The United Turner Rifles

The 20th New York Volunteer Infantry, The United Turner Rifles

The story of the Turners is an important one for German-Americans in the 19th century. This fraternal organization was founded in Berlin in 1811, and promoted patriotism and nationalism through a displine of gymnastics (hence the name, "Turners", from the verb turnen). The Turners became an important part of many German American communities throughout the United States.

In the heady rush to enlist in the early days of the war, April 1861, Germans in New York City attempted to form an All-Turner regiment. Companies A-E were enrolled in the state service on April 27, 1861. Companies F-K were enrolled on April 29th. Further, Co. A, B, C, and E were mustered into the US service for 3 months on May 6 (Co. D followed on May 8). Companies F-K were mustered into the U.S. service for a two year term, and the term for rest of the regiment was later extended to match that 2 years. These companies were organized as the 20th New York Volunteers on May 11, 1861. The first colonel of the regiment was Max Weber, who would later be a general. After Weber's promotion, in May 1862, the regiment was commanded by Lt. Col. Francis Weiss. After Weiss's resignation for medical reasons in July, 1862, the regiment was commanded by Colonel Ernst von Vegesack, a Swedish baron.

The United Turner regiment:

  • Was part of the garrison of Fort Monroe, Virginia from the middle of June 1861 to June of 1862.
  • Participated in Butler's naval expedition to Hatteras, North Carolina, in August 1861 and helped capture Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark.
  • Became part of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, VI (Sixth) Corps in June 1862.
  • Fought in the Battle of White Oak Swamp, June 30, 1862, near Richmond, Virginia, and retreated in apparently some disarray while under fire. They allegedly left the ground strewn with Hardee hats upon their retreat.
  • Fought near the Dunker Church at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862. 145 casualties.
  • Participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 13, 1862.
  • Those members of the regiment who were still present on May 3rd, 1863 [see below] were involved in the fighting near Salem Church during the Battle of Chancellorsville. The regiment was broke and could not be rallied. The regiment had lost more than 200 men as casualties during the fighting that day.
  • Those men left with the regiment were mustered out on June 1st 1863.

The story of the 20th New York ends in a most unfortunate way. On April 29, 1863, the men of the 20th believed that their two year enlistments had ended and they refused to fight anymore. Note that it had in fact been two years since their enrollment in state service, but their federal service had begun in May. During the opening moves of what would be the battle of Chancellorsville, the Turners were ordered to fall in behind the 49th New York. Many of the Germans simply refused to do so. On May 1st, a court-martial found 201 of its men guilty of mutiny and misbehavior in the face of the enemy. These men were dishonorably discharged and sentenced to spend the remainder of the war in military prison.

Of course, the reputation of the German soldier was greatly hurt by the alleged performance of the XI Corps at Chancellorsville. The "mutiny" of the 20th New York hurt the German reputation even more. German-Americans were outraged by the treatment that the Turners had recieved. On August 10, 1863, Lincoln pardoned the men for the unexecuted part of their sentence, but the controversy continued. On February 27, 1905, 42 years after the incident, Congress passed the "Act for the Relief of Certain Enlisted Men of the Twentieth Regiment of New York Volunteer Infantry" and granted them honorable discharges.

Historian Judith Yandoh concluded, "The Turners' refusal to fight at Chancellorsville was born not of cowardice or lack of patriotism, but of their strong belief in freedom and their hatred of tyranny."