By the outbreak of the war, St. Louis – the Gateway to the West – was a thriving and diverse, yet divided border town. Unlike many cities in the slave states, St. Louis was home to a growing community of European immigrants. By 1860, over half of the city was foreign born, most from the German Confederation or Ireland. The Germans were, by far, the most populous and influential ethic group in St. Louis. With 50,000 in St. Louis alone and united over the divisive issues of slavery and secession, they made a tremendous impact on the Union war effort in the city and their new home state. Just second to the Germans were the Irish, who accounted for nearly 30,000 (or 20%) of the city’s 161,000 residents. Missouri’s Irish – totally over 43,000 – was the highest population of Irishmen in any state in the South. Typically overlooked compared to the Germans, the Irish were more-so divided over the tense issues encapsulating their community. Their impact on the Civil War in St. Louis deserves more attention and further study.
On April 14, 1862 in the Army of the Southwest’s encampment near Forsyth, Missouri, Colonel Bernard Laiboldt stood trial. As commander of the Second Missouri Infantry Regiment, Laiboldt was charged with a count of “Misbehavior before the enemy & running away” and “conduct unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman.” His military career hung in the balance as his fellow officers determined his fate.
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. Continue reading