Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory

Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory

Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory

Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory


Often called Lee's greatest triumph, the battle of Chancellorsville decimated the Union Eleventh Corps, composed of large numbers of German-speaking volunteers. Poorly deployed, the unit was routed by "Stonewall" Jackson and became the scapegoat for the Northern defeat, blamed by many on the "flight" of German immigrant troops. The impact on America's large German community was devastating. But there is much more to the story than that. Drawing for the first time on German-language newspapers, soldiers' letters, memoirs, and regimental records, Christian Keller reconstructs the battle and its aftermath from the German-American perspective, military and civilian. He offers a fascinating window into a misunderstood past, one where the German soldiers' valor has been either minimized or dismissed as cowardly. He critically analyzes the performance of the German regiments and documents the impact of nativism on Anglo-American and German-American reactions--and on German self-perceptions as patriots and Americans. For German-Americans, the ghost of Chancellorsville lingered long, and Keller traces its effects not only on ethnic identity, but also on the dynamics of inclusion andassimilation in American life.


General after Union general appeared before the stern-faced and forthright politicians comprising the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and nervously took their seat, not knowing if they would suddenly find their careers at an end. These were some of the most important men in the Federal army: Sickles, Pleasonton, Birney, Warren, Hancock, Butterfield, Devens—even Joseph Hooker himself. Led by Republican Senators Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, the Committee was bent on finding a scapegoat for the miscarried Chancellorsville campaign of the past spring. Someone had to officially take the fall for the disaster that befell the Union Army of the Potomac, then led by Major General Joseph Hooker. There were a plethora of candidates to choose from: Brigadier General Charles Devens, former commander of the Eleventh Corps' First Division; Major General Carl Schurz, then in charge of the Third Division; Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the Eleventh Corps; and even Hooker himself. But no single man would end up being blamed for the defeat in the Virginia wilderness. Instead, an entire corps would be, and by proxy, an entire ethnic group.

The questions from the committee members came fast and furious, and inbetween self-glorifying or exculpating rhetoric uttered by the various generals, a common theme quickly developed. Major General Dan Sickles thought the Eleventh Corps “might have fought very well; yet very few in the army believed it would.” Major General Winfield Scott Hancock claimed that the Confederate attack “overthrew the 11th Corps almost immediately. I have no doubt that proper precautions had not been taken.” Major General Daniel Butterfield testified, “several officers of rank in the army” urged Hooker to break up the Eleventh Corps after the battle.

Benjamin Wade asked Major General Alfred Pleasonton, “Can you tell what produced the panic in the 11th Corps?”

Response: “The combined effect upon their imagination of the sound of the musketry and the increasing yells of the rebels, and their increasing artillery fire. … I would have preferred to have sent the 11th Corps to Spotsylvania Court House. That was an open country there, and Europeans are accustomed to an open country; they will fight better in an open country than in the woods.”

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