More Books for Understanding Immigration During the Civil War

Refugees, German Abolitionists, and an Irish General


Every so often I like to highlight certain books that can help you understand immigrants and migration during the Civil War Era. This week I will look at several new books, and a couple that have been out for a while.

For 125 years the German Immigrant Civil War experience was almost entirely ignored by historians. The only excuse for this negligence was the lack of foreign language knowledge by American-educated scholars. That neglect is finally ending. Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America by Kristen Layne Anderson published by Louisiana State University Press (2016) is part of a belatedly growing library of books that examine the German-language sources from the 1850s and 1860s exposing the complex world of the German diaspora in America.

Germans tipped the scales for the Union in the most populated state west of the Mississippi. While German immigrants made up only 9% of Missouri’s white population, they accounted for 36% of Union soldiers from that state. Author Kristen Layne Anderson provides the context behind German Missourians’ shifting political affiliation from the Free Soil Democrats to the Republican Party and their divisions in the mid-1860s between moderate Republicanism and Radicalism. The slow turn of German immigrants away from continued reforms in race relations makes for a disheartening ending for the story of the most progressive element in white Missouri society.

Whenever I think there is no Civil War military man over the rank of colonel who has not been written about, a new biography comes out proving me wrong. Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General, and Gilded Age Politician by Mark H. Dunkelman published by LSU Press (2015) tells the story of an Irish immigrant who rose to command the mostly native-born men of the 154th New York Infantry from Western New York. Jones was one of only twelve Irish immigrants to rise to the rank of general. After the war he became a leading Irish politician in the Republican Party and an ally of the great (and greatly erratic) newspaperman Horace Greeley.

Long Islanders will be particularly interested in the connections of Patrick Henry Jones to Garden City. Alexander T. Stewart, after whom Stewart Avenue was named, was the founder of Garden City and the wealthiest Irish immigrant in America. His body was to be interred in the new Episcopal Cathedral off of Stewart Avenue, but body snatchers took his remains hostage. General Jones intervened and nearly destroyed his reputation in doing so.

Washington Arsenal Explosion: The Civil War Disaster in the Capital by Brian Bergin published by History Press (2012) is a straightforward telling of the forgotten story of the mostly-immigrant women killed in that catastrophe. Brian Bergin passed away before this book was published, but we are lucky his daughter saw the project through to completion.

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War by Don H. Doyle published by Basic Books (2013) places the American Civil War in the context of Atlantic history. What happened in America reverberated in Europe. The ideas of European Liberals were shaped by the evolving American crisis and those ideas influenced American developments. Don Doyle does an excellent job of describing the importance of the Union war effort for European Liberals. As one French intellectual Doyle quotes says “America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment.”

Doyle’s book rescues America’s immigrant communities from the periphery of the history of the war. Immigrants were central to the public diplomacy efforts of the United States and they helped to fill the armies of the Union. Doyle writes that “to understand who these immigrant soldiers were and why they fought— and in such numbers— is to understand why, for much of the world, this was so much more than an American civil war.”

The Cause of All Nations is a wonderfully written book, a true work of the historian’s art.

The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha published by Yale University Press (2016) is a book that many of us have been awaiting for years. This is a marvelous history of the Abolitionist Movement from the 1600s to the Civil War. It places African Americans at the center of the movement, both as activists and thinkers. Immigrant contributions to the movement receive very good treatment, and the efforts of the German abolitionists are rescued from obscurity.

My one problem with the book is Sinha’s presentation of the white native-born abolitionists as supporters of immigrant rights. In fact, many immigrants were suspicious of the New England abolitionists, sometimes with good reason. The political abolitionists grouped around the Liberty Party endorsed the Nativist proposition that naturalized immigrants be prevented from voting for years after they became citizens. This would have effectively disenfranchised most immigrants and destroyed the power of immigrant communities. Should we be surprised that even anti-slavery immigrants were uncomfortable with the intolerance of some abolition leaders?

Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams published by University of North Carolina Press (2012) is the story of the post-war experiences of freed slaves, many of whom had been refugees or forced migrants, to try to reunite with their scattered families. Anyone familiar with the desperate search for surviving relatives by Jews after the Holocaust will find a similar imperative for reunion here.

One final recommendation: The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria E. Bynum has been reissued in connection with the movie released earlier this year. This is a classic study of Civil War in one Mississippi county and deserves to be read (even if immigrants are only mentioned once).