Author of A History of the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry U.S.: The Boys Who Feared No Noise. Translator and editor of:
(3) A German Hurrah!: Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry.
More than 1.3 million Germans were living in the United States at the start of the Civil War, and they comprised almost 5 percent of its white population and about 4 percent of its total population of 31.2 million. The large majority of these German immigrants arrived in the U. S. between 1848 and 1860, and came mainly from the western and southwestern areas of Germany. An estimated 4,000 of these German immigrants had participated in the failed German Revolution of 1848 and/or uprisings in 1849, and fled their homelands to escape retribution. These political exiles, known as Forty-Eighters, caused quite a stir in the U.S. because of their highly vocal agitation for changes in American institutions and practices, and their anticlerical sentiments.
In 1860, more than four out of five Germans in the United States were living in the Free States, and two out of three were concentrated in just five states – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. The border states, consisting of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, contained about 15 percent of the country’s Germans, and the Slave States in the South contained a little over 5 percent. Germans overwhelmingly chose to live in the Free States because they did not have to compete with slave labor, and the Free States were more industrialized, offering better economic opportunities. Germans also disliked the institution of slavery because it was akin to the serf system they detested in their homelands.
Kentucky, being a Slave State, attracted fewer Germans than if it had been a Free State, and its German-born population was approximately 27,000 persons in 1860. One of the main reasons for German settlement in Kentucky was the development of manufacturing interests along its Ohio River border, principally in Louisville, Covington and Newport, and to certain settlements of agriculturalist Germans in counties along the northern border of the state. The relatively small number of slaves in counties along Kentucky’s northern border was another reason Germans moved into this part of the Bluegrass State. While slaves accounted for about 20 percent of Kentucky’s total population of 1,150,000 in 1860, they aggregated less than 8 percent of Louisville’s population and less than 2 percent of Covington’s and Newport’s. It is noteworthy that approximately 50 percent of Kentucky’s native-Germans lived in Louisville, and the cities of Covington and Newport (combined) contained almost 20 percent of the Bluegrass State’s German population.
Germans brought their institutions and customs to America with them, but were not of one mind in some significant areas. Religion was a factor dividing Germans, about half of whom were Roman Catholics and half were Protestants. German Protestants principally belonged to Lutheran, Evangelical or Reformed churches, and the enmity between Protestants and Catholics spawned during the Reformation did not disappear when the immigrants arrived in America. The vociferous and radical Forty-Eighters also caused division within the German element, and also drew the ire of old stock Americans. The Forty-Eighters were mostly atheists and harshly criticized all organized religions and clerics – especially Roman Catholics. They also spoke out scornfully against English-speaking Protestant churches that supported temperance and puritanical Sabbath laws– believing these laws restricted personal freedom. Moreover, these so-called freethinkers were strong abolitionists who agitated for an end to slavery through public speeches and the many German-language newspapers they controlled. Earlier German immigrants differed sharply from the Forty-Eighters and were subjected to strong criticism by these radicals for their religious beliefs, attachment to churches, and lack of high culture.
Prior to the mid-1850’s, most German immigrants became loyal members of the Democratic Party. Democrats welcomed foreigners into the party, spoke out for their political rights, and opposed strict temperance and Sabbath laws. The fact that the Irish immigrants were solidly Roman Catholic, and about one third of the Germans were Roman Catholics, disturbed many Protestant Anglo-Saxon Americans, who believed these foreigners would disturb the American experiment. They believed Catholics were subservient to a foreign prince — the Pope — and feared his influence in politics and education. They also held prejudices against non-Catholic foreigners, which the radical German Forty-Eighters helped exacerbate.During the mid-1850’s, as immigrants continued to flow into the country, nativist sentiment grew, and the American Party, whose members were called Know Nothings because of the secrecy surrounding the party, spread to Kentucky. Principal aims of this nativist party included severely restricting the rights of Catholics and foreigners to vote and hold office. After the national Whig Party broke up in 1852 over the slavery issue, many Whigs moved into the American Party. Anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner sentiments reached the boiling point in 1854 and 1855, and sometimes led to violence and bloodshed, such as in Louisville’s Bloody Monday election riots on August 6, 1855. By the late 1850’s, the Know Nothing Party was effectively dead, because the slavery issue mushroomed in importance and immigration had declined. However, prejudice lived on.
Opposition to the expansion of slavery led to the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, and by 1856 it had grown to the point of running John C. Fremont as its candidate for president. The Republican Party attracted Free Soil Democrats, Whigs, Know-Nothings, and temperance and Sabbath law supporters. All but a few Forty-Eighters enthusiastically supported this new party because of its strong opposition to the expansion of slavery, and the party’s radical element’s desire for abolition. The Forty-Eighters used their newspapers, and frequent meetings and speeches, to draw Germans into the Republican Party. Carl Schurz and other prominent German-born Republicans were successful in convincing a significant number of Germans-Americans in the Free States to vote Republican in the 1860 elections. However, they did not win over the majority of Germans. Catholics remained almost solidly Democratic. Although most Catholics opposed the expansion of slavery, they would not support the Republican Party, because it was composed of so many former Know-Nothings and Catholic haters. Conservative Lutherans were also less likely to place the slavery issue above all others in casting their votes. German Protestants, who were strongly anti-slavery, skilled craft workers, and not influenced by conservative Protestant clergy, appear to be the main source of German Republican votes in 1860. Republicans found scant support in Kentucky in 1860. There was no Republican Party in the Bluegrass State, and Lincoln received less than one percent of all votes cast. In Louisville, where half of Kentucky’s Germans were located, Lincoln received only 91 votes out of 7,401 cast. Most of Kentucky’s votes went to John Bell of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union Party’s candidate, who favored compromise over the slavery issue, and to Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Except for the Forty-Eighters, most of Kentucky’s Germans probably supported Douglas, because Bell and many of his supporters were nativists.
Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States in November 1860, triggered the secession of South Carolina and six other southern states, and war broke out when South Carolina guns began bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to suppress the rebellion, and four more southern states seceded from the Union. Kentucky was a slave state and had strong ties to both warring sections of the country. Consequently, its people were divided over the issues that led to the war–with most wanting to remain in the Union, but opposing war with the South. Kentucky had a pro-Southern Governor in 1861, and he refused to furnish troops pursuant to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 militiamen in April 1861. Kentucky adopted a policy of neutrality in May 1861, but by September, Union men were in control of the State’s General Assembly, and the state declared for the Union and called for 41,500 volunteers to eject Confederate forces from the state.
During Kentucky’s period of neutrality, Kentuckians crossed the Ohio River to enroll in Union regiments. One Union camp, Camp Joe Holt, was located opposite Louisville, near Jeffersonville, Indiana, and another, Camp Clay, was opposite Newport, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Hundreds of Germans from Louisville, enrolled at Camp Joe Holt, in July 1861, and Germans from Kentucky also enrolled at Camp Clay in Ohio. Once Kentucky ended its neutrality, a flurry of recruiting activity commenced within Kentucky’s borders. William Elwang, a Turner and probably a Forty-Eighter, and Michael Billing, both of whom lived in Louisville, received authorization from General Robert Anderson, around October 10, 1861, to form the First German Kentucky Regiment. However, the relatively small pool of military-age Germans in Louisville and in Kentucky, combined with stiff competition from recruiters for other units being formed in Kentucky, resulted in only three companies being raised for the First German Kentucky Regiment. And it was forced to consolidate with two other incomplete organizations, and form the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment. One of the organizations consolidated included a German company previously mustered in at Camp Joe Holt, so four of this new regiment’s ten companies comprised Germans. This represented the largest number of Germans in any single Kentucky regiment. Most of the Sixth Kentucky’s Germans were from Louisville, but there were a few from Southern Indiana in the regiment. Many of the Germans in these four companies could not speak English, so commands were given in German. However, the company officers had to have skills in English to communicate with the regiment’s headquarters and the other officers in the regiment.The second largest contingent of Germans in a Kentucky regiment belonged to the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. The 4th Kentucky Cavalry contained three German companies, and Jacob Ruckstahl held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in this unit. The 2nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment had two German companies, and the5th, 15th and 22nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiments each had one German company. Other Germans in Kentucky regiments were in mixed companies. More than
Germans came to America seeking a better life than they could achieve in their old lands, so, what induced so many of them to risk their lives fighting in America’s Civil War? Patriotism was the answer for some. Some enlisted because their adopted country was threatened and they felt it was their duty to help defend it. Germans also supported the Union because they had seen the terrible results of disunion among the German states, and did not want the United States divided. Some wanted adventure or joined because a friend who enlisted. Some joined the army to get a steady paycheck or later in the war to get bounty or signing bonuses that ranged from one hundred to several hundred dollars, or to avoid the stigma of being drafted. Unlike Anglo-Americans some Germans enlisted to prove they were good Americans and to elevate Germans in the eyes of nativist Americans.
Many Forty-Eighters, of course, rushed to volunteer in what they saw as a holy war against despotism and slavery and to prove their worth as Americans. This was the Forty-Eighters’ second fight for freedom and they enthusiastically entered it. In Louisville, Indianapolis and other places, so many Turners joined the Union army that their clubs’ activities had to be suspended until after the war. Recruiters for the First German Kentucky Regiment employed the usual appeal that the country was in danger and patriotic men must hurry and take up arms to defend the Union. However, they also stressed ethnic pride and advantages of serving in an all-German regiment. Recruiters pointed out that when August Willich’s 32nd Indiana marched through Louisville early in October, Germans’ hearts swelled with pride and joy as they watched those courageous men march off to war. An appeal published in the Louisville Anzeiger on October 11 declared: "Whenever and wherever the Germans have participated in the holy war of justice against injustice, they have always proven their innate talent to be exceptional warriors, and become covered with glory when the opportunity presented itself. Certainly Kentucky’s Germans want to have a part in this glory, … and follow their brave brothers and help drive out these thieving hordes." And, at alarge recruiting rally at Schwind’s Tavern, Philipp Tomppert, a German-born Unionist who would be elected Louisville’s mayor in 1865, admonished Germans not to remain uninvolved and beshamed by the Germans in the other states. Recruiters for all-German units also stressed that the men would receive their orders and instructions in their native language. This allowed Germans who lacked skills in English to serve in the army because German was used at the company or regiment level.
A principal reason for the formation of all-German regiments was that it gave Germans visibility that they would not otherwise have if they were in mixed regiments. German regiments demonstrated the Germans’ commitment to fight for freedom, and for their adopted country. Germans could boast proudly when a German regiment performed well, such as the 9th Ohio at the Battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky, and the 32nd Indiana at Rowlett’s Station in Kentucky, and at Shiloh and at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. However, if their performance was poor, or they were in a lost battle, such as at Chancellorsville, in Virginia, they were singled out by nativist and American newspapers and called "Damned Dutch Cowards," and unjustly blamed for the loss. American officers let them take the blame, rather than admit their own failings. The 32nd Indiana and 9th Ohio regiments proved to be one of the hardest-fighting regiments in the Union army and achieved what its organizers had envisioned. The Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry was acknowledged to be among the finest fighting regiments of its state, and its four German companies could claim their share of the credit.
