William L. Burton
More than thirty-one-and-a-half-million people lived in the United States in 1860, and well over four million, about 13 percent, were foreign-born. The vast majority of those foreign-born residents lived in the northern states, those that formed the Union when war began in 1861. Illinois, like several other northern states, contained a large and politically active foreign-born population.
In 1860, as the nation edged closer and closer to civil war, foreign-born people in Chicago out-numbered the native-born residents. Of the 1,711,951 persons who resided in Illinois — 324,643—more than 20 percent, came to Illinois from another country. Children of foreign-born parents, sometimes referred to as first-generation Americans, often assimilated rapidly into the life and culture of the host society, but they also tended to maintain some feeling of attachment to the home country of their parents. (Those parents and their children are today often described as ethnic Americans, people residing here and usually American citizens, but with emotional and cultural ties to an ancestral country.) The most important characteristics of ethnic populations were language (when it was a language other than English) religion, family relationships, a sense of being different from the larger population, and fond, if sometimes inaccurate, memories of the way of life in the Old Country.
With one out of every five Illinoisans foreign born, and thousands more closely identified with an ethnic community, Illinois political leaders paid close attention to ethnic voting power. More than 130,000 Germans, the largest single ethnic group, lived in the state. The Irish, numbering more than 87,000, made up the second largest block. There were significant numbers of Scandinavians, English, and French, and smaller numbers of other nationalities. Political parties noted these numbers and made special appeals to German and Irish voters. The Republican party in Illinois, for example, selected a German-American, Francis A. Hoffman, as its candidate for lieutenant governor in 1860, and when Republican Richard Yates won the 1860 race for governor, Hoffman became the new governor's liaison with the large German population of Chicago. Hoffman translated German letters for Yates and met with leaders of the German community in Chicago to discuss their hopes, complaints, and requests for patronage.
Democrats as well as Republicans catered to ethnic voters. Irish-Americans tended to support the Democratic party, and the large Irish population in Chicago gave it considerable influence in both local and state elections. Both parties contained some members who viewed ethnics with fear or contempt but who also flattered ethnic leaders to win their support. When war erupted in April 1861, ethnic political leaders in Illinois, like those in other northern states, were ready to play a role in the creation of the Union armies.
When President Abraham Lincoln issued a call to the states to recruit soldiers to fight secession, he did so by asking each state to contribute a specific number of regiments. He asked Illinois for six regiments of state troops, known as militia. A regiment, the basic military unit at the time, was supposed to consist of about one thousand officers and men, divided into ten companies, and commanded by a colonel. Instead of six regiments, the Illinois General Assembly authorized ten, and there was a frenzy of competition among political leaders as they sought official recognition for their sponsored regiments. Each proposed volunteer regiment had to be accepted into state service by the governor, and then the state sought acceptance for its regiments in Washington by the federal government.
The process was intensely political. Republicans felt that, since they were the governing party in Springfield, they deserved most of the official appointments. Democrats, fearful of their party's reputation as the party of secession and "treason," fought hard for their share of the military patronage. Ethnic leaders, each with an eye on his counterparts in other communities, engaged in vigorous lobbying in support of a military role for members of their groups. A leading German politician, Gustav Koerner of Belleville, kept tabs on all appointments and prospective appointments and regularly urged Governor Yates to appoint more "deserving" Republicans and Germans. An Irish-American politician in Chicago, John C. Haines, urged Yates to appoint more Democrats and more Irishmen. Party leaders in every county kept running lists of the number of military appointments from each party.
Raising a regiment of volunteers during the Civil War required initiative and political savvy. In its basic outline the system was simple enough. An individual or small group with a desire to form a regiment published a call for volunteers in a given locality or for a defined group of people. If men were recruited to form a regiment, officers were selected, a colonel was elected, and a training camp was established. Such protoregiments then petitioned Governor Yates for acceptance into state service. Often, political leaders threw their support behind a popular retired army officer or a person of military experience from Europe. They used the prestige of the name to elicit financial and political support and offered the inducement of staff officer appointments or the financial incentives associated with the position of sutler (one who sold food and drink to the army) or quartermaster to attract additional backing. Individuals might promote their own regimental leadership with the thought of strengthening a post-war political career with a record of military service.
