Finding Civil War Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

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2019
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A regiment of New England blue-bloods turns out to be filled with immigrants.

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The Harvard Regiment was long the pride of that excellent university. Soon after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 graduates of the school organized a regiment of their own. Wikipedia describes the composition of the academic battalion: “the officers of the 20th were young Harvard graduates. In addition some, but not all, the private soldiers had attended Harvard.” 1

20th-mass-boston-public-libraryThe Harvard Regiment is memorialized in stone in the Boston Public Library. Passersby would never guess the real composition of the famous regiment.

Chief among the scholar/soldiers was future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr as well as a grandson of Paul Revere. What rarely gets mentioned is that many of these “Harvard Men” were working class Irish and German immigrants, some of whom had never attended any school, let alone that academy of the elite. These immigrants included several officers. In fact, without immigrants the Harvard Regiment might never have come into existence. 2

During the 1850s Massachusetts had been under the spell of the anti-immigrant Know Nothings. Governor Gardner had prohibited the formation of immigrant militia companies because he claimed they might subvert the state. His successor in 1861 was John Andrew, an ally of Lincoln and a firm opponent of the Know Nothings. With war on the horizon, Andrew supported efforts by the German immigrant community to form militia companies for service in the impending conflict. The Germans recruited two companies from among the abolitionist Liberals of the local Turner movement. The Turners combined gymnastics, education, German culture, and abolitionist politics.3

20th-mass-hat-insignia-and-buttonsHat insignia and buttons worn on the 20th Massachusetts’ regiment’s uniform.

When the 20th Massachusetts was organized as the Harvard Regiment under Harvard trained commanders, it was a concept without much reality. The officers had no men. So, whatever their personal feelings about leading immigrants in battle, these descendants of the Puritans found that their first four units included the two German Turner companies, an Irish company, and only one company of mostly native-born men. Three-quarters of the 20th Massachusetts’ men were in immigrant companies 4

winslow-homer-officers-in-campWinslow Homer painted this picture of three Union officers at Camp Benton, located near the Potomac River, in 1861.  According to the Boston Public Library; “It features Captain William Francis Bartlett (1840-1876) and Lt. Col. Francis Winthrop Palfrey (1831-1889) of the 20th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers.”

The Irish Company of the 20th Massachusetts was originally recruited as an independent unit, the Irish Volunteers. It was commanded by a young workingman now designated Captain Edmund Walleston. When an Irish officer recruited sixty more Irish recruits, a second Irish company was formed. Companies B and C would be German companies, with German officers and the German language was the language of command. Companies F and G were the Irish companies with officers who protected their men from the bigotry of nativists in other regiments.5

The Twentieth would soon fill up with men and move to the front, but it would always have a third to half of its men come from foreign countries. The regiment would end the war as the “fightingest” unit from its state. The Twentieth had more casualties than any other Massachusetts regiment and the fifth most of any regiment in the Union army during the entire Civil War.6

20th-mass-flagThe Twentieth’s regimental flags were carried at every major battle of the war that the Army of the Potomac fought in. From the Seven Days, to Fredericksburg, to the final pursuit of Lee, the regiment was in the thick of the fight.

The Twentieth not only recruited immigrants to serve in the regiment, it also recruited men to immigrate to America. To replace the severe losses it suffered fighting in every major battle in the history of the Union Army of the Potomac, the Twentieth participated in an 1864 plan to recruit replacements in Europe. Germans were promised a $200 bounty if they immigrated to America and enlisted in the 20th Massachusetts. The men, who spoke no English, arrived a few weeks before the bloody Overland Campaign began. The regiment’s adjutant wrote in his diary on April 15, 1864 that the “regiment received 116 new recruits today, mostly Germans who spoke not a word of English, but are fine looking men. They began singing some German drinking & other songs this evening. Pretty lively…” Germans and Irish now made up roughly half of the men in the toughest Massachusetts regiment in the army.7

20th-pudding

The 20th Massachusetts lost heavily at a number of battles, but the loss of their commander, Col. Paul Revere, grandson of the Revolutionary War hero, made Gettysburg a special place of grief. Instead of a heroic monument to the regiment’s dead, a Puddingstone was placed there. This New England rock was of a type that the young men who died at Gettysburg had played on as children.

Although we often think of immigrants serving in ethnic regiments like the Fighting 69th New York, most were enrolled in regiments like the 20th Massachusetts, where Irish, German and native-born companies fought beside each other. The important contribution these immigrants made to the Union war effort in the war is often obscured. Regiments like the Twentieth live on as paradigms of Anglo Saxon bravery when in reality the men who bled for the flag were more likely to trace their passage to America to a 19th Century immigrant ship than to the Mayflower. 8

Resource:

The regimental history of the 20th Massachusetts written by its Lt. Colonel is available online: The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865 by George Bruce published by Houghton Mifflin (1906).

This article relies extensively on Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005). The book is an excellent examination of a regiment.

Here is an interview with Richard Miller on his book on the Harvard Regiment.

Sources:

1. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005); The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865 by George Bruce published by Houghton Mifflin (1906). Wikipedia article on 20th Massachusetts is cited only as an example of popular beliefs about the regiment’s composition.
2. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005) p. 5-28.
3. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005) p. 21-50.
4. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005) p. 21-28
5. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005) p. 28-32.
6. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005)
7. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005) p. 318-320
8. Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry by Richard Miller published by University Press of New England (2005)

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

Cultural

Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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The Real Story Behind The Immigrants’ Civil War Photo

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

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The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

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Mother Jones: Civil War Era Immigrant and Labor Leader

Juneteenth for Immigrants

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler-Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War


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