This is the fifth installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War.
The Civil War officially began with the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, but for some German immigrants it had begun months earlier.
Many Germans in Missouri were anti-slavery stalwarts of the Republican Party in a state where slavery was legal. Efforts by Southern sympathizers to disenfranchise the pro-Union Germans led to many incidents of violence against the newcomers even before the war officially broke out.
Written two months before the war began, this letter home to Germany shows how native-born forces in support of slavery were constantly skirmishing with the immigrant opposition. The writer is Conrad Weinrich, who lived in St. Charles County Missouri, a place with as many Germans as native-born.
Feb. 20, 1861
On Monday we had a regular Figth (sic) and the [pro-slavery] Americans fell like the French at the battle of Leipzig. But now our lives aren’t safe for a minute, we have patrols and have armed ourselves as well as we can. And we will hold them off as long as possible. Today there were another 30 americans here, armed to the teeth, but they must have gotten wind that the coast wasn’t clear, but never mind, we are in the right.
Don’t tell anybody about the battle.”
The dedicated abolitionist Weinrich would later rise to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Union Army. After the war he became a racial radical, advocating full equality for all Americans regardless of color.
German-language newspapers, which were ubiquitous, kept immigrants from that country well informed about the causes of the war, although with harshly partisan tones.
Even new arrivals like Friedrich Martens, who was only in the country a brief time when the sectional crisis began to come to a head, understood the causes of the war and explained them in letters home. Martens wrote to his family in Germany in the spring of 1861 that “civil war has broken out in this country. …[T]he states that are rebelling are slave states, and they want slavery to be expanded, but the northern states are against this, and so it’s civil war!” Martens quickly enlisted and bragged to his family that he wouldn’t stop fighting until “the last traitor is lying at our feet, begging for mercy!” 2
A couple of months later, Martens wrote to his parents informing them that “Your son is a soldier! Yes parents, your son is a soldier in America…[R]evolution has broken out in this beautiful free country, and it is of such dimensions that all of our forces must be roused to secure freedom, to crush the revolution.” 3
It is remarkable that Martens, a young man in his early 20s with just four years in America, felt secure enough in his new national identity to brand as traitors Southern patricians whose families had lived in America for centuries.
Martens’ letters are all the more remarkable when you learn that just a couple of years earlier he had written to his parents that he might have to take up arms against anti-immigrant members of the Know Nothings who had infiltrated the Republican Party. At that time he wrote:
We’re already in a war , party against party… . If the Republicans and the Know nothinger (sic) or Know Nothings attack us we’ll get out the long barrels [rifles]… . 4
So, the outbreak of Civil War, disunion for America, helped forge an American identity for this young German who two years earlier thought he might have to kill Republican Know Nothings to preserve his place in the United States.
Millions of immigrants would argue after the war that their role in saving the Union placed them on at least an equal footing with the native born who had tried to destroy it. They would reject the notion that only a family history dating back to Jamestown or Plymouth Rock made one an authentic American.
Even before the war started, Germans realized that the willingness of many native-born Americans (“natives” or “Native Americans” in the language of the day) to abandon the Union meant that immigrants must assume a new role.
Those sentiments were chronicled in a German newspaper in Washington, DC:
“We immigrant citizens have the holy duty to…preserve the Union and the Constitution… . The native Americans are demoralized physically and spiritually. Love, true attachment for this land is entirely lacking [in the native born], They are unworthy of the freedom… . They do not understand free institutions because to them the difference between freedom and despotism is unknown. To us immigrants is reserved to save this land from destruction. And we will do it.” 5
Once Fort Sumter had been fired on, even a newly arrived greenhorn could see the war all around him.
Twenty-year-old German immigrant Alexander Dupre landed in America just as the Civil War began. He wrote his parents from New York that “things look unbelievably warlike here.” Dupre told them that many German immigrants were already joining special Union army regiments in which the officers were German-born and the language of command was German.6 Dupre would join the army, but suffer a sad fate.
In upcoming installments of The Immigrants’ Civil War, we’ll look at the decisions by Irish and other immigrants to join the war effort, or to sit the conflict out. But next, we’ll look at a Baltimore rabbi who seceded from the South after the attack on Fort Sumter.
1. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich published by the University of North Carolina Press (2006) p. 345
2. Ibid. p. 317
3. Ibid. p. 317
4. Ibid. p. 316
5. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy by Ella Lonn published by LSU Press (1951) p. 52
6. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich published by the University of North Carolina Press (2006) p. 45
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
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites