Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters From the 32nd Indiana Infantry
by August Willich (translated and edited by Joseph R. Reinhart, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2006, $35)
Discussions about the participation of German immigrants in the war are often trivialized with quips about how those who initially proclaimed with pride “I fights mit Sigel!” ended up learning how to “runs mit Sigel!”and with debate over the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s famous decision to grant a general’s commission to Alexander Schimmelfennig on the grounds that his unusual name alone justified it.Yet as two new books illustrate, the experience of German immigrants in the Civil War was much more complex,positive and interesting than has traditionally been recognized.In the process,both make absolutely terrific contributions to Civil War literature.
The first book is Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters From the 32nd Indiana Infantry.The 32nd Indiana Infantry was organized during the summer of 1861 and was initially commanded by Colonel August Willich,a former Prussian army officer who was one of the best known of thousands of Germans who immigrated to America after participating in the unsuccessful liberal revolutions of 1848.The regiment participated in nearly all of the major campaigns conducted by what was first christened the Army of the Ohio and later became the Army of the Cumberland.
The letters were written by more than a half-dozen members of the regiment and were published in German-language newspapers in Cincinnati,Indianapolis and Louisville.They offer perspectives on the campaigns the unit participated in, from the operations in Kentucky in December 1861 that produced their first significant engagement at Rowlett’s Station to the campaign for Atlanta during which the three-year enlistments of its original members expired.The letters capture the soldiers’ satisfaction in their regiment’s performances at Shiloh,Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Pickett’s Mill; their opinions of the South and its people; their take on various commanders and strong sense of ethnic pride;and the challenges of army life.
A more broadly conceived and executed work is Germans in the Civil War:The Letters They Wrote Home (edited by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich,translated by Susan Carter Vogel, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2006, $59.95). Originally published in German, this book is a compilation of over 300 letters from the North American Letter Collection in Gotha, Germany,written by German immigrants in the United States, mostly to friends and relatives in Germany.A magnificent and massive tome (with an equally weighty cover price), it contains a wealth of material for readers with a wide range of interests.The approximately 80 letter writers are a diverse lot. Readers meet soldiers in both the Eastern and Western armies, as well a Texas Unionist whose letters vividly chronicle his community’s persecution by Confederate authorities.
Other writers include a Michigan farmer, a graduate of a German mining college using his skills in the copper mines of East Tennessee, a New York businessman, and a man who proclaimed,“I am not a Fighting character…it is much more pleasant to clench your fist in your pocket than to look for a new bed every evening in the woods.” Few, however, had qualms about working for the War Department in Washington.
In addition to the work that went into locating, editing and translating the letters, the editors thoroughly combed the secondary literature and performed extensive research in an impressive range of primary sources,such as the U.S. census, muster rolls, regimental books and pension books.They effectively use the materials to provide important information about the letter writers’ lives, the larger operations in which the soldiers participated, and various individuals mentioned in the letters. Both books’ well-written introductions and epilogues provide insights into the general military, economic, social, political and cultural history of Civil War America and the German experience before and during the war in particular. Provided as well are commentary on the material and prior scholarship on the role Germans played in 19th-century America and how they shaped and were shaped by larger events.
The only drawback to these works is that, as is often the case with books published by university presses,both have fairly steep cover prices.While the material contained in each of these volumes is very much worth the price,one cannot help but lament that financial considerations may lead some to pass them by. Hopefully, libraries that serve students of Civil War history will add both of these books to their collections, for it would be a shame if they did not somehow reach the wide audience they richly deserve.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.