Why the Germans Fought for the Union


For a full list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War scroll to the bottom of the page.

Within weeks of Lincoln’s election, Southern states had started to leave the Union. Lincoln would not even be inaugurated as president until March 1861, but secession movements were already active before Christmas of 1860. Nothing Lincoln did as president initiated secession. It had already begun before he ever took office.

In January 1861, Lincoln analyzed the situation in a letter to a senator:

What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government.1

Lincoln saw secession as part of a strategy by Southern politicians to win through the threat of violence what they could not win at the ballot box, and thereby end democracy in the United States. Many German immigrants agreed with him.

The Germans, like the Irish, were extremely mistrustful of the Republican Party when the 1860 presidential campaign got underway. They too had been targets of the same Know Nothings who formed a strong minority within the new party. German votes, like those of other immigrants, had gone to the Democrats throughout the tumultuous 1850s. But the opposition of liberal Germans to the expansion of slavery and the skillful use of German-language media by Lincoln, as well as the employment of German stump speakers like Carl Schurz by his campaign, won many Germans over to the Republicans.

While Germans divided their votes between Lincoln and Douglas, they resented what many of them viewed as a coup by southern aristocrats set on destroying the American republic. They saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”2

20110616-mapThis map shows Germany divided in 1860. Many immigrants feared the same fate for America if the South won the war. Click here for source.

The Germans were also disproportionately anti-slavery in sentiment. During the 1850s, they had formed their own abolition societies and the German-language press railed against slavery. Interestingly, they were not attracted to the broader abolition movement because it was so closely associated with New England Puritanism, which they viewed as bigoted against immigrants, Catholics, and liberals.

Native-born abolitionists were also frequently advocates of the prohibition of alcohol and the banning of athletics, band concerts, and dances on the Sabbath, all parts of German immigrant communal life. A modern scholar has written that native-born abolitionists adopted a “revivalist tone” that led anti-slavery immigrants to think of them as fanatics. The Germans also objected to the injection of a “militant Protestant tone into public” life by the native-born abolition advocates.3

20110616-soldierThe 8th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was called the First New York German Rifles by its men. Organized in April 1861, it was the first German regiment to reach Washington, DC. Click here for source.

Antagonism to American abolitionists did not lessen the anti-slavery impulse among Germans. That sentiment was on display in a letter written by immigrant Albert Augustin to his family in Germany a few months after the start of the war.

”I’ve seen it often enough how the poor slaves are sold away from their wives and children and beaten with a whip until their skin hangs in tatters,” he wrote. He swore “death and damnation to the slave traders,” whom he blamed for the war as well as for the abuse of the slaves.4

Karl Frick, a German immigrant who joined a Unionist Missouri regiment, wrote to his mother in Germany – who was as unfamiliar with America as though it was on Mars – about the treatment of blacks in America.
”The black people…are certainly human beings, just black instead of white, but…are treated like animals and sold at will, which any civilized human being must be against,” he wrote. He told his mother that he hoped that when the war ended the government would “free the Negroes and give them…land.”5

Twenty-six year old August Horstman explained his decision to enlist in a German regiment in New York soon after the war started in terms he knew his parents would understand:

“Much the same as it is in Germany, the free and industrious people of the North are fighting against the lazy and haughty Junker [aristocratic] spirit of the South. Down with the aristocracy…and may industrious and free men revive the glorious soil of the South. Immigration and opening up the South to free labor is the only way to prevent civil war from returning.”6

Horstman’s assertion, that the strong egalitarian work ethic of immigrants would redeem an America whose native sons did not always value their freedoms and opportunities was echoed not just by Germans, but by Irish and other immigrants as well.

Many of the Germans said they enlisted to express their gratitude to America, even though they saw the country as deeply flawed. Men who complained of mistreatment and prejudice in one paragraph expressed deep affection for America in the next. Sergeant Albert Krause, who strongly objected to the American institution of slavery, wrote his family in Germany about the pride he felt in his new home.

“The United States has taken me in, I have earned a living here,” he wrote. “Why shouldn’t I defend them…with my flesh and blood?”7

Others said, more negatively, that they hoped that German service in the army would finally end discrimination against immigrants. “For us Germans this war is very good, for since the Germans have shown themselves to be the keenest defenders of the Constitution,” one soldier wrote. “They’re starting to fill the natives with respect. Now the Americans don’t make fun of us anymore.”8

Some of the immigrants wrote about a very German fear. Prior to the unification of Germany, Germans lived in dozens of small countries. The lack of unity made the Germans vulnerable to constant invasions by France, Russia, and Austria and susceptible to manipulation by Britain. German immigrants believed that if the South was successful, the United States might further divide into ever-tinier units.  Some saw the hand of European monarchies behind secession, because the destruction of the world’s great democracy was the common project of tyrants. An America divided would be powerless to advance democracy in the world.

While many Germans may have joined the army for strongly ideological or moral reasons, others did so for purely personal ones. One young soldier in his early 20s, who had immigrated to the U.S. without his parents’ permission after stealing money for the passage from his father’s draw, wrote home to Germany that he was “courageously pursuing my goal to become a man” by enlisting. He assured his no doubt horrified father that “my path to glory is clear, and with God’s help, I want to follow it bravely.”9

20110616-recruitsWilliam Albrecht encountered recruiters when his ship arrived in the US shortly after the war began. This cartoon of Castle Clinton (The Battery) later in the war shows a highly systematized process in which new immigrants were overwhelmed by recruiters looking for flesh for the army. A large sign on the left advertised large bonuses for new recruits. Bonuses, which were small or non-existent in 1861, grew to as much as 10 years’ pay for a laborer by 1864.

Not all who joined the army in the early days of the war did so with much forethought. William Albrecht arrived in the US soon after the war began. “We landed in Castle Garden, a reception center for immigrants,” he wrote to family in Germany of his arrival at The Battery in Manhattan.

“As soon as you set foot in the country the recruiters came at you from all sides,” Albrecht wrote. “Since I didn’t know anything about American recruiting tricks, I did the same thing as others…I signed up.”
Albrecht soon regretted his hasty “mistake” of enlisting in an “American” unit, deserted, and joined a German-speaking artillery battery instead.10

1. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy Basler, Rutgers University Press (1953) Vol. 4 p. 172, Letter of Lincoln to Sen. Hale Jan 11, 1861.

2. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 22-23

3. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, University of North Carolina Press (2006)  p. 3

4. Id. p. 77

5. Id. p. 351

6. Id. p. 122

7. Id. p. 199

8. Id. p. 31

9. Id p. __

10. Id. p. 103

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


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