ONCE UPON A TIME IN QUINCY: Quincy's German-American general, William A. Schmitt

William Andrew Schmitt
Posted: Nov. 24, 2012 2:37 am Updated: Jan. 30, 2015 4:07 pm


William Andrew Schmitt was born in Quincy on June 30, 1839, to German immigrants Adam Schmitt and Marie Margaret Herlemann. They had been Pennsylvanians until fire destroyed the family's Pittsburgh cabinetry shop. Having lost nearly everything, the couple and Marie's family moved west, arriving in Quincy in April 1834. Adam acquired a lot at 10th and Broadway, where he constructed a dwelling and a workshop and began to build furniture.

From 1856 to 1860, William attended Illinois State College, a boys' preparatory school in Springfield. By the summer of 1860, he was back in Quincy and involved with the Republican "Wide Awake" movement that backed Abraham Lincoln for president. The "Wide Awakes," attired in black capes and military-style caps, attended Republican rallies. If the meetings were at night, each Wide Awake carried a torch.

The Quincy Whig Republican of Oct. 27, 1860, printed a note of gratitude from the Ellington Township Wide Awakes to the Columbus Wide Awakes for supporting their rally. And, "To the [Parade] Marshall, Wm. A. Schmitt, of Quincy, our cordial thanks are ... tendered for furnishing during the procession, the Quincy Brass Band."

On April 15, 1861, three days after the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 men to quell the insurrection. Illinois Gov. Richard Yates appealed for 6,000 volunteers. Quincy residents Benjamin M. Prentiss and James D. Morgan, veterans of the Mexican War, immediately responded to the governor's request and had three companies in Springfield by April 20. Two days later they were ordered to Cairo, where they became part of the 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and were mustered into federal service for three months. One of the enlistees was 21-year-old William A. Schmitt, whom Col. Prentiss appointed Company E first sergeant. The 10th Illinois remained at Cairo performing garrison and reconnaissance duty until their service expired on July 29, 1862.

Schmitt, Matthew and Theodore Jansen and a few others of German birth or descent returned to Quincy; and, Theodore recalled, we each promised "to persuade at least one or two friends to enlist" for three years service. "Accordingly," he explained, "We elected our former orderly sergeant Wm. Schmitt, as temporary chairman on organizing, and forthwith rented City Hall, held a meeting, passed a few resolutions, and each comrade started out to see his friends. ..." The committee, using only youthful energy and patriotic zeal -- no posters, newspaper appeals or speeches -- raised a company in six days. Their recruits were all from Quincy and made up largely of German-American citizens.

By Aug. 10, 1862, the company was at Springfield's Camp Butler and shortly thereafter mustered into federal service as Company A, 27th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. In the selection of officers, William A. Schmitt was voted captain. The 27th was ordered to Cairo on Sept. 1 and became part of John A. McClernand's brigade.

At Cairo on Nov. 6 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant loaded 3,114 men on transports and with two gunboats moved down river. His destination was Belmont, Mo., lying across the Mississippi River from Columbus, Ky. Here the Confederates blocked the Mississippi River. Grant's mission was to clear it.

At 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 7 Grant landed his force at Belmont and with McClernand's brigade leading set off to locate the enemy. In a letter to the Quincy Whig Republican, 2nd Lt. Matthew Jansen described the offensive:

"Company A was the first to go on the Missouri shore, and marched in front of the 27th regiment, which ... formed as leader and took the assailing position. Company A ... was sent forward to skirmish ... and during the skirmish Capt. Schmitt showed the greatest courage; we had scarcely traversed the woods ... when we met the enemy's pickets, opened fire, instantly advanced very quick and caused them to flee."

Reaching the enemy camp, the regrouped 27th Illinois attacked. Jansen continued: "The enemy appeared to have doubled ... and fought desperate[ly]. On the first charge we were exposed to a rain of bullets, during which Capt. S exerted himself to the utmost to advance his men, placed himself upon a stump, swinging his sword and gave the command to advance."

Matthew stated that Schmitt "was several times entreated by his men to abandon so dangerous a place, but not willing to do so, [he] was dragged down. ..." Back on his feet, Schmitt "threw himself at the head of his company with revolver in one hand and sword in the other."

The charge drove the enemy through their camp and to the river bank. The 27th took more than a hundred prisoners.

"Captain Schmitt," Jansen wrote, "seizing an axe, nearly cut off the flag pole, and intending to tear down the flag, was wounded by a rebel lying on his knees." Grazed on his right side, Schmitt covered his wound with a handkerchief and returned to action.

Reinforced, the Rebels moved to cut the blue-coated infantry off from their transports and the supporting gunboats. Seeing the trap, Grant withdrew, boarded the boats and steamed back to Cairo. Losses were high -- with both sides reporting over 600 casualties. The 27th "lost 11 killed, 42 wounded, 28 missing, and 14 known to be prisoners." The first of the two men of Company A who were killed was Quincy Lt. William Shipley, Schmitt's childhood schoolmate who as a child had been taken in and raised by the Orville H. Brownings of Quincy.

The Quincy Daily Herald said: "During the late battle at Belmont, this company, it will be remembered, were in the thickest of the fight and nobly did they fulfill the promises made by their brave commander. The honor of the flag is safe in their hands."

Schmitt sealed his status as a genuine hero at the pivotal three-day Battle of Stones River, Tenn., which started on Dec. 31, 1862. When the 27th's Col. Fazilo A. Harrington was mortally wounded, Schmitt was cast into leadership of the regiment. Nearly out of ammunition, the 27th was almost surrounded. Schmitt ordered: "Boys, we must get out of this! To the rear, march."

Only momentarily was the 27th out of the "frying pan," however. Schmitt was ordered to return to the "fire" and stop the enemy, which was about to flank the Union line. Joined now by the 51st Illinois Infantry, the 27th moved forward, delivered two volleys and charged. The rebels were routed, with 200 surrendering. The next day, Jan. 1, 1863, Schmitt, now 23, was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Schmitt's battlefield gallantry earned him a promotion on April 15, 1863, to major of the 27th Illinois.

The 27th soldiered on, seeing action at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. On April 28, 1864, Schmitt was promoted to colonel and led the regiment in Sherman's Atlanta Campaign. After three years of hard service, the regiment mustered out at Springfield on Aug. 25, 1864.

With the War of the Rebellion nearing an end, William A. Schmitt, on March 13, 1865, was brevetted a brigadier general of the United States Volunteers. The citation read, "For gallant conduct at the battle of Stone's River and for meritorious services during the war."

On Nov. 25, 1903, Schmitt died of Bright's disease, a chronic kidney ailment. He is buried in Chicago.

Phil Reyburn, graduate of Indiana State University, is retired from the Social Security Administration. He co-edited "Jottings from Dixie: The Civil War Dispatches of Sergeant Major Stephen F. Fleharty, U.S.A." and recently published "Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, the Railroad Regiment."


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