Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory Over Slavery

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When the Civil War began in April 1861, the Union’s most important resource for controlling the slave-state of Missouri was the large German community centered in St. Louis. Germans had formed their own clandestine pro-Unionist militias even before the war had begun and they had been in the forefront of Union military operations throughout 1861.1

In May, 1861, German immigrants had successfully disarmed pro-Confederate forces outside St. Louis. The St. Louis Germans thwarted the state’s pro-Confederate governor’s attempt to take Missouri out of the Union and had dispersed a secessionist legislature. By August of 1861, the Germans formed the bulk of a military force that had pushed pro-Confederate forces out of all but the southwest corner of Missouri, however a final drive against the Confederates had failed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. In the fall the Germans had backed the immediate emancipation of slaves ordered by General John C. Fremont. However, Union defeats in the second half of the year exposed German families living on farms and in isolated villages to retaliatory attacks from Confederate sympathizers, and Lincoln rescinded Fremont’s emancipation order.2

The strong identification of the German community with the Union cause made them targets of violence, and their accents gave away their political leanings to the many supporters of the Confederacy living in the state. Missouri Germans had been one of the most anti-slavery demographic groups before the war. By the fall of 1861, they knew that only the end of slavery could insure their community’s future. 3

In 1862 Germans in Missouri tied their community’s survival to an end to slavery.  The St. Louis German Newspaper Anzeiger des Westens wrote that “For us Germans, emancipation is a matter of life or death. If Missouri remains a slave state, then we will not remain here any longer. …We will always be seen as a dangerous, incendiary element, and…it would be inevitable that we would always be outvoted, and looked at askance, defeated in all matters and cheated, and it would then be best for us to leave. –If Missouri became a free state, on the other hand, then we would be saviors…and they would look on us with respect in the free states; German immigration would not simply rise, but increase…tenfold.”  The editor wrote that “Emancipation was always a matter of honor for the Germans.” It identified the immigrants with a worldwide struggle for freedom. The newspaper described pro-Confederate slave owners as though they were the hated aristocracy of Europe whom the immigrants had fled a decade earlier. The Confederates did not just enslave blacks, they also tried to disenfranchise and silence immigrants, the newspaper argued. By destroying slavery, the Germans would not only liberate blacks, they would also break the back of aristocratic power.4

St-Louis-slave-auction-thumb

Slave auctions were held on the steps of the Court House in St. Louis before the Civil War, a source of resentment among the city’s Germans

The newspaper complained that under the old slave owner regime that held sway before the war Germans were prohibited from telling slaves “that we regarded them to be human beings and that they has rights too…” This prevented the Germans, who believed that as free men they should be free to speak to slaves, to give a voice to their sorrow at black oppression. It blocked the immigrants from expressions of solidarity with the blacks.5

Because they disapproved of slavery, the editor wrote,  Germans were “designated…as a group as thieves of Negroes and cursed [by the Confederates]…” In the new world brought by the Civil War the social order was overturned,  the Germans “have come to overshadow the slaveowner”, he said.  The editor reminded his readers that immigrants had put Missouri on the road to ending the enslavement of African Americans, writing,  “If Germans had never come to Missouri, then slavery would be …dominant.”6

The Germans and other Unionists had driven the Confederates out of northern and central Missouri, but as 1862 dawned, there still remained a dangerous Confederate army deployed near the western border with Arkansas. German immigrant soldiers would soon be joined by regiments from nearby states in a push to finally rid Missouri of the slaveholding elite that had ruled its affairs until 1861. 7

Video

A lecture by a leading historian on the Missouri Germans and slavery:

Sources:

1. Wilson’s Creek by William Garrett Piston and Richard Hatcher, University of North Carolina Press (2000); Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983)
2 .Wilson’s Creek by William Garrett Piston and Richard Hatcher, University of North Carolina Press (2000); Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983)
3. Wilson’s Creek by William Garrett Piston and Richard Hatcher, University of North Carolina Press (2000); Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983)
4.Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983)  March 3, 1862 p. 308-9 of Germans for a Free Missouri; March 19, 1862 p. 311 of Germans for a Free Missouri
5.Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983) March 31, 1862 p. 316-318 of Germans for a Free Missouri
6.Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983) March 31, 1862 p. 316-318 of Germans for a Free Missouri
7.Wilson’s Creek by William Garrett Piston and Richard Hatcher, University of North Carolina Press (2000); Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983)

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

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