A new history of gentlemen adventurers—those outsiders, usually Europeans, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, joining foreign wars as a kind of violent escapade or lark—is sorely needed. One of the wars that attracted a substantial share of foreigners, gentlemen or not, was the American Civil War. Thousands of newly arrived immigrants were used as cannon fodder, especially by the Federals. Others held higher rank. There was the German revolutionary Franz Sigel, a Union Major General who was good at recruiting but poor in commanding. At his defeat at the battle of New Market he excitedly began shouting orders in German. Somewhat more successful was the French prince Camille Armand Jules Marie de Polignac, “General Polecat,” as he was affectionately called by his rustic Texan and Louisianan soldiers in the war’s Western Theater. When he died in Paris in 1913 at the age of 81, he was the last surviving Confederate Major General.
A favorite of mine among these foreign adventurers was the Irishman Myles Keogh, who fought in Italy in defense of Pope Pius IX and was recruited by the Archbishop of New York, “Dagger John” Hughes to join the Union colors. Keogh gallantly served in the Federal cavalry during the American Civil War, ending the conflict as a brevet Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, he would go west with the U.S. 7th Cavalry, eventually meeting his death with Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. During the American Civil War, Keogh fought at the battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. A somewhat happier fate awaited another foreign officer fighting in the same battle, Heros von Borcke, but wearing the gray coat of an officer in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Borcke’s 1866 Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence is one of the most engaging eyewitness accounts of the war in Northern Virginia, especially in the period between the summers of 1862 and ’63 when he served directly in the field on the staff of celebrated Confederate Cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart.
“Von” as the Southerners called him, was born Johann Heinrich August Heros von Borcke at Ehrenbreitstein, the Prussian military fortress on the east bank of the Rhine. He came from an old Pomeranian noble family of Slavic origin that had been Germanized and served the Kingdom of Prussia for centuries. Another Borcke was the first man to receive the newly-instituted Iron Cross in 1813.
The Confederate Borcke became a cavalry officer in the Prussian Army in 1855. The account of his adventures in the New World opens suddenly, without preliminaries, with him taking a British ship to the Bahamas and then a blockade runner into Charleston in May 1863. Shortly after his arrival, he marvels at the “masses of warrior-like men, in their ill-assorted costumes… who had come to the defense of the much-loved South… and for the expulsion of the invader from its borders.” Not knowing much English but eager to join the rebel cause, he secures train passage to Richmond and an interview with the Confederate Secretary of War who sends him off to Stuart’s command.
There is no doubt that Borcke served with Stuart (who praised him highly) and that he saw much battle (he almost died while fighting), but scholars believe that his account exaggerates his own personal actions. The great Virginia historian Douglas Southall Freeman, who praised Borcke’s memoir, wrote that “if, as the record shows, von Borcke sometimes made personal to himself the exploits of other members of Stuart’s staff… well, they had gallant exploits to spare.” This quote is found in the introduction to the best, 1985 edition of the Prussian’s memoir, published by Morningside House, the legendary civil war bookstore in Dayton, Ohio.
Borcke’s “simple soldier’s narrative” has value, of course, for the historian in that it was a very early account of the war, finished long before the flood of post-war reminiscences and Lost Cause nostalgia. He writes of people like Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, of the gallant Alabamian John Pelham (West Point Class of 1861), who commanded Stuart’s horse artillery, all of whom died in the conflict. And the work is filled with the excitement of headlong scrapes, unexpected deaths, running battles and sudden skirmishes, of desperate charges and escapes on horseback. It is, most of all, a cavalryman’s book and from it one learns of the importance of the care and feeding—and holding onto—of horses.
That cavalryman’s perspective also perhaps deprives the book of some of his potential insight. Borcke was present at Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history on September 17, 1862. As the cavalry was not much engaged on that day, he fails to grasp the overall importance of that battle, a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the Union. No mention here of the infantry slaughter at “Bloody Lane” or “the Cornfield.” Borcke sees it, from his limited staff cavalryman’s perspective, as a rebel victory.
