Joseph Karge (1823 - 1892)

155th Anniversary of the Birth of Joseph Karge (June 11, 1978)

Polish Civil War Hero at Fort Delaware

The writer is a member of the New Jersey Historical Society and of the Research Commission of the American Polish Civil War Centennial Committee. This committee joined with other American Polish organizations to honor the memory of Joseph Karge in a memorial exhibition which opened at the New Jersey Historical Society building on September 21, 1963, centenary of the Riding Out of the 2nd New Jersey Cavalry.

General Joseph Karge, unfortunately, left no written accounts of his varied and eventful life. His hand had been trained for the sword rather than the pen. Youngest of seven children, Joseph was born July 4, 1823, at Olendry Terespotockie in the Prussian Grand Duchy of Posen, territory which had once been and is today part of Poland.

To fulfill his mother's wish he studied for the priesthood. Stronger, though, was the influence of his father's earlier life as a colonel in Napoleon's cavalry during the invasion of Russia in 1812, and young Joseph abandoned his purpose.

At the Gymnasium of Posen (1), where he completed his course of studies with high honors, he became well-versed in classical, historical and literary studies. From there he went to the University of Breslau, where philology and history were his chief studies. In 1845 (2) he attended the College de France in Paris and in 1846 went on to study in Berlin. Here his education was interrupted by compulsory military service, and by political activities (3) which brought persecution upon his head and resulted in his fleeing from his native Poland.

He came to our shores, landing in New York in 1851. At once he declared his intention to become a United States citizen as soon as the required term of five years had passed, and he was naturalized, accordingly, in 1856.

He secured employment as a teacher in a flourishing school in Danbury, Connecticut. Here he met, courted and wedded Maria T. Williams, a widow, and of this marriage were born his two sons: Ladislaus (April 1, 1853) and Romuald (Dec. 30, 1854). A few years later he founded a Classical and English School in New York City. The school flourished, and he led a peaceful life for a few years, till he found opportunity, in behalf of his adopted land, to take up arms once again when the Civil War broke out. His previous military training, his soldierly spirit and his love of free institutions made the way easy and well high imperative for him; and he was prepared to serve his adopted country with no less loyal - but now wiser and maturer - energy and patriotism than he had earlier shown in behalf of his native Poland.

When President Lincoln's proclamation of April 15, 1861, called into service 75,000 men, Joseph Karge offered his services to the government, and in February 1862 he received his commission as lieutenant-colonel assigned to the 1st New Jersey Cavalry (which at first was called "Halsted's Horse") (4). Here despite hardship and officers' grumblings, he directed his energies to the performance of his duty in perfecting the military character of the regiment. By August of the same year he had successfully trained the men (5) and was in command of the regiment.

On August 20, 1862, while covering the retreat of General John Pope from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock, he was severely wounded, and in due course he was sent home. In response, however, to the urgent requests of General George D. Bayard, commanding the cavalry, he was again in the field before his wound had time to heal. He now took command of several regiments clearing the country from Leesburg to the Blue Ridge.

[Karge Picture]

..... [Karge Picture]

General Bayard, in his September official report to Washington, made particular reference to Karge:

It is natural in closing a report of this character, including the number of actions and skirmishes it does, that I should have many men to point out as distinguished for gallantry. Lieutenant-Colonel Karge I would particularly name, as always ready and valiant, and I would particularly ask that the General would notice him (6).

He fought in the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13,1862, in which the lamented Bayard was killed.

His arduous and able cavalry services in Virginia, including his service in the Valley of the Shenandoah, his energy and bravery, his surprise and capture of large bodies of enemy troops, his escapes from superior forces by means of quick decisions and gallant leadership in desperate hand-to-hand fighting, can all be gleaned from official reports and records of the War Department - such as the following:

The cavalry having so positioned the enemy by their thundering charges, all that remained was for the officers to stand by and permit their own battery to finish the battle. The fight was now between the opposing artillery, and the missiles shrieked through the air, or came crashing among the trees, which sheltered our men. Thc explosions were startling, but inflicted little injury, a few men being slightly wounded, and one or two horses killed. One of these missiles struck beneath the lieutenant-colonel's horse, as he stood in his place in line. The explosion threw horse and man into the air, tearing the animal to pieces, but the rider came down unhurt, and emerged from the cloud of smoke with no blood upon him but that of the horse" (7).

