Pennsylvania and Virginia Germans during the Civil War: A Brief History and Comparative Analysis

By Keller, Christian B. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Pennsylvania and Virginia Germans during the Civil War: A Brief History and Comparative Analysis


Keller, Christian B., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


PENNSYLVANIA and Virginia Germans were simultaneously unique and representative of a wider German America during the Civil War. The German population of each state consisted of two distinct communities, divided by geographic location, length of residence in the United States, political outlook, socio-economic status, and place of German origin. Few other states possessed such a contrast between an "old" and a "new" German population, and hence Pennsylvania and Virginia present an unusual situation among states with substantial German populations. This fact alone makes them ideal for comparison, providing opportunities to determine the effect of "ethnic strength" on Germans' wartime decisionmaking.1 Yet both the recently arrived and longer-settled Germans of each state shared common characteristics in their reactions to the Civil War that shed light on the relationship between ethnicity and war support or resistance. Ethnic identity proved to be the determining factor of wartime character for Germans in both states, suggesting that sectional loyalties were transcended by cultural ones. Additionally, the Civil War proved not to be a great "Americanizing" influence on the Germans. Hence, Pennsylvania and Virginia Germans shared another characteristic: rather than reducing their ethnic consciousness, the experience of the war heightened it.2

Until very recently, historians have all but forgotten the experience of German Americans in the Civil War. A search for existing monographs on the subject turns up only four that treat the Germans in any comprehensive fashion: Wilhelm Kaufmann's Die Deutschen im Amerikanischen Buergerkiege (1911); Ella Lonn's two works, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1951) and Foreigners in the Confederacy (1940); and William L. Burton's Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union's Ethnic Regiments (1988). Of these four works, only Kaufmann's deals exclusively with Germans, but it is plagued with filiopietism and until recently remained inaccessible to those without a reading knowledge of German. Lonn's landmark books still stand as the definitive studies of ethnic participation in the Civil War but lack in-depth analysis of Germans in certain states, particularly Pennsylvania and Virginia. Burton's study, while a good survey of northern ethnic regiments, devotes only one entire chapter to the Germans and lumps their diverse motivations and experiences into neat, easily explained categories. Both Lonn and Burton also claim the war served to Americanize ethnic groups that participated, a contention that although currently popular among historians is not necessarily true.3

There has been little published on Virginia's ethnic Germans during the Civil War. Lonn's Foreigners in the Confederacy fleetingly mentions the experiences of Richmond's Germans in a few pages, and Kaufmann almost completely ignores them. Herrmann Schuricht's History of the German Element in Virginia (1898) and Klaus Wust's The Virginia Germans (1969) both dedicate chapters to the history of the Old Dominion's urban Germans in the war, but Wust draws heavily on Schuricht and neither author provides strong documentary evidence for all of his claims. The experiences of the pacifist German sects of the Shenandoah Valley are better chronicled, thanks to Samuel Horst's Mennonites in the Confederacy (1967), the only monograph about the wartime history of pacifist Germans anywhere, Theron Schlabach's Peace, Faith, Nation (1988), which deals with the nineteenth-century history of Amish and Mennonites in both Virginia and Pennsylvania, and an unpublished manuscript by James 0. Lehman, "Conscience Versus Loyalty: Mennonite and Amish Experiences During the Civil War," which contains several chapters devoted to Virginians. Although not analytical, Roger Sappington's The Brethren in the New Nation (1976) provides excerpts from primary sources useful in reconstructing the experiences of Virginia's Dunker congregations.4

Pennsylvania was home to thousands of ethnic Germans in 1861. …

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