Not all native-born Americans, and not all Germans, rushed to volunteer to fight in the war. Some felt that the war was caused by the abolitionists, and was being fought mainly for the Negroes, and they declined to take up arms. German Catholics did not participate as heavily as German Protestants, and Forty-Eighters criticized Lutherans for holding back. Other Germans remained loyal to the Democratic Party that opposed the war.
Kentucky’s German-Americans served almost totally in the Western Theater of the war. The 6th Kentucky Infantry (which had four German companies) fought principally in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, as part of the Army of the Ohio and its successor Army of the Cumberland. And, was among the best fighting units provided to the Union army by their respective states.
The 6th Kentucky moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in early 1862, and was part of General Don Carlos Buell’s army that arrived in time to fight in the second day’s battle at Shiloh. As part of General Nelson’s division, during the forenoon on April 7, the 6th Kentucky and its brigade, made a bold charge and had the enemy on the run through the Davis wheat field, until Rebel reserves entered the battle. The 6th was caught in a deadly crossfire of musketry and artillery, and suffered most of its 103 casualties at this time. The regiment then participated in the advance to, and siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in May 1862. After spending time in northeastern Mississippi and northern Alabama, the Army of the Ohio moved to Middle Tennessee, and then marched to Louisville to prevent an invading Confederate army from capturing the city. The 6th Kentucky did not fight in the battle at Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8, 1862. However, the 6th and its brigade were in the forefront of the Federal force pursuing the retreating Confederates. This pursuit passed through and over some of the roughest and wildest country in southeastern Kentucky, and finally ended at London, Kentucky. Pvt. Lorenz Vogel, a German from Louisville, was the only member of the 6th Kentucky killed during the constant skirmishing that took place with the enemy’s rearguard.
The Army of the Ohio re-organized after the battle of Perryville, and its name changed to the Army of the Cumberland. This Army’s next battle was fought near the Stones River,byMurfreesboro, Tennessee, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville. The casualty lists exceeded those at Shiloh. The Federal army’s right and center were rolled back by the Confederates on December 31, 1862; however, the left held, and prevented a Confederate rout of the Union army. The 6th Kentucky and its brigade fought stubbornly on the Union left, and held their position all day, contributing to the ultimate Union victory. The 6th Kentucky incurred 113 casualties, including 24 killed and mortally wounded. Its German companies were especially hard hit fighting at the edge of the woods known as "the Cedars". After running out of ammunition, the 6th Kentucky joined its brigade in the Round Forest, and fought from there until the day’s bloodshed ended. The Federals repulsed a ferocious attack on January 2, 1864, and the Confederates left the battlefield. Total Union casualties between December 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863, were 13,000 and Confederate casualties were 10,000
The Army of the Cumberland remained in and around Murfreesboro until late June 1863, and then embarked on the Tullahoma campaign. The 6th Kentucky was in the army’s left wing, and rain, mud, and swollen rivers prevented it from engaging the enemy, before they retreated out of Middle Tennessee into northern Georgia. The Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee next collided near Chickamauga Creek in Georgia on September 19 and 20, 1863, in another great American slaughter. The 6th Kentucky fought courageously in this bloody battle; however, a Federal error on the second day of the battle, allowed the Confederates to break through the Union line, and the federal army was forced to retreat back to Chattanooga and fortify the city. The 6th Kentucky suffered 118 casualties. Federal casualties totaled almost 16,000, and Confederate casualties totaled almost 18,000.
The Confederate army lay siege to Chattanooga by occupying the west bank of the Tennessee River, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and the Federalssuffered greatly from lack offood and supplies. While at Chattanooga, the Army of the Cumberland was reorganized and the 6th Kentucky was placed in the 3rd Division of the Fourth Corps under Kentucky-native Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood. The 6th Kentucky remained in General Hazen’s Second Brigade, which was strengthened by the addition of six small battle-reduced regiments. After the reorganization, Hazen’s brigadecontained about 2,500 men. One of the regiments added was the 5th Kentucky Infantry, also known as the Louisville Legion. The Louisville Legion contained a German company that enlisted at Camp Joe Holt back in July 1861, plus Germans in mixed companies. Pvt. Gottfried Rentschler of the 6th Kentucky, estimated in March 1864 that General Hazen’s brigade of nine regiments contained about 600 Germans.
