Germans in the Civil War
By Joseph R. Reinhart
Author of A History of the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry U.S.: The Boys Who Feared No Noise
Contents: Where They Lived— Religious and Political Differences— German-Americans Rally Around the Flag —Why They Volunteered and How They Were Recruited— Where They Fought— Prejudices— Performance.
Where They Lived
More than 1.3 million Germans were living in the United States at the start of the Civil War, and they comprised almost 5 percent of its white population and about 4 percent of its total population of 31.2 million. The large majority of these German immigrants arrived in the U. S. between 1848 and 1860, and came mainly from the western and southwestern areas of Germany. An estimated 4,000 of these German immigrants had participated in the failed German Revolution of 1848 and/or uprisings in 1849, and fled their homelands to escape retribution. These political exiles, known as Forty-Eighters, caused quite a stir in the U.S. because of their highly vocal agitation for changes in American institutions and practices, and their anticlerical sentiments.
In 1860, more than four out of five Germans in the United States were living in the Free States, and two out of three were concentrated in just five states – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. The border states, consisting of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, contained about 15 percent of the country’s Germans, and the Slave States in the South contained a little over 5 percent. Germans overwhelmingly chose to live in the Free States because they did not have to compete with slave labor, and the Free States were more industrialized, offering better economic opportunities. Germans also disliked the institution of slavery because it was akin to the serf system they detested in their homelands.
Kentucky, being a Slave State, attracted fewer Germans than if it had been a Free State, and its German-born population approximately 27,000 persons in 1860. One of the main reasons for German settlement in Kentucky was the development of manufacturing interests along its Ohio River border, principally in Louisville, Covington and Newport, and to certain settlements of agriculturalist Germans in counties along the northern border of the state. The relatively small number of slaves in counties along Kentucky’s northern border was another reason Germans moved into this part of the Bluegrass State. While slaves accounted for about 20 percent of Kentucky’s total population of 1,150,000 in 1860, they aggregated less than 8 percent of Louisville’s population and less than 2 percent of Covington’s and Newport’s. It is noteworthy that approximately 50 percent of Kentucky’s native-Germans lived in Louisville, and the cities of Covington and Newport (combined) contained almost 20 percent of the Bluegrass State’s German population.
Religious and Political Differences
Germans brought their institutions and customs to America with them, but were not of one mind in some significant areas. Religion was a factor dividing Germans, about half of whom were Roman Catholics and half were Protestants. German Protestants principally belonged to Lutheran, Evangelical or Reformed churches, and the enmity between Protestants and Catholics spawned during the Reformation did not disappear when the immigrants arrived in America. The vociferous and radical Forty-Eighters also caused division within the German element, and also drew the ire of old stock Americans. The Forty-Eighters were mostly atheists and harshly criticized all organized religions and clerics – especially Roman Catholics. They also spoke out scornfully against English-speaking Protestant churches that supported temperance and puritanical Sabbath laws– believing these laws restricted personal freedom. Moreover, these so-called freethinkers were strong abolitionists who agitated for an end to slavery through public speeches and the many German-language newspapers they controlled. Earlier German immigrants differed sharply from the Forty-Eighters and were subjected to strong criticism by these radicals for their religious beliefs, attachment to churches, and lack of high culture.
Prior to the mid-1850’s, most German immigrants became loyal members of the Democratic Party. Democrats welcomed foreigners into the party, spoke out for their political rights, and opposed strict temperance and Sabbath laws. The fact that the Irish immigrants were solidly Roman Catholic, and more than half of the Germans were Roman Catholics, disturbed many Protestant Anglo-Saxon Americans, who believed these foreigners would disturb the American experiment. They believed Catholics were subservient to a foreign prince — the Pope — and feared his influence in politics and education. They also held prejudices against non-Catholic foreigners, which the radical German Forty-Eighters helped exacerbate. During the mid-1850’s, as immigrants continued to flow into the country, nativist sentiment grew, and the American Party, whose members were called Know Nothings because of the secrecy surrounding the party, spread to Kentucky. Principal aims of this nativist party included severely restricting the rights of Catholics and foreigners to vote and hold office. After the national Whig Party broke up in 1852 over the slavery issue, many Whigs moved into the American Party. Anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner sentiments reached the boiling point in 1854 and 1855, and sometimes led to violence and bloodshed, such as in Louisville’s Bloody Monday election riots on August 6, 1855. By the late 1850’s, the Know Nothing Party was effectively dead, because the slavery issue mushroomed in importance and immigration had declined. However, prejudice lived on.