[Karge Picture]

We learn from these records, too, that he was constantly in command of larger bodies of troops than his rank would imply, sometimes of a brigade (8). Karge's bravery and gallantry, moreover, did not go unproclaimed.

Governor Charles S. Olden of New Jersey (1860-1863) wrote in appreciation of his services:

Sir, I have received and read with the most profound interest your graphic and spirited report of the part taken by your regiment in covering the retreat of the Army of Virginia, from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock. The discipline and bravery which enabled them to dispute so gallantly the advance of a vastly superior force merits the highest encomiums, and I beg that you will express to the officers and men under your command my admiration of their valor, and my thanks for the honor they have done their State . . . Your services on this and former occasions will ever be remembered by the people of this State and of the country. For myself, I return you my profound thanks for your gallantry and skill, and shall be glad of an opportunity to testify to all times my high appreciation of your services .....

Your obedient servant,

Chas. S. Olden (9)

Soon after Fredericksburg he found himself so seriously disabled by his old wound, which threatened the loss of his leg, that he resigned his commission on December 12, 1862.

In May 1863, ex-Governor Olden, with many eminent officials of New Jersey, petitioned the War Department in Washington

... to authorize the raising of a regiment of New Jersey Cavalry to be called "2nd Regiment" and to be commanded by Joseph Karge, recently Lieutenant-ColoneI of the lst New Jersey Cavalry, whom Governor Joel Parker has permitted to raise such a regiment. The merits and distinction of Colonel Karge are those known to the Department (10).

This petition bears on its back the earnest endorsement and signature of President Lincoln, dated June 12, 1863, with a request that the General-in-Chief and Secretary of War consider it at once. At this very time General Lee was pressing into Pennsylvania. Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania and Secretary Stanton called upon the militia of New Jersey for aid.

On June 18, 1863, a commission was issued making Karge Chief of the Militia of New Jersey with rank of colonel, to raise troops (11). Colonel Karge accepted the commission, and on the same day issued his military notice inviting those who wished to offer their services to report to his headquarters in Trenton. By July 4th the emergency ceased: the battle of Gettysburg had been fought and Lee was retreating to Virginia.

By October the newly organized outfit was ready for battle. Karge and his regiment were assigned to the Union forces in Tennessee. He left Washington November 9, 1863. Here, as earlier under Bayard, Karge at once attracted the attention of his commanding officers, was assigned to some of the most dangerous and responsible missions, and almost always emerged victorious. He was constantly in the field until November 1865, rendering such able and gallant services as those mentioned in the following extracts from reports of commanding generals published in Official Records.

Said General Samuel D. Sturgis, reporting the results of expeditions into Mississippi in June 1864: "I cannot refrain from expressing my high appreciation of the valuable services rendered by that excellent and dashing officer, Colonel Joseph Karge, of the and New Jersey Volunteers, in his reconnaissance to Corinth"; while General Benjamin H. Grierson said: "Colonel Joseph Karge, of the 2nd New Jersey Cavalry, is deserving of special praise for the gallant manner in which he conducted the expedition." Karge's services are especially and clearly mentioned in the following letter, recommending him for the rank of brigadier-general shortly before the close of the war:

Memphis, Tennessee. Jan 15, 1865

Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:

Sir, I take occasion to bring to your notice Colonel Karge of the 2nd New Jersey Cavalry. He has been for the past year acting under my command, much of the time having charge of a brigade. He has particularly attracted my attention by his gallantry in action. During my late successful expedition against the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, he bore a very conspicuous part, attacking the camp of the enemy at Verona, which resulted in the capture and destruction of an immense amount of army supplies; and his promptness, energy, and gallantry during the engagement with the enemy, at Egypt, on the 28th day of December last, which came under my personal observation cannot be too highly commanded.

