In a changing historical landscape that is constantly evolving to include complexities of race, gender, regional identity, social class, and more into our dialogue about the past, ethnicity is a factor in historical analysis that is becoming difficult to ignore. Indeed, in this era fraught with ongoing immigration disputes and the resultant beginnings of a full-on American identity crisis for some, viewing historical events such as the Civil War through the lens of ethnicity is an absolute necessity. German-American immigrants were one group which participated robustly in the Civil War, but whose story is often overshadowed.
Two major waves of German immigrants swept upon the shores of Ellis Island in the nineteenth century. The first arrived in the 1830s. A second wave arrived in 1848-1849 following the unsuccessful German revolutions of 1848 which brought even more immigrants, many of them men who would reach prime military age in 1861. Newly arrived German-Americans were often quick to settle into life in their new “Fatherland”, starting businesses and families. Many of these new Americans were better educated than their Irish and Scandinavian neighbors and faced less prejudice based on religion, as they were mostly Protestant and fewer of them were Catholic. Even so, in an attempt to develop an emerging “American” identity, many Anglo-Saxon Americans found a convenient target of nativist attacks in German-American communities.
Anti-German sentiments existed throughout most of the United States, despite the concentration of German-American citizens existing in the urban centers of the North. Also, while Northern opinions of German-Americans were mixed, Southerners were more likely to be outright anti-German, perhaps in part due to their lack of direct interaction with this ethnic group. In general, anti-German sentiment across the United States was due to the faithful preservation of German customs and language in German enclaves, which created an impression of unassimilability in the eyes of other Americans.
Nonetheless, despite rankling nativist feelings against them, German-Americans earned a reputation as being hard workers, thrifty, independent, loyal, and true champions of liberty, characteristics that would serve them well in their new land, especially when the outbreak of civil war came. When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers on April 15 1861, entire regiments filled their ranks with men of German descent.
9th Ohio volunteer Lieutenant Bertsch records in his diary that “‘German commands’ and ‘German officers’ are for our regiment at our option the conditions of its existence and no other,” (Reinhart 142). Recruitment posters such as the one above appeared in German neighborhoods and cities around the country, urging German men to raise arms in defense of “our glorious Fatherland”—not Germany now, but the United States. Americans familiar with the German reputation for strength of character and military prowess looked on with grudging respect, if not pride, as their “Dutch” fellow citizens signed up for military duty in droves. Eventually, Germans would fill brigades and even divisions. The Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac had so many soldiers of German descent that it became known as the “German” or “Dutch Corps.”
Throughout much of the war, German-American troops performed so well as to earn praise such as that by a Chicago Tribune writer in an article entitled “Our German Soldiers” on May 14, 1861. In it, it was written that their enthusiasm as volunteer troops was such that “They emphasize their oath of allegiance in a way that leaves no doubt that they are Americans,” (Ruschau 24). On battlefields north and south, German units altered the opinions formerly held by Americans, generating a new image of the German-American in the minds of many. Unfortunately, the German Corps would not live up to the country’s expectations. In May of 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville proved to be the Eleventh Corps’ largest engagement.
The Eleventh Corps, prepared for a Confederate attack from the south, unexpectedly faced a surprise assault from the west on the night of May 2. With the battle’s outcome looking bleak for the 11th, one German remarked, “I thought it looked like a Second Bull Run affair. The sight filled me with regret, with indignation and with burning patriotism.” Many troops fled almost immediately in the face of this unforeseen and forceful attack. As the Confederate line continued to hit along the Union’s right flank of made up by the Eleventh Corps, more and more of the corps’ men began to turn and run. Though some of the corps would rally later in the battle to help defend Buschbeck’s line and resist Confederate advances, overall perception of the Eleventh Corps would be that of cowardice.
Nativist Americans took the routing of the Eleventh as evidence of sham “German courage” (Reinhart 181) and of the naturally cowardly nature of the corps’ “Sour krout stock” (Hess 9). Though some Americans came out in support of the German soldiers, for many the image of the German regiments as fiercely loyal and uncommonly well-disciplined had been shattered.
Despite their mixed performance at Chancellorsville, the overall performance of German-American troops in the American Civil War was successful enough to bring about for some a shift in thinking about these newly-minted Americans. In the generations following the war, Americans of German descent would find an increasingly secure position for themselves in American society, until the outbreak of the First World War ultimately forced many German-Americans to drop their hyphenated identities. While the participation of German-American men in the American Civil War did not immediately or completely guarantee the place of Germans in the United States, it pressed Americans of all ethnicities to begin to more closely examine the questions of identity that we still grapple with today.
The sacred debt the adoptive fatherland owes to its German sons is written here in the bloody script, and the fanaticism and nativism will never succeed in erasing this sanguine symbol. –Reverend Joseph A. Fuchshuber
David T. Hedrick and Gordon Barry Davis, Jr. I’m Surrounded by Methodists…: Diary of John H. W. Stuckenberg, Chaplain of the 145th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Thomas Publications: Gettysburg, PA, 1995.
Earl J. Hess. A German in the Yankee Fatherland: The Civil War Letters of Henry A. Kircher. Kent State University Press: Kent, OH, 1983.
Christian B. Keller. Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory. Fordham University Press: New York, NY, 2007.
Joseph R. Reinhart, A German Hurrah! Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry Kent State University Press: Kent, OH, 2010.
Adam R. Ruschau, ‘Fighting mit Sigel’ or ‘Running mit Howard’: Attitudes towards German-Americans in the Civil War. Miami University: Oxford, OH, 2007.