Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sometimes heroes sire scoundrels

Federal artillery captain and Medal of Honor-winner Hubert "Leatherbreeches" Dilger died on May 4, 1911 (scroll down on this page for a photo of Captain Dilger). Good thing he didn't live long enough to see his son waging chemical warfare on America during this country's lead-up to and participation in World War I. One naturally assumes Dilger would have been appalled at the prospect of his offspring conniving against the adopted homeland Capt. Dilger so bravely served. But who can say? Perhaps, somehow, Hubert Dilger would have understood his son's devotion to the Fatherland. What a difference a generation makes. Once I finish The Fourth Horseman (great title!), I hope the traitorous son's actions will have been put into the context of an era, and a family, that I know precious little about.

The German immigrants of the 11th Corps took the brunt of the blame for the collapse of the Federal right at Chancellorsville, when Stonewall Jackson's celebrated flanking maneuver caught the Federals off-guard and rolled up Hooker's line. But there was courage and honor amidst the otherwise wholesale Federal flight. Bob Krick, in a
wonderful series of essays archived by the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, described the heroics that earned Dilger the MoH at Chancellorsville:

The most famous and dramatic Federal resistance on that afternoon came from a German-immigrant artillery officer, Capt. Hubert Dilger. The captain had turned an Ohio battery into a well-tuned unit, despite what he called "the intrigues & petit jealousies of the different german cliques" in the 11th Corps, and had become recognizable by the doeskin German-style britches he wore. When the Federal right collapsed on May 2, "Leatherbreeches" Dilger retired methodically down the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3), firing a single cannon in the road, then falling back and doing it again.

The Medal of Honor (usually miscalled the Congressional Medal of Honor), meant appreciably less during the Civil War than it came to signify for a time during the mid-20th century. Four New Englanders who won the medal for actions near Fredericksburg, for instance, received them three decades later--immediately after (to suggest coincidence strains credulity) one of them became his state's adjutant general, and a second of them became his assistant. It is impossible, however, to doubt that Capt. Dilger richly deserved the honor, by the standards of any era. "Fought his guns until the enemy were upon him," the citation read, "then with one gun hauled in the road by hand he formed the rear guard and kept the enemy at bay by the rapidity of his fire and was the last man in the retreat." The devoutly Virginian historian who chronicled the history of Robert E. Lee's artillery admiringly described Dilger's feat as "an example of almost superhuman courage and energy."

Virginian scenery and people apparently fetched Hubert Dilger. In 1881, having grown rich by inheritance, he bought a large stock farm near Front Royal and began raising pure-bred cattle. Two years later a prize bull, perhaps unconvinced of Dilger's credentials as a freshly converted Virginian, gored him badly, but the old warrior survived and lived into the new century.

Dilger's son, Anton, was born on that Shenandoah Valley farm, but removed to Germany at age 10. Decades later, still a U.S. citizen, he could not enlist in the German army, but as an American loyal to Berlin, he was ideally suited for undercover operations against his homeland. Robert Koenig's new book on Anton Dilger looks to be a good read on an intriguing topic. According to this review in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Anton Dilger, an American saboteur working for the German government, rented lodgings not 6 miles from the White House. In his basement, he set up a small laboratory and, on behalf of the General Staff in Berlin, he began a highly secret campaign to wage biological warfare on U.S. soil. His target would be the horses and cattle supplied to the Allied armies by the then-neutral United States, and Dilger set about cultivating anthrax bacteria and Pseudomonas mallei, the germ that causes glanders, a crippling equine disease. But who was Dilger, and how did the son of a Union Army captain become a German secret agent?"

Later, Anton Dilger approached the Mexican government to foster an alliance with Germany, tempting the Mexicans with the prospect of reclaiming the American Southwest. As it turned out, the sins of the son failed to eclipse the valor of the father. Anton Dilger, the Shenandoah Valley saboteur with a keen interest in biological warfare, died young (34) at the hands of a common virus, the Spanish Flu. No medals for him.


Drew W. said...

That's certainly something I didn't think about. The descendants of CW heroes fighting us in WW1 and 2.

Great post. I am in the midst of putting together a post about recent and upcoming books about Germans in the west and trans-miss. theaters. It won't be analytical as I've read so few of them, but more of a listing.

Eric J. Wittenberg said...

Fascinating stuff, David. As a long-time fan of Hubert Dilger, I've enjoyed studying his exploits, but I had no idea about this one. I may have to track that book down, and I will definitely start talking about this when I do my 11th Corps tours at Gettysburg....

Thanks for sharing.


dw said...

"That's certainly something I didn't think about. The descendants of CW heroes fighting us in WW1 and 2."

There must have been a lot of "relations" to all of the German immigrants of the 1840s and 50s whose branch of the family stayed in the old country.


dw said...


Thanks for the note. I had never heard of Anton's exploits either. I imagine Dilger is a common surname here and in Deutschland.

I wonder what became of Hubert Dilger's Medal.


Anonymous said...

Hubert Dilger was my great-grandfather. (His daughter, 'Jo', was my dad's mother.) The Medal of Honor was lost in a house fire. As to Grandaddy Dilger's descendants fighting against us during the 2nd World War, not all them did. My dad joined the US Navy in 1940 beginning is service in Naval Intelligence. (He retired as a Captain in the Naval Reserve after putting in 30 years.) Dad's cousin Fred served in the US Army during the war in Army Intelligence). All of the other first cousins served in the German Army a number of whom attained the rank of General.

Anonymous said...

I am also a far relative from Family Dilger in Mannheim,where the Roots from Anton Dilger are.I am from Kaiserslautern and live now in Manila.Greetings
Juergen Schoefer Ph.D.

Juergen Schoefer said...

I am also a far relative from Family Dilger in Mannheim,where the Roots from Anton Dilger are.I am from Kaiserslautern and live now in Manila.Greetings
Juergen Schoefer Ph.D.