But it is, if one can use such a word about such a grim and bloody conflict, often a charming memoir. This is particularly true during the times when the army is in its winter bivouac. Borcke’s contrast of America, especially Virginia, with Europe is fascinating. The trains of the American South are unfavorably compared to those of Europe. But the lightly populated Northern Virginia of his day is on full display with its ample charms. He depicts the “gigantic trees of primeval growth” covered with vines “presenting angles of verdure rarely seen in the forests of Europe” at White’s Ford on the Potomac. He sees, as so many others have, the autumnal glory of the Shenandoah Valley, “the repose and loveliness of the American Fall” and the “warmth and glory of the soft Indian Summer, a season of peculiar loveliness in America.”
Brocke goes shooting for gray squirrel and trolls for catfish in the Chickahominy River. Hunting for wild turkey, he finds the wild Virginia gobbler, a much smarter bird than his domestic cousin already present in Europe. He enjoys, with the officers of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, a “luxurious supper of terrapin eggs found in a nearby creek.” He samples local applejack brandy “which will kill anybody” and blackberry wine. He gives a recipe for American eggnog and organizes several balls and amateur theatricals and concerts. We learn that cornbread was the essential part of the Confederate commissariat.
After Lee’s victory at the battle of Second Manassas, so much Yankee booty was captured that you could see “a ragged fellow regaling himself with a box of pickled oysters or potted lobster.” He extols the American paw-paw and persimmon and savors eating the Virginia opossum: “the meat of this ugly animal which grows very fat in the latter part of the autumn, is quite similar to pork.” One thing that is clear from his account is that, even in the early days of its glory, much of the Army of Northern Virginia was often hungry, ragged, and barefoot.
Unlike Antietam, Borcke had a front-row seat for the battle of Fredericksburg, marveling at the Federals “in beautiful order, as if on parade, a moving forest of steel, their bayonets glistening” marching into the “slaughter pen” in front of entrenched Confederate troops at Marye’s Heights. Borcke is struck by the “reckless prodigality of life” shown by the Federals, losing thousands in a campaign but knowing that “many more Germans and Irishmen could be put in their place.”
Borcke is finally struck down at the battle of Middleburg in June 1863, taking a bullet to the neck. His wound is diagnosed as mortal but he doesn’t die. Evacuated from the front, he has to crawl and point a pistol at the panicked driver of his ambulance to get him to slow down. After nine days of suffering, it is concluded that he will live but the grievous wound means long months of convalescence. This means that he misses out at Gettysburg, and General Stuart’s controversial role before that battle. In January 1864, he is promoted and voted the thanks of the Confederate Congress. Months later he visits his mortally wounded friend and commander on his deathbed. Major General J.E.B. Stuart, CSA, was thirty-one when he died.
Still an invalid, Borcke leaves America on a Confederate blockade runner in February 1865, missing the last stages of what he calls “a fearful struggle for independence.” His last thoughts are of his military brothers in arms, “everyone of us will forever speak with pride of the time when he was a soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia.” It is an experience that would mark his life. Borcke’s health would recover enough for him to serve in a staff position during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, but he retired from the Prussian Army the following year. Outliving the American Civil War by a full thirty years, he married, had four children (including a daughter named Virginia), inherited his father’s Pomeranian estate (from whose castle he flew the Confederate battle flag) and grew immensely fat. In 1884 he travelled back to America and met with old Virginia comrades, paying a call on Stuart’s widow and children. He donated his almost one meter-long (36 inches or three feet) sword, his Prussian Kurassier Pallasch, made by the Solingen Guild and with the Borcke family crest, to a local veteran’s organization. Today it resides in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.
The Confederacy has once again become a political issue in the United States, and not in a good way, spurred by the actions of a policeman in, of all places, Minnesota in 2020—as far away from Dixie as one could imagine. George Floyd’s killing incited a paroxysm of destruction and violence throughout the country and led to the vandalizing or removal of many Confederate monuments (and those of Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, Saint Junipero Serra among others). When they ran out of Confederates, they moved on to other targets. It is a scandal that the city of New York in the Year of Our Lord 2022 removed an equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President and native New Yorker, from outside the American Museum of Natural History where it had stood for 80 years. Trump was mocked when he said in 2017 that the frenzy would not end with Confederate statues. He was right.
