German Americans In the War

"I goes to fight mit Sigel" was the rallying cry of Unionist German immigrants during the Civil War. It was in Missouri that ethnic prejudice and political rivalry between immigrants and native-born citizens of the state led to military action.

In the 1840s and '50s, many German citizens left their homes in Europe seeking freedom and democracy in America. Thousands began their new lives in St. Louis, where they established a strong cultural identity, founding German language newspapers and social organizations.

German Americans also developed strong anti-slavery and pro-Union views, believing that free labor and democracy were in direct conflict with the traditions of the South and the southern desire to expand slavery into the territories. When the Republican Party chose Abraham Lincoln as its candidate in 1860, the politically active St. Louis Germans comprised nearly all of Lincoln's support in Democratic Missouri.

Many of their fellow citizens, immigrants from Tennessee and Kentucky, viewed the German immigrants with suspicion. As the Civil War approached, a rift existed between the state's slaveholders who supported the Democratic Party, and the commercially minded German Republicans of metropolitan St. Louis. Labeled as "Dutchmen" (the American corruption of Deutsche) by the non-Germans of Missouri, they were subject to prejudice that would ultimately have significant effects on the course of the Civil War.

In the spring of 1861, most Missouri residents wanted to remain neutral, but many in St. Louis were more than willing to choose sides. While Southern secessionists formed "Minute Men" organizations in the city, the Germans met for military drills at their own "Turnvereins" or social clubs. They were anxious to prove their loyalty to their adopted homeland. Many turned for leadership to Franz Sigel, district superintendent of schools and a former soldier.

By May 1861, Sigel and other German leaders in St. Louis had organized five regiments of volunteer troops in response to President Lincoln's call for troops to crush the Southern rebellion. They recruited enough additional volunteers to form several "reserve corps" or home guard units. On May 10, the Germans participated in the capture of approximately 700 Missouri militiamen at Camp Jackson, an encampment of largely pro-secessionist state soldiers on the western edge of St. Louis. In the rioting that followed, the soldiers suffered their first casualties and killed more than two dozen civilians.

The Camp Jackson "massacre" prompted previously moderate Missourians to choose sides. Many saw the actions of the Union men as evidence of an oppressive Federal government's willingness to murder innocent women and children. Building on their pre-war prejudices regarding Missouri Germans, they called Sigel and his comrades "Hessians" (a reference to the German troops that fought for the British against American patriots in the Revolution).

Remaining together in largely ethnic units, Sigel and others from St. Louis went on to fight pro-Southern Missourians at the Battle of Carthage, Missouri on July 5, 1861, and at Wilson's Creek a month later. Following Wilson's Creek, many Missouri Germans continued to support the Union both in the ranks of the army and on the home front.

Franz Sigel remained an important symbol for German Americans in Missouri and the rest of the North, as an immigrant who attained fame leading other Germans in defense of both democratic principles and their adopted country. Without Sigel, the Missouri Germans and their beliefs, the Civil War in the West would have taken an entirely different course and the Union cause in Missouri may not have prevailed.

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