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Gustavus Köerner



Of the German-American leaders in Illinois politics none deserves more general recognition than Gustav Koerner. Coming to Illinois in 1833 as a result of the revolutionary uprising in Frankfort, he never lost his affection for his fatherland. Yet he was equally loyal in the service of his adopted country. He insisted always that it was the duty of the German-American to work with his neighbors for the promotion of sound ideals in politics and higher standards of civilization. This attitude won him the respect of the community in which he lived and he held a series of important public appointments. He was successively a member of the legislature, judge of the State Supreme Court, lieutenant governor, and United States minister to Spain.

During his long public career he gained a wide acquaintance among the public men of his time in Illinois and elsewhere. He was an active correspondent and left to his family an interesting collection of letters, some in English and some in German, written by many of his most prominent contemporaries. Through the courtesy of his daughters, Mrs. R. E. Rombauer of St. Louis and Mrs. Henry Engelmann of Lakewood, Ohio, I have been able to present for the annual volume of the transactions a few of the letters written to Koerner in English. The copies were carefully prepared for this purpose by his grand-daughter, Miss Bertha E. Rombauer, of St. Louis.

Brief accounts of Koerner's life may be found in Ratterman, Gustav Koerner, Ein Lebensbild; in the Illinois Historical Society's Transactions, 1904 (article by R. E. Rombauer); in Deutsch-Amerikanische Geschichtsblätter, April, 1907, (article by E. B. Greene); also in Koerner's Deutsche Element, Chicago, 1884. Koerner's autobiography, which contains much matter of great interest, still remains unpublished.



Letter from W. H. Bissell.



I have no doubt that you are generally kept pretty well appraised of our whereabouts and our doings; and I cannot therefore, in a brief letter, communicate anything of particular interest to you of which you have not already been advised. But as I am presented today with an opportunity of sending to New Orleans, I avail myself of the chance thus offered of starting a letter towards you — that it will reach its destination is by no means certain; nor will it be very material to you whether it does or not.

We are now encamped near Saltillo (4 miles from the town) and here, or in this vicinity, we have constantly been encamped since some days before Christmas. Besides Gen. Wool's Division there are also here two Indiana Regiments and one Kentucky Regiment — this last R'g't having arrived here two days ago by a forced march from Monterey to sustain us in an anticipated engagement with the enemy. We left Parras (a town of 8 or 10,000 inhabitants and situated about 130 miles West of this place) on the 17th of December, and came here by a forced, and, for Infantry, an extraordinary march. We had expected


to remain at Parros till about the 1st Instant, and then to take up our march for San Luis Potosi by the way of Durango and Zacatecas — and so we should probably have done but for an express which reached us on the 17th ult from Gen. Worth, then at this place, calling upon us to come with all speed to his relief, as he had but 1,000 men and was in hourly expectation of an attack from a large body of the enemy. This interesting despatch from Gen. Worth was the cause of our sudden departure from Parros and our rapid march to this place. We reached here in less than four days from the time of getting Gen. Worth's despatch; but we have as yet had no battle nor do we now believe that we shall have one at this place. The enemy that was making toward Gen. Worth changed his direction South Eastwardly without coming to Saltillo — and although there are several detachments of the enemy within from 60 to 100 miles of us, and which seem to be in a constant state of mobility, yet they do not seem inclined to give us battle here, nor permit us to lessen the distance between them and us by any movements of ours. Almost ever since our arrival here, however, we have literally "dwelt in the midst of alarms" — often expecting at night that we should see the enemy the next morning — and at morning expecting his approach before night. You must remember that we have to rely in a great measure upon our Mexican spies for information. Sometimes they have no doubt deceived us intentionally. Sometimes they have mistaken small detachments of scouts or foragers near us for the advance of the enemy. For several days, and indeed, until yesterday we kept ourselves in a constant state of readiness, night and day. For several nights I slept, when I slept at all, with my garments all on even to my boots and spurs. Yesterday's information, however, and today's, seems to show pretty conclusively that the enemy which had made a demonstration here are moving off Southwardly intending to fall back upon San Luis Potosi, or perhaps to the coast to oppose Gen. Scott, who it is understood here is about to invade their country at Tampico or Vera Cruz or somewhere else in that quarter. As to our future movements we are in profound ignorance. Whether we shall be ordered to Vera Cruz or in that direction — whether we shall be compelled to remain here by way of occupation (which God forbid), or whether we shall go toward San Luis Potosi, we know not. We expect Gen. Taylor here in 3 or 4 days. And we rather suspect that when he comes we shall pretty soon receive orders to advance towards San Luis by the way of Durango and Zacatecas. In that case we shall retrace our steps to Parras. From that place to Durango is about 180 miles — from Durango to Zacatecas about 200; and from this last to San Luis about 80 miles. (Distance of places here is but estimated — accuracy is not attainable). It is known that at Durango and at Zacatecas preparations are being made to resist us. This is all we know or can even conjecture, plausibly, in regard to our future movements. Nothing can be more uncertain than all our movements — so that if they turn out entirely different from what I have suggested you need not be surprised.