Already skilled at working within the two major political parties, ethnic leaders worked from the very beginning of the war to promote the idea of ethnic regiments—regiments composed largely of foreign-born or first-generation Americans. Using the same procedures that were successful in raising regiments of teachers, lead miners, or men within a congressional district, ethnic politicians recruited German and Irish regiments, and lobbied successfully to win their acceptance into state service.
James A. Mulligan, a popular Irish-American lawyer in Chicago, was the driving force behind the formation of the first Irish regiment in Chicago. Mulligan was a prominent Democrat and a member of an Irish militia company when the war began. He exploited the fame of the "Fighting Irish" regiment from New York—the Sixty-ninth New York Infantry led by Colonel Michael Corcoran—to promote what he called the "Irish Brigade" for Illinois. The name of the Irish Brigade resonated with the legends of Irishmen fighting in such brigades in European wars. Using Corcoran's
Sixty-ninth New York as his model, Mulligan created the Twenty-third Regiment, called a "brigade" by courtesy. (A brigade usually consisted of three regiments commanded by a brigadier general.)
Mulligan and his Irish regiment won national fame in the early days of the war for their defeat and surrender at Lexington, Missouri, in 1861. After his exchange, Mulligan organized a new Twenty-third Infantry, and he and his regiment earned a distinguished and heroic record on many battlefields. Mulligan died of wounds suffered at the Second Battle of Kernstown in 1864, and never realized the post-war political career he hoped his military service would engender. A monument in a Chicago cemetery records Mulligan's legendary dying words to his soldiers: "Lay me down and save the flag."
A bitter political quarrel marked the organization of the second Irish regiment in Illinois. One faction in Chicago backed a Mexican War veteran, William Snowhook. Another faction, led by the Roman Catholic Vicar General in Chicago, Father Dennis Dunne, promoted the candidacy of an Irishman from New York, Timothy O'Meara. Father Dunne's forces won a hotly disputed regimental election, and when the Ninetieth Infantry, known as the Irish Legion, left for war it was led by O'Meara. O'Meara was killed at the battle of Missionary Ridge, though the Irish Legion compiled a long and enviable record on Civil War battlefields that included service in General William T. Sherman's famous "March to the Sea."
Illinois fielded three German regiments. The first, the Twenty-fourth Infantry, was initially the work of a group of prominent Chicago Germans, men such as newspaper editor George Schneider and Cook County Sheriff Anthony Hesing. The command fell to a prominent hero of the 1848 revolution in Germany, Friederick Hecker, then living as a refugee in southern Illinois near Belleville. But it was hardly an honor, as Hecker quickly discovered. The regiment was wracked by internal feuds, partisan bickering, and trouble-makers unhappy with their positions. Hecker finally left the Twenty-fourth, and under new officers the regiment went on to earn a distinguished combat record.
Hecker then received the command of the second German regiment raised in Illinois, the Eighty-second Illinois Infantry. Once again the veteran officer faced squabbling within the ranks, but this time much of the trouble came from a company of Scandinavians attached to the German unit. Scandinavians and Germans carried their Old Country disputes with them when they migrated to America, and those disputes surfaced when the two ethnic groups encountered each other in the same regiment. Hecker faced another problem, too, one that confronted every ethnic regiment in every state as the war ground on, year after year—the problem of replacements as disease and death thinned the ranks. Hecker and the other ethnic regimental commanders responded with similar pleas; they wanted any new men, even conscripts, to keep their regiments functioning. The ethnic character of such outfits gradually faded as new soldiers filled the ranks.
Illinois created a third German regiment, one slightly different from the others. Raised largely through the efforts of Gustav Koerner and Julius Raith, this regiment, the Forty-third Infantry, made its recruiting appeals to the sons of immigrants as well as to immigrants themselves. Raith, who became the Forty-third's first colonel, fell at Shiloh. The man who led "Koerner's Regiment" for most of its history, Adolphus Englemann, enjoyed exceptionally fine relations with his men, and the regiment's history was not marred by the political disputes so common in other regiments.