Opposition to the expansion of slavery led to the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, and by 1856 it had grown to the point of running John C. Fremont as its candidate for president. The Republican Party attracted Free Soil Democrats, Whigs, Know-Nothings, and temperance and Sabbath law supporters. All but a few Forty-Eighters enthusiastically supported this new party because of its strong opposition to the expansion of slavery, and the party’s radical element’s desire for abolition. The Forty-Eighters used their newspapers, and frequent meetings and speeches, to draw Germans into the Republican Party. Carl Schurz and other prominent German-born Republicans were successful in convincing a significant number of Germans-Americans in the Free States to vote Republican in the 1860 elections. However, they did not win over the majority of Germans. Catholics remained almost solidly Democratic. Although most Catholics opposed the expansion of slavery, they would not support the Republican Party, because it was composed of so many former Know-Nothings and Catholic haters. Conservative Lutherans were also less likely to place the slavery issue above all others in casting their votes. German Protestants, who were strongly anti-slavery, skilled craft workers, and not influenced by conservative Protestant clergy, appear to be the main source of German Republican votes in 1860. Republicans found scant support in Kentucky in 1860. There was no Republican Party in the Bluegrass State, and Lincoln received less than one percent of all votes cast. In Louisville, where half of Kentucky’s Germans were located, Lincoln received only 91 votes out of 7,401 cast. Most of Kentucky’s votes went to John Bell of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union Party’s candidate, who favored compromise over the slavery issue, and to Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Except for the Forty-Eighters, most of Kentucky’s Germans probably supported Douglas, because Bell and many of his supporters were natives.
German-Americans rally around the flag
Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States in November 1860, triggered the secession of South Carolina and six other southern states, and war broke out when South Carolina guns began bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to suppress the rebellion, and four more southern states seceded from the Union. Kentucky was a slave state and had strong ties to both warring sections of the country. Consequently, its people were divided over the issues that led to the war–with most wanting to remain in the Union, but opposing war with the South. Kentucky had a pro-Southern Governor in 1861, and he refused to furnish troops pursuant to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 militiamen in April 1861. Kentucky adopted a policy of neutrality in May 1861, but by September, Union men were in control of the State’s General Assembly, and the state declared for the Union and called for 41,500 volunteers to eject Confederate forces from the state.
During Kentucky’s period of neutrality, Kentuckians crossed the Ohio River to enroll in Union regiments. One Union camp, Camp Joe Holt, was located opposite Louisville, near Jeffersonville, Indiana, and another, Camp Clay, was opposite Newport, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Hundreds of Germans from Louisville, enrolled at Camp Joe Holt, in July 1861, and Germans from Kentucky also enrolled at Camp Clay in Ohio. Once Kentucky ended its neutrality, a flurry of recruiting activity commenced within Kentucky’s borders. William Elwang, a Turner and probably a Forty-Eighter, and Michael Billing, both of whom lived in Louisville, received authorization from General Robert Anderson, around October 10, 1861, to form the First German Kentucky Regiment. However, the relatively small pool of military-age Germans in Louisville and in Kentucky, combined with stiff competition from recruiters for other units being formed in Kentucky, resulted in only three companies being raised for the First German Kentucky Regiment. And it was forced to consolidate with two other incomplete organizations, and form the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment. One of the organizations consolidated included a German company previously mustered in at Camp Joe Holt, so four of this new regiment’s ten companies comprised Germans. This represented the largest number of Germans in any single Kentucky regiment. Most of the Sixth Kentucky’s Germans were from Louisville, but there were a few from Southern Indiana in the regiment. Many of the Germans in these four companies could not speak English, so commands were given in German. However, the company officers had to have skills in English to communicate with the regiment’s headquarters and the other officers in the regiment.
