Scroll to the bottom for a full list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War series.
The 8th New York Volunteer Regiment was one of the first immigrant regiments to join the Union cause. Organized on the Lower East Side of New York City, it was led by Louis Blenker and recruited by German leader Carl Schurz.
Robert Rossi came to America just three years before the Civil War began. The 30-year-old German immigrant joined the 8th New York just a week after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.1
Rossi was with the 8th when it covered the Union retreat from Bull Run in July 1861, but his letters home make the army sound like a great hiking expedition. “[T]his fresh air does me good,” he told his family in Germany. Army life was festive and convivial, he assured them, saying that a party at which his friends “drank several bottles of wine” was “merry and fun.” Of New Year’s Eve, he wrote that “we had a lot of fun and didn’t get to bed until around 3, all of us dutifully drunk.” After the tough battles of 1862, particularly the slaughter of his regiment at Cross Keys, war would never look like a picnic again. By 1863 when friends asked whether they should enlist, Rossi said that “I advise against it as strongly as I can.” The destruction he witnessed left him resolved that “nothing in the world could make me want to go through what I experienced again.”2
Flank Marker of the 8th NY in the collection of the New York State Military Museum
In the spring of 1862, the German 8th New York was in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia. The men were under the command of John C. Fremont, an abolitionist general beloved by German liberals throughout the United States. They may have begun to wonder if the inexperienced Fremont was the right man to lead them when their food supplies began to run out and they were reduced to robbing local farmers to get enough to eat. This turned many of their victims into confirmed Confederates.3
Fremont’s small army and another Union force commanded by Irish immigrant James Shields were slowly moving south in the Valley. They hoped to destroy a Confederate army under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Combined, the two Union columns had a 10,000 man advantage over their adversary, but Jackson would fight each of them separately before they could unite.4
Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign was waged from March through June 1862 in the strategic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Cross Keyes is at the southern end of the map.
Fremont came upon the Confederates on June 8, 1862, at the small village of Cross Keys, Virginia. The 8th New York was part of a mostly German brigade that moved towards where the Confederates were believed to be. Normally the 8th should have put a small number of soldiers a hundred or more yards in front. These advanced scouts, known as “skirmishers,” were sent ahead to discover hidden enemy ambushes. For some reason, the colonel of the 8th did not do this. The rumor among the men was that their colonel had been drinking.5
The German soldier Sergeant August Horstmann was with another German regiment when he watched the 8th New York destroyed. He wrote home about what happened after the 8th cleared away a few Confederate pickets:
…they started singing “Hinaus in die Ferne” [a German hiking song]…and went straight into a bayonet attack, & it was uphill and over three fences, until after the last Fence on the other side of the hill , they met up with 7 enemy regiments hidden in the woods. They were received so warmly by the enemy that 4 regiments were firing on this 1, & 3 more were standing by with their bayonets poised. What must those seven regiments have thought when they saw a single regiment storming at them with their bayonets at charge and singing at the same time.6
Horstman exaggerated slightly. The Confederate general who set the ambush reported on the scene: “I ordered the three regiments to rest quietly in the edge of an open wood until the enemy should come within 50 steps of our line…”7
We know what the Confederates thought of the 8th. As one Southern veteran of the battle wrote later, the 8th New York:
advanced with such precision, keeping the step, and their line so well dressed that it was a matter of comment afterwards among our officers, but poor fellows, they did not know what was in store for them behind that fence. There we lay, as a Bengal tiger when he crouches down ready to spring upon his unsuspected prey, each man in deathly silence, with eyes fixed upon the advancing foe, only waiting for the command to fire. Dear friend, these were almost breathless moments, not a word, not a whisper by the men, only a word of caution was whispered by the officers. See them advancing; keep cool, Alabamians; take good aim, and not fire too high. They were allowed to come within seventy-five or one hundred yards, when the command, “Fire!” was given.8
The 8th New York was by itself when it crossed the open field. At the edge of the field was a fence, behind it was a woods which concealed 1,300 Confederates waiting to destroy the 500 Yankee “Dutchmen,” as Germans were derisively called. Many of the Southern soldiers had four or more projectiles in their muskets. When they were ordered to fire, as many as 5,000 bullets and shot may have hurdled towards the shocked Germans.9
The 8th New York crossed this open field and were ambushed by Confederates concealed in woods behind this fence.
