Switzerland & Midwest Connections: Hermann Lieb -The Regiments of African Descent

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

Hermann Lieb was no stranger to war, be it on the battlefield or in politics. Following his participation in the 1848 French revolution, he joined the Union Army and rose to the rank of General during the American civil war, commanding one of the first colored regiments. He later became a newspaper publisher, an author and entered Illinois politics, albeit the latter with less success.

The Union 9th Louisiana Regiment of African Descent

Hermann Lieb was born in 1826 in the town of Ermatingen by Lake Constance in the Canton of Thurgau, the son of a businessman. He studied in Zurich and Vevey before leaving with his brother in 1846 to start a merchant career in Paris. In 1848 he joined the Garde Mobile and took part in the February Revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the Second French Republic. In 1851 he came to Illinois and later settled in Decatur were he practiced law. At the outbreak of the civil war Hermann Lieb enlisted in the 8th Illinois Regiment and soon was promoted to Major. He was present at the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson (which made Ulysses Grant a household name), and Shiloh, which was the first of many large battles, with over 20,000 casualties. In the strategically important town of Corinth, the Union won a decisive battle over the Confederates. In early 1863, orders came from President Lincoln to organize colored troops. Lieb resigned from the 8th Illinois Regiment and accepted a commission as Colonel of what was to become the Union 9th Louisiana Regiment of African Descent. In his recollections on the Civil War (1), Lieb writes about taking command of the Regiment at Vicksburg: ”In the early part of 1863 the main portion of General Grant’s army for the reduction of Vicksburg was camped about twenty miles above that stronghold on the Louisiana side of the river, at a place called Milliken’s Bend. Sometime in April, General Lorenzo Thomas, adjutant general of the U. S. army, arrived at the Bend with orders from President Lincoln for the organization of colored troops. The outlook for such an innovation was not propitious by any means”.

The Battle of Milliken’s Bend

The difficulties for Lieb and his officers were not only finding suitable recruits, but to train them in time for battle. Moreover, the question lingered if the recruits would fight. “Our armament consisted of very indifferent Australian muskets, but the officers, with untiring zeal, had brought the recruits, all of them raw plantation hands, to an efficiency in four and six weeks’ drill which could not have been surpassed by white recruits,” Lieb writes. “On the 7th of June we were attacked by about 2,500 Texas Rangers and 200 cavalry under the command of the Confederate General McCulloch — “General Taylor’s army” — which ended, after an unprecedented slaughter, with the enemy repulsed, our loss being twelve officers and ninety men killed and seventeen officers and 268 men wounded — the highest percentage of loss in battle on record”. The question if the colored troops would fight was answered in the official report of that battle by the Confederate commander, McCulloch: “The line was formed under a heavy fire from the enemy, my troops charging the breastworks. This charge was resisted with obstinacy by the Negro portion of the enemy’s forces, while the white portion ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered.” Lieb makes clear that McCulloch probably meant a detachment of white cavalry, “as an Iowa regiment was sent to our assistance and did good service. But that battle has gone into history and the question, ‘Will the Negro Fight?’ was then and there settled for good”.

The 5th Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment

Hermann Lieb was wounded during the battle and afterwards was instructed to reorganize his colored regiment into a heavy artillery unit for the defense of Vicksburg. He writes: “I secured about 500 volunteers whom I took to Vicksburg. The remnant of the Ninth Louisiana Infantry at Milliken’s Bend was added, and the new organization, under the designation of Fifth United States Heavy Artillery, colored, I promptly took in hand”. But Lieb wanted more than just train them for battle. “They had enlisted for three years, at the end of which time they would be thrown out into the more or less prejudiced world, to stand upon their own feet. A number of carpenters were selected from among them to erect a commodious school house; through the aid of the commanding general of the post of Vicksburg a bevy of school ma’ams was secured from the north; the chaplain was charged with the superintendency, and shortly all the school rooms were in full operation. In addition I wish to state that with aid of a German band master, I organized a brass band of musicians, the proficiency of which challenged the admiration of all privileged to hear it — the army inspectors from Washington included”, he writes. Lieb hoped that he could keep his regiment in service and went to Washington to personally see General Grant who then was acting secretary of war. “I agree with all you say,” said the general. “I know all about your regiment; but it would require an act of congress.” And so my splendid regiment broke up and turned to the task of earning a living for which they had been fairly prepared,” Lieb records in his recollections.

Newspaper Man, Author and Cook County Clerk

Hermann Lieb was promoted to brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers in 1865. Being mustered out himself, Hermann Lieb went to Springfield and founded the Illinois Post, a German language Republican paper, and two years later moved to Chicago, where he and a partner launched the Abend Zeitung. Subsequently he published several German language newspapers, including the Chicago Demokrat. His tenure as Clerk of Cook County was overshadowed by an election scandal. As Clerk of Cook County, Lieb certified the election results in the 1874 contest between incumbent Republican Charles Farwell and his democratic opponent John Le Moyne, who challenged the election results. In 1876, the Democrat-controlled Congress accepted John V. Le Moyne’s challenge to Farwell’s election and removed Farwell from office. In later years he visited his Swiss homeland and returned to Illinois a fervent apostle of the initiative and referendum as practiced in Switzerland, urging their adoption at mass meetings organized by the Schweizer Club of Chicago. Lieb wrote several books, including, among others, The Initiative and Referendum, published in 1902. Hermann Lieb died in Chicago in 1908.

(1) Source: “Recollection of Colonel Hermann Lieb, commander of the 9th Louisiana at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863,” House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,

The Battle of Shiloh by Thure de Thulstrup, c. 1888 (Library of Congress)
Hermann Lieb (courtesy American Battlefield Trust)

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