John Schroeder papers  1857-1862
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Biography

Schroeder, John, d. 1862

Rank : Sergeant, Lieutenant (1861 November)

Regiment : 3rd Iowa Infantry Regiment. Co. C (1861-1865)

Service : 1861 June 8-1862 July 8

During the secession crisis of 1861, the support of German immigrants was a key factor in consolidating Unionism in Missouri, and when war broke out, Germans throughout the west enlisted in large numbers, contributing disproportionately to the Union war effort. By reputation, if not always in reality, these immigrants were perceived as highly educated, experienced in military affairs, and radical in their political beliefs. John Schroeder comes remarkably close to fulfilling this stereotype.

Schroeder and his brother James arrived in America in 1856, a day he recalled fondly a year later: "ich ne[h]me diesen Tag bedeutend für uns Alle," he wrote to James, "Noch nicht zwei Jahre auf diesem freien Boden und wieviel schon geleret, erfarene und gesehen!" (1857 June 11-14). The Schroeders settled in Guttenberg, Iowa, a small farming community on the Mississippi River, north of the Turkey River Valley, but within a year, John headed north to Blue Earth County, Minnesota, to work near the auspiciously-named town of Liberty. The six months he passed in Liberty were exciting months for Minnesota. As Schroeder labored on an isolated potato farm, Minnesota was in the throes of organizing for statehood, with fiercely partisan political battles dividing the populace over the shape of the future government. In such a hothouse atmosphere, Schroeder's eye never strayed far from politics, and he was avid follower of the growth of Minnesota cities, the building of roads, the development of a speculative market in land and the opening of farm lands to settlers.

As early as 1857, Schroeder was firmly seated in the Republican Party, holding views that were at least generically abolitionist. A Lutheran, he was also vehemently anti-Catholic, blaming Catholicism for many of the evils he saw in American society, including slavery. In a letter to his brother, Schroeder lambasted the Catholic priesthood for the evil they wrought:

"Ein guter Schulmeister ist mehr werth als hundert Priester; denn das Leben derselben ist im besten Falle ein Leben der Trägheit; der Priester vergebliche Ehelosigkeit veranlasst sie Unzunft und eheliche Untreue in jeder Familie einzuführen, worin sie Zutritt finden; und ihre gotteslästerliche Anmassung der Vergebung von Sünden ermuntert zur Begehung derselben. Die katolischen Pfaffen erkennen ja die Sclaverei für Recht an und ihnen allein haben wir es nur zu verdanken dass so mancher Staat in der Union noch für Sclaverei geht; wenn Minnesota demokratisch geht hängt es allein von den deutschen und besonderes Irrländlischen katoliken ab...

"Ich glaube dass die Guttenberger noch glauben die Neger seien das Teufelsbrüder dass sie so hart gegen die neue Constitution gestimmt haben; ich habe die Sache gut betrachtet und überlegt hier und anderswo und gefinden dass alle die Leute welche die Scalverei noch unterstützen helfen Alle hartherzigen, gefühllose, tyrannische Leute sind; fragen doch deine halzstaarige [sic] Nachbaren ob sie denn kein Gefühl mehr in Leibe haben? Von katoliken brauch man sich doch nicht zu verwundere, da sie noch härtere Sachen glauben; glauben sie nich dass ein Mensch wenn er nicht durch die Hand eines Gaukelers genutzt wurde was sie dann Taufe nennen, vom dem Schöpfer ewig dafür bestraft werde nach seinen Tode? Welche Härte?" (1857 September 13)

In September, 1857, Schroeder appears to have returned to Guttenberg, and for the next four years his activities are uncertain. At some point, he apparently joined a militia unit composed largely of German immigrants, the Steuben Guard, becoming Captain. It is unclear whether he had had any prior military experience. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Schroeder was not reticent in tendering his services, refusing even to wait for the promised organization of a German regiment. However, much to his disappointment, when commissions were dispensed for the new regiment, the 3rd Iowa Infantry, Schroeder was made only a sergeant. He complained bitterly that the staff officers in the regiment were ill equipped as leaders and knew little or nothing about military affairs -- they were political appointees -- and he felt the lingering pall of anti-German discrimination. Upon reading that an American had been named major of the 16th Infantry over a more qualified German candidate, he concluded "eine Sache die leicht möglich ist, da in diesen Zeiten noch krümere Sachen geschen, als ein Amerikaner über deutschen zu setzen" (1861 December 21).