He is a high-toned, honorable gentleman, has served with distinction both in the Army of the Potomac and in the West; and I cheerfully and earnestly recommend him for promotion to the rank of brigadier-general.

I have the honor to be sir,

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

B. H. Grierson, Brigadier-General (12)

[Karge Picture]

On March 13, 1865, Colonel Karge was accordingly nominated by President Lincoln to the rank of brigadier-general by brevet, ''for gallant and meritorious services during the war," and the Senate so confirmed on April 9, 1866 (18). General Karge had been previously mustered out of service in November 1865, the war being over at that date.

On June 12, 1867, Karge, at the request of Major General Ord, accepted a commission in the regular army of the United States. He was assigned to the Eighth Cavalry, and on November 1, 1867, took post command of Camp Winfield Scott, in Nevada. Indian fighting was new to Karge (14), but it was not long before he brought peace to the area. Through personal tact in dealing with the Indians he soon won their confidence and affection, and recognizing the injustices that had been done them, he remained warmly on their side from that time on.

In July 1870, while on military leave, Karge visited the East and met James McCosh, president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton. McCosh offered him the Chair of Continental Languages and Literature, which he promptly accepted; and immediately after his discharge from the services, January 1, 1871, he joined the Princeton faculty." He was glad to bring his family to a place offering such attractive residential and educational opportunities; and for himself he welcomed again the studies and instruction which had been interrupted by his years of active military service.

Karge's twenty-two years at Princeton were uneventful as compared to his past life. He applied himself with strenuous devotion to his new profession. His devotion to duty can be called the theme of his life. His French and German classes were always enjoyable to his students. Indeed he was something of a "character", and students always like this in their professors. Karge stories are still told in Princeton - such stories as this, for instance:

The class was reciting by translating aloud French classical tragedy. The line to be translated should have been rendered "O, Thou God, who sittest among the cherubin." Mr. Mason, called on to recite, began:

"O, You God..."

"Stop." And Karge delivered a long lecture on the personal pronoun, second person. In addressing the Deity one must always use die form Thou.

"Mr. Mershon."

Mr. Mershon knew the place but had not paid attention and began,

"O, You God . . . "

"Stop. You God, You God. Damn it, Mr. Mershon, you will be saying Mr. God next." (16).

His colleagues cherished the memory of Professor Karge's perfectly transparent, trustworthy, honorable and cordial character, wholly removed from all intrigue and self-seeking policy (17). Reared as he had been in another land and another religious faith, then coming to Princeton from a sharply contrasting kind of existence in this country, he quickly and completely identified himself in all substantial respects with the conditions of Princeton's academic, social and religious life. He was a good, active citizen, and served a term on the Princeton Borough Council with steadfast regard to the interests of the community.

During the last few months of his life Professor Karge was subject to occasional sudden attacks of pain and weakness, which gave anxiety to his family and friends; but the circumstances of his last hours show that he had calmly anticipated and desired that death might come to him suddenly. The volume he was last reading, on the afternoon of December 27, 1892, was Le Problem de la mort, by Louis Bourdeau. In this last hour of his life, on his way to New York, in the midst of a spirited conversation with a colleague who happened to accompany him, he spoke of death and said, "I have but one desire concerning it, that it come suddenly and without warning."

So it was that it came to him, just as he had taken his seat in the upper saloon of the ferry-boat at Jersey City, with a pleasant remark upon the comfort of its appointments and the broad scene of the harbor it commanded. Surprised by a gasp and a slight utterance of distress that immediately followed, his companion turned and found him already unconscious and breathing heavily. Immediate efforts to revive him had no effect, and before the boat reached the other side of the river, all signs of life had passed.