The health of my regiment and of this whole command is good. Deaths, however, must and do occur among us occasionally. I do not at present think of anybody who has died here whom you would probably remember to have known.

The Illinois Volunteers are high in estimation here; and deservedly so. You would be surprised at their improvement and their present soldierly appearance. In the most trying and discouraging situations they have ever shown themselves to be everything which men could be. They have suffered much from hard marches and hard fare — but they have endured patiently and with the fortitude which becomes brave men and soldiers. They have never felt so well as when they have been in hourly expectation of meeting the enemy in deadly conflict — nor have they ever behaved more like men and soldiers than on such occasions.

Of the probable continuance of the war we can form no opinion, whatever. We are in total ignorance of everything passing at Washington, and especially so of the doings at Mexico. It is only four or five days since the President's message first made its appearance among us. This will show you how effectually we are cut off from all sources of information from the States.

Mexico, so far as we have seen it, is by no means an inviting country. High, bare, and rugged mountains, and dry, and (consequently) barren plains, constitute the leading features of the country everywhere. Not a foot of land is attempted to be cultivated which is not susceptible of irrigation. No rain has fallen since we entered Mexico, and we are told that none is expected, here, till May or June. Even those mountain streams which are the only sources of that fertilizing process, irrigation, are much fewer and smaller here than you would expect in so mountainous a country. As for timber, there is none in the country. You would be wholly at a loss to conceive how a country so completely destitute of timber could be inhabited. And yet the poor devils manage to get along in happy ignorance of their many, and, to us, manifest wants.

The climate is delightful in Mexico. We are now in Latitude 26 — about the same as the Southern part of Florida. Occasionally the wind shifts suddenly into the N. E. producing what is called a Norther. At such times it is frequently, for a day, uncomfortably cold and we shiver and our teeth chatter at night and morning. With these trifling exceptions, the weather is uniformly delicious. From ten in the morning till 3 in the evening we seek the shade for comfort — and the nights are as cloudless, as genial and balmy as they are in Illinois in the month of May.

The Mexicans hereabouts are indolent and unintellectual. They know, generally, nothing about their government or the affairs of their country — nor do they care about either so that they are let alone. I speak, of course, of the mass. Santa Anna is disliked exceedingly in this part of the country.

All your friends here are getting along pretty well. Adolphus has sustained himself well, and honorably; and stands as fair among us as his friends could possibly desire. His health is excellent and he is


attentive and ambitious. Last night he had command of one of the guards — and I as Field Officer of the day had to visit him after midnight. I found him constantly at his post, and holding a tight rein over his men. He is entirely satisfied and delighted with his situation. Col. Morrison is also in good health, and has, I think, fully realized the expectations of his friends.

I trust that you have, ere this, been elected by the Legislature; — Though I have not heard a word from Springfield since the Legislature convened. Of your own election nobody can have entertained any doubt — nor of P— I presume. T. H. Campbell is doubtless elected Auditor — I hope so at any rate. But who is treasurer? who Atty Gen'l? Who my successor? Who Senator? &c &c. Our anxiety to know these things amounts to nervousness. I have rec'd no letters from Illinois since we left San Antonio. I there rec'd one from you (the only one) which was answered from Monclova. I have not even heard a word of my little girls (one of which I left at New Orleans) for more than five months. It seems that letters addressed to us "Care of Col. Hunt" via New Orleans, post paid, ought to reach us in safety and yet we are constrained to think that many such must certainly have been lost.

I fear I shall not be able to return so as to commence the circuit with you in the Spring. I do, however, look with much pleasure to the time when I shall again find myself among my friends upon the circuit. It seems to me, now, that I shall hereafter delight more than ever in the practice of my profession — and determined am I to devote myself vigorously and exclusively to it when I return.

My health is excellent, I have not been sick since I left home, and was never more robust than now; and I have labored in my new vocation with, I believe, tolerable success — the pertinacious and rather unkind predictions of my friend Koerner to the contrary notwithstanding. Captain Raith's company, with some exceptions, has evidently felt it a duty to be blind to everything which did not quadrate with the previously expressed opinions, and directly promote the interest, of their exclusive and very attentive friend and former Captain. But let that pass, and be forgotten. We all get along very pleasantly, and so we shall continue to do. I should be glad to hear from you often. Should you write me from Belleville, please make inquiries, and tell me about the health of my little girl.

Gen. Shields was with us at Monclova — but while there he was ordered to Tampico — and thither he went; since which I have not heard of him. He was very popular with all our officers and men. Write to me.