PRI's The World
Remembering the Immigrants who Fought in the US Civil WarBy Chris Woolf ⋅ September 17, 2012
What language is on this memorial to the fallen in the battle of Antietam?
Translation: Erected in memory of our fallen comrades by the Survivors of the Regiment.
A ceremony was held Monday in a small town in western Maryland to remember the bloodiest day in American history. 150 years ago, on September 17th 1862, a Union army led by General George B. McClellan attacked Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Union didn’t win outright, but rebel forces were forced to retreat the next day.
The human cost, to both sides was immense. 23,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing that day. Never before, or since, have so many Americans fallen in battle in a single day.
The “victory” allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation a few days later, freeing the slaves in the rebel states.
Those are the well-known facts about the Battle of Antietam. One of the not-so-well-known facts is how many of those who fought that day were foreign-born. Germans formed a huge proportion of the Union troops. An entire Corps of several divisions was formed of German volunteers, and every order from the general down to the lowest corporal was given in German. In at least battle, it was Germans fighting against each other, when Major Leopold Blumenberg, from East Prussia, led the all-German 5th Maryland Regiment against a position held by the 12th Alabama, led by another German Captain Adolph Proskauer. (Both of these leaders were also Jewish.)
The World commentator, Lisa Mullens, had the following conversation with Patrick Young, a Professor at Hofstra University and active blogger on the role of immigrants in the Civil War:
Mullins: As you write in your blog, Patrick, the Civil War generally is thought of as a conflict among Anglo-Americans. You are from Long Island, so why don’t we start there? What role did immigrants from New York play in the Battle of Antietam one hundred and fifty years ago today?
Patrick Young: One in four soldiers in the Union army was foreign-born, about a third of them from Ireland, about a third from Germany, and a third came from places as diverse as Scotland, Hungary, Nicaragua, Siam, really all over the world. And at the Battle of Antietam they played a particularly and a really heroic role. .....The lead unit, the 69th, the Fighting 69th New York, which was recruited just a few miles from where I’m speaking right now, lost sixty percent of it’s soldiers in just a few minutes. We also had German troops that played a major role in the battle as well.
Mullins: Tell us about the German troops.
Young: Well, German immigrants had joined into units, and these were very interesting units. They were units that spoke German.
Today, we have big debates over bilingualism, and in 1861 the Secretary of War tried to ban the speaking of German in the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln overruled him and because of that we find tens of thousands of Germans who were fighting that day at Antietam who really played an important role in various parts of the campaign.
Mullins: There were a lot of reason why immigrants, why those who were foreign-born, would want to be part of the Civil War here in America. ...There was recruiting that went on just on the docks where immigrants would be coming in. What were some of the other incentives that were provided to them? Why did they fight?
Young: Well, most of the immigrants who fought in Antietam were actually part of the first wave of recruits, so many of the bonuses or the draft really came in after Antietam. These soldiers said, particularly in the north, Germans said they were opposed to slavery. In fact, I was just reading a German, August Fricke [SP], who lived in Missouri, who, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22nd, said, “Now our motto is ‘All men are created equal, white and black.’” And so that was an important role.
Another thing that both the Irish and Germans kept talking about was if the Union split up, it would damage republicanism or democracy around the world. The US was the only major democratic nation in the world and many of the German immigrants ... wanted democracy in their homelands and they said that princes and kings would rejoice if the United States was splintered up into two, three, the Germans thought it might splinter up into five or six small countries just like Germany had.
Mullins: What do you think people should take away from this fact, that there were so many participants in this central piece of American history – the US Civil War, who were foreign-born? And, Patrick, this gets into, I think, what your own interest in the subject it.
Young: Well, I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that America was a lot more diverse from a lot earlier stage than we often give it credit for. We had Latino colonels in the Union army in 1861, long before we even allowed the recruitment of African-Americans. It also tells us that coming off of a ten-year period of intense anti-immigrant agitation, including violent attacks on immigrant communities, Abraham Lincoln stepped up and created a much more inclusive, much more multicultural America, and I think that he wasn’t frightened by the fact that new immigrants spoke other languages. In fact, he hired a German publicist who published all his speeches in German because he wanted immigrants to know what was going on, he wanted to include them in the war effort, and he understood that they were an important part of the new America that was being built.
Mullins: Did they get treated as well as soldiers whose families had been in America longer?
Young: At first I think there was a lot of resistance to them and there was certainly, after some battles, scapegoating of immigrants.... But at the end of the war you really see a much broader acceptance of immigrants. So I think that there was, worked into the American heart, a change because they had seen that native-born whites in the South had, in the belief of many Northerners, betrayed the United States, whereas immigrants had stepped up to defend the United States to try to keep it together as a nation.
Mullins: Patrick, I’m still interested in what sparked your own interest in the subject.
Young: I’m a Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University, but I also have spent many, many terms as the chairman of the New York Immigration Coalition, which is an alliance of two hundred and forty organizations in New York of immigrant groups in New York, and with the 150th anniversary coming up two years ago I decided I’d begin doing research to see if there were any commonalities or if there were any lessons to be learned by today’s immigrants about what happened back then. And the series was originally written for immigrants so they would understand the Civil War, but it’s interesting right now, I find that almost seventy-five, eighty percent of my readers are native-born, often civil war buffs or members of ethnic organizations, not immigrants themselves, but people who have found the fact that I’ve combined scholarship with lively storytelling to be something that’s engaging and also informative for them.....
THANKS TO PRI for providing this "unofficial transcript."