A Confederate recorded the impact: “We hurled such a storm of ‘Buck and Ball’ at them that it came very near annihilating their command…”10
Horstman, the German sergeant agreed, writing that “the 8th Regt. Met its doom and a terrible hail of bullets fell on them from a distance of only 50 paces, so that in no time at all, more than 300 were lying dead and wounded in the field in the midst of the enemy position. Our regiment…was quickly sent to their aid…but the fate of the 8th Regt. had already been sealed.”11
Horstman described the killing field as “a scene that was sickening and sad to behold.” On the field, he wrote home, “corpses were ripped apart so badly you couldn’t distinguish friend or foe. Some had both legs shot off, others were blown apart in the middle, others were lying there with no heads. Arms and legs were scattered everywhere. This is war!?”12
General Trimble reported back to his superiors in Richmond that “the famous Eighth New York Regiment…whose gallantry deserved a better fate, were entirely cut to pieces”13
After the battle, a reporter from The New York Times visited the field of death:
I am writing on the ground where so many of the Eighth New-York met their doom. Seldom is a wheat field as terribly sown. The poor fellows lie around me in all postures and positions, some on the very spot where they fell, others propped up against the fences where they crawled to die. …Many of our wounded have lain upon the field all night, and it is questionable whether ambulances will come to their relief much before the middle of the day.14
Fifty-three men of the 8th were killed outright and 27 more would die from their wounds soon thereafter. Another 100 suffered serious wounds and 74 were captured. More than 260 men were killed, wounded, or captured, roughly half the regiment’s total strength. New York’s “Little Germany” was devastated.15
The shooting that took such a heavy toll may have lasted for as short a time as one minute.
Hinaus in die Ferne was the song the men of the 8th New York were singing when they were slaughtered.
Resources: This article relies heavily on Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic by Robert Krick pub. by Morrow (1996) which includes a chapter on the destruction of the 8th New York. The Civil War Trust has a useful tactical map of the battle.
1. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich pub. by University of North Carolina Press (2006) pp. 79-81.
2. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich pub. by University of North Carolina Press (2006) pp. 81-82.
3. True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army by Martin W. Ofele pub. by Praeger (2008) pp. 109-111.
4. Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic by Robert Krick pub. by Morrow (1996) pp. 1-39; Stonewall Jackson by James Robertson pub. by MacMillan (1997) pp. 426-456; Lee’s Lieutenants Vol. 1by Douglass Southall Freeman pub by Scribner (1942) pp. 411-443;Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah by John D. Imboden in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 282-297.
5. True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army by Martin W. Ofele pub. by Praeger (2008) pp. 109-111.
6. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich pub. by University of North Carolina Press (2006) pp. 121-122.
7. OFFICIAL RECORDS Vol. 12 Part 1 Report of Brig. Gen. I.R. Trimble p. 799.
8. RECOLLECTIONS OF WAR TIMES BY An Old Veteran WHILE UNDER STONEWALL JACKSON AND Lieutenant General JAMES LONGSTREET How I Got In, and How I Got Out by W. A. McClendon, pub. by The Paragon Press 1909 p. 66.
9. Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic by Robert Krick pub. by Morrow (1996) pp. 173-174.
10. W. A. McClendon,RECOLLECTIONS OF WAR TIMES BY An Old Veteran WHILE UNDER STONEWALL JACKSON AND Lieutenant General JAMES LONGSTREET How I Got In, and How I Got Out by W. A. McClendon, pub. by The Paragon Press 1909 p. 66.
11. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich pub. by University of North Carolina Press (2006) pp. 121-122.
12. Germans in the Civil War edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich pub. by University of North Carolina Press (2006) p. 122.
13. OFFICIAL RECORDS Vol. 12 Part 1 Report of Brig. Gen. I.R. Trimble p. 799.
14. THE SHENANDOAH BATTLES; The Battle of Cross Keys, between Fremont and Jackson NY Times June 16, 1862.
15. Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic by Robert Krick pub. by Morrow (1996) p. 179.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites