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

Confederate soldiers returned to devastated communities after the end of the Civil War.

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Union General Carl Schurz began his inspection tour of the South just a month after the last Confederate forces surrendered. Schurz, a German refugee, embarked on one of the most comprehensive tours of the post-war South that occurred in the summer of 1865. As he was traveling, the lands he visited showed the devastation of war and the flux of a changing racial reality. Paroled Confederate soldiers were still returning home, freed slaves were searching for family members sold off before emancipation, and formerly Confederate states were without effective governance. Schurz would meet with Southerners both prominent and of low birth, Unionists, Confederates, Federal soldiers, and blacks.1

schurz-ruins-in-richmondConfederate soldiers returned home defeated to cities and towns ravaged by war. These buildings in Richmond were burned when retreating Confederates set fire to warehouses in the city during the last week of the war in Virginia. The fires soon engulfed whole city blocks.

The genesis of this remarkable trip lay in a letter Schurz wrote to the newly inaugurated President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had assumed the highest office in the land when Abraham Lincoln died on April 15. 2

President Johnson had issued an amnesty for former Confederates and a plan for reconstructing the Southern states that Schurz opposed. Called the North Carolina Reconstruction Proclamation, it would allow those Confederates taking a loyalty oath to create a new government for that state. It essentially restored the right to vote to the vast majority of white Confederate veterans, but it did not give the right to vote to the freed slaves who had supported the Union government. Schurz worried that a government elected only by white men would claim to accept the end of slavery “in point of form,” to appease Northerners, “but would spare no effort to preserve as much as possible of its substance.”3

schurz-ruins-columbia-scColumbia, South Carolina, was the capital of the first state to secede from the Union. It was a particular target of anger for Sherman’s army during its march through the Carolinas in 1863 and 1864. When South Carolina’s governor refused to surrender the city to the approaching Union army, order in the city broke down. Fires ignited by retreating Confederates were soon joined by fires set by Union troops.

Schurz met soon afterwards with President Johnson. Instead of criticizing Schurz’s position, he said that he “was very doubtful and even anxious” about whether whites in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi would accept the changes in race relations mandated by the end of slavery. Johnson told Schurz that:

He wished to see those States restored to their constitutional relations with the General Government as quickly as possible, but he did not know whether it could be done with safety to the Union men and to the emancipated slaves. He therefore requested me to visit those States for the purpose of reporting to him whatever information I could gather as to the existing condition of things, and of suggesting to him such measures as my observations might lead me to believe advisable.4

schurz-euins-railroad-depot-charlestonSouthern transportation infrastructure was a particular target of destruction for Union soldiers. The railroad depot in Charleston was burned.

Carl Schurz was not flattered by the request. He had been at war for two years and he may not have wanted to spend more time away from his family. Nor did it make sense to him to send a single individual on such a sensitive fact-finding mission. Then there was the issue of personal health and comfort. Schurz wrote later that “I must also confess that the prospect of spending two or three months of the hottest season of the year in the Gulf States was by no means alluring. But I should not have minded that had not the whole affair struck me as somewhat strange.”5

Schurz sailed from Washington to South Carolina.. His information gathering began while he was still on board the steamer heading south. He had a conversation with a well-to-do Southern planter who, he said, introduced him to the sentiments of the Southern upper class towards the freed slaves. Schurz described his informant as “a handsome young man, something over thirty.” He had been an officer in the Confederate army since the start of the Civil War. The Southerner said that before the war he had owned ninety slaves. Schurz said that the man wondered at the uncertainty of the post-war world. He had been rich, the Confederate said.

But what was he now? He supposed his plantation, having been in Sherman’s track, was all devastated, his buildings ruined, and his slaves gone. Some of them, he hoped, would come back to him after his return, because he had always treated his slaves well, never having lost any except one, and him by “congestive fever.” But what could he do after all this ruination? There was a tone of resigned helplessness in his speech. Wondered how his land could be worked now that slavery was ended.6

schurz-ruins-atlantaPrivate homes were not immune from damage and destruction during the war. This mansion was in Atlanta.

Schurz suggested that the planter “make fair contracts with [the free blacks] and set them to work as free laborers.” Schurz recalled that:

This remark stirred him. He became animated. There was even a slight flurry of excitement in his voice. What? Contracts with those n*ggers? It would never work. Yes, he had heard of that emancipation business. He knew that was the intention. But — and here he approached me with an air of confidentiality as if to coax my secret, true opinion out of me — now, really, did I think that this was a settled thing? Now, he could tell me that n*ggers would not work unless compelled to.7

schurz-gone-off-with-the-yankeesWhen emancipation came, many slaves abandoned their slave cabins to live off the plantations.

Schurz told the Southerner that Emancipation was an accomplished fact and that there would be no return to slavery. Schurz advised that “the Southern people would have to try the introduction of free labor.” The planter refused to believe it. 8

schurz-ruins-Pincney-mansion-CharlestonNot all of the destruction was caused by soldiers. Because so many men were away at war, cities were often without sufficient firemen. The 1861 Great Fire burned large parts of Charleston, South Carolina, including the Pinkney Mansion. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

With an accurate prediction of the future, the planter reminded Schurz that free labor would only remain in place as long as “the Federal soldiers were at hand.” He asked Schurz rhetorically “would not the troops soon be withdrawn? And would not the people of the Southern States…soon be left to manage their own affairs?” 9

The reassertion of white control over black labor would be contested by former slaves, the Freedman’s Bureau, and Federal soldiers, but eventually the foresight of Schurz’s Southern acquaintance was borne out.

Videos: Eric Foner Talks About Reconstruction

Historian Eric Foner delivered a series of lectures on the post-war period. These have been collected into an on-line course. What follows are three snippets of the lectures dealing with the different conceptions of emancipation by former slaves and former slave owners in 1865.

Acknowledgement: Several colleagues at Civil War Talk helped me find pictures of ruined buildings. Their screenames are CheathamHill, 7th Mississippi Infantry, Al Mackey, kepi, JPK Huson, nitrofd, 18thVirginia, ErnieMac, RobertP, chubachus, southern blue, Championhilz. I appreciate the time they took to show me their pictures.


The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917)


1. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner; After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs (2015); A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2005); The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917); Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
2. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 150-154.
3. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 150-154.
4. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 157-159.
5. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 157-159.
6. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
7. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
8. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
9. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.

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



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

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.