This physical devastation seen in our cities paralleled the full-throated promotion of a revisionist pseudo-Marxist ideology which saw America, not just the Confederacy, as irremediably evil, from 1619 when the first African slaves were landed. ‘Whiteness,’ ‘white privilege,’ and ‘white fragility’ have all become extremely common slurs, especially among elites, in a country which is still majority (75%) white (and whose black population is 13.6% and becoming heavily outnumbered by Hispanics). Americans, especially progressives, seem obsessively drunk on the subject of race in ways that are recklessly self-destructive and incendiary. True unity and tolerance are unfashionable; race talk and everyday incitement are in.
The would-be Jacobins of today take a much harder line towards the defeated enemy of 1865 than U.S. presidents at the time, including former commanding general of the Union armies Ulysses S. Grant. President Grant’s funeral included two Confederate Generals as pallbearers. In his memoirs, he both extolled the bravery and sincerity of his Southern foes while condemning them as having fought valiantly for a cause that was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” America paid a heavy price for the end of the horrors of slavery. One 2011 estimate revised the number of dead up from 600,000 to 750,000. Maybe it had to be that way. But Cuba abolished slavery (by royal decree) in 1886, Brazil abolished it in 1888 (by imperial decree) without war. Both were plantation societies with some similarity to the Antebellum South.
One of the realities of being a naturalized American (and an adopted Virginian) is that I can, perhaps, take a broader view of American history divorced from the passions of the moment. I feel neither shame nor any commitment to destroy the American past. On the contrary, there is so much to respect and cherish. The only monuments I’d like to see destroyed are those of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba. My favorite Civil War movie is 1989’s “Glory” but I also like 2003’s “Gods and Generals” (where an actor playing Heros von Borcke appears on screen). “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are both stirring songs.
I see Lee, Stuart, Jackson as great generals with many admirable qualities. Lincoln was a great American president, so was Andrew Jackson (whose statue the revolutionaries tried to tear down in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square in 2020). I admire Frederick Douglass, “Gray Ghost” Mosby, Phil Kearny, Father Corby of the Irish Brigade, the great Moses Ezekiel, and James Longstreet—both during and especially after the war. I am fascinated by “Little Billy” Mahone, the hard-fighting Confederate General who became a post-war Virginia U.S. Senator and then state governor for the Readjustor Party, a biracial political coalition in 1870s America which included Democrats, Republicans, and African-Americans. Now there’s a Virginian who deserves a new statue.
One only hopes that the current wave of political masochism in America will crest and that elites will understand that you cannot build a stable future by destroying the past or demonizing your heritage. Nor can you seek to forcibly mandate historical memory in a democracy, as we have unfortunately seen in recent years in troubled countries like leftist-ruled Spain.
After one hard-fought battle, Borcke wrote in his memoirs of how “future generations of Virginians, as they pick up rusted bits of shell, and bullets, and fragments of broken weapons, with which the whole field has been so often strewn, will recall with pride the noble deeds done by their fathers at Brandy Station.” Despite the political frenzy of recent years, I am grateful that so much of American history, Civil War history, still survives in the battlefields, monuments, and graves of the past.
In 2008, Heros von Borcke’s great-grandson Eckhard invited the Stuart family (J.E.B. Stuart, IV and J.E.B. Stuart, V) to a ceremony marking the restoration of von Borcke’s tomb in what is now Gizyn, Poland. Also attending were local Polish officials and German reenactors in Confederate uniform. The original tomb at the old family estate had been destroyed by the Soviet Red Army’s march on Berlin in 1945. In 1906 and 1929, the U.S. Congress authorized the furnishing of gravestones for Confederate veterans. Von Borcke received a new American government-supplied tombstone bearing his name, rank, and membership in the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. A marker that stands in a lonely wooded field in Poland which will forever be part of Virginia history.