Willich, like thousands of others, fled to Besancon, France and then Switzerland. He crossed the Channel into England where, while in London, he attempted to organize resistance against oppressive German governments. Disillusioned with efforts to revive the revolution, the ardent Republican dissident booked passage aboard the Ocean Queen bound for the United States in the final days of 1852. Port authorities registered Willich's arrival at New York on February 19, 1853, noting his proclamation of occupation as "citizen". He held aspirations of renewing the struggle and creating a democratic Reich by raising an army from among fellow revolutionaries scattered throughout America.
Carpentry work sustained Willich in New York at the Brooklyn Navy Yard the first year. Traveling to Washington, he found employment with the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Office where his background in civil engineering and mathematics contributed to the coastal survey of North and South Carolina. Willich's immediate supervisor, Captain John Newland Maffitt of the U.S. Navy, later became the commander of the Confederate commerce raider Florida. By 1858, Willich settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, and became editor of a struggling German socialist newspaper, Der Cincinnati Republikaner, until the firing on Fort Sumter prompted the rediscovery of his life's calling.
August Willich immediately enlisted as a private in the Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment in April 1861, along with four companies he had personally organized. The regiment formed largely from the German citizens of Cincinnati and became Ohio's first ethnic unit.
Designated as Die Neuner by the recruits and Ohio citizens, the regiment turned down several hundred German volunteers out of the multitude who poured into Cincinnati to join their fellow expatriates in defense of the new fatherland. Although the 9th Ohio could not afford to allow Willich to remain a lowly private, politics manipulated the role he would play.
Due to anti-immigrant resentment pervasive in the regional political arena, Willich was passed over for command of the German regiment in favor of the inexperienced, though politically connected, Robert L. McCook. McCook was among sixteen members of the powerful McCook family under arms for Ohio and the Union cause. Willich was quickly elected adjutant and given sole responsibility for the training of the regiment while McCook mastered the administrative and bureaucratic aspects involved.
At one point, possibly acknowledging a lack of military qualifications, McCook jokingly referred to himself as "just the clerk for a thousand Dutchmen."  Through an intense self-training regime, and by closely observing the professionalism instilled in his regiment by "Papa Willich," Robert McCook transformed into a highly competent officer, as so many other volunteer or elected leaders did.
When the 9th Ohio fought the Confederates at Rich Mountain, West Virginia in July 1861, Willich had already been promoted to major. This battle established his reputation as a military instructor and demonstrated his effectiveness at commanding troops in the field. According to the official reports of the battle, Die Neuner "did their duty in a most perfect manner."  Offered a commission the following month from Governor Morton of Indiana, a newly promoted Colonel Willich organized the 32nd Indiana, modeled after Ohio's highly successful 1st German Regiment. He insured that the incoming recruits assembled, trained, and were well supplied. 
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Notes: Major General Jacob D. Cox, U.S. Volunteers, "War Preparations in the North". Printed in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War-The Opening Battles Vol. I, 97.