Schroeder aside, it is safe to say that the 3rd Iowa was unusually filled with dissention from the start caused by rivalries among the officers and animosity between them and the enlisted men. Further, the regiment faced more than its share of organizational and supply problems caused by the necessity of rushing the unit into action in Missouri. For over two weeks after they were mustered into the service, the regiment made do without uniforms, tents, or equipment, and when their gear and weapons finally began to trickle in, it was soon found that they were outdated and barely adequate. These logistical problems, combined with the turmoil among the officers, soon colored the way Schroeder felt, though he never wavered in his sense of duty:

"Ich zweifele stark daran dass es möglich ist eine gut disciplinirte Armee in Amerika aufzubringen, die deutschen sind auch von der Seuche der Ungehorsams angestarkt, und das ist es eben was Allen den dienst so verleidet nirgens herrscht Ordnung, die Schuldigen werden nicht bestraft, die Guten werden nicht belohnt, die Offizieren sind voller Liebungstreuhe, es ist kein Esprit de corps unter Ihnen, sie wetteifere mit den Soldaten, die huren Hauser aufgefinden. Ich spreche hier nicht von unsere Compagnie Offizieren denn das sind Ehren männer, wenn auch keine grossse Militairs... In einem Republikanischen Staat den Muth sogleich verlieren, beweist nur dass man kein Republikaner ist, da muss man sich viel gefallen lassen, aber die Pflicht des Bürgers muss einem über Alles gehen... in diesem Lande gibt es noch immer eine Partei welche sich noch Republikaner nennen wollen, jedoch von Anfang dieses Krieg es der Regierung opponierten weil dieselben den Krieg nicht ihnen Launen nach führten, keinen Vertilgungskrieg predigte, welche wollten dass man die weisse Bevölkerung des Südens ausrotten sollte um die Schwarzen frei zu machen, oh! die Mensenfreunde wie zärtlich, wie gefühlvoll..." (1862 January 30-31)

Less than a month after mustering in at Keokuk, still lacking some of the necessary equipment for life in the field, the 3rd Iowa was sent to northern Missouri to guard the Grand River Bridge and consolidate the region for the Union. Along with the 16th Illinois Infantry, the regiment experienced their first taste of civil war, thrown into an uncertain and confusing conflict, surrounded by civilians of unclear loyalty. After two weeks that featured a couple of minor forays and false alarms, and a few acts of sabotage, the regiment was ordered to Chillicothe, Ohio, to guard a supposedly vulnerable rail line, but in reality, to stagnate under the authoritarian, but ineffective command of their colonel, Nelson Williams. In August, once again in Missouri, resentment of the continuing poor conditions, Williams' authoritarianism, and the incompetence of the other officers nearly led to a mutiny among the men. Schroeder understood the causes of the unrest, though he felt many of the complaints were exaggerated, but was one of the men who helped to defuse the crisis. A few days later, he led a detachment of 70 men accompanying recruits to Fort Leavenworth, where he encountered some old German friends, now veterans, and hoisted a few beers to comrades fallen at Wilson's Creek.

Late in the summer, the situation in Missouri began to heat up. Schroeder approved of Frémont's controversial declaration of martial law and emancipation in the state. "Gut für Freemont," he wrote, "lasst euch nicht zu viel mit der Neger frage verführen, ich habe heute zu viele gesehen. Den Neger Trumpf spielen wir zuletzt aus wenn es nicht anders geht und dann gewinnen wir das Spiel doch" (1861 September 1). Over the next three weeks he had his taste of the trump card, as his regiment locked horns repeatedly with Confederate forces under Martin Green. Late in August, accompanied by remnants of the 2nd Kansas Infantry and a company of Missouri Home Guards, the 3rd Iowa took part in a skirmish near Kirksville, but continued their foray. Advancing to Paris on September 1, they ran into a superior force led by Green and were forced to withdraw to nearby Shelbina, where they hastily erected fortifications. After a bold initial attempt at resistance, however, they withdrew in panic and confusion, using a rail car as both transport and cover. At Blue Mills Landing on September 17, the small force was again defeated, once again through the ineptitude of inexperienced officers. Like many of his comrades, Schroeder fell into despair after Blue Mills Landing: "die Wahrheit zu sagen," he wrote, "bin ich genug müde in diesen Regimente, und wenn Niemand Anstalten macht dass ich heraus kommen, so werde ich mir selbst zu helfen suchen, denn solche Anordnung kann ich nicht über mein Herz bringen" (1861 September 26).

After this month of action, Schroeder and several officers were sent to Iowa to recruit the regiment back to full strength, and when they returned, they were ordered to Benton Barracks in St. Louis, for the winter. With Lieutenant Call taking a commission in a Missouri Cavalry Regiment, Schroeder was promoted to first Lieutenant in December, much to the glee of his company. He appears to have been well respected and genuinely liked by the men who served under him, and the staff officers above him indicated that they felt he, rather than the current captain, should even have led the company. During the late fall, though, this streak of good fortune ended as Schroeder fell ill with an unspecified complaint. While he said that he might be able to obtain a discharge as a result, his sense of duty would not allow him; "die Pflicht des Bürgers muss einem über Alles gehen," he insisted (1862 January 30-31). In March, the regiment was attached to the 1st Brigade of the 4th Division, Army of the Tennessee, under Stephen Hurlbut and was ordered to Pittsburg Landing, Tenn. Schroeder went along, but was apparently ill enough that he had to remain aboard ship during the Battle of Shiloh, where his regiment suffered nearly 190 casualties -- including their Colonel, who was disabled.

Schroeder accompanied his regiment as they pursued Confederate forces southward to Corinth, where they encamped under miserably wet and muddy conditions. What effect this exposure had on his condition is uncertain, but Schroeder died in late May or early June, 1862.