With the following remarks the Reverend Dr. Murray, Dean of the College, closed his sermon on the first Sunday after the Christmas holidays were over:

His career had been one of great vicissitudes; the upturn of political revolution had exiled him from his native land. He had known the bitter struggles of youth, landed on these shores a foreigner without means, without friends. He had known too the service and din of war, honorably recognized and laid aside for the vocation of a teacher. And if the end came to him suddenly, it came for him in no unwelcome shape. So he wanted to go. So the Master called him, and I think he met his Pilot face to face just as he crossed the bar. There is but one lesson for us all - to be ready for the solemn call, whenever, however, wherever, it comes (19).

During the Civil War Centennial years the Assembly of the State of New Jersey has appropriately honored the memory of Karge. The Governor of New Jersey has declared July 4, 1962, General Joseph Karge Day, and similar action has been taken by the governors of other States, and by the mayors of several cities (19).

[Cavalry Swords Picture]

(1) The Polish gymnasium is equivalent to secondary schools in the United States.

(2) Karge had been initiated into a secret society whose object was to bring about the liberation of Poland. They were under oath to obey all orders without question from the Central Polish Committee of Paris. With a student's passport he entered Russian-occupied Poland which an avowed object of making literary investigations of Slavic folklore. This was only a pretext. His real business was with the Stadtholders, to find how many men and horses and what supplies they could furnish toward an outbreak planned for March 1846.

"An Evening with our Professor," E. M. Hopkins, The Nassau Literary Magazine, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, Nov. 1887, pp. 196-197.

(3) Karge had participated in the People's Revolt in Berlin, March 18, 1848. Ill and feverish, he joined his fellow officers as the Cavalry dashed forth to halt the revolt, but only that he might crash over the barriers and join in the battle of the people for their freedom from tyranny. He almost paid with his life as the muskets were aimed at his Prussian uniform -- saved only as he shouted at the top of his voice, "Hoch lebe das Volk! Hoch lebe das Volk!" ("Long live the people!") William A. Packard, "Professor Joseph Karge, Ph.D.," Princeton College Bulletin, Vol. V, No. 2, April 1893, p. 27.

(4) Good account of Halsted's Horse in Henry R. Pyne's Ride to War, ed. Earl Schenck Miers (Rutgers University Press, 1961), pp. 3-10.

(5) An excellent example of Karge's ability to win and hold friends. Chaplain Pyne was one such friend whose loyalty never faltered. Ibid., p. xxxii. Halsted's men were brawling, slovenly carousers, but under Karge's strict training they soon found they had a better camp life. Op. cit., pp. xi, 8.

(6) Packard, op. cit., p. 29.

(7) Pyne, op. at., 32. Karge's own report may be found in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880 - 1901), XII, Pt. l, pp. 677-680. Cited hereafter as Official Records.

(8) Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (New York, 1959), in which can be found the various brigades under Karge's command.

(9) Packard, op. cit., p. 29.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Karge became number 1771 on the roster of 2500 brigadier-generals in the Union Army.

(13) Official Records, passim.

(14) Karge arrived at Camp Winfield Scott with reinforcements on Nov. 1, 1867, relieving Lt. John Rafferty, with whom Karge had a dispute about sending out "green" men in pursuit of Indian raiders. The pursuit ended in failure with several of the men wounded and not an Indian captured. Thomas A. Wren, History of The State of Nevada (Chicago, 1904), p. 296.

(15) Packard, op. cit., p. 32.

(16) Dr. Willard Thorp's speech at the Nassau Inn, Princeton, July 4, 1962.

(17) His colleagues had the handsome monument erected, which today stands, over his final resting place in Princeton Cemetery. Other details are borne out by the author's correspondence in 1932 with Karge's grandson Romuald of Los Angeles, Calif.

(18) Packard, op. cit., p. 34.

(l9) E.g., the States of Illinois and Ohio, the cities of Chicago, Ill., Cleveland, Ohio, Elizabeth, Sayreville, N. J. These and others may be seen at Post 91 of the Polish Legion of American Veterans in Elizabeth, N. J.

We wish to thank the New Jersey Historical Society for permission to reprint this article.

Source: Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, Vol. 81, Oct., 1963