By Uwe Siemon-Netto
One century ago, on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, historian Wilhelm Kaufmann concluded that without his 216,000 German-born soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln could not have won that conflict. More recently, Thomas Adam, professor of history at the University of Texas in Arlington, suggested that this might be an exaggeration, and German historian Wolfgang Helbich rated Kaufmann’s finding as an indication of “how filiopietism then and ethnic politics now can mangle straight facts;” the word, filiopietism, means immoderate reverence for forebears or tradition.
Kaufmann made his observation in his book, “Die Deutschen im amerikanischen Bürgerkriege” (the Germans in the American Civil War), the seminal work on this subject. He was not alone in his assessment. “Take the Dutch out of the Union army, and we could whip the Yankees easily,” said Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Forces, meaning “die Deutschen” (the Germans), not the Dutch, who hailed from the Netherlands.
In 1869, Benjamin Gould, a Union army physician, analyzed official reports about the Civil War. He found that 2,018,200 men served in the northern regiments. Of these, he concluded, German-born men were the most loyal Union supporters. German immigrants, Gould added, provided 50 percent more soldiers than they would have had to by law. According to Kaufmann, every tenth Union trooper was a German. “Germans fought almost exclusively on the side of the Union and outnumbered all other ethnic groups significantly;” only a few thousand served in the Confederate forces.
“Their unity placed [German immigrant soldiers] in a unique position,” Kaufmann wrote. While native Americans and members of all other immigrant groups split into two hostile military camps… Germans found [themselves] only on the side of the Union. Hardly anybody among them supported secession, and there were almost no German Slave owners.”
Their loyalty to the northern cause also paralleled the sentiment in their homeland. “In most German states public opinion was strongly pro-Union,” Adam wrote in his book, “Germany and the Americas.” He related how Frankfurt became a hub of pro-Union activities, in part due to the influence of U.S. consul general William Walton Murphy who “made sure that the press remained friendly,” wrote articles in the leading local newspapers and convinced Frankfurt banks to support large war bonds.
Not that their loyalty earned German Civil War soldiers much gratitude from their Anglo-American comrades-in-arms, who reviled them as “bloody Dutchmen” and blamed their alleged “cowardice” for the disasterous defeat of 76,000 Union forces by 43,000 Confederates during the battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863, a claim not supported by today’s military historians.
German commanders such as Col. Friedrich Franz Karl Hecker reported that their units were deprived of supplies and had to find their own provisions as a result of “know-nothing” prejudices against immigrants prevalent among American-born bigots, called responsible for logistics.
Tales of open anti-German bias by American anti-immigrant “nativists” two generations before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany mar the otherwise upbeat story about the powerful contribution by the largest ethnic group in the United States to the eradication of slavery.
German units were often mirror images of the Turnvereine, or gymnastics associations, that emerged during the German revolutions in the first half of the 19th century. At first, German was the command language of many of these regiments. Their soldiers wore uniforms resembling those of the armies of the different German principalities. The German-language press in the United States praised them for being better led, fighting better, keeping their camps better and their bodies in better condition than their English-speaking counterparts in the Union army.
So well regarded were some of the German units that the Jewish community in Chicago raised a company of volunteers on the condition that they be integrated into a regiment commanded by Col. Hecker, a lawyer and former leader of the failed revolution in the German Duchy of Baden.
On the other hand, throughout the Civil War German troops were the target of ridicule by the English-language press and derogatory pamphlets circulating among the military, though Lincoln strongly comdemned such tendencies, and Gen. William T. Sherman praised the bravery of his German soldiers. He also called on of their commanders, Col. Edward Siber, the “best trained officer in this army.”
It seems that the Germans’ insistence on the maintenance of their distinctive lifestyle, on cultivating their language, their music and educational system, and on drinking lots of beer, have caused this antagonism, which 50 years later, in World War I, has produced heinous forms of persecution, including lynching, out of all places in Missouri.
Yet it was in Missouri where 10 primarily German-speaking regiments saw to it that this state under the leadership of its pro-Confederate Governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson did not change sides. Their most famous commander was Col., later Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, a Baden revolutionary who was instrumental in turning “Turnvereine” into combat-ready forces.
It was in Missouri, too, where two German-language newspapers, “Anzeiger des Westens” and “Westliche Post”, were instrumental in upholding pro-Union sentiment among the German population; of the 170,000 inhabitants of St. Louis, 60,000 were Germans.
Among the editors of “Westliche Post” were men who played pivotal roles in the conflict: Carl Schurz, a general, later Senator from Missouri and then U.S. Secretary of the Interior; Emil Praetorious who organized German troops in the Civil War, but also Joseph P.Pulitzer, a German-speaking Hungarian who joined the paper after the War as a court reporter.
Considering that Missouri was on the verge of joining the Confederacy, and that the Union might not have prevailed in such a catastrophe, historian Wilhelm Kaufmann could well be right: Abraham Lincoln might have lost the Civil War; so perhaps owed his victory indeed to Germans.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.