Written By: Fredric C. Lynch, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
The 1861-65 American Civil War changed the political and public nature of the country. Immigration and assimilation of immigrants into the American “melting pot” were among major changes The population of the United States in 1860 was 31.4 million people with four million immigrants in that total.
Foreign born soldiers serving in the Union Army significantly contributed to the war effort. About 200,000 Germans served in the Union Army. About 144,000 men born in Ireland served. Their patriotic fervor and combat valor helped gain both ethnic groups acceptance into the mainstream of American society.
In Cincinnati Feb. 13, 1861, concerning ethnic groups in America, President-elect Abraham Lincoln stated, “In regard to the Germans and other foreigners, I esteem them no better than other people, nor any worse.” In his July 4, 1861 first message to Congress, President Lincoln stated concerning the War of the Rebellion: “This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men . . . .”
Sixty percent of Ohio’s men between the ages of 18 and 45 served in the Union Army and naval services. The ranks of Ohio’s 260 Civil War units – - mainly 195 Infantry regiments, 38 artillery batteries, and 13 Cavalry regiments – - included men of many nationalities. Of the Buckeye State’s approximately 320,000 Union Army, Navy, Marine, and Revenue Cutter Service volunteers, about one-fourth were born in foreign lands. Former residents of Canada, England, France, Holland, Italy, Poland and other nations served in Ohio units. The majority, however, were immigrants from Ireland and the several German States.
The 1845-52 potato famine motivated more than a million Irish to emigrate to America while more than a million stayed behind and died. For many Irish immigrants, the Civil War provided an opportunity to feed their families, rise above poverty, and to prove to native-born Americans their equality as human beings and fellow citizens.
The Irish-American Boston Pilot newspaper of Jan. 21, 1861 summed patriotic motivation for Irish-Americans by exhorting: “Stand by the Union; Fight for the Union; Die for the Union.” Echoing the sentiment, the editor of the Galway American urged Sons of Erin to: “… rally around the Stars and Stripes . . . for the preservation of the Union will be the salvation of Ireland” and then added, “the breaking of the great republic would be a fatal blow to the cause of freedom all over the world.” More than 8,000 Ohioans born in Ireland proved their patriotism through Civil War military service.
Ohio’s German-Americans were also highly motivated to serve their new nation. As noted in the book Melting Pot Soldiers, “Germans were natural lovers of freedom and fighters for good causes.” During the 1840s and 1850s, 1.4 million residents of German States emigrated to the United States. Many of them, well educated and veterans of military service, did so following failure of the 1848 Revolution in their homeland. At least one-third of Cincinnati’s 1860 population of roughly 70,000 people was German. Many Ohio Germans were strongly opposed to slavery and willing to fight to end the institution. During the War Between the States, ten percent of Union Army soldiers were born in the German Empire.
The German Heritage Guide to the Greater Cincinnati Area documents: “The 9th, 28th, 106th and 108th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI) Regiments were composed of Cincinnati Germans. . . . Other Ohio regiments with Cincinnati Germans in their ranks included the 100-day and all German 165th OVI, and the half German 47th OVI. The Irish 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry recruited in Cincinnati included two companies of German-Americans in its ranks.”The Ninth OVI was known as “Die Neuner” and its soldiers as “The Dutch Devils.” When the Ninth began recruiting for federal service in 1861, 1,500 Queen City Germans “rallied to the Colors” in three days. The unit was activated for military service in April 1861 with about 1,000 officers and men plus 24 musicians. An original member of the unit, Prussia-born Major August Willich, noted military service would enable Germans to “really prove they are not foreigners, and that they know how to protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.” On June 16th, the Ninth departed for combat service. Their battle history includes Carnifex Ferry, Shiloh, Perrysville, Nashville, Chickamauga, and Resaca.
Cincinnati’s Irish were mainly laborers. They believed in rights and freedom for all men, but viewed slaves in the Southern States and elsewhere as competition for basic labor jobs needed to better their own existence. That said, they in general also strongly believed in “The Union” and that their destiny and future prosperity was tied to sustaining the “United States” as an entity. The Cincinnati “Irish Regiment” was the 10th OVI, nicknamed the “Bloody Tenth.” When the unit’s green silk regimental flag was presented, their commander, Colonel William H. Lytle, remarked: “. . . there is not a man in these ranks who will not shed his heart’s blood like water beneath these colors.” The unit’s battle credits include Carnifex Ferry, Perrysville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, the Atlanta Campaign, and Resaca.
Among foreign born Union soldiers from Ohio who received the Medal of Honor were: William Campbell, 30th OVI; John P. Murphy, 5th OVI; George W. Tyrell, 5th OVI; plus Jacob Swegheimer and Edward Welsh, 54th OVI. One Ohio officer who distinguished himself in the U.S. Army was Major General August Kautz who led troops, and wrote manuals on the duties and customs of military service. He was born in Baden and grew up in Brown County, fought with the First Ohio Infantry in the Mexican-American War 1846-48, and graduated in the class of 1852 from the U.S. Military Academy. Major General Phillip Sheridan, officially recorded as born in Albany, N.Y. and raised in Somerset, Ohio, is rumored to have actually been born on an immigrant ship in transit from Ireland. Sheridan served in the War Between the States with great distinction and in 1888 became commanding general of the U.S. Army.
For additional information, recommended readings include:
Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments; William L. Burton; Fordham Univ. Press 1998.
True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army; Martin Öfele; Praeter Press 2008