Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War, End Slavery

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For a complete list of The Immigrants’ Civil War articles scroll down.

Historians call June through September of 1862 “the Emancipation Summer.” Against a backdrop of bloody battles, Abraham Lincoln was moving toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves held in bondage in the Confederacy. The most prominent immigrant urging him to action was the German revolutionary Carl Schurz.1

Schurz had come to abolitionism as a natural continuation of his liberal radicalism. One of the first prominent immigrants to join the Republican Party, he was a tireless campaigner for Lincoln in the 1860 election. He was rewarded for his support by being named the United States diplomatic envoy to Spain, but when war broke out he asked for a military appointment instead. Lincoln demurred because problems with Spain in what is now the Dominican Republic held the possibility for a military conflict with that ancient monarchy. Lincoln did not want two wars on his hands.2

Schurz reluctantly went to Spain and was able to greatly improve America’s standing there. Traveling through Europe, he was given a unique platform to see how the Civil War was perceived across the Atlantic.

Shurz reported his observations in a September 14, 1861, letter to his boss, Secretary of State William Seward. He began the letter by apologizing for going beyond the scope of topics that had been laid out for his negotiations with the Spanish crown; in particular, he had brought up the idea of ending slavery. Emancipation, Schurz wrote, may “not seem to have any immediate bearing upon pending negotiations…but…may in the course of time do more to determine our standing in Europe than all our diplomatic operations.”3

Schurz reported that European elites had never supported the Union side in the war. They hoped that a failure to reunite the United States would demonstrate the “the final and conclusive failure of democratic institutions” to the European masses. Hence, the United States could only hope for support from the ordinary people of the nations of Europe.4

Carl-Schurz2

Carl Schurz (Credit: watertownhistory.org)

Liberal European opinion had initially been on the side of the Union at the start of the war, but had changed. Schurz wrote that “the sympathies of the liberal masses in Europe are not as unconditionally in our favor as might be desired” and the masses could only be stirred to counter the anti-Americanism of the elites if “something be done to give our cause a stronger hold in the popular heart.” Schurz explained: “When the struggle about the slavery question in the United States assumed the form of an armed conflict, it was generally supposed in Europe, that the destruction of slavery was to be the avowed object of the policy of the Government, and that the war would in fact be nothing else than a grand uprising of the popular conscience in favor of a great humanitarian principle.”5

Europeans found, to their “surprise and disappointment,” that the Lincoln administration “cautiously avoided the mentioning of the slavery question,” Schurz said. If the war was not about slavery, Europeans could only see it as a war to retake a breakaway republic, something they could not in principle agree with. In fact, Southern agents depicted the war as one seeking self-determination for the South, a right most European liberals supported.6

Emancipation would “place the war against the rebellious slave States upon a higher moral basis and thereby give us control of public opinion in Europe,” Schurz advised. The German concluded, “It is, therefore, my opinion that every step done by the Government towards the abolition of slavery is, as to our standing in Europe, equal to a victory in the field.”7

On October 10, 1861, Seward sent Schurz a letter politely telling him not to interfere in domestic affairs.
Shortly after receiving Seward’s letter, on November 11, 1861, Schurz wrote to Lincoln asking him to allow him to some home. Schurz wrote that his diplomatic goals had been achieved and that he was anxious to join the army. The real diplomatic coup, he believed, could only be achieved through emancipation.8

Schurz’s misgivings about the limited war aims of the Lincoln administration are explicit in a letter he wrote to his friend, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, on November 14, 1861. Schurz wrote, “the state of [the war] seems to me utterly desperate; and what makes matters worse …the Government seem[s] to indulge in the most unwarrantable delusions as to the means by which the rebellion can be overcome.” Schurz said that a mere blockade would not by itself force the South back into the Union, and he dismissed Lincoln’s belief that loyal Union men would soon depose the firebrand leaders of the South. He called for the Union to do “the only thing which is sure to settle the business quickly and definitely. We must proclaim the emancipation of the slaves.”9

Schurz told the abolitionist senator that if the war went on for long, slavery would inevitably die anyway, so it made sense for Lincoln to destroy it now as a matter of strategic policy for bringing the war to a speedy conclusion.10

Schurz left Spain on December 17, 1861. When he returned to Washington, he insisted on a meeting with Lincoln to advise him to immediately emancipate the slaves if he hoped to win over the masses of Europe to the Union cause.11

cooper-union

Cooper Union (Credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

Schurz hoped to keep pressure on Lincoln to free the slaves. In March of 1862, he organized a mass rally for emancipation at Cooper Union in Manhattan. His racial radicalism went far beyond many other Republican leaders. In May 1862, for example, Schurz wrote to Lincoln that the arming of blacks for the Union cause was inevitable and that the administration should recognize this fact and couple emancipation with the enlistment of freed slaves in the Union army. By this means, former slaves could be the liberators of their own families and the exterminators of slavery.12

A month later, Schurz was given what he most wanted. He was named a brigadier general in the Union Army and sent off to Virginia to command a division of mostly German troops.13

By the fall, Brigadier General Carl Schurz would be fighting on the battlefields of Virginia for the end of slavery.

In the video clip below, James Earl Jones reads excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (July 5, 1852). The speech provides an unsentimental assessment of the withholding of freedom from black Americans.

Sources
1. Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (Nathan I Huggins Lectures) by Harold Holzer, Harvard University Press (2012); Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen Guelzo, Simon and Schuster (2006).

2. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse, University of Tennessee Press (1982) pp. 105-106. Schurz is sometimes described as an ambassador, but at the time the United States did not give its diplomatic representatives the title “ambassador” because it stank too much or aristocratic pomposity. See Also: From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1776 by George C. Herring, Oxford University Press (2008).

3. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1 p. 185.

4. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  p. 185.

5. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  p. 186.

6. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  pp. 186-187.

7. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  p. 189, p. 191.

8. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  p. 193.

9. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  pp. 195-197.

10. Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz Vol. 1  p. 197.

11. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse, University of Tennessee Press (1982) p. 113.

12. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse, University of Tennessee Press (1982) p. 114.

13. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse, University of Tennessee Press (1982) p. 119.

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

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