

Mr. Schurz's opportunities and his qualifications for observation were unusual. After a brief stay on the Atlantic coast, he removed to Wisconsin, where there was already a considerable colony of intelligent Germans of revolutionary antecedents. He studied law and was admitted to practice in the State courts. As the slavery issue assumed more and more importance he became a recognized leader among the German Americans and devoted himself more and more to political discussion, in which he soon gained the confidence of a large following. This activity made such demands on his time that he was obliged partly to give up his profession and secure an income mainly by lecturing, for which he was well suited. This took him into nearly all the then settled parts of the North and West, and brought him into immediate contact with an immense number of the most active minds of all sections of the country. He never was an office seeker, and his influence as a political advocate was enhanced by his disinterestedness. And though a zealous and resolute supporter of the principles of the Republican Party, he was not and could not be a partisan in the common sense. He sought sincerely to maintain scrupulously his own intellectual and moral independence, so far as human nature permits, and he tried conscientiously to respect to the utmost a like degree of independence in others. He became thus, in time, a typical Independent, and with the single exception of Mr. George William Curtis (par nobile fratrum), the most eminent and influential in our political history. It will be seen that the facts mentioned gave to Mr. Schurz a point of view of rare value. A perusal of his second volume will show the excellent manner in which he made use of this advantage.

It is hardly practicable within the limits of this review to do more than indicate the value of these really unique volumes. They throw much light on the stormy politics of the time, on the characters and attainments of the leaders on either side, and on the temper and methods of party action. For one thing, the picture of Lincoln as it impressed itself on Mr. Schurz from the first moment of meeting him on a train in the famous Douglas debate to the last described interview with him previous to the proposition for compensated gradual emancipation possesses a rare degree of vitality. It is not too much to say that Lincoln cannot fully be known without this study. Of equal excellence, though necessarily of minor importance, are the running portraits of Seward, Chase, Sumner, and Douglas. In a sense they are etchings, and the acid is sometimes mordant indeed, but the intention of justice is apparent and the deeply bitten lines are often revealing.

Mr. Schurz, on the election of Lincoln, was named as Minister to Spain, whither he went, and remained a few months, gathering impressions which are among the most interesting of the second volume. He got leave of absence to return home to urge on the President the immense value and, as he saw it, the pressing need of a definite anti-slavery declaration. In order to arouse the moral sentiment of the world in our favor. As this at the time was regarded as inexpedient, he resigned his post and entered the army. His military service was not conspicuous, but was in every way creditable. He commanded the Third Division of the Eleventh Corps, under Howard, in the battle of Chancellorsville. At the close of the second volume the story of that sad day is minutely told in a straight-forward and manly fashion. It was not necessary to re-establish the repute of his soldiers for courage and tenacity, or of Schurz and his immediate subordinates for skill, prudence and capacity amid terrible and needless disaster; that had already been done by adequate historians, but it is well to have the facts from the pen of the gallant and competent commander of the Third Division.

It is much to be regretted that the reminiscences of Mr. Schurz end at a period when he had still before him forty-odd years of distinguished part in American public life. E. C.



  1. THE REMINISCENCES OF CARL SCHURZ, Vol. I., 1829-1852; Vol. II., 1852-1863. New York: The McClure Company. 1907.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).