When the war began, immigrants fought on both sides for many reasons. For some, service as a soldier offered a path to citizenship. Just as military service reflected the responsibilities of citizenship for the native born, it could confer membership in society by demonstrating commitment to shared values. Military salaries provided a second reason to enlist. Not only did soldiers earn a monthly salary, but also bounty payments meant that immigrants who arrived with little or no financial assets could immediately support themselves.
Practical considerations were not the only motivation to enlist. In numerous cases, immigrants fought for political or social principles. Many
At 15, Nast obtained a job drawing for Frank Leslie's Illustrated News. By 1861, Nast was an illustrator for the premier illustrated paper of his day, Harper's Weekly. While at Frank Leslie's Nast helped to illustrate coverage of two local controversies—against spoiled milk and police corruption—but it was at Harper's that his political work really began. There, his drawings reflected public ideas, emotions, and discussions about the Civil War.
Early on, Nast provided readers of Harper's with detailed battle scenes. Later, as the political tensions of the war became increasingly strained, Nast began to produce drawings that were both illustrative and politically pointed. Through his work, Harper's commented approvingly on the Emancipation Proclamation and the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Nast also provided powerful evocations of the personal costs of war. Most famously, Nast supported Lincoln's
1864 reelection campaign with a cartoon demonstrating the cost of ''Compromise with the South.''
Nast's career is especially interesting with regard to immigrants and the Civil War because Nast was sometimes openly antiimmigrant. He lampooned Irish residents of New York and occasionally mocked his fellow German immigrants, as well. After the draft riots, Nast transformed the stereotypical image of the Irish thug into a symbol of the dangers of immigration to the war effort, Reconstruction, and the national political system.
By the end of the war, Nast was a rising star. In the next 20 years he would become America's most famous political cartoonist, and would comment often on the status of immigrants—especially Catholics—in America. Nast left Harper's Weekly in the late 1880s and died in 1902.
German immigrants, for example, opposed slavery and believed it to be incompatible with democratic government. For them, a war to end slavery was philosophically appealing. Others believed that the Union could not be severed by secession. They fought to preserve the Union and to repress what they perceived as a rebellion.
For Irish immigrants, recruiters pitched the war in anti-English terms. Because the Confederacy sought English support, Union boosters argued, Irish men could fight the English by fighting the South. Even more powerful was the promise of military training. Many Irish people came to the United States as famine refugees. For these immigrants, English rule meant starvation and penury. Some hoped that, after a period of renewal in America, Irish nationalism could rise up against the English and take Ireland back under Irish rule. Military service offered training for that eventual conflict, and some soldiers believed that the Civil War was an opportunity to battle-harden Irishmen.
Although most immigrants fought as ordinary soldiers, there were immigrants among the highest ranks of military leadership. In some cases, these men led units composed almost entirely of immigrant recruits, units which proudly identified themselves as German, Scandinavian, French,
THE GREAT REPUBLICAN REFORM PARTY
THE GREAT REPUBLICAN REFORM PARTY
This 1856 political cartoon lampoons the newly formed Republican Party for embracing immigrants, women, African Americans, and Catholics as "radicals and reformers.'' (Library of Congress)
Italian, or Irish. On the battlefront, the story of immigrants and the Civil War is one built around the creation and experience of immigrant units.
Many immigrants took great pride in fighting for the Union or Confederacy. In fact, immigrant units proudly proclaimed their heritage through official and unofficial names, flags, and banners. It is important to recognize that most immigrants who served in the Civil War did so in mixed units. Almost one-fifth of the men in the Union armies were immigrants or sons of immigrants and, of those, most did not join the units generally recognized as ''ethnic.''
Units associated with specific immigrant groups were important, however, and they were distinguished by three characteristics. First, other Americans viewed them as immigrant units. Second, they perceived themselves, and represented themselves, as immigrant units. This identification was especially important for those that adopted specialized flags or uniforms, like the Louisiana Tigers or the Irish Brigade. Finally, immigrant units included men who were overwhelmingly drawn from one immigrant group or one kind of immigrant group (Scandinavians, for example). In many cases, immigrant units came to symbolize the incorporation of the immigrant group into American society and politics. In some cases, though, the immigrant units represented both heroism and negative stereotypes.
