U.S. Civil War

The Event: Large-scale war fought between the Northern states of the Union and eleven Southern slaveholding states of the Confederacy that declared their secession from the United States

Date: 1861-1865

Location: Principally in the southern United States

Significance: Immigrants played leading roles in the Civil War and the reconstruction of the South. Apart from slavery, few issues were as important in Civil War America as immigrants and immigration policy. Immigrant settlement patterns in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century demonstrated an ever-deepening division between the North and the South that would soon explode into open war.

Federal troops firing on draft rioters in New York City. (Gay Brothers)

Fromthe founding of the United States through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, white American culture was generally homogenous; most whites were Protestant and could trace their ancestry to Great Britain. The slaves and free blacks in America were notable exceptions, but isolated pockets of non-British and/or non-Protestant whites were also scattered throughout America. The latter included French and Spanish in Louisiana and Florida, Germans in Pennsylvania and parts of the Carolinas, and the descendants of Dutch settlers in New York.

Several of the Founders, including Thomas Jefferson, were ambivalent about immigration and argued that it should be limited to those who were culturally and politically similar to native-born Americans. By the 1850’s, however, most immigrants were either non-English speaking or non- Protestant. Local reactions were sometimes extreme. During the 1840’s and 1850’s, anti-immigrant riots occurred in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Louisville, and St. Louis. In the same decades, antipathy toward immigrants led to the development of the Know-Nothing Party, whose dominant plank was the restriction of immigration.

Immigrants on the Eve of the Civil War

Despite the prejudice and violence, immigration increased more than 500 percent from 1845 until 1855, with about three million immigrants coming to the United States. Almost 90 percent settled in the North or the West, where either jobs or cheap land, or both, were plentiful. German and Hungarian farmers tended to settle in the central and upper Midwest. By 1860, more than 1.25 million Americans of German descent lived in the United States.

Unskilled and semiskilled immigrants from Ireland, Wales, and Italy settled in urban or industrialized areas in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. These immigrants, particularly the Irish, often found themselves competing against nativeborn white Americans and free blacks for lowpaying jobs. The million Irish immigrants who came to America were survivors of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852) and could be both tenacious and incredibly brutal, as events in 1862-1863 would show.

From 1830 until 1860, relatively few immigrants settled in the South. The southern political elite opposed homesteading and government spending for infrastructure, such as canal or railroad construction. Further, there was less capital invested in industrial development in the South, thus fewer factory jobs for immigrants. Despite these facts, there were some immigrant communities in the South, especially in the cities. Historian David Gleeson points out that the population of Savannah, Memphis, and New Orleans ranged from 20 to 25 percent Irish. Besides the Irish, New Orleans had an economically strong community of free black immigrants from Haiti.

The vast numbers of immigrants who flooded into the North and West during the nineteenth century provided evidence of a vibrant, blended economy of small farms and urban centers with brisk entrepreneurial and industrial sectors. Far fewer immigrants settled in the South, where the single-crop farming economy was strong, but where job creation was less rapid, and where slave labor limited employment opportunities for unskilled laborers. During the CivilWar, immigrants provided a source of manpower for the North but proved troublesome as the war dragged on. Finally, after the war, northern and southern politicians contended over immigration policy in their efforts to reconstruct the South.

Immigrants in Uniform

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, America’s standing army consisted of about seventeen thousand troops, stationed mostly along the western frontier. Many of these soldiers resigned to serve in the Confederate armed forces. To expand the northern army and to build the southern one, each national government depended upon militia troops raised by the states.

Fortunately for the states, there were literally hundreds of various semiprofessional military organizations connected haphazardly with various local governments. In the North, many of these had an ethnic flavor. When war broke out, these drilling societies and irregular companies, native-born or immigrant, were usually integrated into various state militias.

Confederate and Union Territories During Civil War

Immigrants could find themselves enrolled in a predominantly ethnic unit in another way. In 1861, most states encouraged local recruiting, allowing hundreds of men from small towns and counties to formtheir own companies and elect their own officers. Where large immigrant communities existed, new militia companies were predominantly foreign born. For example, the Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry consisted almost entirely of German immigrants, many with previous military experience in Germany. The unit’s officers followed German military practices and issued commands in German. Similar units were raised in Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and New York. In all, about 200,000 German immigrants served in the Union forces.

About 140,000 Irish-born soldiers served in the Union forces, with about one-third serving in New York State forces. The Army of the Potomac’s famous Irish Brigade was made of a number of predominantly Irish units: the 63d, 69th, and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania. Other famous Irish units included the Irish Legion: the 155th, 164th, 170th, and 180th New York, and the Hibernian Guards, a company of the 8th Ohio Volunteers.

New York’s units were especially multicultural. One polyglot regiment from New York—the Garibaldi Guards—consisted of roughly three hundred Germans, three hundred Hungarians, one hundred Swiss, one hundred Italians, one hundred French, and one hundred combined Spanish and Portuguese.

Although immigrants also served in the Confederate forces, there were almost no distinctive immigrant units. Immigration patterns before the war explain this difference. Far fewer immigrants lived in the South, and their communities were smaller. A community of a few dozen families could hardly be expected to furnish the hundred volunteers necessary to forma company. In addition, some of the larger immigrant communities—such as the free black immigrants from Haiti in New Orleans— did not volunteer for the Confederacy.

