German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

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Black troops in the trenches at Petersburg in 1864.

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Godfrey Weitzel was born in the Rhineland-Palatinate in southwestern Germany on November 1, 1835. He was brought to the United States as a small child by his parents. Throughout his long military career most of his army colleagues believed he was the American-born child of German immigrants. He fostered this belief, perhaps because his formative years coincided with the rise of the fiercely anti-immigrant Know Nothings. But, in reality, he was born in Germany and he was raised in the assertively German neighborhood of Cincinnati called “Over-the-Rhine.”1

At the age of only 15, Godfrey Weitzel was appointed to the Military Academy at West Point. The teen excelled there and was named a Captain of Cadets. As one of the leaders of his class, Weitzel was invited to the home of the Academy’s Superintendent Robert E. Lee, whom he would later fight against in the Civil War. When he graduated at the age of 19, Weitzel was second in his class in grades and first in conduct.2

Weitzel was a highly prized engineer and he soon was working with P.G.T. Beuaregard improving the defenses of New Orleans. Although he did not accent his immigrant roots with his colleagues, he travelled from New Orleans back to Over-the-Rhine to find a wife. Young Godfrey married the teenaged German girl Louisa Moor. Unfortunately their marriage was ended when her dress caught fire while she was preparing their first Thanksgiving dinner together and she died.3

rhineAlthough Weitzel was not quick to emphasize his German birthplace, he returned twice to the Cincinnati German community of Over-the-Rhine to seek a wife.

In the two years before the Civil War, Weitzel taught engineering as a West Point professor. After his appointment to his seemingly safe position, Weitzel went back to Over-the Rhine to find and marry his second wife. He was teaching at the Academy when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and while Southern states began to secede from the Union.4

weitzelGodfrey Weitzel was a respected young engineer at the start of the war. Whether he could command men in battle was unknown.

When Lincoln went to Washington for his inauguration, Weitzel was part of a contingent from West Point sent to the capital to serve as presidential bodyguards. When war erupted a month later, Weitzel returned to Cincinnati to help fortify the city and to recruit German immigrants to the Union cause. 5

The following year, when Union General Ben Butler organized an expedition to capture New Orleans, he brought Weitzel along because he thought that the German’s intimate knowledge of the forts guarding the city might come in handy. Weitzel’s contribution to the capture of the Confederacy’s largest metropolis was so great that Butler later wrote that “few men contributed more” to the capture “than he.” Butler rewarded him by making him the military mayor of the city.6

fort-jacksonWeitzel’s knowledge of the forts protecting New Orleans was invaluable to the Union capture of the city.

In August, 1862, at the age of 26, Weitzel was promoted to Brigadier General in the Union Army at Butler’s behest. He was given his own infantry brigade, which was soon augmented when Weitzel was given temporary command of two black regiments of the Louisiana Native Guard.7

The youngest Union general’s military success as a brigadier further impressed Butler, who offered to expand Weitzel’s command. Weitzel shocked his mentor by refusing a larger force because he did not want to command black troops. Butler challenged Weitzel’s prejudice that “colored men would not fight.” Butler pointed out to the young general that black troops had shown great discipline since their regiments had been organized. Weitzel still refused. “My surprise may not be imagined,” Butler wrote, at Weitzel’s bigoted response to his offer.8

louisiana-native-guard-port-hudsonThe heroism of black troops at Port Hudson in 1863 helped convince Union officers that black men would fight. Weitzel commanded an all-white brigade at the battle in Louisiana.

When Ben Butler assumed command in April of 1864 of the Army of the James in its campaign against Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia, Weitzel was assured a place in his inner circle. Fighting over the summer and through the end of September 1864 decimated the ranks of Union commanders. When General Ord was wounded, Weitzel was placed in command of the Eighteenth Army Corps. The choice was controversial because of the immigrant’s youth. Another general in the Army of the James said that Butler would “back Weitzel against the whole army” because he had “leaned on Weitzel since [the New Orleans campaign in] February 1862 in military matters.”9

In December of 1864 Weitzel was promoted to Major General and he was placed in command of the only all-black army corps. The man who had once refused to command two regiments of blacks, now led the largest assemblage of black soldiers in the Union army. He was still in his 20s.10

Weitzel’s new command included many immigrants. Black men from Canada had enlisted in the United States Colored Troops regiments that had formed in 1863 and 1864.  Roughly 25,000 blacks lived in what we now call Canada at the start of the Civil War. Of those, 17,000 lived in what is now Ontario. At the time it was called Canada West.11

canada-westCanada West (Ontario) was home to most persons of African descent living in what is now Canada. Cross-border connections formed between black communities in Canada West and nearby African American communities in places like Buffalo and Detroit.

