German Americans in the American Civil War

German-Americans were the largest ethnic contingent to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. More than 200,000 native Germans served in the Union Army, notably from New York, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Thousands also served in the Confederacy, being primarily descended from Pennsylvania German ancestors who had migrated to the Carolinas in the 18th century and early 19th century, along with Swabian, Swiss, and Austrian immigrants who arrived directly in the South.

Union Army

German-American army units

Approximately 516,000 Union soldiers, or 23.4% of all Union soldiers, were immigrants; about 216,000 of these were born in Germany. New York supplied the largest number of these native-born Germans with 36,000. Behind the Empire State came Wisconsin with 30,000 and Ohio with 20,000.[1]

Scores of individual regiments, such as the 52nd New York, 9th Ohio, 74th Pennsylvania, 32nd Indiana (1st German), and the 9th Wisconsin, consisted entirely of German Americans. Major recruiting efforts aimed at German Americans were conducted in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, among many other cities.

Commonly referred to as "Dutchmen" by other Union soldiers, and "lopeared Dutch" by Confederates, German-American units in general earned a reputation for discipline.[2] Some of them had previously served in European armies, and they brought valuable experience to the Union Army.

German-American commanders of note

A popular Union commander and native German, Major General Franz Sigel was the highest ranking German-American officer in the Union Army, with many Germans enlisting to "fight mit Sigel." Sigel was a political appointment of President Abraham Lincoln, who hoped that Sigel's immense popularity would help deliver the votes of the increasingly important German segment of the population. He was a member of the Forty-Eighters, a political movement of the revolutions in German states that led to thousands of Germans emigrating to the United States. These included such future Civil War officers as Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz, Brig. Gen. August Willich, Louis Blenker, Max Weber and Alexander Schimmelfennig.

Schurz was part of the socio-political movement in America known as the Turners, who contributed to getting Lincoln elected as President. The Turners provided the bodyguard at Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, and also at Lincoln's funeral in April 1865.

Other prominent German generals included Peter Osterhaus, Edward S. Salomon, Frederick C. Salomon, August Kautz and Felix Salm-Salm. Hundreds of German-born officers led regiments during the war, including Col. Gustav Tafel, Col. Paul A. Frank, Col. Friedrich Hecker, Col. Leopold von Gilsa, and Maj. Jurgen Wilson. Among the very best Union artillerists was German-born Capt. Hubert Dilger, who had been trained at the Karlsruhe Military Academy.

Another famous German American, though not an immigrant, was Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Gettysburg and famously died in the Battle of Little Big Horn during the Indian Wars .

Medal of Honor Recipients

Among those German immigrants who received the Medal of Honor for valor during the war include:

Confederate Army

Although the Confederacy had general officers born in Ireland, France, and England, no German-born soldiers reached that rank in the Confederate Army. Colonel Adolphus Heiman, a Prussian veteran of the Mexican–American War who commanded the 10th Tennessee Infantry and later a brigade; and Colonel Augustus Büchel, a native of Hesse and commander of the 1st Texas Cavalry,[3] were probably the highest ranking German-Confederates.

Lt. Col. Heros von Borcke, who served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, is the most famous German officer in the Confederacy. Von Borcke, a Prussian Army veteran, slipped through the Union blockade into Charleston Harbor and eventually became one of Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's closest confidants and his Adjutant and Chief of Staff. In 1866, he became one of the few former Confederate officers to fight in the Austro-Prussian War.

There were also several German units in the Confederate Army, though none reached regimental size. Judging from their local designations, German companies appear to have served in the 9th Texas Infantry, Oswald's Battalion of Texas Infantry, the 2nd Texas Cavalry, 8th Alabama infantry, 1st South Carolina Rifles, 1st Georgia Infantry, 8th North Carolina Infantry,[4] and possibly in the 20th and 22nd Louisiana Infantry regiments.[5] At least one German artillery unit served from South Carolina. (One source shows this to have reached battalion size.)[6][7] The most famous German unit was the German Fusiliers, Company H, 8th Alabama Infantry.