Even small immigrant communities sent units to war. The Norwegian community of Wisconsin heard, in 1861, that local Germans were raising a regiment of volunteers. Not to be outdone, the Norwegians raised their own unit, the Fifteenth Wisconsin, also known as the Scandinavian Regiment and the Norwegian Regiment. This unit included men from a variety of Norwegian settlements, including those in Iowa and Illinois. A group of Chicago volunteers formed St. Olaf's Rifles, a celebrated part of the regiment. Also from Chicago came the regimental flag. On one side flew the stars and stripes, while on the other raged the Norwegian lion. The flag was the work of the Norwegian Society of Chicago.
The Fifteenth Wisconsin fought in 26 engagements, under the leadership of its celebrated colonel, Hans Christian Heg. Heg died at Chicka-mauga in September 1863, alongside more than half of the regiment. Heg's Civil War service, and that of the regiment he led, has remained a part of the historical memory of the Civil War among members of the Norwegian-American community.
Swedes, too, contributed men and enthusiasm to the Union war effort. Most opposed slavery, although they had little experience with black Americans and held many of the same prejudices as their native-born neighbors. Overwhelmingly, they supported the preservation of the Union, and they volunteered to fight in that cause. Swedes joined existing units, including the Fifteenth Wisconsin, and fought with distinction. Some of the volunteers brought Swedish military experience to their Civil War service. Colonel Oscar Malmborg, for example, trained the Fifty-fifth Illinois, fought at Corinth, and attracted admiring attention from General Ulysses S. Grant (as well as criticism for his bad temper). John Ericsson designed the ironclad Monitor and convinced Abraham Lincoln that it could be an asset to the Union Navy. When the Monitor was finally afloat, its assistant engineer and one of its crewmen were also Swedish. John Adolph Dahlgren, also a Navy man, invented the ''Dahlgren gun,'' led the initial naval blockade of the war, and participated in the 1865 siege of Charleston, South Carolina.
In other cases, Swedish officers fought for the Union. A. C. Warberg did so, and wrote back to Sweden that he was confident that ''officers from no nation have done their fatherland so much honor in the ranks of the American army as have ours'' (Warberg in Barton 1975, 96). American Swedes pointed with pride to the contributions both of immigrant Swedes and those still in the service of Sweden. Like many other immigrant groups, Swedes looked, in later years, to Civil War veterans for community leadership. Colonel Hans Mattson, for example, became secretary of state for Minnesota from 1870 until 1872.
Like Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, Italians entered the United States through the port of New York City. Unlike the others, though, many Italians remained in the city to live. Politically active and socially cohesive, Italians in New York observed and participated in the party politics of the late 1850s and were powerfully motivated to fight in 1861. Francesco Casale, who founded the first English-Italian newspaper in America, recruited a group of volunteers called the Italian Legion. Later, he helped to create the Thirty-ninth New York Regiment, also known as the Italian Garibaldi Guard. Many of the men who fought with the Thirty-ninth were veterans of the wars of Italian unification and fought for Garibaldi in Italy. As a link to that
experience, the unit wore red shirts, echoing Garibaldi's army. They also linked the Garibaldi message of political liberalization, equality under the law, and personal freedom to the Union cause. The 39th Regiment is interesting from another perspective, as well. It contained not only Italian units, but five other immigrant companies. These included companies of French, Hungarian, German, Swiss, and Spanish immigrants. It is easy to imagine the challenges of language alone for commanders of this regiment.
Other Italians also raised volunteer units. Francesco Spinola recruited and commanded four regiments for New York. Count Luigi Palma di Cesnola used his experiences in the Crimean War to train numerous young Italian men who went on to fight for the Union. Cesnola commanded Union forces himself, as well. In June 1863, he was wounded and pinned under his horse after an engagement with Confederate J. E. B. Stuart in Virginia. Taken prisoner, Cesnola became an advocate for better treatment of prisoners of war.
