In early May of 1863, the XI Corps under Oliver Otis Howard were blindsided by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s sudden attack on the Union right flank outside a little crossroads called Chancellorsville. Some say it was a total rout. Others reported that it was an organized retreat to the east. Accounts remain of some soldiers from the XI Corps becoming captured as they fled through the Union left flank under General Winfield Scott Hancock and right into the Confederate lines, where they were subsequently captured.
By an unfortunate coincidence, the soldiers of the XI Corps were made up of German immigrants or descendants of German-born citizens. One of the repercussions of that day in May – apart from the weakening of the Union position around Chancellorsville – came as a severe blow to the morale and egos of the German people. They were nicknamed “The Flying Dutchmen”. To understand why this was such an affront to the Federals personally involved in the engagement, as well as the civilians and Confederates who were also of German descent, I decided to look into the psyche of the matter.
The Germans were no stranger to war and revolutionary upheaval. The conflicts and revolutions within their own country, specifically in 1848, had driven many Germans to seek a new life – out of choice or exile – in America prior to the Civil War. While many Germans who resided within America may not have experienced the social and government upheaval in ’48, many did.
Germans, being primarily of the Republican leaning, supported free thinking, unity, nationalism, and liberty for all. Some of the most notable Germans who came to America wanted to help spread their ideas and would become journalists or start their own newspapers to support their platform. Many were staunch abolitionists and against the ideals of southern society. They saw the aristocracy system of the southern planter to be a mirror of medieval feudalism, only worse because it built its financial security upon the backs of slaves or cheap labor. When the war broke out, for many Germans, it was a clear decision who they would side with. These Germans were fighting for the ideals and morals that they strongly believed in. They were fighting to free slaves and ensure that a democratic rule was cemented for the United States. It was just a continuing of the “sacred struggle” for their principles.
Another faction of Germans might have been fighting to free slavery, but they were also fighting for the preservation of the Union, just as many northerners would. The war between the states, to them, was a continuation of the war for unity within Germany. To have the country split as it was, went against every principle of nationalism that Germans – and many immigrants – adhered to. Nationalism is defined as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests.” The principle of nationalism can be a double-edged sword. It can be used to rally recruits to the enlistment offices or it could further the idea of “us versus them”, which can be damaging to the psychology of a nation or country. To the Germans who came to America, they not only held onto their traditions and cultural mindset from the fatherland, but genuinely felt a kinship or loyalty to the country they were now part of. They had pride in their status as American citizens and felt that the secession of the southern states as a personal offense to the institution they had come to love. It took them five years to gain their citizenship, and here the south was, throwing it away. Many Germans believed that to fight for the Union was to fight for the side of the right and just to preserve the ideals that the country was founded upon.
Interesting enough, Germans also joined for another reason entirely that had little to do with whatever morals they upheld or nation they belonged to. There is a persistent idea in the cultural mindset of the German people about ethnic superiority. Some of this is going to echo into 20th century conflicts. Germans believed in the idea of the perfect “citizen soldier”. Before the war even started, men were preparing themselves for the event. They had festivals that included contests of strength, agility, and marksmanship. There was a certain obsession with living up to the image of the perfect “German male”. They focused so keenly on being of strong body and strong mind that it engulfed their entire sense of self. Germans believed that they would be the best soldiers in any army. They were born with a martial spirit and courage that could not and would not be denied. They believed that if any single ethnic group would lead the world into a bright new future, it would be the Germans.
So, Germans enlisted to uphold their ideals, to preserve the Union, and to prove their martial prowess in battle. Many would continue to reenlist after their term of service was over, simply because the job wasn’t done. To not volunteer was like to blatantly reject their identities as Germans. And to be conscripted was even worse, because then they were considered little above slaves themselves, being forced into the army against their will. There were those who did not volunteer and there were those who dodged the draft, but these were not the majority of German-Americans.
Now, not all native-born Americans saw the Germans as this great, willing fighting force. As I’ve discussed in previous posts about the Irish who fought in the war, Germans received just as much censure from political and social groups. The “Know Nothing” party, comprised primarily of nativists, believed that immigrants like the Irish, French, Russian, Bavarian, Spanish, Polish, English, and German, should be deported and not allowed to “infect” America with their culture, language, and ideas. Abraham Lincoln did not side with the Know Nothing party, though he rubbed elbows with many in order to gain political footing in some arenas. He openly welcomed immigration from abroad and encouraged it as the war went on.
