For a complete list of features in The Immigrants’ Civil War scroll to the bottom of the page.
Immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter, the federal government accepted into service many units in which the language of command was not English.
For example, in most companies of the 900-man Gardes Lafayette of New York City, the soldiers spoke French. In Blenker’s 8th New York regiment, the officers addressed their men in German. Norwegian was spoken in the 15th Wisconsin.
As a matter of policy, Lincoln chose to respect the native languages of foreign-born soldiers, which made it possible for the Union to rapidly organize thousands of troops, many of whom could not speak the language of their adopted homeland.
Modern anti-immigrant activists often employ the famous World War I poster of Uncle Sam to demand that English be the only language spoken in the US. Ironically, during World War I, the United States Army hired interpreters so that English-speaking officers could communicate with immigrants serving under them. This continued the Civil War-era tradition of welcoming non-English speakers into the army and accommodating their language needs.
Lincoln’s pioneering effort at linguistic accommodation was nearly derailed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron after the latter issued a controversial order in July 1861, around the time Union forces were marching towards Bull Run. The order, known as General Order 45, said that in the future “no volunteer will be mustered into the service who is unable to speak the English language.”1
The change in policy appeared to be a remnant of Republican prejudice against immigrants, which wasn’t too surprising, since many Republicans had belonged to the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party just a few years earlier. The party was so resolutely against immigrants that their own motto, “Put None But Americans on Guard,” described a policy of barring immigrants from the army. When the Know Nothings joined the new anti-slavery Republican Party, they did not necessarily leave their earlier prejudices behind.
Posters like this recruited immigrants for New York’s German-speaking regiments. (Source: Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society)
Order No. 45 was immediately denounced in the foreign-language press. Immigrants saw the order as discriminatory and exclusionary. The Illinois Staats-Zeitung noted that an immigrant artillery unit had marched off for Bull Run with a plaque reading “German Spoken Here” affixed to the cannons. The newspaper asked if a man had to “pass an English examination before he can receive permission to let himself be shot for the Union”? The stupidity of General Order 45 revealed Secretary of War Cameron as a true Know Nothing, said the editor.2
Secretary Cameron himself was the most disreputable of Lincoln’s Team of Rivals. He was narrow-minded and dishonest. Immediately before joining the Republican Party, Cameron had been an active Know Nothing, only leaving the party when he failed to win their nomination for the Senate. The following oft-repeated, if possibly apocryphal, story illustrates perfectly his reputation:
Mr. Lincoln reportedly asked Thaddeus Stevens about Cameron’s honesty and was told that “I do not believe he would steal a red hot stove.” When the President repeated the story, Cameron was offended and a retraction from Stevens was demanded. The crusty Republican congressman replied that he could have been wrong and thus suggesting that perhaps Cameron might steal a red hot stove. Rumors of political and financial corruption plagued Cameron throughout his career.3
Simon Cameron was a Know Nothing politician who was removed from office as Secretary of War less than a year after his appointment because of his incompetence and rampant corruption within his department.
The immigrant public distrusted Cameron, and members of Lincoln’s White House shared their assessment. Lincoln’s personal secretary John Nicolay described Cameron:
[He is] selfish and openly discourteous to the President. Obnoxious to the country. Incapable either of organizing details [or of] conceiving and executing general plans.4
The two most famous quotes of Cameron’s illustrate his turn of mind. On bribery: “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.” As for science, he said, “I am tired of all this sort of thing called science…We have spent millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped.”
The outcry against General Order 45 in the immigrant press and by elected officials representing immigrant communities was so great that the War Department tried to claim that immigrants had misinterpreted the order. The order was, the department said, only a prohibition on non-English-speakers serving under English-speaking officers. This, of course, was not what the order said at all, but it was an example of Civil War-era spin.
Secretary of War Cameron added that “the government desires that regiments be formed of their own nativity groups,” giving official endorsement to the creation of foreign-language “ethnic” regiments. While this seeming clarification allowed the recruitment of immigrants to go forward, the outcry was by no means over. Immigrants insisted that the order be rescinded entirely, which it was, later during the war.5
This brief national fight over a long forgotten order shows how mid-19th century immigrants demanded that they be treated as full participants in American civic life, whether they spoke English or not. The political scrum also illustrates how immigrants were able to respond within days to what they viewed as a revival of Know Nothingism, and how they organized a successful campaign to rescind a federally promulgated administrative directive in less than a month.
Cameron would soon be gone from the Lincoln administration because of his corruption and inefficiency, but the German, French, and other foreign-language units he tried to outlaw would be around for the full four years of the war. Six months after the controversy, the St. Louis German newspaper Anzeiger des Westens reminded its readers that after “Cameron’s infamous Know Nothing order” was rescinded, the federal government “doubly welcomed” German officers. By using their power, the immigrants had not only overturned a “calculated slight,” they had also increased their influence in Washington.6
Immigrant communities would be jealous guardians of their rights throughout the war. They were not afraid to risk the disapproval of the native born in advocating for what they believed was equal treatment for those who did not speak English. They employed the foreign-language press to mobilize their base constituencies while keeping up a lively debate in mainstream English papers about issues of concern.
We will soon see this pattern repeated by Jewish immigrants in an upcoming installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War.
1. General Orders of the War Dept. 1861, 1862, and 1863 Vol. 1, published by Derby and Miller New York (1864) p. 83
2. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy by Ella Lonn, Louisiana State University Press (1951) pp. 162-163
4. With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865 edited by Michael Burlingame p. 59
5. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy by Ella Lonn, Louisiana State University Press (1951) p. 163
6. Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan and James Primm, University of Missouri Press, Columbia Missouri (1983) p. 300 Anzeiger des Westens Jan. 13, 1862. In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of Secretary Cameron: “The war was less than two months old when detailed accusations of corruption and inefficiency in the War Department began to surface…several of [Cameron’s] political cronies had grown rich, vast public funds had been wasted, and the lives of Union troops had been jeopardized.” See Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin published by Simon and Schuster (2005) pp. 403-404.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites