By 1864 recruitment for the Union armies had fallen off dramatically. The Union Army of the Potomac, had been engaged in months of grinding daily conflict with the Confederate army in Virginia from The Wilderness to the Siege of Petersburg. Tens of thousands of its soldiers had been killed or badly wounded between May and September of that bloody year. The country had entered the era of the “cessation of enlistments from patriotic motives,” wrote the historian of the 35th Massachusetts. His regiment would try to fill its depleted ranks through trickery and fraud.1
After heavy losses at the Battles of the Crater and the Weldon Railroad in July and August 1864, the regiment was reduced from nearly a thousand men when it was formed, to only 100 men able to report for duty. A regiment in such decline faced the fate of being broken up and its men scattered to other regiments. New men had to be brought to the unit if it was to survive.2
The regiment found salvation in the arrival of 125 immigrants, many of them “substitutes.” These were typically impoverished men who were hired by wealthy draftees to take their place in the army. Many had been brought to the United States by “substitute brokers,” men who profited by commissions from rich draftees who paid them to find substitutes. These brokers often lied to and cheated the men they brought into the army.3
Some of the new soldiers were extremely unhappy to be in the at the battlefront. They said that they had been told when they were recruited in Europe that they were coming to fill jobs as workers, not to serve as soldiers in a civil war. One immigrant protested, “I am one of the people brought from Germany upon some deceitful agreement that we should all have good wages… When we arrived the police took us and kept us together for soldiers, and they gave us one hundred dollars in paper money…and we hear that we are all volunteers, and then we hear afterwards that we are substitutes.”4
The most reliable way for wealthy men to avoid the Draft was to hire a substitute. Once the substitute joined the army, the rich man was permanently exempted from the Draft. Most men who served as substitutes did so because of poverty to earn some money. Some, however, were tricked into serving as substitutes.
The agreement the immigrants had signed in Germany “studiously avoided” the words “soldier” or “military service” wrote the regimental historian, in order to “deceive the German Government or the men who signed it.” The regiment’s officers insisted that the oath of enlistment had been taken freely and that a translator was used who spoke French, but the immigrants, many of whom spoke only German, insisted that they did not know what they were getting into. 5
German immigrants had volunteered from the earliest days of the war. When volunteers had been easy to recruit, non-English speaking immigrants had been placed in “German” companies and regiments where orders were giving in their native language. By 1864, English-speaking veteran regiments, in danger of being broken up because their numbers had fallen so low through battle casualties, were desperate to find new soldiers wherever they could. While the placing of non-English speakers into the 35th Massachusetts violated regulations, necessity prevailed over law.6
This ad offering 600 dollars for substitutes was placed by a Kentucky attorney in the Louisville Anzeiger, a German newspaper. The substitute broker had the distinctly non-German name of “John McCarty.” http://kygermanscw.yolasite.com/
Even the least prejudiced of the Massachusetts men was troubled by the fact that the new men “could not speak English,” wrote the regimental historian. “This prevented communication,” he wrote, “except through an interpreter-any little difficulty could only be got over by long round-about explanations and translations…” The danger of officers not being able to speak to their men in an emergency was obvious to everyone.7
Many of the native-born were deeply prejudiced. The regiment’s popular Captain Ingell, who would soon die of wounds, wrote disparagingly of the new soldiers: “I have received news of the recruits, German and French. I hardly expected that this regiment would go into the recruiting of German and French goods, and cannot see what use they are to make of them…I shall tell them, in the best German at my command, to go to the devil. Officers and men are sorry these men are come among us.”8
Ingell was not the only nativist in the regiment. According to the regimental historian “the inundation of foreigners was…objectionable” to the regiment’s officers. The native-born men began to deride the immigrants as “Hamburgers.” So, not only did the immigrants feel as though they had been kidnapped into the army, they also had to suffer the contempt of their “comrades in arms.”9
The regimental historian disagreed with the opinion of the nativist officers that the immigrants were worthless. “Many of them were fine fellows,” he wrote after the war. The mistake, he wrote, “was in sending these men directly to the front…where they [without training] were simply of the value of a lot of dummies…” 10
The immigrants “after some murmuring, accepted the inevitable and endeavored…[to] get acquainted with the manual of arms and some of the common battalion movements,” the historian wrote. But the regiment’s officers knew that in spite of their more polished appearance after a month of drilling, the immigrants did not understand complicated orders and the officers “hoped that our first battle with them would be…behind breastworks, and not where complicated maneuvers might be required. As it fell however, in the next action we got into the worst possible situation for troops so difficult to handle in an emergency.” 11
“Grant’s movements south of the James-Battle of Poplar Spring Church- gallant charge of a part of the Fifth Corps on the Confederate Fort, September 30th, 1864.”— from Frank Leslie Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War (New York, NY: Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1896). Union troops around Petersburg knew that any gains would only come by attacking heavily fortified Confederate defenses.