The second largest contingent of Germans in a Kentucky regiment belonged to
the 4th Kentucky
Regiment. The 4th Kentucky Cavalry
contained three German companies, and Jacob Ruckstahl held the rank of
Lieutenant Colonel in this unit. The 2nd
Infantry Regiment had
two German companies, and the
5th, 15th and
Regiments each had one German
company. Other Germans in
Kentucky regiments were in mixed companies. More than 1, 940 Germans were
estimated to have served in Kentucky Volunteer units.
Why They Volunteered and How They Were Recruited
Germans came to America seeking a better life than they could achieve in their old lands, so, what induced so many of them to risk their lives fighting in America’s Civil War? Patriotism is the answer for most. Their adopted country was threatened and they felt it was their duty to help defend it. Germans also supported the Union because they had seen the terrible results of disunion among the German states, and did not want the United States divided. And, some joined the army later in the war to get bounty or signing bonuses that ranged from one hundred to several hundred dollars, or to avoid the stigma of being drafted.
Forty-Eighters, of course, rushed to volunteer in what they saw as a holy war against despotism and slavery. This was the Forty-Eighters’ second fight for freedom and they enthusiastically entered it. In Louisville, Indianapolis and other places, so many Turners joined the Union army that their clubs’ activities had to be suspended until after the war. Recruiters for the First German Kentucky Regiment employed the usual appeal that the country was in danger and patriotic men must hurry and take up arms to defend the Union. However, they also stressed ethnic pride and advantages of serving in an all-German regiment. Recruiters pointed out that when August Willich’s 32nd Indiana marched through Louisville early in October, Germans’ hearts swelled with pride and joy as they watched those courageous men march off to war. An appeal published in the Louisville Anzeiger on October 11 declared: "Whenever and wherever the Germans have participated in the holy war of justice against injustice, they have always proven their innate talent to be exceptional warriors, and become covered with glory when the opportunity presented itself. Certainly Kentucky’s Germans want to have a part in this glory, … and follow their brave brothers and help drive out these thieving hordes." And, at a large recruiting rally at Schwind’s Tavern, Philipp Tomppert, a German-born Unionist who would be elected Louisville’s mayor in 1865, admonished Germans not to remain uninvolved and be ashamed by the Germans in the other states. Recruiters for all-German units also stressed that the men would receive their orders and instructions in their native language. This allowed Germans who lacked skills in English to serve in the army because German was used at the company or regiment level.
A principal reason for the formation of all-German regiments was that it gave Germans visibility that they would not otherwise have if they were in mixed regiments. German regiments demonstrated the Germans’ commitment to fight for freedom, and for their adopted country. Germans could boast proudly when a German regiment performed well, such as the 9th Ohio at the Battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky, and the 32nd Indiana at Rowlett’s Station in Kentucky, and at Shiloh and at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. However, if their performance was poor, or they were in a lost battle, such as at Chancellors Ville, in Virginia, they were singled out by nativist and American newspapers and called "Damned Dutch Cowards," and unjustly blamed for the loss. American officers let them take the blame, rather than admit their own failings. The 32nd Indiana and 9th Ohio regiments proved to be one of the hardest-fighting regiments in the Union army and achieved what its organizers had envisioned. The Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry was acknowledged to be among the finest fighting regiments of its state, and its four German companies could claim their share of the credit.
Not all native-born Americans, and not all Germans, rushed to volunteer to fight in the war. Some felt that the war was caused by the abolitionists, and was being fought mainly for the Negroes, and they declined to take up arms. German Catholics did not participate as heavily as German Protestants, and Forty-Eighters criticized Lutherans for holding back. Other Germans remained loyal to the Democratic Party that opposed the war
Where They Fought
Kentucky’s German-Americans served almost totally in the Western Theater of the war. The 6th Kentucky Infantry (which had four German companies) fought principally in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, as part of the Army of the Ohio and its successor Army of the Cumberland. And, was among the best fighting units provided to the Union army by their respective states.