It was primarily the political leanings of the immigrants that made nativists uncomfortable. Irish were predominantly Catholic and voted Democrat. Germans were Protestant, but voted Republican. Though there is no proof, it was said that the Irish and Germans rigged elections so their parties would win. Some things never change, even after a century or two.
When the dust finally settled in the mid-1800s, there was a grand total of 145 units in the northern army comprised of German immigrants or German descendants. Nearly 250,000 Germans went to fight under the stars and stripes, while about 13,000-18,000 Germans would fight for the south. Recruitment posters would target German citizens by printing their posters in the German language. Lincoln, unlike Jefferson Davis, often specifically chose generals of different ethnicities to head these companies and regiments. Generals like Fritz Aneke, Carl Shurz, and Franz Sigel were amongst the most noted and one of the most famous recruitment lines, “I fights mit Sigel” was coined.
Part of the reason for these huge enlistment statistics also lends to a mindset held by the Germans that peaceful negotiations were not effective enough to bring about significant change. They genuinely believed that fighting and war was the only way to get things done, so those who believed in the cause for the Union didn’t think twice about offering up their lives to the army and prove they were “True Americans”.
All of those ideals began to unravel after the Germans were actually put into the war effort. Countless, maybe even the majority of, Germans did not speak English. Or if they did, very little. Translators and those who were bilingual were invaluable to these companies and regiments led by English-speakers who didn’t know a lick of German. Because of this, communication and reliable relaying of messages were extremely difficult. Some of this disconnect could be linked as the cause of failed maneuvers, late arrivals onto the field, or total dissolution of Union lines within certain battles.
Prejudices, too, played a role in causing strife amongst the soldiers themselves. If you belonged to a company of Germans and you were not German, you might have been socially ousted by your battle buddies. The same was true for Irish companies. And the reverse case was also the same. Imagine being part of a company or regiment and you were the only German or Irish soldier amongst a slew of men who might have had nativist leanings. There would be a culture gap as well as a huge language gap.
Post-war primary sources for these German soldiers can also be a struggle for the modern historian who doesn’t know enough German to translate the orders or diaries. And then if you do translate them, they might be completely slanted to make it sound as if the Germans were absolutely perfect in every way, because they wanted to believe that they were so they would propagate that image as much as possible. This is one big reason that Germans don’t often come up in historical conversation as much as the Irish or English might. It’s also why the myth of the “Flying Dutchman” has as much weight as it does.
To call a German a coward was as good as any insult. To suggest that a German who prided himself on his superior physique and ideals was anything less, was like a sucker punch to the gut. It was like saying to a dog that he wasn’t a dog or even an animal. So, the Germans continued to get a bad rap throughout the war and in the following years after the surrender agreement was signed. The men of the XI Corps would go down in history as the cowardly soldiers who fled at the first sign of trouble on the field at Chancellorsville. The label is rather unjust, undeserved, and if it had been any other ethnicity on the field, they would have been blasted too. But the fact remains that they were Germans and while they might not have upheld their pre-war boasting that they would win the war for the Americans, their effort and sacrifice is no less commendable.
Resources and Extra Reading
“We Are the Revolutionists : German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848” by Mischa Honeck
“The Germans in the American Civil War” by Wilhelm Kaufmann
“Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home” by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich
“Love Across Color Lines : Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass” by Maria Diedrich
“Two Germans in the Civil War : The Diary of John Daeuble and the Letters of Gottfried Rentschler, 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry” by Gottfried Rentschler and Joseph R. Reinhart
“Irish and German — Whiskey and Beer : Drinking Patterns in the Civil War” by Thomas P. Lowry
“Immigration Participation in the Civil War” by Mischa Honeck: https://www.c-span.org/video/?293631-4/immigrant-participation-civil-war
“German Immigrants in the Civil War” by Mischa Honeck: https://www.c-span.org/video/?305846-4/german-immigrants-civil-war
“Abraham Lincoln and Immigration” by Hardol Holzer: https://www.c-span.org/video/?418240-2/abraham-lincoln-immigration