Kristen Anderson is associate professor of history at Webster University. She specializes in nineteenth-century US social history, in particular the participation of immigrants in the Civil War and debates over slavery. She is currently working on a new book project examining how German immigrants remembered and commemorated their Civil War participation. Her publications include Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Ninteenth-Century America.
“At the Point of Dutchmen’s Bayonets”: German Immigrants and the Outbreak of the Civil War in Missouri
German immigrants played a major role in the early days of the Civil War in Missouri. They were nearly united in their support for the Union and were among the first to enlist in its army. In their eyes, this support for their adopted fatherland was a sign of their loyalty and suitability to be citizens of the republic. By taking up arms to defend the US government, many Germans felt they should have silenced for all time debates over whether or not they deserved the full rights of citizenship. Their reputation for supporting the North would cause problems, however, with Confederate-sympathizing Missourians, and in rural parts of the state Germans were sometimes targeted by Southern guerrillas. Also problematic in the eyes of many white Missourians was the Germans’ support for emancipation as a war aim, something that many Unionist Missourians were not eager to see. Ultimately, Missouri Germans played an important role in the Civil War, but due to the hostility they encountered from Confederates and conservative Unionists, their involvement did not make them less conscious of their ethnic identity, but instead made them even more aware of—and proud of—their identity as an immigrant group within Missouri.
Abolitionizing Missouri: St. Louis Germans and the Debate over Slavery
German immigrants played important roles in opposing slavery in the Border South (including St. Louis, Missouri), providing much of the support for emancipation that existed among whites in that region. However, simply categorizing the Germans as abolitionists obscures as much as it reveals. A more in-depth examination of the racial attitudes of German immigrants and their participation in the debates over slavery during the 1840s–1860s reveals that the Germans’ reputation for being antislavery was for the most part deserved, but the reasons they opposed slavery and the ways in which they did so were much more complex than that simple statement suggests. In fact, although some German Americans deserved their reputation for racial egalitarianism, many others were quite pragmatic in that they shifted their position on slavery and the place of African Americans in American society when it benefited their own community to do so. When slavery did not seem to affect their lives, they ignored it. Once it began to threaten the stability of the country or their ability to get land, they opposed it. Once it was gone, however, many showed little interest in ensuring that African Americans obtained the rights that they themselves sought as adopted citizens.