Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War


This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. The Immigrants’ Civil War is an ongoing series that will examine the role immigrants played in the conflict, how immigrants responded to the war both individually and as communities, and how the place of immigrants in America changed dramatically during the Civil War era. The first installment looks at America’s immigrants in 1861. Join The Immigrants’ Civil War on Facebook

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, the United States was no longer the homogeneous Anglo-America that the Founding Fathers may have believed they had left as an inheritance to their descendants.

The 1850s had seen a vast influx of new immigrants from places outside the traditional English and Scottish wellsprings of American ancestry. The “new immigrants,” as they were called, would form the demographic basis for modern America.

The foreign born-population of the United States had nearly doubled between the 1850 and 1860 censuses. This was the largest percentage increase of immigrants in American history.

Immigrants now comprised 13 percent of the population, a larger percentage than they had ever made up previously in the history of the Republic. And this wasn’t a gradual change – the overwhelming majority of these foreign-born had entered the US within the decade preceding the war.

It was not just the number of immigrants, but their countries of origin, which would radically change America. Before 1850, the foreign born population was largely from England, Scotland, and Wales. Those three regions began to be overshadowed in the new immigration era of the Civil War years.

Irish immigrants, considered unassimilable by many Americans because of their Catholic beliefs and peasant origins, made up nearly four in ten of all foreign-born people in 1860. The 1.2 million Germans were almost a third of the immigrants living here at the start of the war.

In 1850s, the US also experienced its first large migration of Czechs, Hungarians, Swiss, and Scandinavians. In addition, 35,000 Chinese immigrants settled in the Pacific Coast region, moving to Chinatowns on the edges of white communities, and 27,000 Mexicans were living in the Southwest.

Before this period of immigration, the majority of immigrants weren’t so much different from those who preceded them, emigrating from the same English villages as the Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers.

Now, new immigrants seemed to flood in from every part of the earth, each group bringing their own strange folkways, religions, and political views, whether espousing Buddhism or monarchism. The new immigrants refused to give up their native languages and many never really learned to speak English comfortably.

The newcomers tended to concentrate certain states while avoiding others, and nine out of ten new immigrants went to live in the North.

Where were immigrants settling? In South Dakota, 37 percent of the population was foreign born; in Wisconsin, 35 percent, in Minnesota, 34 percent, and in New York, 26 percent, to give you an idea.

In contrast, states in the southern heartland had almost no immigrants at all. For example, South Carolina, where the war began at Fort Sumter, had only 2 percent foreign-born residents, and Georgia had 1 percent.

The South’s slave-based labor system was the key factor in keeping newcomers out.

Immigrants, whatever their views on the abolition of slavery, didn’t want to live in slave states since in those states, they would have to compete with unpaid African American labor. In addition, they would find little hope for social advancement amid the hereditary aristocracy that dominated the South.

So the immigrants went north, pioneering the upper Midwest and recreating the urban centers of the East. Immigrants in the 1860s were also drawn to areas that had already been settled by people from their native countries, finding cultural support systems in certain villages and neighborhoods.

Big cities were among the most profoundly transformed by this concentrated migration. In 1860, New York City was 47 percent foreign born,and Philadelphia was 30 percent. Half of Chicagoans were born abroad, as were half of those living in San Francisco, the biggest city on the West Coast.

Cincinnati and Milwaukee were virtually German cities, with almost half the population of each being German speakers.

In fact, Cincinnati, on the banks of the Ohio River, was referred to as Over the Rhine, because it was so German in character. British reporter Edward Dicey wrote in 1862 that it was hard to believe that you were not in some city in the German fatherland when visiting it because of the “German air of the people and the place.”

In Milwaukee, a person could walk through the large German district in the city without seeing a sign in English or hearing English spoken on the streets.1

But immigrants did not just settle in urban centers. Economically hard-pressed farming communities from Europe tried to establish colonies in America for their land-starved young people.

Groups of a hundred or more immigrants from a rural district in Europe would often journey together to found farming villages in the United States. These villages would sometimes receive names transplanted from the homeland, like Erin or Connaught from Ireland, or Tell (remember William Tell?) from Switzerland. Swiss colonies, as they were called, were particularly successful in transplanting their old-country culture from Europe to America.


In the New York City of the 1850s, the Five Points slum in Lower Manhattan was the first stop for Irish and Chinese immigrants.

In these transplanted villages, the immigrant settlers would establish a church from their home country where they could worship in their native language according to their old customs. In the secular realm, they would conduct business, teach the young in local schools, and even carry out governmental functions like court hearings and town meetings in the language of their native land. The immigrants would appeal to friends who stayed in Europe to come over and join them in the New World, starting a wave of chain migration for cultural and demographic replenishment.

Thus, America of the 1850s was populated and reborn.

Ella Lonn, the seminal historian of immigrant America in the 1860s, wrote more than half-a-century ago that on the eve of the Civil War, immigrants still preserved the customs and ideas of the homeland, despite their new place of residence:

In many villages and in many sections of our cities, a visitor could readily believe that he was in a Rhenish [German] city or had dropped into a Dutch village, so faithfully was the atmosphere of the homeland reproduced. Many tongues were spoken here, and many persons neither spoke nor understood any tongue other than their native speech.2

The newness of the immigrant populations, their resistance to assimilation, and the areas where they chose to live would all have a profound effect on the strategy and outcome of the Civil War.

But before we get to all of that, we’ll first look further backward. In the next installment of “The Immigrants’ Civil War, I’ll travel back to the revolutionary year of 1848, where events abroad set the stage for future waves of migration.

Read the second installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War.

1 Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict edited by Susannah J. Ural NYU Press (2010) p.13
2 Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy by Ella Lonn LSU Press (1951) p. 39-40

Statistical Sources
“Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990”
Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon
Population Division
U.S. Bureau of the Census
Washington, D.C. 20233-8800
February 1999
Population Division Working Paper No. 29

Foreign-born population in the US in 1860
*The census in 1850 was the first time a census asked whether or not a person was foreign born.

In 1850, the US had 2.2 million foreign-born residents. By 1860, there were 4.1 million, nearly twice as many. The 4.1 million made up more than 13 percent of the total population.

Foreign-born population by country of birth in 1860
Ireland- 1.6 million
Germany- 1.2 million
Other Western Europe- 900,000
China- 35,000
Mexico- 27,000
Canada- 250,000
Eastern Europe

States with highest percentage of foreign-born in 1860
California- 38%
South Dakota- 37%
Wisconsin- 35%
Minnesota- 34%
Utah- 31%
Nevada- 30%
Washington- 27%
New York- 26%
Nebraska- 22%
Massachusetts- 21%
Rhode Island- 21%
Michigan- 20%
Illinois- 19%
New Jersey-18%
Connecticut- 17%
Iowa- 16%
Pennsylvania- 14%
Missouri- 14%

In 1860, the only southern state with a large immigrant population was Louisiana with 11 percent. South Carolina had 2 percent foreign-born and Georgia had 1 percent.

Overall, 3.6 million foreign-born lived in the North and 400,000 lived in the South.

Cities with largest immigrant populations in 1860
New York City- 47%
Philadelphia- 30%
Boston- 36%
New Orleans- 38%
Cincinnati- 46%
St. Louis- 50%
Chicago- 50%
San Francisco- 50%
Milwaukee- 53%

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


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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