Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Illinois Germans and the Coming of the Civil War: Reshaping Ethnic Identity

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Illinois Germans and the Coming of the Civil War: Reshaping Ethnic Identity

Article excerpt

"A HORRIBLE WAR HAS BROKEN OUT between North and South America," Albert Augustin wrote to his brother-in-law and siblings living in the tiny German state of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.1 Augustin had immigrated to the United States four years earlier in 1857. At the time he wrote his letter in August 1861, he ran a saloon in Champaign, Illinois with his wife, Louise. He began his letter by warning his relatives of the hardships of emigration. "First, you lose your homeland, second you can't speak the language, and then you come to a new country where even the most educated German is like a child in terms of the language and customs. ... It takes years to figure out all the tricks and traps in America."2 But Augustin's largest concern in 1861 was war. Written less than a year after the American Civil War began, Albert Augustin's letter expressed concern that Champaign might be overrun. He told of troop numbers and of the large numbers of German officers in the Union army. He also asked his family to help his wife leave America if he should go to war and be killed. Yet Augustin's letter was also confident in the convictions of the people of the United States. "Every single citizen in America is willing to give his last drop of blood for freedom," he wrote.' Then the saloonkeeper explained the reason for the American war to his family.

Like most German Americans, Augustin viewed the causes of the Civil War in very specific terms. The letterhead on which he chose to write his relatives had a picture of the American flag and a large cannon with the motto "Death to Traitors" embossed beneath. Augustin thoughtfully translated the motto into German to read, "Death to the slave traders."4 The war, of course, was all about slavery for Augustin. This became evident throughout the letter. He exclaimed in the middle of the correspondence, "Death and eternal damnation to the slave traders!"5 Augustin then explained the pitiful and degrading conditions of slavery to his family. He finished this section of his letter by writing, "Long live America's freedom, and may the slave traders be damned." From Augustin's perspective, the American Civil War was a war of freedom against oppression. This was a common view among German Americans in the early 1860s and it motivated thousands of the foreign born and their American children to join the Union army.

Statistician Benjamin Gould attempted to establish the nativity of Union soldiers in 1869. Of the 2.5 million soldiers that had served, Gould was able to establish the birth country of approximately one half in his survey. According to his figures, German-born citizens totaled 176,817 of the 1.2 million soldiers that had recorded their place of birth.6 Historian Don Tolzmann recently estimated the number of German-born soldiers in the Union army to be approximately 216,000, and those citizens of German American origin may have added as many as 500,000 to that number.7 Using Gould's more conservative estimate, more German Americans served in the Union army than any other foreign-born element.8

Scholarly work on German American participation during the American Civil War is relatively sparse compared to the broader range of Civil War studies. Part of the difficulty that historians have addressing the subject area can be attributed to the language barrier. German-language newspapers, regimental histories, diaries, and letters all hold unexplored questions about ethnic identity and immigrant participation. Many letters sent to relatives and friends by German American soldiers were mailed to the various German states during the war, adding a second complication for historians. The earliest histories concerning German American participation were also in the German language written exclusively for German and German American audiences.9 Only one history of an allGerman Illinois regiment, the Twenty-Fourth Illinois Infantry, appeared after the war. Originally written in German in 1864 by William Wagner, the regiment's surgeon, the history of the "Old Hecker Regiment" was translated into English to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary in 1911 of the unit's formation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.