An effort to recruit a Scotch regiment in Illinois failed. Daniel Cameron, Jr., a publisher of the Chicago Times, opened a recruiting office in downtown Chicago in late 1861. Despite appeals to Scottish pride, the promise of a distinctive uniform of plaid trousers, and the employment of a bagpipe player, the Sixty-fifth Infantry never attained the status of an ethnic regiment. The population of Scots in Illinois and neighboring states was simply too small to support such an effort.
The Sixty-fifth enrolled more Irish, Germans, Americans, and others than it did Scots.
The Prairie State thus produced a total of five ethnic regiments. Each was different; each had its individual characteristics. Irish regiments employed a green flag to fly alongside the American flag and used a Gaelic motto. Gaelic was not used within the regiment because too few soldiers could speak it. German was the language of command within the German regiments, although the officers were expected to read and write English. Irish recruiters appealed to Irish nationalism and the glories of Irish soldiers who fought in Europe as they competed for men to enlist in their ethnic regiments. European politics and history played only a minor role in pleas directed toward Germans. Both German and Irish volunteers often encountered insults and prejudice from members of other ethnic groups or from native-born Americans.
Some Illinois ethnics sought service in regiments in neighboring states. Many Swedes and Norwegians, for example, enlisted in the Scandinavian regiment organized in Wisconsin—the Fifteenth Wisconsin Infantry—led by Norwegian-born Mans Christian Heg. Numbers of Germans from the Belleville and East St. Louis areas crossed the Mississippi River to join one of the German regiments raised in Missouri.
Other foreign-born residents of Illinois volunteered for distinctive smaller units, companies such as the Chicago Jaegers and the Ryan Guards from Galena, which were in turn incorporated into larger units. Sometimes an officer of one ethnic background found himself in command of a company or regiment with large numbers of men of a different ethnicity. John Basil Turchin, for example, was an officer in the Imperial Army of Russia before he came to the United States; when the war began he was put in command of the Nineteenth Illinois Infantry, a regiment containing many Irish as well as a variety of other ethnic groups. When Colonel Turchin fell ill during campaigning in Tennessee, his wife (who had accompanied him and acted as a nurse for the regiment) took over command of the regiment and even led it into battle. Augustus Mersy, a German from Belleville, raised a company of Germans that was incorporated into the Ninth Illinois Infantry. Mersy went on to become a brigadier general.
Before the war ended in 1865, Illinois assembled 150 regiments of infantry, seventeen cavalry regiments, two regiments of light artillery, and many smaller units. Thousands of other Illinois men served in the Navy or Marines. The vast majority of ethnics in military service from Illinois joined one of the non-ethnic outfits.
To a large extent, then, service for an ethnic in the Civil War in Illinois was like that of the native-born Americans. Most ethnics in the military served alongside native-born compatriots in regular units. Most volunteered for the same sorts of reasons motivating other soldiers—a strong sense of patriotism, a determination to preserve the Union, a desire for travel and adventure, a feeling of comradeship within a group of friends who joined up together, and, perhaps on the part of many, the need for a job. Ethnics, like others, were also attracted by the bonus money offered for enlistments, money that looked increasingly attractive as the years of war dragged on. Ethnics, like others, felt the social pressures from the larger population to volunteer and not risk being branded a slacker or coward.
The minority of men who joined the distinctive ethnic regiments had additional motives. For a German whose English was poor or non-existent, enlistment in a German regiment offered the comfort and security of a familiar language and of comrades with a similar background. The Swede or Norwegian who volunteered for a Swedish company or for the Scandinavian regiment in Wisconsin had similar motives. An Irishman living in Chicago might enlist in an Irish regiment to be sure of the presence of a sympathetic priest as the regimental chaplain; he might also be swayed by the rhetoric of political leaders urging him to emulate the glorious image of Irish heroes on past battlefields, or by the argument that he could use his military experience in an American war to fight for Irish independence afterwards. Most important of all, however, was the neighborhood factor. In the Civil War, men tended to enlist near where they lived, and the ethnic regiment organizers concentrated their efforts in areas of heavy ethnic settlement.
The Civil War generation of ethnic Americans in Illinois made a firm commitment to the Union and the military success of the North. Their experiences
in uniform, their sacrifices to the common cause, and their demonstrated loyalty to their adopted country did not go unnoticed by their fellow Americans. Ethnic participation in the Civil War proved a force for assimilation in the decades following the end of the war in 1865.
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