That emergency came during a late September 1864 offensive by the Union army outside of Petersburg. The regimental historian describes the beginning of many of the immigrants’ only battle:
At last we were ordered forward and marched north westward, across the Church Road to the Pegram House… It was very quiet excepting a few solid shot or shell which, coming from the direction of Petersburg, whizzed over head or struck in the pine woods on our right, which now concealed everything cityward.12
“Grant’s movements south of the James- Battle of Poplar Spring Church- the Ninth Corps passing Poplar Spring Church and Confederate prisoners coming in, Friday afternoon, September 30th, 1864.”— from Frank Leslie Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War (New York, NY: Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1896). The 35th Massachusetts was part of the IX Coprs.
The men of the regiment soon realized that they were on the extreme left flank of the army and that they were without effective help nearby. The emergency soon arose:
While we were thus situated and quietly watching a line of battle approaching in front, upon whom we expected immediate orders to charge or open fire, a battalion, said to be bounty jumpers, came up behind us, appearing to be forming, when suddenly they left for the rear with a haste truly amazing what could it mean? In a moment the mystery was explained, a column of Confederates charged upon our right-rear from the direction of the Church Road, coming upon us through the underbrush before we discovered their approach. It would have been impossible to devise a worse plight for our regiment as then constituted. For change of direction there was no time. Defense was out of the question; we should have shot our own men. In front was the line we had been watching, on our right and rear were the new enemies, already seizing men from the right companies as they broke towards the left. The only thing to do was to collar our recruits, shout “Git!” in the best German at our command, as Captain Ingell would have done, and then takes ourselves off over the fence to the left into a field of sorghum…13
The regiment tried to rally on a nearby ridge. Of the immigrants, the regimental historian wrote, “Our recruits were full of fight,” but their poor training wasted their heroism. The Union line was thrown into confusion by the skillful Confederate attack:
Now, to our surprise for we had hitherto supposed that the surround affected only our regiment, on looking to the right we saw the whole of our brigade coming rapidly to the rear in line of battle, they also having been outflanked. This gave the impression of a worse state of affairs than we had supposed; it also left our position again unsupported upon the flanks, and “Fall back!” was again the word…14
At the end of September 1864 Grant moved tens of thousands of his men towards the Confederate left and right flanks. The 35th Mass. was involved in the southern offensive against the Confederate left. The Battle of Peebles Farm or Poplar Springs Church cost the Union 2,889 men killed, wounded, or missing.
When the regiment fell back this time, the historian writes, “it was now twilight,” and “great confusion resulted” and “part of the regiment got lost in the darkness.” Most of the new immigrant soldiers were captured after only a couple of months in the army. The regimental historian says that although “Some of the recruits took the oath to serve the Confederacy, but most did not, remaining true to the stars and stripes, in spite of their first dissatisfaction and the sufferings of prison life.”15
This photo of the Confederate prison at Andersonville was taken a month before the “Hamburgers” were captured. More that a quarter of the captured Union soldiers sent there died.
A lieutenant who was captured with the more than 100 immigrants had his clothing and supplies stolen by the Confederates. Exhausted and cold, the officer fell asleep on the ground and woke up the next day next to another Union soldier. The man “politely touched his hat and saluted me as ‘Mr. Sergeant,’ when I recognized him as one of the German recruits belonging to the Thirty-Fifth Regiment. He had evidently been taking note of my condition, and though he could not express his sympathy in words he manifested a noble and generous nature by sharing with me some of his outfit that he had been fortunate enough to preserve when he fell into rebel hands.”16
Lieutenant Blanchard would remember what happened next:
Finding that I was coatless and hatless he gave me the cape to his overcoat and the glazed cover to his military cap, and these articles were the only covering of this kind that I had during my six months sojourn in [Confederate prisons] these were my blanket and head-dress. Many times during the cold winter nights, when I pulled the cape about me, making it cover every possible inch of my body, did my thoughts go out in gratitude to the kind-hearted Teuton, who, at a time when most men think only of self-preservation, found occasion for the exercise of that virtue possessed by those who act under the injunction of the Master: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”17
Video: Prof. Richard Sommers on the Fighting at Petersburg in September and October 1864
You can read the official report of the 35th Massachusetts: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 1 (Serial Number 87), pages 583-585 Report of Major John W. Hudson, Thirty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry, of operations September 30
1. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 293
2. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) and http://www.actonmemoriallibrary.org/civilwar/regiments/Mass/35mass.html
3. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884); New York’s Civil War Bounty Brokers by Eugene Murdock, Journal of American History 1966 pp. 259-278.
4. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884)
5. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 292
6. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884)
7. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 291
8. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 284
9. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 291
10. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 293
11. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 293
12. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884)
13. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884)
14. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884)
15. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884)
16. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 365, 368
17. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865 (1884) p. 368
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.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
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.
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.
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.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites