The Union Army defeat at Chancellorsville, a battle which played out over the course of a week from April 30 to May 6 of 1863, came to be blamed on the XI Corps’ May 2 retreat. And it was not the XI Corps as a military unit that took the blame alone, it was the “Germans” who were responsible. For example, native-born Major Grotius Giddings wrote home that the “Germans have disgraced themselves forever in the army.” An entire ethnicity would be branded as cowards and the significant contributions of German immigrant soldiers to the Union war effort in all the theaters of the war would be tainted in the minds of many native-born Northerners..1
The public would first learn of the “cowardice” of the Germans from a May 5, 1863 front page article in the New York Times which helped shift the blame away from native-born Republican General O.O. Howard:
[A]t 5 o’clock a terrific crash of musketry on our extreme right, announced that JACKSON had commenced his operations. This had been anticipated, but it was supposed that after his column was cut, the corps of Gen. HOWARD, (formerly Gen. SIGEL’s,) with its supports, would be sufficient to resist his approach, and finding that [Jackson] was himself assailed in the rear, [Jackson] would turn about and retreat to escape capture.
But to the disgrace of the Eleventh Corps be it said, that the division of Gen. SCHURZ, which was the first assailed, almost instantly gave way. Threats, entreaties and orders of commanders were of no avail. Thousands of these cowards threw down their guns and soon streamed down the road toward headquarters. The enemy pressed his advantage. Gen. DEVENS’ division, disaffected by the demoralization of the forces in front of him, soon followed suit, and the brave General was for the second time severely wounded in the foot, while endeavoring to rally his men. Gen. HOWARD, with all his daring and resolution and vigor, could not stem the tide of the retreating and cowardly poltroons. The brigades of Cols. BUSHBECK and MCLEAN only remained fighting, and maintained themselves nobly as long as possible. But they too, gave way, though in good order, before vastly superior numbers.2
The article was factually incorrect in its entirety. First, its contention that the attack on the XI Corps was “anticipated” ignores the fact that Corps commander O.O. Howard had made no preparations to receive an attack. In fact he had been so convinced of his Corps’ lack of exposure to danger that he left it an hour and a half before Jackson’s assault began in order to to go off with General Sickles on a wild goose chase after Confederates who were supposedly retreating. 3
The article also contends that “it was supposed” that the XI Corps “with its supports would be sufficient to resist [Stonewall Jackson’s] approach.” The article neglects to mention that the XI Corps’ “supports”, the III and XII Corps, had been sent away from the XI Corps to “pursue” the phantom of a “retreating” Confederate army. The last sentence of the paragraph says that if the XI held just a little while, Jackson’s force would have been struck in the rear by Sickles and destroyed. In fact, Sickles had no idea where the head of Jackson’s strike force was and posed no threat to it at 5:30 PM on May 2, 1863.4
The second paragraph is the most telling of the attempt to scapegoat the Germans. In it, the Times says that German immigrant Carl Schurz’s division, the Corps’ “German Division,” was struck first and “instantly gave way” to their “disgrace.” The article then praises “brave General” Charles Devens, the nativist New Englander Republican politician. In actuality, it was Devens’ division that had been hit first and that had quickly taken flight. Devens himself had ignored repeated warnings from his men of an impending attack and had foundered during the critical opening minutes of Stonewall’s charge. Schurz’s division, conversely, fought back against the Confederates, largely because Schurz himself had taken the steps to shore up the defenses that Devens and Howard refused to carry out.5
The correspondent then praises General Howard’s “daring and resolution and vigor” when Howard had, in fact, been the man most responsible for the disaster in the first place. Conversely, the article describes the immigrant soldiers Howard had failed as “poltroons,” a fancy word for “cowards.”6
The writer clearly wanted to remove blame from the native-born commanders who were responsible for what happened, and shift it to the German immigrants who could be branded as “other.”7
Being identified as a national disgrace on the front page of the most important Republican newspaper in the country was not damage enough for the Germans in the XI Corps. Many other Republican newspapers around the country reprinted the article the same week. Horace Greeley’s Republican New York Tribune reacted to it with the extreme suggestion that all or a significant part of the Corps be put to death.8
Carl Schurz, suspecting that a plot was underway to make his men the scapegoat for a failure of leadership, wrote to Howard on May 7:
GENERAL: I find it stated in the papers the NEW-YORK TIMES, the Washington Chronicle, the New-York Herald, etc. that it was my division which, in the action of last Saturday, threw itself flying upon the rest of the corps, and it is even said in the New-York Herald that I “led the disgraceful flight in person.” These are statements against which I feel myself obliged to ask for protection. You know the facts, and you have seen me in that engagement. I would respectfully request you to state what troops threw themselves flying upon the rest, and where I was, and what I was doing while you saw me on the field of battle.9
General Howard replied the next day:
I am deeply pained to find you subjected to such false and malicious attacks. I saw you just as the action commenced; you hastened…to your post. I next saw you rallying troops near the rifle pits, upon the ground occupied by our corps. After this you were with me, forming a new line of battle… I do not believe that you could have done more than you did on that trying occasion. The allegations with reference to your division are untrue, since your troops did not occupy the front on the point of attack.10
German immigrants, whose husbands, sons, and brothers were risking their lives for their adopted country, were outraged by the treatment of their suffering soldiers by critics they identified as nativist bigots. 11
Modern National Park Service interpretive marker at Chancellorsville. The illustration shows General O.O. Howard trying to rally his men.
An indignation meeting was held by the German societies at Cooper Union in New York to protest the treatment of the XI Corps.
A speech by the meeting’s chairman laid out the German community’s view of what was behind the charges of German cowardice:
[Hooker] had looked for the attack from a totally different quarter, and when [Jackson attacked the XI Corps] he was utterly bewildered and helpless. To cover up this wretched failure a scapegoat [must] be found, and the old spirit of nativism, still so vigorous, found that scapegoat in the German corps. [Applause.] But it is mistaken if it supposes that the Germans [will] tamely submit to such misrepresentation [Renewed applause.]12
German liberal Friedrich Kapp, who visited the XI Corps after the battle and found that Howard apparently believed battles could be won with “prayers and Bible readings”, also addressed the meeting. Kapp mocked Horace Greeley saying that he “had recommended the shooting of the entire German Brigade. If that was to be done to all the divisions that had retired they would have to shoot the whole army… [Applause and Laughter.]”13
The meeting adopted a resolution setting forth the immigrant position. It read in part:
Be it resolved That we hereby tender our thanks to the German Volunteers serving in the army of the United States for their patriotism, their good conduct, and their gallantry shown on every battle-ground where they have been engaged. [Appluse.]
That the Eleventh army corps was in its greater part composed of other than German troops, that it was in the battle of Chancellorsville, commanded by a new and untried general, and that its repulse cannot be ascribed to any want of bravery of the German officers and privates of the said corps;
That the; repulse of the said corps was owing to its numerical weakness, to its exposed position, to the careless and unskillful manner in which its line of battle had been formed, and to the incompetency of its commander, who suffered it to be surrounded and surprised. [Applause.]
That we perceived with deep regret that many correspondents and editors were eager to misrepresent the behavior of the German volunteers in the battle of Chancellorsville by false and malicious slanders, and that many of our fellow-citizens, forgetful of the services which the German volunteers have rendered on all the battle grounds of the war, on that occasion have given to a nativistic feeling which we thought buried forever with the bodies of the patriots who are sleeping together in common graves without any distinction as their nativity. [Tremendous cheering.]
That it is alike unjust and impolitic to ascribe misfortunes in war, caused by the mistakes and blunders of our Generals, to the troops, and that such injustice contributes more to discourage enlistments than all the speeches of a Vallandigham or Wood [two notorious Copperhead politicians]; [great applause].14
The resolution of the “indignation meeting” was more accurate in its portrayal of facts and motives than the New York Times article ever could be, yet it is the nativist narrative that was embraced by popular history for more than a hundred years. It is the story of Chancellorsville that still persists today despite scholarly histories disproving it.15
On May 2, 1863, many German immigrant soldiers ran from the charging Confederates, but so did an equal number of native born. By praising the bravery of the native born and scapegoating the Germans, Republicans could assure their followers that defeat had come through the hereditary cowardice of the foreigner, the “other”, and that native soldiers and Republican native-born leaders had played no role in the defeat except as the victims of German fecklessness. Republicans tapped into deep wells of nativism to resurrect Know Nothing era prejudice against the German “other” to cloak their own heroes’ failings.16
Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) is the principal modern source on the scapegoating of the Germans after Chancellorsville. The book combines a detailed study of the XI Corps at the battle, the assignment of blame to the Corps afterwards, and a memory study of how the distortions embedded in the scapegoating got passed on to later generations. The book also looks at the impact of the blame game on German communities throughout the North. This worthy study would have profited from a closer examination of anthropological literature on immigrant acculturation. Too much emphasis is placed on whether military service “Americanized” the German immigrant soldier.
Sources will be available on June 11, 2013
1. Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) p. 86. The Chancellorsville Campaign by Darius Couch in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 154-171;The Successes and Failures of Chancellorville by Alfred Pleasanton in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 172-182; The Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville by O.O. Howard in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 189-202; Stonewall Jackson’s Last Battle by James Power Smith in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 203-214; Hooker’s Comments on Chancellorsville by S. Bates in Battles in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 214-223; Hooker’s Appointment and Removal by Charles Benjamin in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 239-243; The Civil War in the East: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory by Brooks D. Simpson published by Praeger (2011); Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by Louisiana State Univ Pr (1999); The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 2 by Carl Schurz (1907); Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, University of North Carolina Press (2006); Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007); Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996); Chancellorsville: The Souls of the Brave by Ernest Furgeson published by Knopf (1993).
2. NY TIMES May 5, 1863 http://www.nytimes.com/1863/05/05/news/the-great-battle-of-sunday.html
9. NY Times May 11, 1863 http://www.nytimes.com/1863/05/11/news/eleventh-corps-correspondence-between-gen-carl-schurz-gen-howard-major-gen.html
10. NY Times May 11, 1863 http://www.nytimes.com/1863/05/11/news/eleventh-corps-correspondence-between-gen-carl-schurz-gen-howard-major-gen.html
12. NY TIMES June 2, 1863 http://www.nytimes.com/1863/06/03/news/german-indignation-meeting-eleventh-army-corps-defended-strong-resolutions.html
13. NY TIMES June 2, 1863 http://www.nytimes.com/1863/06/03/news/german-indignation-meeting-eleventh-army-corps-defended-strong-resolutions.html
14 NY TIMES June 2, 1863 http://www.nytimes.com/1863/06/03/news/german-indignation-meeting-eleventh-army-corps-defended-strong-resolutions.html
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
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites