When Abraham Lincoln sought reelection as president, he had to contend not only with the opposition of the Democratic Party, but also with opponents among the Republicans. Radical Republicans had sought to replace Lincoln as the Republican standard bearer from the very start of the Election Year of 1864.1
Among the most virulent of Lincoln’s critics from the party’s left were a group of Missouri Radicals called the “Charcoals” because they were the “blackest of the Black Republicans,” that is, they were the most committed to equality for blacks. Concentrated in Missouri, the Charcoals included many German immigrants who had been forced out of Germany because of their own liberalism. 2
To combat the defection of Germans from Lincoln, three immigrants were to play a key role in the Election of 1864. The first was John Nicolay, Lincoln’s senior White House secretary. Nicolay had emigrated from Germany in his youth and had loyally served Lincoln since the 1860 presidential campaign. Second was Francis Lieber, a Columbia University professor who had taught in South Carolina when he first arrived in the U.S. from Germany, but who had come to New York to escape the oppressiveness of living in a slave society. Lieber had become a legal advisor to Lincoln and had helped found the Loyal Publication Society which issued pamphlets in support of the Union war effort and the ending of slavery. The third important German in this trio was Major General Carl Schurz. 3
German-born John Nicolay was Abraham Lincoln’s senior secretary and one of the few people with whom Lincoln was photographed.
A hero of German revolutionaries from the days of the failed uprising of 1848, Schurz had become a link between the Republican Party and the pro-abolitionist German immigrant community. A confirmed Radical Republican, Schurz had also been close to Lincoln even before the president had been elected to national office. 4
Carl Schurz was sympathetic to the Radical critique of Lincoln. Like others on the Left of the Republican Party, Schurz had favored immediate and universal emancipation of slaves from the start of the war. Just a month before Lincoln’s January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Schurz had written a scathing letter to Lincoln blaming the Republicans’ woes on the president’s apparent timidity on slavery. 5
Of the growing Charcoal German critique of Lincoln’s racial policies, Schurz wrote “the criticism of the government — legitimate in itself if it were designed only to enlighten the administration and to lead to a correction of its errors — had assumed a virulent temper, and been turned into attempts to prevent the renomination of Mr. Lincoln.” The Charcoals and other Radicals would not have been dangerous if they had merely been political intriguers seeking personal gain, but Schurz said that they were anything but self-servers. “The most alarming feature of this commotion,” he wrote, “was that many men were active in it whose patriotism was above question.”6
Carl Schurz in his general’s uniform.
The Charcoals failed to prevent the renomination of Lincoln at the Republican Union Party Convention, but the party’s left continued to press Lincoln to step aside and let a stronger candidate run. Schurz saw the disunion in the Union Party as danger to winning the war and freeing the slaves and he offered to take leave of his military duties to “stump” for Lincoln. In July of 1864 Schurz met with Lincoln in Washington to strategize. There he found a president beset by those within his own party. According to Schurz, Lincoln told him;
They urge me with almost violent language…to withdraw from the contest, although I have been unanimously nominated, in order to make room for a better man. I wish I could. Perhaps some better man is not here. And if I should step aside to make room for him, it is not at all sure — perhaps not even probable — that he would get here. It is much more likely that the factions opposed to me would fall to fighting among themselves, and that those who want me to make room for a better man would get a man whom most of them would not want in at all. My withdrawal, therefore, might, and probably would, bring on a confusion worse confounded. God knows, I have at least tried very hard to do my duty — to do right to everybody and wrong to nobody. And now to have it said by men who have been my friends and who ought to know me better, that I have been seduced by what they call the lust of power, and that I have been doing this and that unscrupulous thing hurtful to the common cause, only to keep myself in office! Have they thought of that common cause when trying to break me down? I hope they have…7
Schurz took to the campaign trail to lend his considerable influence among the Germans to Lincoln’s election. When he did, he too came under criticism for selling out the Radical cause. He wrote an explanatory letter to an old German mentor of his who questioned whether Schurz should support Lincoln’s seemingly failed presidency.8
This broadside announced a campaign speech by Carl Schurz at the St. Louis, Missouri Courthouse.
Schurz wrote back to his friend that “there can be no doubt that the Government has made great mistakes.” He shared his friends concern that many of Lincoln’s aides and advisors were common politicians, admitting that “persons who are directing the fate of the country are certainly far from ideal statesmen, though not nearly as insignificant as their critics would represent them to be.” While the government’s leaders might not be perfect, he wrote his friend, “The most vital thing is that the policy of the party moves in the right direction, that is to say, that the slaveholder be vanquished and slavery abolished.” Lincoln, he said, was the only man running for president who could guarantee that outcome.9
Schurz also wrote to his friend that many of the university-educated German leaders were misjudging Lincoln. “You are underrating the President,” he said. Schurz wrote of the president:
I grant that he lacks higher education and his manners are not in accord with European conceptions of the dignity of a chief magistrate. He…is not skilled in polite phrases and poses. But he is a man of profound feeling, correct and firm principles and incorruptible honesty. His motives are unquestionable, and he possesses to a remarkable degree the characteristic, God-given trait of this people, sound common-sense. Should you read his official documents and his political letters, you would find this verified to a surprising extent.10
“I know him from personal observation as well as anyone,” Schurz assured his mentor.11
Video: Allen C. Guelzo on Lincoln’s Strangest Document, the Cabinet Memorandum of August 23, 1864. Lincoln’s “Blind Memorandum” was drafted because the president believed he wouldn’t be re-elected.
Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Volume Iedited by Frederic Bancroft published by Putnam (1913) includes Schurz’s Civil War Era materials.
All three volumes of The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz are available online.
1. The Radical Republicans were strong political opponents of slavery within the Republican Party. Many mistrusted Lincoln in 1860 as “soft” on the slavery issue. Throughout the war, the Radicals pressured Lincoln to move quickly towards emancipation of the slaves and the granting of citizenship to blacks, and the vote to black men. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001); Abraham Lincoln: Volume 2 by Michael Burlingame published by Johns Hopkins Press; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald published by Simon and Schuster; The Radical Republicans by Hans Trefousse (1969); Lincoln and the Radicals by Harry T. Williams (1941); Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man by David Donald (1970); 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelon Flood published by Simon and Schuster (2009).
2. In The Story of a Border City During the Civil War (1908), Galusha Anderson explains the origin of the term “Charcoal”: In our [Union men] hot fight for Missouri and the Union we unhappily split up into factions. We not only contended against secession but against each other. And the warring factions were significantly called Charcoals and Claybanks. The Charcoals taken as a whole were uncompromising radicals, while the Claybanks were the conservatives…What gave birth to these party names no one can certainly tell. Apparently, like Topsy, they “just growed”. The clay of Missouri is of a decidedly neutral tint. Perhaps an extremist, indignant at a conservative for his colorless views, called him a claybank; and since the name was descriptive, fitting, and easily understood by Missourians, it stuck. The conservative, stung by the epithet, may have warmly retorted, “You are a charcoal.” And that name, equally descriptive and fitting, also stuck. At all events each faction named the other, and each adopted the name hostilely given and gloried in it. And for many months these names bandied by the opposing factions played an important part in the heated controversies of our State.
Both Charcoals and Claybanks were loyal to the federal government. Upon the main issue, the preservation of the Union, they agreed; but they were at swords’ points upong the statement of the problem in hand and the method of its solution. The Claybanks contended that the foremost question was the maintenance of the Union. They were ready to preserve it either with or without slavery. So their cry was; “Let us first save the Union, and afterwards adjust the matter of slavery.”
On the other hand, the avowed object of the Charcoals was to save the Union without slavery; and perhaps they were unduly impatient with those who would save the Union with slavery, or even with those who would save the Union with or without slavery. But they were always ready to give a reason for the faith that was in them. They said: “Slavery is unquestionably the cause of secession and of this bloody war. If we preserve the Union and with it the cause of its present disruption, then, at no distant day, the same cause will rend it again, and our soil will be drenched with the blood of our children. We believe the doctrine of our great President, that the nation cannot continue half slave and half free. We therefore give ourselves to the extermination of the fruitful cause of all our present distress. We fight and pray for the restoration of the Union, but of the Union purged of human bondage.”
3. Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image by Joshua Zeitz (2014); Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt (2012); Trefousse, Hans L. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans Trefousse Published by U. of Tenn. Press (1982).
4. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America; Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.-Schurz was one of Lincoln’s last visitors before the president-elect left Springfield for Washington; Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans-After war broke out, Schurz played a crucial role in creating bilingual regiments in the Union army; Why the Germans Fought for the Union; Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery-Schurz served as a diplomat in Europe during the first year of the war. What he learned there convinced him that victory and ending slavery were inseparable.
5. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat
6. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz Volume Three Chapter 3.
7. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz Volume Three Chapter 3.
8. Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Volume I edited by Frederic Bancroft published by Putnam (1913) Letter to his friend THEODOR PETRASCH in Bethlehem, Pa., Oct. 13, 1864 pp. 248-251.
9. Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Volume I edited by Frederic Bancroft published by Putnam (1913) Letter to his friend THEODOR PETRASCH in Bethlehem, Pa., Oct. 13, 1864 pp. 248-251.
10. Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Volume I edited by Frederic Bancroft published by Putnam (1913) Letter to his friend THEODOR PETRASCH in Bethlehem, Pa., Oct. 13, 1864 pp. 248-251.
11. Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Volume I edited by Frederic Bancroft published by Putnam (1913) Letter to his friend THEODOR PETRASCH in Bethlehem, Pa., Oct. 13, 1864 pp. 248-251.
Complete Sources will be inserted on November 21, 2014
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