The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

This article is part of The Immigrants’ Civil War. Scroll down for a complete listing of the series.

Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.

German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.

At the start of 1861, on New Year’s Day, a slave auction took place in St. Louis. Outraged German immigrants crowded into the auction to stop it from going forward. It was the last public sale of human flesh in the city. At least that was how it was remembered later.1

Missouri’s governor, Claiborne Jackson, was a dedicated secessionist. His designs to take the state out of the Union were frustrated by German voters. While he could never get a majority of the state legislature to vote to leave the Union, he maneuvered to stage an armed coup in which the violent men behind the bloody Kansas raids would take control of Missouri by force of arms.2

The key to controlling Missouri was capturing the federal arsenal at St. Louis.

At the beginning of 1861, the St. Louis Arsenal was under the command of Major William Bell, a Confederate sympathizer. Gov. Jackson hoped to take control of the arsenal from federal authorities without a fight.

The governor’s emissary, D.M. Frost, met with the major and wrote back to Jackson:

I have just returned from the arsenal, where I have had an interview with Major Bell, the commanding officer of that place. I found the major everything that you or I could desire. He assured me that he considered that Missouri had, whenever the time came, a right to claim it as being on her soil. He asserted his determination to defend it against any and all irresponsible mobs, come from whence they might, but at the same time gave me to understand that he would not attempt any defense against the proper State authorities.

…The Major informed me that he had arms for forty thousand men, with all the appliances to manufacture munitions of almost every kind. This arsenal, if properly looked after, will be everything to our State…3

Luckily, the authorities in Washington learned of Major Bell’s disloyalty just in time and he was removed from command before he could betray the arsenal.

Gov. Jackson now knew that only a resort to force would win him the muskets stored in St. Louis. He began secretly to assemble the armed force he would need to steal the federal weapons.

The St. Louis Germans were not content to oppose Jackson at the ballot box. When the slaveholders tried to overawe them with displays of armed might, the German organizations in the city began to train their members to defend the arsenal. If their sworn enemies got control of the weapons, not only would Missouri join the Confederacy, the Germans might be driven out.

The Germans allied themselves with other pro-Northern minorities and formed the Union Club to coordinate activities against the governor and to secure weapons for the coming fight.

A pro-Union Safety Committee organized 16 armed companies around St. Louis of approximately 100 men each, which totaled about 1,450 armed men. A majority of the men were Germans, but there were also Irish and native-born as well. Hoping to keep their military drills a secret, the units practiced in halls with covered windows. They laid sawdust on the floors to keep people outside from hearing the distinctive sound of men marching as they trained for war.4

In February, the authorities in Washington finally dealt with the threat from Gov. Jackson by sending Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a strong pro-Unionist, and 330 soldiers to take command of the situation. This meant that a bloodless sneak attack by Jackson to take over the arsenal was now impossible. Lyon realized, though, that if the Confederates rallied all of their supporters, his men could only hold out briefly without help. So, he began working with the Germans and others of the Union Safety Committee to plan his defense.

Gov. Jackson suffered another setback when a convention that he had hoped would push Missouri to leave the United States met and decided to stay in the Union. Missouri would be a divided state throughout the war.

After Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12, 1861, the governor mobilized pro-Confederate militias and requested artillery from the Confederate government to be used to capture the arsenal. Approximately 700 armed men responded to his call. Captain Lyon wanted to counter this by mobilizing the Union Safety Committee militias to defend the arsenal, but Southern sympathizers in the chain of command blocked him. It was not until two weeks after the war broke out that the pro-Southern officers were removed and Lyon was allowed to raise an army of volunteers to protect St. Louis from the Jackson’s militia forces forming just outside the city.5

Lyon worked with German leaders like Franz Sigel to enlist immigrants in the new Missouri Volunteers. Sigel had been a professional army officer in Germany, but he had thrown in his lot with the Liberal revolutionaries of 1848. Because of his military expertise, Sigel was put in command of the revolutionary army in Baden. When his forces were defeated, he fled to the United States.

Sigel came to New York in 1852, where he worked as a public school teacher. A few years later he moved to St. Louis where he became a professor at the German American Academy. On the eve of the Civil War, he had risen to head the St. Louis public school system less than a decade after coming to America.6

Franz Sigel was a trusted name in the German community and he easily enrolled hundreds of men in his 3rd Missouri Volunteers.

More than 5,000 men, nearly all of whom were German immigrants, immediately volunteered. How prominent were the Germans in this force? Of the first 4,200 men to enlist, only 100 were non-Germans.7

On May 10, Captain Lyon’s volunteers had swelled to 6,000 men and he marched them out of the arsenal to confront Gov. Jackson’s militia. The Confederates were surrounded by the much larger force and surrendered without a fight. However, when Lyon’s men were marching the prisoners back to the city, a pro-Southern mob confronted Franz Sigel’s Germans, insulting them as “Dutchmen” and pelting them with debris. A man in the crowd is believed to have fired a shot at the Germans, mortally wounding Capt. Constantin Blandovski, a Polish immigrant commanding a nearly entirely German company of soldiers.8

20110506-arsenalA large mob of Confederate sympathizers attacked Germans loyal to the United States as they returned to the St. Louis Arsenal.

Once Captain Blandovski fell, the German volunteers under Franz Sigel fired into the mob. At least 25 civilians and three soldiers were killed in the fight that ensued. One of the dead was a small child.

The killings had been sparked by the mob’s hatred of Unionist Germans and the response of Sigel’s men ignited still more hatred. Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.

Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover of the arsenal and fired into the mob:

“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9

German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.

The Germans refused to leave.
Click here for an index of all of our articles on The Civil War in Missouri


1. “The Role of German Immigrants in Civil War Missouri” . Adam Arenson in his new book The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War Harvard University Press (2011) says that slave sales took place after Jan. 1, 1861. He also questions whether the incident on the courthouse steps ever took place, saying that newer investigations suggest that these events are imagined.” Kindle Location 2213. Here is a blog post from the Missouri History Museum on a painting once believed to show the “last slave sale”. The sale story appears in a memoir written by a St. Louis minister years after the alleged event in The Story of a Border State During the Civil War by Galusha Anderson. Here is an essay on the National Park Service website examining Rev. Anderson’s claim.
2. “Solving the Mystery of the Arsenal Guns” by Randy R. McGuire, PhD (2003)
3. Letter from Daniel M. Frost to Gov. Jackson, Jan. 24, 1861
4. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861 by James Peckham (1866) p. 30-36
5. “Solving the Mystery of the Arsenal Guns” by Randy R. McGuire, PhD (2003)
6. Encyclopedia Virginia
7. “Civil Warfare in St. Louis” by Adam Goodheart Published by The American Scholar (2011)
8. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy by Ella Lonn published by LSU Press (1951) p. 295; for the regimental roster of the 3rd Missouri Volunteers, click here.
9. Lonn p. 146-147

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


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