Although their numbers were small, French immigrants were similarly eager to fight for the Union. In New York, they formed the Lafayette Guards, a company led by Colonel Regis de Trobriand. The Guards fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Trobriand was an unusual person. Descended from a distinguished French family, and married to an American banking heiress, Trobriand lived in a variety of locales. He settled in New York City in 1841, writing for its French-language newspaper and writing a novel. He then moved to Venice. In 1847 he returned to New York City, resuming his work as a writer and man-about-town. Thus, he was unlike many immigrants in that he had not emigrated directly and then started to establish roots in America. It was war service, from which he emerged a major general and an American citizen, which seemed to cement his commitment to the United States. After the war, Trobriand produced a history of the Army of the Potomac in French and commanded garrisons in North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and New Orleans. Trobriand died on Long Island, New York, in 1897.
As a measure of the possibility for confusion in an army composed of regulars, volunteers, and local and state units, there was another Lafayette Guard. This unit, a group of 80 men designated Company E of the Second Ohio Infantry, was composed mostly of German immigrants. It left Ohio on the governor's orders to protect Washington, D.C., in 1861. Later, the Fifty-fifth New York Volunteers recruited heavily among French immigrants.
Although no Chinese units were formed, individual Chinese immigrants fought in both Union and Confederate units. The total number of Chinese soldiers is difficult to establish, in part because some fought under names that did not reflect their ethnicity. An example is Corporal Joseph Pierce of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Sold to sea by his parents, Pierce caught the attention of Amos Peck, a descendant of one of the founders of Hartford. Raised by the Peck family, he joined a local unit at the beginning of the war. With his regiments, Pierce fought from Antietam to Appomattox. In addition, at least one Chinese soldier fought with the Avegno Zouaves, a unit of the Confederacy's 13th Louisiana Infantry. The total number of Chinese immigrant soldiers is believed to be about 50.
The two largest immigrant groups, the Germans and Irish, contributed enormous numbers of men to the war effort. As many as 200,000 German immigrants and German Americans fought for the Union, and Irish soldiers filled regiments across the nation. The Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the most famous of the German units, and the Irish Brigade both attracted intense public scrutiny as immigrant units. But many other smaller groups of men fought as well. In several cases, leaders forged in battle would go on to become active examples of the participation of immigrants in American politics.
German-speaking Americans raised numerous units, and German immigrants provided fighting men from the rank of private all the way up the command chain. Although about half of the Eleventh Corps' men were native-born Americans, so many were either German-speaking immigrants, naturalized citizens of German origin, or Americans born to German immigrant parents that the unit was forever associated with German immigrants in the public eye.
Although Germany was not a unified country in the 1860s, German-speaking immigrants to America were usually lumped together as ''Dutch'' or ''German'' by their native-born neighbors. Likewise, the distinction between a new immigrant, a naturalized citizen, and the child of immigrants was only sometimes meaningful. American disinterest in differentiating between Bavarian and Prussian immigrants—or among the various citizenship statuses—reflected a common tendency to retreat into stereotypes. The Eleventh Corps suffered from this tendency, most notably in the aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville.
At Chancellorsville, the disastrous miscalculation of General Joseph Hooker was compounded in the press by the supposed cowardice of the German troops. On May 2, around 5:30 P.M., the Eleventh Corps found itself under fire from three directions. As the line crumbled, a disorderly retreat sent men tumbling back into the lines of their compatriots. Some of Carl Schurz's men held their line briefly, but it, too, broke at about 6:15 P.M. In the end, the Eleventh Corps fought for more than an hour and a half without reinforcement, and suffered massive losses. When the Battle of Chancellorsville was over, there was plenty of blame to go around. The German units, though, bore an enormous share. They were mocked in the press and abused in letters and among army leaders. Schurz spent much of the rest of his life trying to rehabilitate the reputation of his men and of German fighters in the Union Army.