Many families in the South referred to themselves as "Dutch by descent" in the 19th century, which at the time meant "Deutsch", or German. Germans from Europe and Pennsylvania settled in the Carolinas in large numbers by 1800, and then spread throughout the Southeast. Many intermarried with Native American women (especially Cherokee) populations, who fought for the Confederacy and Cherokee interests.

Noted incidents

Camp Jackson Affair

In neutral Missouri on May 9, 1861, Union Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, curious of the Missouri State Guard's intentions for Camp Jackson, engaged in a covert operation to uncover the Guard's plans. Disguised as a woman, Captain Lyon scoured the camp, searching for evidence of any secessionist threat. Lyon and his agents discovered falsely labeled crates containing a number of siege guns to be used for assaulting the Missouri arsenal, sent by the Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself.[8] On May 10, 1861, Lyon, a Radical Republican, marched a large contingent of pro-southern Missouri militia prisoners-of-war through the streets of St. Louis. The men had been captured by a large force composed mostly of German volunteers during an unsuccessful attempt by the pro-southerners to seize the Federal arsenal in St. Louis.[9] The prisoners were guarded by two lines of German-American Union soldiers, who were unpopular with many native-born Missourians, who resented their anti-slavery and anti-secessionist political views. Many people in St. Louis, having moved to the area from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia,[10] had southern sympathies.

Tensions quickly mounted on the streets as civilians hurled fruit, rocks, paving stones, and insults at Lyon's Germans. Shots rang out, killing three militiamen. The soldiers fired into the nearby crowd of bystanders, injuring or killing numerous civilians. Angry mobs rioted throughout the city for the next two days, burning a number of buildings. At least seven more civilians were shot by Federal troops patrolling the streets. The final death toll was 28.

Nueces Massacre

In the spring of 1862, German Texans from Central Texas and the Texas Hill Country, mostly Unionist or neutral in their political views, were drafted into the Confederate Army over their strong objections. Confederate authorities took their reluctance to serve as a sign of rebellion and sent in troops. A violent confrontation between Confederate soldiers and civilians took place on August 10, 1862, in Kinney County, Texas, leading to the deaths of 34 German Texans who were fleeing to Mexico to avoid the draft.

See also

Further reading

  • Baron, Frank, "Abraham Lincoln and the German Immigrants: Turners and Forty-Eighters," Yearbook of German-American Studies, 4 (Supplemental Issue 2012), 1–254.
  • Burton, William L., Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union's Ethnic Regiments. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-8138-1115-5.
  • Engle, Stephen D., Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1993. ISBN 1-55728-273-0.
  • Faust, Albert Bernhardt, The German Element in the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909.
  • Kamphoefner, Walter D. "German-Americans and Civil War Politics: A Reconsideration of the Ethnocultural Thesis." Civil War History 37.3 (1991): 232-246. online
  • Kamphoefner, Walter D., "Missouri Germans and the Cause of Union and Freedom," Missouri Historical Review, 106#2 (April 2012), 115-36.
  • Kamphoefner, Walter D. "St-Louis Germans And The Republican-Party, 1848-1860." Mid-America-An Historical Review (1975) 57#2 pp: 69-88.
  • Kamphoefner, Walter D. "New perspectives on Texas Germans and the Confederacy." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 102.4 (1999): 440-455.
  • Linedecker, Clifford L., ed. Civil War, A-Z: The Complete Handbook of America's Bloodiest Conflict. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002. ISBN 0-89141-878-4
  • Williams, R. H. and John W. Sansom, "The Massacre on the Nueces River; story of a Civil War tragedy", Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries online

In German

  • Balder, Hans-Georg and Richter, Rüdiger Burkhard, Korporierte in amerikanischen Bürgerkrieg, WJK-Verlag, Hilden, 2007. ISBN 3-933892-27-9
  • Kaufmann, Wilhelm, Die Deutschen im Amerikanischen Bürgerkriege. Munich: Verlag R. Oldenbourg, 1911.; Reprint: Nikol Verlag Hamburg 2015, ISBN 978-3-86820-236-6

Primary sources in English

  • Kamphoefner, Walter D., and Wolfgang Johannes Helbich, eds. Germans in the Civil War: the letters they wrote home (U of North Carolina Press, 2006)
  • Kamphoefner, Walter D., Wolfgang Helbich, and Ulrike Sommer, eds. News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home, (Cornell UP, 1991)
  • Rowan, Steven, ed. Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the St. Louis Radical Press, 1857-1862. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1983. ISBN 0-8262-0410-4.


  1. Faust, page 523. Quoting from an 1869 ethnicity study by B. A. Gould of the United States Sanitary Commission.
  2. William Monks (1907). A History of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. pp. 38–39.
  4. Marcus Wright, Local Designations of Confederate Troops, Hampton's (SC) Legion, passim
  5. Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr. Guide to Louisiana Confederate Military Units 1861–1865, pp. 122–126
  6. Joseph H. Crute, Units of the Confederate States Army, p. 268
  7. Wright, p. 58
  8. Rowan, Steven (1983). Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the St. Louis Radical Press, 1857–1862. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri, Columbia Press.
  9. Scott Williams. "THE ROLE OF GERMAN IMMIGRANTS IN CIVIL WAR - MISSOURI". The Missouri Civil War Museum. Archived from the original on March 3, 2012. Retrieved January 10, 2011.
  10. Rickie Lazzerini (2005). "Missouri History: Life in Missouri".

Further reading

  • Allendorf, Donald. Long Road to Liberty: The Odyssey of a German Regiment in the Yankee Army; The 15th Missouri Volunteer Infantry. Kent State University Press, 2006.
  • Bearden-White, Christina. "Illinois Germans and the Coming of the Civil War: Reshaping Ethnic Identity" Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 109#3 (2016), pp. 231–251 DOI: 10.5406/jillistathistsoc.109.3.0231
  • Efford, Alison Clark. German Immigrants: Race and Citizenship in the Civil War Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Kaufmann, Wilhelm. The Germans in the American Civil War, With a Biographical Directory. Translated by Steven Rowan and edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann with Werner D. Mueller and Robert E. Ward. Carlisle, Pa.: John Kallmann Publishers, 1999.
  • Lonn, Ella, Foreigners in the Confederacy. First published in 1940, reprinted February 2002.
  • Öfele, Martin W., German Speaking-Officers in the U.S. Colored Troops, 1863-1867, University Press of Florida (April 2004), ISBN 978-0-8130-2692-3
  • Reinhart, Joseph R. "A German Hurrah: Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2010)
  • Reinhart, Joseph R., "August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry" (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2006).
  • Reinhart, Joseph R., "Two Germans in the Civil war:The Diary of John Daeuble and the Letters of Gottfried Rentschler, 6th Kentucky Infantry (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004)
  • Rosengarten, Joseph George, The German Soldier in the Wars of the United States. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1890.
  • Tafel, Gustav. "The Cincinnati Germans in the Civil War." Translated and edited with Supplements on Germans from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana in the Civil War by Don Heinrich Tolzmann. Milford, Ohio: Little Miami Publishing Co., 2010.
  • Valuska, David and Keller, Christian, Damn Dutch: Pennsylvania Germans at Gettysburg. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8117-0074-7.

In German

  • Balder Hans-Georg & Richter, Rüdiger B., Korporierte im amerikanischen Bürgerkrieg. WJK Verlag Hilden, 1. Auflage 2007. ISBN 3-933892-27-9
  • Richter, Rüdiger B. & Balder Hans-Georg, Korporierte im amerikanischen Bürgerkrieg. WJK Verlag Hilden, 2. erweiterte Auflage 2013.
  • Richter, Rüdiger B., Corpsstudenten im Amerikanischen Bürgerkrieg. Einst und Jetzt, Band 49, Jahrbuch 2004 des Vereins für corpsstudentische Geschichtsforschung.
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