Battles of 1866: Blood & Iron
Bavaria at War, Part Two

In the meantime, the Hannoverians defeated the Prussians at Langensalza on the 27th. Two days later, short of ammunition, the Hannoverians surrendered. On the same day Karl ordered his troops forward into enemy territory, promising all enlisted men and non-commissioned officers double pay for the 29th and 30th. Word of the Hannoverian capitulation arrived on the 30th, and the Bavarians halted again and turned to the west to unite with the VIII Federal Corps and to cover Bavarian territory against Prussian forces thought to be advancing from the Rhine Provinces.

On the morning of 4 July the Bavarian 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions clashed with August von Goeben’s Prussian 13th Infantry Division. The fighting proved inconclusive, with several hundred casualties on each side. When word arrived of the massive defeat suffered by the Austrians at Königgrätz on the 3rd, Prince Karl again ordered a retreat to Bavarian territory, and called off the junction with the VIII Federal Corps. He ordered Prince Alexander to instead meet the Bavarians at Kissingen in northern Bavaria.

While the infantry fought, the Bavarian Cavalry Corps pressed onward regardless of Prince Karl’s orders. Its commander, the elderly and breathtakingly incompetent Prince Karl Theodor zu Thurn und Taxis, insisted on finding and fighting the enemy. They did, fighting a brief skirmish with Prussian infantry before retreating. Thurn und Taxis insisted on resuming the advance, until a Württemberg liaison officer brought orders from Prince Karl to fall back and join the infantry. The cavalry turned southward on the evening of the 4th, and as darkness fell the 2nd Light Cavalry Brigade entered the town of Gersfeld.

Unterleutnant Theodor Clarman von Clarenau of the 15th Bavarian Infantry Regiment. Killed in action at Zella, 4 July 1866.

Exactly what happened next is unclear, but apparently several poachers mistook the cavalry for game wardens seeking their arrest and fired shots at them. No one was hit, but panic ensued with terrified cavalrymen riding away claiming that Prussian snipers had occupied the town. The brigade scattered, taking the 1st Light Cavalry Brigade with them in their wild flight.  Horsemen ended up in Schweinfurt, 40 miles away, where some of them boarded trains and fled deeper into Bavaria, spreading panic as they went.

That put the Cavalry Corps out of action for several days, while the news got progressively worse for the Bavarian cause without the Prussians having to make much of an effort. Receiving news of Königgrätz and subsequent Austrian efforts to reach an armistice with the Prussians, Prince Alexander ignored Karl’s order to join the Bavarian force. He instead fell back to cover Frankfurt am Main, the Confederation’s capital, and also protect the routes leading into Baden and Württemberg. Prince Karl’s planned concentration would have been difficult to achieve in any case, as his orders forced the South Germans to march twice the distance of the Bavarians in the same length of time. Learning of Alexander’s disobedience on the morning of 7 July – his 71st birthday – Karl repeated the order, hoping the South Germans would march, and arrayed his army along the Saale River in northern Bavaria to meet the Prussians. They completed their deployment by the next day.

The Bavarian staff feared that the division of the two German corps would allow the Prussian Army of the Main to fall on one of the two Allied forces separately and inflict a major defeat. They need not have worried; the Prussian commander, 69-year-old Eduard Vogel von Falckenstein, may have been even less fit for his position than either of the German commanders. Vogel felt stressed by the combat of the previous days and ordered his entire army to rest, allowing his enemies to march away unimpeded. Bypassing the chain of command – including the king – Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck told Vogel to attack the Bavarians.

Battle finally came on 10 July, with the Prussians attacking Oskar von Zoller’s 3rd Bavarian Infantry Division at Kissingen and the reconstituted Cavalry Corps at Hammelburg. Prince Karl and von der Tann had placed two of the other three Bavarian divisions too far away to offer support, and mingled infantry and cavalry brigades, causing command confusion. Despite an overall numerical inferiority, Goeben and fellow division commander Edwin von Manteuffel brought greater numbers to each battlefield. The Bavarians fought surprisingly hard, given their exhaustion after weeks of pointless marches and counter-marches, and Zoller himself was killed by an artillery round while rallying his men for a counter-attack. Von der Tann was wounded as well. The Prussians finally broke the Bavarian positions with a massed bayonet attack, suffering grievous losses in the process. “God damn those Bavarians,” one survivor wrote later. “They shredded us.”

The one Bavarian division close enough to render aid, the 4th, was paralyzed by contradictory orders and the sluggishness of its 71-year-old commander, Jakob Ritter von Hartmann, who ignored a direct written order from Prince Karl to “hasten immediately with all available troops to the battlefield.”

Bavarian infantry on the attack. Rossdorf, 4 July 1866.

Enraged by Bismarck’s interference and Vogel’s rank incompetence, King Wilhelm fired Vogel despite the victory and gave his job to Manteuffel, who had spearheaded a staff revolt against Vogel’s blundering during the 1864 war with Denmark. The new commander injected new energy into the Prussians, who turned around to the west and administered a defeat to the South Germans at Lauffach and fought a bloody drawn street battle in Aschaffenberg against Erwin von Neipperg’s Austrian brigade. Believing the Prussians would follow up their victories over his troops, Prince Karl ordered a retreat to Schweinfurt, separating his corps still further from that of Prince Alexander. Frankfurt fell on the 18th, the same day the Bavarians finally turned back to seek the Prussians.

By the 24th, the separate German corps had finally united near Würzburg and Prince Karl hoped to launch a counter-offensive. But the divisions took overly long to assume their positions, with the South Germans suffering a heavy defeat at Tauberbischofsheim. Neipperg’s division, composed of one brigade each from Austria and Nassau, left its positions when word arrived of the 22 July Austro-Prussian armistice, leaving the Bavarian left flank hanging open. The Baden Division’s commander, Prince Wilhelm, simply refused to send reinforcements to either the Württembergers fighting to his left or the Bavarians on his right. The Bavarians fought several sharp actions on the 25th and 26th, losing over 900 killed in action before they succeeded in breaking contact, with von der Tann personally commanding the rearguard.

The Bavarian government reached a cease-fire with the Prussians on the 27th, to be followed by an armistice. The Prussians continued to advance anyway, occupying Würzburg and Nürnberg during the interval before the armistice took hold on 2 August. Bavaria signed a peace treaty on the 22nd and de-mobilized her army a week later. Bavaria’s campaign, such as it was, had ended.

Bavarian leaders had hoped to forge a “third way” for Germany, one in which the Confederation’s members all had a voice and need not choose between Austria and Prussia. But in the 1860’s, influence depended on military power, and Bavaria had allowed hers to badly deteriorate. Her paper strength alone should have allowed her to field about twice as many brigades as the actual order of battle, with all of them at full rather than partial strength.

The troops actually fought well, though they turned in lackadaisical march rates and more than once protested at missing their daily beer ration, an amenity guaranteed in the kingdom’s constitution. The Bavarian infantry proved in the 1870 war with France that the army’s problems did not originate in the rank and file. They suffered under atrocious leadership in 1866; only one of the division commanders (Zoller) performed creditably. Not coincidentally, at 57 he was a decade or more younger than most of the other Bavarian generals in the field.

Their deployment in Bohemia might have led to even greater battlefield disasters. Prince Karl had been unfit for command for over 50 years at the time of the Austro-Prussian War, and von der Tann showed little ability to contain his chief’s unfortunate ideas. Bavarian performance against the French four years later proved that the army had the ability to fight a modern war, given a purge of its geriatric leadership and enforcement of training and conscription standards already in place.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.