When both historians and Civil War enthusiasts think of the larger German experience during the war, we tend to think of their failures, hence their degrading nickname, the “Damn Dutch.” The XI Corps’ routing at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg dominate the overall narrative of ethnic German soldiers, a trend that has persisted since the war itself. However, this is the rather shallow story of just 9,000 Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Ohio, Connecticut, and Wisconsin German troops. More importantly, that number represents less than 4.5% of all German immigrants who served in the Union armies, which totaled out to be roughly 216,000.
In Missouri, the Germans had a much more significant story, saving the city of St. Louis – and ultimately the state – for the Union and contributed over 30,000 troops to the Federal war effort in Missouri. But, in the larger narrative of the war, these German troops – though successful – are out shadowed by German failures in the East. Contemporary criticism of the German troops were primarily dominated by nativism, or the bias against immigrants by native-born Americans. When failures of the Germans dominate the historical memory, then we also lose sight of their contributions to Union victory.
The first wave of German settlement in Missouri can be primarily traced back to writer and immigrant Gottfried Duden. Between 1824 and 1827, Duden wrote a report of his experience living along the Missouri River, just west of St. Louis in present-day Dutzow, Missouri. In 1827, he returned to Germany, where he would publish his report about the richness and beauty of the Missouri River Valley, as well as how closely it resembled the German Rhine. Duden wrote, “If one wanted to paint the picture more colorfully, it would suffice to call to mind the rich forests, the abundance of bituminous coal, salt, iron, lead, copper, saltpeter, and other minerals; the active interest of almost all inhabitants in cheerful industry, the utilization of the advantages of their location, and the thriving steamboat services that have already resulted from it; finally, the contrast to all European prejudice with regard to the rank in society of the tradesman and the respect in which physical activity is held…” In less than two decades, by 1840, nearly 40,000 German immigrants had settled in central Missouri along the Missouri River.
The second wave of German migration came after 1848, a year of mass political revolution throughout mainland Europe to overthrow the monarchies and replace these governments with liberal democracies. Specifically in the German Confederation, the democratic political movements were based upon the unification of the German states and peoples into a “single” German nation-state; to improve upon the conditions of the working and middle classes; creation of a constitution; and universal male suffrage. Some of the leaders of this movements would emerge as leaders in the American Civil War, many of whom settled in Missouri: Franz Sigel, Peter J. Osterhaus, Carl Schurz, and Frederick Schaefer. These principles of democracy, union, and freedom for all people that made the foundation of the 1848 Revolutions, were directly tied to the Union cause during the American Civil War less than two decades later.
By 1860 over 50,000 people living in St. Louis, Missouri were ethnic German, making them the most populous of all ethnic groups in the city and state, with the ethnic Irish just behind. With the memories of the failed 1848 Revolutions still in the minds of many Germans, they had a desire and tendency to politically organize, particularly throughout the late 1850s into 1860 in preparation for the gubernatorial and presidential elections that November. The radical Republican and paramilitary Wide Awake political movement gained steam in St. Louis with Republican Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr. as its leader. The movement was made up primarily of Germans. In reaction to the Wide Awakes, nativists and Southern Democrats in St. Louis countered by creating their own paramilitary club, known as the Minute Men.
On November 6, Missourians flocked to the polls to vote, not only for the president, but for the state governor, as well. In the presidential election, Missourians were split mainly between Democratic Party candidate Stephen A. Douglas and Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell. By just over 500 votes, Douglas won the nine electoral votes from Missouri. Democratic Party candidate for Missouri governor Claiborne Jackson led the polls by around 8,000 votes over Constitutional Union candidate Sample Orr. Though the majority of Missourians were pro-slavery, but also supportive of the Union, the main body of Republican and anti-slavery supporters were concentrated among the Germans in St. Louis. Nearly 10,000 St. Louisans voted for Abraham Lincoln. In the First and Second wards, 55% of the population consisted of Germans and 65% of all votes in those wards went to Lincoln. The widespread support of Lincoln and Unionism is demonstrated in the Germans’ mobilization. These same men were once revolutionaries in Europe and these same fiery personalities were carried over to the United States – and specifically in Missouri.
Following Southern secession, the formation of the Confederacy, the firing on Fort Sumter, the mobilization of Southern armed forces, and the Governor’s steady progression towards Missouri’s secession, St. Louis Arsenal commander Capt. Nathaniel Lyon and Congressman Blair mobilized and trained the majority-German Wide Awakes. Recruiting and training 8,000 recruits, Lyon and Blair hoped their makeshift army could successfully defend the arsenal from secessionist forces. Francis Blair, Jr., and Germans Henry Boernstein, Nicholas Schuettner, and Franz Sigel, all commanded regiments of Lyon’s Home Guard. The St. Louis Arsenal was the largest federal arsenal in any slave state, with over 38,000 rifles and muskets.
Jackson appointed Brigadier General Daniel Frost command of the newly-formed pro-secessionist 700-man Missouri Volunteer Militia. Additionally, Confederate President Jefferson Davis agreed to secretly send two 12-pound howitzers, two 32-pound siege guns, and five hundred muskets with ammunition. If Jackson and his secessionist troops captured the arsenal, they would substantially arm Confederate troops throughout the state. Frost’s militia began mobilizing and drilling at a large field named Camp Jackson after the governor. He hoped that his show of force could scare off Federal troops and encourage other secessionists to join their ranks. With rumors circulating about armaments arriving in St. Louis, Lyon disguised himself as a woman to spy on the situation at Camp Jackson on May 9. His suspicions were correct and was confident that he could stop any secessionist army with his nearly all-German Home Guard. It was a dire situation and the Germans in the pro-Union Home Guard were determined to protect the stronghold.
On May 10, 1861, Lyon led his 8,000 men to Camp Jackson, where he surrounded the militia secessionists and delivered an ultimatum: “I do hereby demand, of you an immediate surrender of your command.”  In response, Frost wrote, “I never for a moment having conceived the idea that so illegal and unconstitutional a demand . . . I am wholly unprepared to defend my command from this unwarranted attack, and shall therefore be forced to comply with your demand.” Approximately 689 officers and men surrendered their weapons and prisoners. Lyon ordered his men and prisoners to advance along Olive Street toward the arsenal, where the prisoners would be held until paroled. As they marched, though, groups of pro-secessionist and nativist protestors emerged and threw rocks and dirt at the German troops.
The next moments have varied in witness accounts, but the majority of accounts agree that a drunken civilian fired a pistol and wounded a Home Guardsman. Soon after, the Home Guard began firing their guns at the crowd, ultimately wounding nearly 70 people and killing 28, including women and children. This event sent shock waves throughout Missouri and the entire country, sparking anti-German sentiment and forcing all Missourians to choose a side. Many though, chose secession. Though the event was consequential for secessionist support in Missouri, it still was a victory for the Unionists. They saved the St. Louis Arsenal and effectively saved the City of St. Louis and, ultimately, Missouri from seceding.
Without the Germans, Missouri could have been lost to secession, thus changing the course of history. In the wake of Camp Jackson and the mobilization of Union regiments in St. Louis, 30,000 Germans joined these units, including the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Twelfth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth infantries. The Fourth Cavalry, Gerster’s Independent Company of Pioneers, and Voerster’s Independent Company of Sappers and Miners are another handful of German units in Missouri. These units, filled with German volunteers, were a part of some of the most important battles and campaigns of the Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, including Pea Ridge, Shiloh, Perryville, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, and many more.
There were also four Medal of Honor recipients who were Missouri Germans. Pvt. Joe Pesch was born in Prussia, served with the 1st Missouri Light Artillery, and earned the Medal for actions at Grand Gulf, Mississippi during the Vicksburg Campaign. Pvt. Charles Bieger of Germany served in the 4th Missouri Cavalry. At Ivy Farm, Mississippi, Bieger rushed onto the battlefield on horseback to save his captain, whose horse was shot out from under him in enemy lines. Captain William Grebe, also of the 4th Missouri Cavalry, saw the enemy advancing towards his line, grabbed a rifle, and helped repulse the enemy. Finally, there was Sgt. Henry Hammel of the 1st Missouri Light Artillery, who with two comrades, solely manned the guns on the USS Cheeseman at Grand Gulf while under relentless fire.
Once again, though these soldiers were born in Germany, they ultimately embraced and became loyal to their new found home in the United States. Though not all German immigrants were revolutionaries, most identified with the Union, Republican, and pro-Lincoln cause. Their roles have unfortunately been overshadowed by the failures of Eastern troops in the XI Army Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but those Germans in the West – particularly Missouri – made significant impacts on the successful Union war effort in those areas. Next time you hear about the German failures in the East, remember the Germans of the West, who were vital to restoring the Union.
1. Gottfried Duden, Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America, in “Gottfried Duden Recommends Immigrating to Missouri,” Teach US History, accessed on April 6, 2018, http://www.teachushistory.org/nineteenth-century-immigration/resources/duden-recommends-immigrating.
2. N. Lyon, Captain, Second Infantry, Comdg. Troops, to General D.M. Frost, Commanding Camp Jackson, 10 May 1861, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter cited as OR), 1, iii, 6-7
3. D.M. Frost, Brig. Gen. Comdg. Camp Jackson, MVM to Capt. N. Lyon, Commanding US Troops, 10 May 1861, OR, 1, iii, 7.