Brig. Gen. Henry Bohlen: The only Union general officer killed in action in Culpeper County
Henry Bohlen visited Culpeper County once in his life and within an hour of that entry he was stone dead. And upon examining General Bohlen’s brief but notable life, one can conclude, “politics kill.”
Born 1810 in Bremen, Germany into an aristocratic and wealthy family, the adventuresome Henry Bohlen migrated to Philadelphia where he amassed a huge fortune as a liquor dealer. With economic success sustaining entry into political life, Bohlen soon became a major leader in Pennsylvania’s huge German community.
With Union military strategists requiring thousands of troops to prosecute an impending war, there was no larger pool of potential troops than German and Irish immigrants laboring away in eastern cities. And although success in the liquor business does not automatically qualify one for high military command, Henry Bohlen soon found himself commissioned as a colonel by Pennsylvania’s governor. No doubt both surprised and proud in 1861 to be wearing a blue American uniform, the Teutonic Bohlen set to work recruiting German immigrants to the 75th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
Bravely leading his regiment into war, Colonel Bohlen was promoted to brigadier general in April 1862, and led a brigade in Shenandoah Valley operations against Stonewall Jackson. After the defeat of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s forces at the battle of Cedar Mountain, General Bohlen’s Brigade took a position on the high bluffs overlooking at Freeman’s Ford, just above the Rappahannock’s confluence with the Hazel.
Alerted mid-day on August 22, 1862, that Confederate troops were moving upriver in an attempt to turn the Federal right flank on the Rappahannock, General Bohlen boldly advanced his brigade (about 1500 men) across Freeman’s Ford in an attack against the Rebel flank as it marched north toward Jeffersonton. The “Battle of Freeman’s Ford” (topic of a future column) was now on in earnest.
Attacking west toward Rebel wagons proceeding north on Welford’s Ford Road, General Bohlen “caught a Tartar” in Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble, ordered to guard Stonewall Jackson’s flank march. The suddenly aroused General Trimble—never found in good humor—counterattacked Bohlen’s Brigade and drove the Yankees “back a mile,” to the bluffs above Freeman’s Ford. Henry Bohlen was now in a fix. His brigade had its back to the river and Rebel troops charged fiercely at the front. General Bohlen issued the only order that made any sense: “Retreat! Retreat!”
Down the steep bluffs and into the river stampeded the panicked Federals. Witnessing sheer chaos as his men fell in droves under heavy musket fire, General Bohlen valiantly attempted to instill order in a rapidly disintegrating situation. Facing the enemy as Trimble’s men charged up the bluffs, General Bohlen was shot squarely in the heart. Dead before he hit the ground, victorious Confederates soon surrounded Bohlen’s body.
Later returned (courteously) by his enemy over the river to his men, Henry Bohlen’s body was taken to Philadelphia where he was buried with great ceremony in Laurel Hill Cemetery. His wife Sophie later joined him in the same burial plot. When it is all said and done, Henry Bohlen entered military service because he was politically connected. It is a fact he died because of that timeworn military/political nexus. But considering his bravery and adaptability to military command, we imagine General Bohlen would not have had it any other way. He did his family proud. And speaking of his family…
During the 1930’s, Henry Bohlen’s great-grandson, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen, chief executive of the “House of Krupp,” a German steelmaker and weapons manufacturer, became an early business ally of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime. When American leaders denounced Hitler’s growing influence, it was Krupp’s Herr von Bohlen that appealed “for sympathetic American understanding of Germany.” (Easy for him to say.)
And so boasting significant weapons contracts from his friends, the Nazis, Krupp’s Gustav von Bohlen manufactured the “88” cannons that killed thousands of Americans and its allies. Somehow, we do not think proud American General Henry Bohlen would have approved.