6th Kentucky Infantry
The 6th Kentucky moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in early 1862, and was part of General Don Carlos Buell’s army that arrived in time to fight in the second day’s battle at Shiloh. As part of General Nelson’s division, during the forenoon on April 7, the 6th Kentucky and its brigade, made a bold charge and had the enemy on the run through the Davis wheat field, until Rebel reserves entered the battle. The 6th was caught in a deadly crossfire of musketry and artillery, and suffered most of its 103 casualties at this time. The regiment then participated in the advance to, and siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in May 1862. After spending time in northeastern Mississippi and northern Alabama, the Army of the Ohio moved to Middle Tennessee, and then marched to Louisville to prevent an invading Confederate army from capturing the city. The 6th Kentucky did not fight in the battle at Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8, 1862. However, the 6th and its brigade were in the forefront of the Federal force pursuing the retreating Confederates. This pursuit passed through and over some of the roughest and wildest country in southeastern Kentucky, and finally ended at London, Kentucky. Pvt. Lorenz Vogel, a German from Louisville, was the only member of the 6th Kentucky killed during the constant skirmishing that took place with the enemy’s rearguard.
The Army of the Ohio re-organized after the battle of Perryville, and its name changed to the Army of the Cumberland. This Army’s next battle was fought near the Stones River, by Murfreesboro, Tennessee, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville. The casualty lists exceeded those at Shiloh. The Federal army’s right and center were rolled back by the Confederates on December 31, 1862; however, the left held, and prevented a Confederate rout of the Union army. The 6th Kentucky and its brigade fought stubbornly on the Union left, and held their position all day, contributing to the ultimate Union victory. The 6th Kentucky incurred 113 casualties, including 24 killed and mortally wounded. Its German companies were especially hard hit fighting at the edge of the woods known as "the Cedars". After running out of ammunition, the 6th Kentucky joined its brigade in the Round Forest, and fought from there until the day’s bloodshed ended. The Federals repulsed a ferocious attack on January 2, 1864, and the Confederates left the battlefield. Total Union casualties between December 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863, were 13,000 and Confederate casualties were 10,000
The Army of the Cumberland remained in and around Murfreesboro until late June 1863, and then embarked on the Tullahoma campaign. The 6th Kentucky was in the army’s left wing, and rain, mud, and swollen rivers prevented it from engaging the enemy, before they retreated out of Middle Tennessee into northern Georgia. The Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee next collided near Chickamauga Creek in Georgia on September 19 and 20, 1863, in another great American slaughter. The 6th Kentucky fought courageously in this bloody battle; however, a Federal error on the second day of the battle, allowed the Confederates to break through the Union line, and the federal army was forced to retreat back to Chattanooga and fortify the city. The 6th Kentucky suffered 118 casualties. Federal casualties totaled almost 16,000, and Confederate casualties totaled almost 18,000.
The Confederate army lay siege to Chattanooga by occupying the west bank of the Tennessee River, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and the Federals suffered greatly from lack of food and supplies. While at Chattanooga, the Army of the Cumberland was reorganized and the 6th Kentucky was placed in the 3rd Division of the Fourth Corps under Kentucky-native Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood. The 6th Kentucky remained in General Hazen’s Second Brigade, which was strengthened by the addition of six small battle-reduced regiments. After the reorganization, Hazen’s brigade contained about 2,500 men. One of the regiments added was the 5th Kentucky Infantry, also known as the Louisville Legion. The Louisville Legion contained a German company that enlisted at Camp Joe Holt back in July 1861, plus Germans in mixed companies. Pvt. Gottfried Rentschler of the 6th Kentucky, estimated in March 1864 that General Hazen’s brigade of nine regiments contained about 600 Germans.
The 6th Kentucky and its brigade helped open a supply line from Bridgeport, Alabama, through a daring raid on October 27 1863, at Brown’s Ferry, west of Chattanooga. Half of Hazen’s brigade traveled to the Ferry in pontoon boats under the cover of darkness and assaulted the Confederates defending the Ferry. The other half of the brigade was transported across the Tennessee River in the pontoon boats used by the original assault force. The enemy was driven away from the area, and reinforcements transferred from the Army of the Potomac moved from Bridgeport, Alabama, to Brown’s Ferry, opening the critical line of supply. The aforementioned reinforcements included several all-German regiments from the East. On November 25, 1863, Willich’s and Hazen’s brigades attacked Confederate regiments posted at and adjacent to Orchard Knob, seizing their fortifications located east of Chattanooga and about halfway between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge. Two days later, the Army of the Cumberland, over 22,000 troops strong, stormed Missionary Ridge and drove the Confederates from their fortifications.
The soldiers only had orders to seize the enemy rifle pits at the base of the ridge; however, being under a murderous fire from above, the men took it upon themselves to storm up the ridge, and drive off the enemy, and won one of the most stunning Union victories of the war .Several regiments, including the 6th Kentucky, have been credited with being the first to reach the crest of the ridge; however, no one knows for sure who was actually first. The 6th Kentucky, along with the rest of their division spent December 1863 through April 1864 marching around in East Tennessee looking for a large Confederate force thought to be in the area, but they fought no significant battles. Mostly they suffered from cold and hunger, and were elated when spring arrived. On May 3, 1864, most of the officers and, the 6th Kentucky began their last campaign of the War. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign— sometimes called "the 100 days under fire," because of continuous contact with the enemy.
Still serving in General Wood’s division, the 6th Kentucky fought at Resaca, Georgia, (on May 14-15), Pickett’s Mill, (on May 27), and Kennesaw Mountain, in late June. The 6th Kentucky was also engaged at Rocky Face Ridge near Tunnel Hill, Georgia, very early in the campaign. The 6th also engaged in the siege of Atlanta, which began on July 23, 1864. Because of expiring enlistments, the 6th was sent back to Tennessee before Atlanta fell on September 2, 1864. The 6th Kentucky suffered 21 killed and mortally wounded, plus 37 wounded or missing during the Atlanta campaign. The men of the 6th Kentucky paid a heavy price defending the Union. The 6th Kentucky had 97 battle-related deaths, and 82 men died of diseases, illnesses and other causes. Total 179. Forty-one of the regiment’s Germans died from combat and 36 died from diseases and other causes for a grand total of 77.
4th Kentucky Cavalry
The 4th Kentucky Cavalry, with its three German companies, campaigned in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and even reached Tallahassee, Florida, late in the war. It engaged in scouting duties and raids, and fought Confederate cavalry on many occasions. Its biggest single loss was 94 killed, wounded and missing at the battle of Chickamauga in Georgia in Sept. 1963. The regiment suffered a total of 31 killed and mortally wounded and 149 men died of diseases. Total. 180 deaths.
22nd Kentucky Infantry
The 22nd Kentucky Infantry, whose Company K was composed of Germans from Louisville, began its service in eastern Kentucky, and later moved west, and fought at Chickasaw Bayou and Chickasaw Bluffs in Mississippi in December 1862, was at Arkansas Post, Arkansas, during that battle, and also at Port Gibson, and other previously mentioned battles resulting in the capitulation of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The 22nd Kentucky also campaigned in Louisiana. This Kentucky regiment had 36 men killed in battles or mortally wounded, three men missing in action, and 131 died of diseases and illnesses. Of the regiments total dead of 170, 15 were German’s from Company K.
In addition to fighting the enemy, the elements, and diseases, German soldiers had to deal with prejudices in their own army. A young Kentucky farmer in the 6th Kentucky wrote in a letter that when the German companies and native Kentucky companies combined at Camp Sigel in Louisville in November 1861, that the Germans and Americans could not understand one another and were suspicious of one another. He thought they out to be separate. Another Kentuckian wrote that the men in his company rejoiced when a Germanic Major resigned because he and his friends did not want to take orders from a foreigner.
Pvt. Gottfried Rentschler, a native of Württemberg penned that:
"If a full company is needed for some easy service, e.g., Provost-Guard, a German company is never taken. If an entire company is required for rough service, e.g., several days or several weeks as Train-Guard, a German company will be ordered whenever possible. As this happens on a company basis, so it happens to individuals in the mixed companies. As a rule, the German has to wade through the mud, while the American walks on the dry road. The German is a 'Dutch soldier' and as a 'Dutchman' he is, if not despised, is disrespected, and not regarded or treated as an equal."
"I had a discussion once with a party of abolitionist officers about the employment of Negroes as soldiers and uttered my disapproval. Their main argument against me, was that the Germans had no business to bear arms and become soldiers, because they value the country so little just like the Negro. A colonel once said that he could not understand why so many Germans volunteer so readily for the army, after all, as foreigners they could not be interested in it. This opinion is mainly represented by Americans from the North. I have already heard many crude jokes made about one of the best known generals of the Union, not because he is not up to his high position, every Know-Nothing will argue the opposite, but rather because he is a German. When I say this lack of respect for the Germans comes mainly from the Free States’ Americans, let me state at the same time also the fact, that the Free States’ Americans give the Negro, wherever they come in contact with him, much worse treatment than those who belong to the Slave States. In my brigade there are 5 Ohio, 1 Indiana, and Kentucky Regiments. The Kentuckians treat the Negro more humanely, the others treat him like a dog. The former call him Negro, the latter call him Nigger."
Gottfried‘s statements about anti-German prejudices and mistreatment of Germans generally ring true, and it is not surprising considering the wide-spread nativism which began in the 1850s. It is somewhat ironic that abolitionist soldiers from the Free States also detested the foreign-born men who were sacrificing so much fighting on their side in the war. That native Kentuckians in the 6th Kentucky displayed less prejudice toward their fellow soldiers of German nativity might be attributed to the large number of Germans in the 6th, whom they relied on in battle. While Gottfried may have observed Union-loyal Kentuckians treating Negroes better than the Free States Americans did, his assertion that Bluegrass Staters did not call them Niggers is untrue. This derogatory term was in common use by Kentuckians and Rentschler sometimes used it himself. While tolerating prejudicial acts directed at them by native Americans and other ethnic groups, Germans had some prejudices of their own. They felt that they were products of a superior culture and were better soldiers than anyone else. Gottfried Rentschler demonstrated this when he wrote:
"Let me return to the German soldiers, and state another fact, i.e., that the German soldier is generally far, more faithful, conscientious and zealous than the native-born American. This is part of the German nature, which is our reason to be proud of our nation. One more thing: The German soldier is obedient and loyal to duty without regard to reward or punishment. The American generally considers, only reward, or — The Guard-House. This is caused by the national education on either side, in the broadest sense of the word. Because of the situation as mentioned, you may possibly draw the conclusion that the mixing of Germans and Americans in the Army may be beneficial to both parties, but such conclusion is in error."
William L. Burton points out in his study – Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments – that Germans and members of other ethnic groups sometimes interpreted valid criticism and acts based on reasons other than ethnicity, as being unjust and prejudiced. He also states that biases and friction attributed to national origin were often based on political, religious, cultural or other difference between the parties. Regardless of ethnic differences and prejudices, the native Germans in the 6th Kentucky and the vast majority elsewhere in the Federal army fought on for their adopted country, hoping for better times.
Finally, how did German-Americans perform as soldiers? Some were excellent, most were average, and some were poor. Bell Irwin Wily concludes in his excellent study entitled: The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, that "On the whole the contribution of this nationality to the union cause was tremendous…. Their neatness, precision and respect for authority was of infinite aid in molding a mob of individuals into an organized fighting force. What the Teutons lacked in quickness and glamour was more than offset by their patience and steadiness, not to mention the idealistic devotion of many of them to the cause of the Union.
Return to Germans Index