Schurz's career was a testament to the leadership potential realized by German fighters. Four German Americans would become major generals in the Union Army. In addition to Schurz were Franz Sigel, Peter Joseph Oster-haus, and Adolph Steinwehr. Germans appeared among brigadier generals, as well. These men included Alexander Schimmelfennig, Louis Blenker, Frederick Salomon, August Willich, and Joseph Weydemeyer. German generals represented much of the history of German immigration into the United States. Sigel, for example, was a refugee of the Revolutions of 1848, in which he led radicals in Baden. Likewise, Salomon and his brother—who was governor of Wisconsin—escaped the Revolutions from Halberstadt.
As with everything else to do with immigrants and the war, these men did not necessarily agree about politics. Just as they had debated the merits of Republican versus Democrat before the war, Germans in America continued to participate in American politics throughout the war. This participation included conflict over military leadership. Louis Blenker, for example, supported General George McClellan so passionately that he led a torchlight procession of 2,000 men through Washington, D.C. His military career ended not long after.
The German-Jewish minority also supplied fighting men for the Union. Although many German immigrant areas, particularly in New York City, were divided between Catholic and Protestant religious groups, a portion of immigrants from German- and Polish-speaking areas were Jewish. Louis Gratz, for example, emigrated from Prussian-controlled Inowrazlaw, or JungBreslau, now called Inowraclaw and a part of Poland. Gratz came to the United States with $10 and no English language skills. Unable to find work, he spent $7.50 on sewing notions, stockings, and shoelaces, and became a peddler. Life as a peddler was almost unimaginably hard. To make more money and out of desperation at his condition, Gratz studied at night to learn English. Eventually, he forged a partnership with another immigrant from Inowrazlaw. When the war broke out, Gratz found it impossible to continue in business.
Like many other men, Gratz was swept up in the fervor of the early months of the war. He volunteered for service in the Union Army. Although Gratz spoke good English, he could not read or write well enough to win a promotion. After his first four-month enlistment expired, Gratz obtained a meeting with Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Examining Gratz, Cameron found him capable enough for a position as first lieutenant in the cavalry and promoted him. Gratz ended the war as a regimental commander. In a letter to family, Gratz expressed pride in his accomplishments, satisfaction that he was ''treated with utmost consideration by Jews and Christians,'' and a determination that if he survived the war he would ''return to Germany to live with you'' (Marcus 1996, 220-224).
The most famous immigrant unit in the Civil War was the Irish Brigade. Organized in 1861 by Thomas Francis Meagher, the Brigade would see some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Included in the Brigade were the Sixty-ninth, Sixty-third, and Eighty-eighth New York Regiments, and later the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts Regiments, and the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment. The men who served in the Brigade were overwhelmingly Irish-born or the children of Irish immigrants. Like the Norwegians of the Fifteenth Wisconsin, the members of the Irish Brigade proudly displayed Irish imagery on their regimental flag. Green, with a golden harp or a golden shamrock in the middle, the flag came to symbolize the pride of the brigade in its immigrant heritage and the valor it displayed in combat.
In 1862, the men of the Irish Brigade fought all over the eastern theater, including at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Losses were enormous, and the bravery of the Brigade became famous. At Fredericksburg, on December 13, an attack on the stone wall at Marye's Heights was nearly successful because of the willingness of the Brigade to charge without regard to massive casualties. Of 1,300 men in the Brigade then, 50 died in the assault, 421 were wounded, and 74 were either captured or unaccounted for.
Five men led the Brigade during the war. Three were killed in action. In the Sixty-ninth New York, 16 of 19 officers died. In the course of the war, the brigade included 7,000 men, but at war's end only 1,000 remained. Casualties sapped unit strength and required constant recruiting to replace fallen men.
The immense losses helped to undermine Irish support for the war, as did the perception that the Irish Brigade was always fighting at the front line. Like so much else in the history of the Irish in America, the Brigade was both a blessing and a curse. It helped to demonstrate the fierce patriotism and impressive physical courage of the Irish. As casualty lists grew longer, however, the Brigade's courage began to seem more like exploitation. Eventually, tension over the role of Irish men in the Union armies, and over the relationship of the war to slavery, would spark some of the worst riots in American history. Still, Irish-American pride in the exploits and sacrifices of the Irish Brigade was substantial and remains so.
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