The 6th Kentucky and its brigade helped open a supply line from Bridgeport, Alabama, through a daring raid on October 27 1863, at Brown’s Ferry, west of Chattanooga. Half of Hazen’s brigade traveled to the Ferry in pontoon boats under the cover of darkness and assaulted the Confederates defending the Ferry. The other half of the brigade was transported across the Tennessee River in the pontoon boats used by the original assault force. The enemy was driven away from the area, and reinforcements transferred from the Army of the Potomac moved from Bridgeport, Alabama, to Brown’s Ferry, opening the critical line of supply. The aforementioned reinforcements included several all-German regiments from the East. On November 25, 1863, Willich’s and Hazen’s brigades attacked Confederate regiments posted at and adjacent to Orchard Knob, seizing their fortifications located east of Chattanooga and about halfway between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge. Two days later, the Army of the Cumberland, over 22,000 troops strong, stormed Missionary Ridge and drove the Confederates from their fortifications. <
The soldiers only had orders to seize the enemy rifle pits at the base of the ridge; however, being under a murderous fire from above, the men took it upon themselves to storm up the ridge,and drive off the enemy, and won one of the most stunning Union victories of the war.Several regiments, including the 6th Kentucky, have been credited with being the first to reach the crest ofthe ridge; however, no one knows for sure who was actually first. The 6th Kentucky, along with the rest of their division spent December 1863 through April 1864 marching around in East Tennessee looking for a large Confederate force thought to be in the area, but they fought no significant battles. Mostly they suffered from cold and hunger, and were elated when spring arrived.On May 3, 1864, most of the officers and, the 6th Kentucky began their last campaign of the War. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign— sometimes called "the 100 days under fire," because of continuous contact with the enemy.Still serving in General Wood’s division, the 6th Kentucky fought at Resaca, Georgia, (on May 14-15), Pickett’s Mill, (on May 27), and Kennesaw Mountain, in late June. The 6th Kentucky was also engaged at Rocky Face Ridge near Tunnel Hill, Georgia, very early in the campaign. The 6th also engaged in the siege of Atlanta, which began on July 23, 1864. Because of expiring enlistments, the 6th was sent back to Tennessee before Atlanta fell on September 2, 1864. The 6th Kentucky suffered 21 killed and mortally wounded, plus 37 wounded or missing during the Atlanta campaign. The men of the 6th Kentucky paid a heavy price defending the Union. The 6th Kentucky had 97 battle-related deaths, and 82 men died of diseases, illnesses and other causes. Total 179. Forty-one of the regiment’s Germans died from combat and 36 died from diseases and other causes for a grand total of 77.
The 22nd Kentucky Infantry, whose Company K was composed of Germans from Louisville, began its service in eastern Kentucky, and later moved west, and fought at Chickasaw Bayou and Chickasaw Bluffs in Mississippi inDecember 1862, was at Arkansas Post, Arkansas, during that battle, and also at Port Gibson, and other previously mentioned battles resulting in the capitulation of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The 22nd Kentucky also campaigned in Louisiana. This Kentucky regiment had 36 men killed in battles or mortally wounded, three men missing in action, and 131 died of diseases and illnesses. Of the regiments total dead of 170, 15 were German’s from Company K.
In addition to fighting the enemy, the elements, and diseases, German soldiers had to deal with prejudices in their own army. A young Kentucky farmer in the 6th Kentucky wrote in a letter that when the German companies and native Kentucky companies combined at Camp Sigel in Louisville in November 1861, that the Germans and Americans could not understandoneanotherand were suspicious of one another. He thought they out to be separate. Another Kentuckian wrote that the men in his company rejoiced when a Germanic Major resigned because he and his friends did not want to take orders from a foreigner.
Pvt. Gottfried Rentschler, a native of Wuerttmberg penned that:
"If a full company is needed for some easy service, e.g., Provost-Guard, a German company is never taken. If an entire company is required for rough service, e.g., several days or several weeks as Train-Guard, a German company will be ordered whenever possible. As this happens on a company basis, so it happens to individuals in the mixed companies. As a rule, the Germanhas to wade through the mud, while the American walks on the dry road. The German is a 'Dutch soldier' and as a 'Dutchman' he is, if not despised, is disrespected, and not regarded or treated as an equal."
"I had a discussion once with a party of abolitionist officers about the employment of Negroes as soldiers and uttered my disapproval. Their main argument against me, was that theGermans had no business to bear arms and become soldiers, because they value the country so little just like the Negro. A colonel once said that he could not understand why so many Germans volunteer so readily for the army, after all, as foreigners they could not be interested in it. This opinion is mainly represented by Americans from the North. I have already heard many crude jokes made about one of the best known generals of the Union, not because he is not up to his high position, every Know-Nothing will argue the opposite, but rather because he is a German. When I say this lack of respect for the Germans comes mainly from the Free States’ Americans, let me state at the same time also the fact, that the Free States’ Americans give the Negro, wherever they come in contact with him, much worse treatment than those who belong to the Slave States. In my brigade there are 5 Ohio, 1 Indiana, and KentuckyRegiments. The Kentuckians treat the Negro more humanely, the others treat him like a dog. The former call him Negro, the latter call him Nigger."
Gottfried‘s statements about anti-German prejudices and mistreatment of Germans generally ring true, and it is not surprising considering the wide-spread nativism which began in the 1850s. It is somewhat ironic that abolitionist soldiers from the Free States also detested the foreign-born men who were sacrificing so much fighting on their side in the war. That native Kentuckians in the 6th Kentucky displayed less prejudice toward their fellow soldiers of German nativity might be attributed to the large number of Germans in the 6th, whom they relied on in battle. While Gottfried may have observed Union-loyal Kentuckians treating Negroes better than the Free States Americans did, his assertion that Bluegrass Staters did not call them Niggers is untrue. This derogatory term was incommon use by Kentuckians and Rentschler sometimes used it himself. While tolerating prejudicial acts directed at them by native Americans and other ethnic groups, Germans had some prejudices of their own. They felt that they were products of a superior culture and were better soldiers than anyone else. Gottfried Rentschler demonstrated this when he wrote:
"Let me return to the German soldiers, and state another fact, i.e., that the German soldier is generally far, more faithful, conscientious and zealous than the native-born American. This is part of the German nature, which is our reason to be proud of our nation. One more thing: The German soldier is obedient and loyal to duty without regard to rewardorpunishment.The Americangenerally considers, only reward, or — The Guard-House. This is caused by the national education on either side, in the broadest sense of the word.Because of the situation as mentioned, you may possibly draw the conclusion that the mixing of Germans and Americans in the Army may be beneficial to both parties, but such conclusion is in error."