The black community in Canada was largely a creation of conflict in the United States. During the American Revolution many blacks had left their Rebel owners and joined the British forces. When the war ended, some of these freedmen fled to Canada. Those slave owners who were loyal to the King also refugeed to Canada, and they brought their slaves with them. An estimated 2,000 slaves and 3,000 free blacks went to Canada following the British defeat.12

After slavery was abolished there in 1833, Canada became a major objective of blacks fleeing slavery in the southern United States. Fugitive slaves provided a steady trickle of refugees into Canada. Some black Canadians moved to the United States as the Civil War approached, settling in the abolitionist state of Massachusetts.13

Some 2,500 Canadian blacks joined the Union army between 1863 and 1865. About half of these men were born in Canada, the other half were black refugees from the United States South. Fourteen percent of the entire black population of Canada West (Ontario) enlisted in the Union forces. This compares favorably with New York, where 11 percent of the population enlisted.14

Canada’s black communities were closely tied to black communities and abolitionists in nearby parts of the United States, particularly those in Michigan and Western New York. These Ontario communities received fugitive slaves throughout the 1850s and they did not need to be reminded of the horrors of slavery. Black Canadians received anti-slavery newspapers and listened to abolitionist lecturers from the U.S. When the war broke out, they hoped it would end slavery and allow them to be reunited with their families in the South.15

petersburg-black-dugoutBlack troops at Petersburg lived in a hellscape of trenches and bombproofs amidst the dead of a dozen battles.

From the earliest days of black enlistments, Canadians had been a recruiting target for new black regiments. Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts wrote to his fiancé on February 23, 1863 that to help fill up his regiment quickly, “three men are going on a campaign into Canada.”16

On March 13, the first Canadian, John Moore, joined the black regiment. On March 17, Col. Shaw wrote that recruiter George Stearns, “who is home for a few days from Canada, says that we can get more men than we want from there.” Within a month, nine more Canadian blacks arrived at the 54th’s camp. Eventually 28 Canadians served in this most famous black regiment.17

Black soldiers who enlisted were paid only $10 a month, three dollars less than whites. Blacks could not become officers, and those who were promoted to corporal or sergeant did not receive the pay raises that came with those positions. Blacks were also barred from receiving the Federal bounty for enlistment. Many Canadians refused to enlist until blacks were given equal pay with whites in July 1864.  In the month after pay was equalized, Canadian black enlistments increased by nearly 600 percent.18

petersburg-black-cannonUnited States Colored Troops were used in many different roles in the Petersburg Campaign, from combat assaults to guarding supply depots.

African Canadians did not simply face discrimination if they enlisted. The Confederates treated black soldiers as slaves in insurrection. This resulted in blacks being massacred after several battles and to captured Colored Troops being sent into slavery. They knew that their enemies would not treat them as soldiers in accordance with the laws of war. Yet, Ontario’s blacks enlisted in the war at the same rate as many of their neighbors in America.19

Video: Richard M. Reid on African Canadians in the Civil War (Note: This is a podcast and has only audio)

Sources:

1.  Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014) .In the Trenches at Petersburg by Earl Hess; The Petersburg Camapaign Vol. I by Edwin Bearss published by Savas Beatie (2014); The Battle of the Crater by Emmanuel Dabney in Blue & Gray Magazine Vol. XXX #5 (2014); The Colored Troops at Petersburg by Gen. Henry Goddard Thomas in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
2. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014).
3. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014) Kindle Location 913.
4. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014).
5. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014).
6. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014) Kindle Location 1787.
7. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014) Kindle Location 2334.
8. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014).
9. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014), Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, The Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff and Poplar Spring Church, September 29 – October 2, 1864 by Richard J. Sommers (2014 edition) Kindle Location 3077.
10. Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel by G. William Quatman published by Ohio University Press (2014) Kindle Location 4546.
11. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015).
12. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015) pp. 12-13.
13. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015) pp. 15-36.
14. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015) pp. 50-55.
15.  African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015).
16. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015); Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Paperback by Robert Gould Shaw edited by Russell Duncan p. 296
17. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015) p. 94; Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Paperback by Robert Gould Shaw edited by Russell Duncan pp. 93, 309.
18. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015) pp. 97-98, 116-117, 122.
19. African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid published by Kent State University Press (2015) pp 119-120.

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

 

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