William L. Burton points out in his study – Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments – that Germans and members of other ethnic groups sometimes interpreted valid criticism and acts based on reasons other than ethnicity, as being unjust and prejudiced. He also states that biases and friction attributed to national origin were often based on political, religious, cultural or other difference between the parties. Regardless of ethnic differences and prejudices, the native Germans in the 6th Kentucky and the vast majority elsewhere in the Federal army fought on for their adopted country, hoping for better times.
Finally, how did German-Americans perform as soldiers? Some were excellent, most were average, and some were poor. Bell Irwin Wily concludes in his excellent study entitled: The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, that "On the whole the contribution of this nationality to the union cause was tremendous…. "
For additional information on the 4th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment go to http://www.rootsweb.com/~kymercer/CivilWar/Union/4cav/
For additional information on the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment go to http://6thkentuckyus.yolasite.com/
For additional information on the 5th Kentucky Infantry Regiment go to http://5thkyinfantryus.yolasite.com/
For additional information on the 15th Kentucky Infantry Regiment go to http://www.geocities.com/thomasspeed2/15kyinf.html
Louisville’s Germans in the Civil War
by Joe Reinhart
Population of Louisville-1860 68,000
Native Germans in Louisville-1860 13,300
Jefferson County, Ky. Whites in Union Army
to 12/31/1864 6,600
Jefferson County, Ky. Germans
in the Union Army 1,200
Jefferson County, Ky. African-Americans
In the Union Army to 12/31/1864 450
In 1860, 80% of the nation’s 1.3 million German immigrants lived in the Free States, only 6% lived in the states that Seceded from the Union.
Principal Regiments Germans Joined Number of Men
5th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment 140
6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment 347
22nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment 100
28th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment 130
34th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment 90
Louisville Provost Guard 100
4th Kentucky Cavalry 240
Louisville’s Germans in the Civil War
by Joseph R. Reinhart
Presentation Given at the Louisville Free Public Library
September 22, 2010
Louisville, Kentucky, played a vital role during the long and bloody Civil War, not only as the Union army’s largest supply depot in West, but also as a bastion of Unionism in a slave state containing a sizable minority of sentiment for the Southern cause. Much of the story of this thriving Ohio River city’s involvement in the war is set forth in Robert Emmett McDowell’s City of Conflict: Louisville in the Civil War 1861–1865, published in 1962, and the more recent Louisville & the Civil War by Brian Bush published in 2008. However, one aspect that is not covered in these works is the notable contribution of Louisville’s German’s to the Union cause, and that is my subject this evening.
On the eve of the Civil War, Louisville was the twelfth largest city in the United States and a bustling mercantile and industrial center, whose wharf hummed with activity. Its population had grown from 43,000 persons in 1850 to 68,000 persons in 1860, an increase of almost 60%. During that same period, Louisville’s German-born population increased by over 70% to 13,300 men, women and children, and another 2,000 Germans lived outside the city limits in Jefferson County. Thus 20 percent of Louisville’s population was German born. Many of these Germans could not speak English and most tended to live in German neighborhoods where there were German churches, schools, businesses, social clubs, beer gardens, tavern, coffee houses and theaters. Almost one half of Louisville’s Germans were Roman Catholics, and most of the remainder belonged principally to German Lutheran, Evangelical, or Reformed Churches. There were also some Methodists, Baptists, Jews and some Freethinkers. The German Protestants and Roman Catholics did not mix and sometimes were hostile toward each other.
Importantly, in 1860, America’s 1.3 million native Germans were far from a monolithic group, and were divided by many issues. As Randall Miller has observed, “They left a Germany divided into numerous principalities, duchies and cities. . . . There, each political entity had its own distinctive style of speech, costumes, foodways, folklore, humor, and religion, and in those tightly-knit societies, localism ruled.” There were Bavarians, Hessians, Prussians, Saxons, Württembergers, and so forth. It was hard to find a common opinion among Germans, except for three things: Their love of lager beer; their hatred of American temperance and Sabbath laws; and their disdain for Anglo-American nativism. Nevertheless, as the 1850s progressed, some feeling of Deutschtum, or pan-German consciousness, began developing.
For its many thousands of German and Irish immigrants, Louisville had been a city of conflict before the outbreak of the Civil War. This earlier conflict was with nativists and members of the American Party (the Know Nothings) who conspired to keep the rapidly growing number of Roman Catholics and foreign-born men from holding public office and from voting in elections. The lid blew off on August 6, 1855, when German and Irish immigrants (who usually voted for Democrats) were denied access to the polls and fighting broke out. Shots were fired and rioting ensued; a brewery and residences were burned down, many persons were injured, and more than twenty deaths resulted. Most of the victims of the “ Bloody Monday” election rioting were immigrants. After “Bloody Monday a general apathy and despondency seized the Germans in Louisville, and they turned inward.
By 1860 the American Party was effectively dead because the slavery issue had mushroomed in importance and immigration had declined; however, religious and ethnic prejudices continued.
Although many Germans in Northern states switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in 1860 and voted for Abraham Lincoln in the November presidential election, only a very small number of Germans in Louisville voted for Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln received a grand total of only 91 votes in all of the city; Most local Germans who voted, likely supported Steven A. Douglas of Illinois, the Northern Democrat candidate, because the top vote getter in the city, John Bell of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union candidate, was a nativist, and Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was supported by proslavery, dis-unionist interests. Two reasons so few Louisville Germans voted Republican is that the Republican Party was the party of former Know Nothings and Puritanical Temperance and Sabbath law proponents. Germans loved their beer and socializing on Sundays in the Continental European fashion.
One group that caused dissention within both the German and Anglo-American communities was the Turners. Turners belonged to a unique gymnastic organization called a Turnverein and espoused social and political ideas ranging from very liberal to radical. There were probably less than 200 Turners in number in Louisville in 1860, but they were highly visible and outspoken. Prominent among the Turners were a small number of men called Forty-eighters who had fled their native lands to avoid prosecution after the unsuccessful anti-monarchial German Revolution of 1848 and uprisings in 1849. Many fellow Germans disliked and avoided Forty-eighters and Turners because of their radicalism. For example, the Turners contempt for the clerics and organized religions drew the wrath of Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants. In addition, most of Louisville’s native-born church people viewed the Turners with scorn because they considered them infidels who promoted socialism and communism, and fostered the abolition of slavery.
Six weeks after Civil war broke out in mid-April 1861, Kentucky declared its neutrality. This neutrality lasted until September 1861 when Kentucky’s House of Representatives and Senate declared for the Union.
Most of Louisville’s Germans joined Kentucky regiments and often served in separate German companies in those regiments. An infantry regiment usually contained 10 companies of 90-100 men each. Germans were always in the minority in the Bluegrass State’s regiments.
Some of Louisville’s Germans opted to serve in all- or mostly- German regiments organized in other states, such as the 9th Ohio, 32nd Indiana and 24th Illinois.
One reason that many Germans served in separate German companies or German regiments is that they did not understand English. Others were more comfortable with their fellow Germans, or wanted to serve under German officers, or wanted to avoid Anglo-American nativists as much as possible. Incidentally, I define Anglo-American here as a person or persons born in the United States and descended mainly from colonial-era English and Scots-Irish colonists.
Because of inadequate records the exact number of Germans from Louisville and Jefferson County who joined the Union army during the Civil War is not precisely determinable. However, by reviewing thousands of compiled service records, supplemented by published local histories and biographies, newspapers, and other sources, I compiled a list of more than 1,200 native Germans from Louisville and Jefferson County who joined the Union army. The actual number is certainly larger because the nativity for many men with German surnames who served in mixed companies was not determinable and therefore they were excluded from my compilation. Few Germans joined Kentucky’s Confederate regiments.
Based on available data from the beginning of the Civil War through December 31, 1864, Jefferson County furnished almost 6,600 white troops and approximately 450 African American troops to the Federal army.
The 6,600 white troops represented 8.5 percent of the county’s 1860 white population. The 1,200 Germans I identified in the aforementioned compilation represented 8 percent of the county’s 1860 white population. So Germans volunteered in approximately the same ratio as other whites in Jefferson County.
Why did Louisville’s German’s join the Union army? There were a number of reasons but they defy quantification. Some were motivated by patriotism, and wanted to preserve the country, and its constitution, and republican institutions which provided them freedoms they lacked in Germany. Others joined up to show Anglo-Americans that Germans were good citizen who deserved their respect. Some joined because they needed employment or wanted the 160 acres in the western territories promised to men who completed their enlistments. Others enlisted because or friend or relative did or were seeking adventure. Finally some volunteered out of a combination of motives. Based on very limited evidence one scholar argues that the percentage of Germans who enlisted in the Union army for a paycheck exceeded the percentage who enlisted out of patriotism.
5th and 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiments
On May 8 1861 a small group of Turners from Louisville, perhaps 20 in number, mustered into Cincinnati’s 9th Ohio Regiment (the First German Ohio Regiment) and, in July, twelve companies of Union men, almost 1,200 in number, crossed the Ohio River to Jeffersonville, Indiana, and established Camp Joe Holt under the direction of Louisville attorney and state senator Col. Lovell H. Rousseau. The camp was located in Indiana because of Kentucky’s declared neutrality at that time. Two companies at Joe Holt consisted of Germans from Louisville. One of the German companies was led by Capt. August Schweitzer, a machinist born at Kitzengen in Bavaria, and it became part of the 5th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 5th Kentucky was also known as the “Louisville Legion.” The second German company, led by Capt. Joseph Haupthof (birthplace unknown), became part of the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which contained four German companies.
The 6th Kentucky Infantry began organizing in October 1861 and its camp was located at Schlieder’s Farm, just beyond where Shelby Street merged into Preston Street Road (which in 1861 lay about four miles southeast of the city’s riverfront district.) The camp was named Camp Sigel in honor of Franz Sigel, a German-born brigadier general who was leading Union troops in Missouri.
The 5th Kentucky and 6th Kentucky left their training camps with around 900 men each. The regiments served with distinction in Kentucky and four Southern states, including Tennessee, where they fought at Shiloh and Stones River, and near Chattanooga at Brown’s Ferry, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge. The 5th and 6th Kentucky also fought in Georgia at the great Battle of Chickamauga and in the four-month-long Atlanta campaign (including battles at Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca, Pickett’s Mill, Kennesaw Mountain and the siege of Atlanta). The two Kentucky regiments also participated in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in May 1862.
Most of the original members of the two regiments mustered out after three years of service. The 6th Kentucky distinguished itself on many a bloody battlefield, and according to Capt. Thomas Speed, the historian for Kentucky’s Union regiments, the 6th was second to none of the other regiments Kentucky furnished to the Union. The 5th Kentucky was right up there with the 6th Kentucky. Both regiments were listed among William F. Fox’s “300 fighting regiments” of the Union army.
Of the 347 Germans in the 6th Kentucky, 40 were killed in action or died from wounds, 36 died from disease, and one died in a Confederate prison camp. Two of the Germans were still in enemy hands when the regiment mustered out.
Approximately 140 Louisville Germans served in the 5th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment, including some in mixed companies with Anglo-Americans and other ethnics. Twenty-eight of this regiment’s Germans lay in a soldier’s grave before this hard-fighting unit completed its three years of service. Seventeen of these men were killed in action or died from wounds, 10 died from diseases, and one died in an enemy prison. These men had paid a heavy price for defending the Union, and in doing so proved their willingness to sacrifice for their adopted county.
Germans from Louisville also served in other infantry regiments including the 22nd Kentucky, 28th Kentucky and 34th Kentucky Infantry regiments, and the unique Louisville Provost Guard.
The 22nd Kentucky contained approximately 100 Germans in Compay K, and served in Eastern Kentucky before being sent to Mississippi, where it fought in the campaigns that resulted in the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and then moved to Louisiana where it fought in the Red River campaign. Fifteen Louisville Germans lost their lives serving in the 22nd Kentucky.
28th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry
Col. William P. Boone’s 28th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment attracted more than 130 of Louisville’s German-born men. Although the Germans were spread throughout the regiment’s nine companies, George W. Barth, who owned a grocery and was born near Frankfurt-am-Main in Hesse-Darmstadt, was elected Captain of Company C, and Charles Obst, a native of Prussia, who was a contractor, was elected 1st lieutenant of Company I. Interestingly, Captain Barth had come to America in 1831 and in 1839 established the third brewery built in Louisville (Louisville Spring Brewery). He sold his brewery and distillery business in 1844 and began a tanning and leather store. In 1853 he began farming near Louisville and at the time of his enlistment operated a feed store in Louisville. His oldest son John (who was born in Louisville) also served the regiment. The 28th Kentucky initially guarded the vital Louisville & Nashville Railroad; then in December 1862 garrisoned Clarksville, Tennessee. The regiment was mounted at Clarksville, and engaged in scouting and often skirmished with the enemy in various parts of Tennessee. The unit moved to Northern Georgia in April 1864, where it gave up its mounts, and marched and fought in the Army of the Cumberland, in Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. The regiment operated against Gen. John Bell Hood in North Georgia and North Alabama from September 29 to November 3, 1864. The 28th next fought in the important battles of Franklin and Nashville, and joined in the pursuit of Gen. John Bell Hood’s shattered Army of Tennessee from December 17–28, 1864. It then served at Huntsville, Alabama, and in East Tennessee. The regiment was sent to New Orleans in June and arrived in Texas in July, where it served at San Antonio and Victoria until mustered out on December 14, 1865.
George W. Barth advanced in the regiment and was promoted to major on March 30, 1864, and was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel on July 5, 1864. He commanded the regiment from June 28 to approximately November 25, 1864.
Barth was brevetted as a colonel in 1866, and a senior commander wrote: “On the 20th day of July 1864, at Peachtree Creek, during that difficult [Atlanta] campaign, the regiment under Major Barth through the circumstances and his courage saved the brigade to which it belonged from a complete defeat.” An Indiana officer who was present credited Lieutenant Colonel Barth with saving the entire division. Barth was a true hero.
Prior to the 1864 Atlanta campaign the 28th Kentucky had suffered only four combat-related deaths; however, between the fighting at Pine Mountain, Georgia, on June 17, 1864, and the battle of Nashville on December 15–16, 1864, the regiment lost 28 men killed and mortally wounded, and 8 men missing in action. Of these 40 dead and missing soldiers, at least five were Germans. Another eight Germans died from diseases and illnesses.
34th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry
Approximately 90 German-born men served in the 34th Kentucky Infantry, including 12 former Provost Guards. Adjutant Charles A. Gruber was promoted to captain of Company A on February 7, 1863, and led that company until muster out in January 1865.
The 34th performed provost guard duty in Louisville until May 8, 1863, then headed south where it mostly performed garrison duty in south central Kentucky and East Tennessee, and operated at and near the Cumberland Gap. The 34th Kentucky saw little combat and mustered out in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 24, 1865. Of the Germans serving in the regiment 8 died of diseases, 12 were discharged for disabilities, 3 men transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps.
Louisville Provost Guard
At least 100 native Germans served in Lt. Col. Henry Dent’s unique First Battalion, Louisville Provost Guard, whose five companies contained approximately 500 officers and men. During 1861 and 1862 the officers and men of the Louisville Provost Guard reportedly guarded an aggregate of approximately 150,000 prisoners of war and political prisoners; most of the prisoners were in transit to prisons north of the Ohio River. The battalion ended its service on October 2, 1862. During the Provost Guard’s existence one German died of illness and 17 were discharged for disability. Only Adjutant (1st Lieutenant) Charles A. Gruber, a 21-year-old machine molder and native of Hanover, attained officer status in the battalion, perhaps because Germans were not concentrated in a single company.
4th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry
Louisville Germans also served in the cavalry. The 4th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, contained three-German companies aggregating about 240 men, and Lt. Col. Jacob Ruckstuhl was the senior German officer. These troopers campaigned in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and even reached Tallahassee, Florida, late in the war. It engaged in scouting duties and raids, and fought Confederate cavalry on many occasions. The regiment’s largest single loss was 94 killed, wounded and missing at the great battle of Chickamauga in Georgia in September 1963. The entire regiment suffered a total of 31 killed and mortally wounded and 149 men died of diseases during its service. Eight of its Germans were killed in action, 18 died in Confederate prison camps and 18 more died from diseases and illnesses. Total Germans dead—44.
Recapping the losses. During the 4-year-long war, at least 187 Germans from Louisville and Jefferson County sacrificed their lives while serving in the Union army and more than 300 Germans were disabled. The dead included 72 officers and men killed in action or dead from wounds, 20 who died in Confederate prison camps, and 95 who succumbed to diseases, illnesses and other causes. The percentage of native Germans who lost their lives in defense of the Union (8.75) exceeded by a small amount the average for all Kentucky regiments. Thus, Louisville’s and Jefferson County’s Germans made a proportionate and positive contribution to Kentucky’s effort to preserve the Union.
How did German-Americans perform as soldiers? Bell Irwin Wily concluded in his highly acclaimed study entitled: The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, that "On the whole the contribution of this nationality to the union cause was tremendous….”
The author believe that, like soldiers of Anglo-American birth, some Germans were excellent soldiers, most were average, and some were poor; some were heroes, some were cowards and deserters. Germans however did desert at a rate 50 percent higher than men in all Kentucky regiments as a whole.
Louisville’s Germans’ support for the Union was more-wide spread than among native-born Kentuckians, a large number of whom supported the Confederacy, but like most Kentuckians, most German Americans opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. They were concerned with where all the blacks would go if they were freed, competition for jobs, the emancipated Negroes murdering their masters and their families, and outbreaks of violence if the blacks moved into the city en masse. The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church favored future, but not immediate emancipation, undoubtedly influencing its members. There were also Germans in Louisville who opposed the war, spoke out against it, and shunned military service.
In addition to fighting the enemy, the elements and diseases, German soldiers had to deal with the prejudices in their own army. A young Shelby County farmer in the 6th Kentucky wrote in a letter that after the German companies and native Kentucky companies combined at Camp Sigel in Louisville in November 1861, that the Germans and Americans could not understand one another and were suspicious of one another. He thought they ought to be separate. Another member of the 6th Kentucky wrote that the men in his company rejoiced when a Germanic major resigned because he and his friends did not want to take orders from a foreigner. Pvt. Gottfried Rentschler, a native of Württemberg explained in a letter that:
If a full company is needed for some easy service, e.g., Provost-Guard, a German company is never taken. If an entire company is required for rough service, e.g., several days or several weeks as Train-Guard, a German company will be ordered whenever possible. As this happens on a company basis, so it happens to individuals in the mixed companies. As a rule, the German has to wade through the mud, while the American walks on the dry road. The German is a “Dutch soldier” and as a “Dutchman” he is, if not despised, is disrespected, and not regarded or treated as an equal.
“I had a discussion once with a party of abolitionist officers about the employment of Negroes as soldiers and uttered my disapproval. Their main argument against me was that the Germans had no business to bear arms and become soldiers, because they value the country so little just like the Negro. A colonel once said that he could not understand why so many Germans volunteer so readily for the army, after all, as foreigners they could not be interested in it.
I have already heard many crude jokes made about one of the best known generals of the Union, not because he is not up to his high position, every Know-Nothing will argue the opposite, but rather because he is a German.
Gottfried‘s statements about anti-German prejudices and mistreatment of Germans generally ring true, and it is not surprising considering the wide-spread nativism that was prevalent in the 1850s. It is somewhat ironic that abolitionist soldiers from the Free States also detested the foreign-born men who were sacrificing so much fighting on their side in the war. That native Kentuckians in the 6th Kentucky displayed less prejudice toward their fellow soldiers of German nativity might be attributed to the large number of Germans in the 6th, whom they relied on in battle.
While tolerating prejudicial acts directed at them by Anglo-Americans and other ethnic groups, Germans had some prejudices of their own. They felt that they were products of a superior culture and were better soldiers than anyone else. Gottfried Rentschler demonstrated this when he wrote.
“Let me return to the German soldiers, and state another fact, i.e., that the German soldier is generally far, more faithful, conscientious and zealous than the native-born American. This is part of the German nature, which is our reason to be proud of our nation. One more thing: The German soldier is obedient and loyal to duty without regard to reward or punishment. The American generally considers, only reward, or — The Guard-House. This is caused by the national education on either side, in the broadest sense of the word. Because of the situation as mentioned, you may possibly draw the conclusion that the mixing of Germans and Americans in the Army may be beneficial to both parties, but such conclusion is in error."
Regardless of ethnic differences and prejudices, the native Germans in the 6th Kentucky and elsewhere in the vast Federal army fought on until their enlistments expired, but relatively few reenlisted despite the offers of generous reenlistment bonuses and a 30-day furlough.
German civilians volunteered in hospitals, made clothing for soldiers and raised money for support of destitute soldiers’ families.
In conclusion, the Civil War had significant ethnic dimensions. For Germans, the struggle to save the Union was also a fight to gain social acceptance with the predominately Anglo-American population. The conflict provided the opportunity for Germans to show their support for the national government and to emphasize their ethnicity both politically and militarily. The Civil War helped Germans gain some acceptance as worthy citizens, but the nativism encountered caused them to resist giving up their Germanness and distinct culture. By war’s end the hyphenated German-American identity was being created and it continued until the United States entered World War I in 1917. It seems that instead of melting like butter into the American” melting pot,” the Germans remained more like the contents of stew, retaining their distinctive ethnic identity.