Few immigrants were motivated to enlist by the political rhetoric of either the North or the South. In fact, as historians Richard F. Welch and Susannah U. Bruce point out, immigrants were more often moved to enlist by economic need or loyalty to neighbors, family, and friends who were themselves enlisting. Some Irish immigrants enlisted for military experience, hoping eventually to drive the English out of Ireland. Other immigrants weremotivated by fellow expatriates who personally appealed to them to enlist. In 1861-1863, the famous Irish general Thomas Francis Meagher was sent on many recruiting trips throughout New York to exhort Irish volunteers to enlist.

Immigrants on the Home Front

As the war developed, northern strategy demanded ever-increasing numbers of soldiers, yet the U.S. government was faced with increasing public disillusionment over the prosecution of the war, its casualties and costs.

In 1862, northern efforts to win the war were fruitless, marked by increasingly costly campaigns that failed to defeat the Confederacy. Public frustrations with repeated military disasters were intensified by the press. In 1861, many northern newspapers ran hawkish editorials demanding victory at all costs. By 1862, these were replaced by dovish pleading for peace at any price.

In light of defeatism in the press and military disasters in the field, voluntary enlistments plummeted. As a result, individual states in the North resorted to drafts to meet their federal quotas. As one might expect, these worsened an already sour public mood. Immigrant communities throughout the North expressed their frustrations violently. In 1862, there were antidraft riots in four states, including immigrant areas in the coalfields of Pennsylvania and the German American farming communities ofWisconsin. In each case, federal troops had to be sent in to quell the violence.

With lessons unlearned, the U.S. government in 1863 issued a new national draft, which provoked the worst outbreak of civil disorder in the country with the exception of the CivilWar itself. For three days, a largely Irish working-class mob plundered New York City, looting, burning, attacking police and city officials, and killing any black person it could find.

The New York City riot demonstrated the intensity of Irish immigrant anger over related issues: anger over the Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863, which seemed to demonstrate perceived favoritism toward black people, as well as fear that the newly liberated slaves would flood the North and increase the economic pressure on the Irish. In short, the Irish of New York City—who competed with free black people for the lowest-paying industrial jobs, and who had themselves experienced extensive prejudice—believed that they were being forced to die so that others could be free to come North and take their jobs. Historian RichardWelch points out, in fact, that this had happened as late as June, 1862, when black workers were hired as "scab” laborers during a shipyard workers’ strike.

Eventually, the riot was suppressed, and even the most militant immigrants learned that federal draft laws did not target them. In fact, far more of the rural, native-born poor were forced into service than their urban immigrant counterparts.

As one might expect, urban industrial workers were often exempted for economic reasons. The structural challenge faced by the federal government from1861 until 1865 was to expand the economy while replacing the vast numbers of experienced farmers and workers who were now in uniform. To meet this challenge, the federal government introduced new legislation to promote increased immigration to meet the demands of the wartime economy. In 1862-1863, Congress passed a homestead law and a law allowing immigration for the purposes of labor contracts. Previous versions of these bills had been proposed before the Civil War but had always been blocked by legislators in the South. As a result of these laws, immigration surged once again, with subsequent railroad expansion, as well as increased production of food, textiles, clothing, and military technologies.

The War’s Aftermath

Prewar settlement patterns led to the northern and western immigrant communities that sometimes caused chaos in the North, yet which also contributed enormous numbers of soldiers to win the war. After the war, the status of certain immigrant groups increased tremendously in both the North and the South. Immigrants were perceived as a crucial element in various competing strategies for economic recovery in the South.

Northern politicians who loathed the prewar planter aristocracy and feared their return to power passed the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 with the goal of breaking up the larger plantations into small family farms that could be parceled out to new immigrants. Ironically, southern politicians also hoped for increased immigration of northern or western European immigrants. They hoped to increase immigration to the South in order to flood the labor market and drive down wages in the South, thereby bringing the newly liberated slaves once more into economic subservience.

With this goal in mind, most southern states founded commissions to market the region to prospective European immigrants. Although pursued vigorously, these efforts were usually unsuccessful. Of the three million immigrants who came to America from 1865 to 1873, almost none settled in the South. Some historians contend that these efforts failed because they were founded on the unrealistic belief that immigrants would passively accept the sort of living conditions and treatment that slaves had been forced to endure. In 1866, an Alabama planter persuaded a group of thirty Swedish immigrants to settle on his plantation. He fed, housed, and clothed them as he had formerly provided for his slaves. Nevertheles, they all quit within a week.

Michael R. Meyers

Further Reading

Anbinder, Tyler. "Which Poor Man’s Fight? Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863.” CivilWar History 52, no. 4 (2006): 344-372. Study of conscription records demonstrating that immigrant groups were not unfairly targeted by federal draft laws in 1863. 

Bruce, Susannah U. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish- American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861- 1865. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Recounts the motives and exploits of Irish immigrants during the war. 

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Perennial, 1989. Oneof the best studies of the politics of the era. 

Gleeson, David T. The Irish in the South, 1815-1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. One of the few modern studies of southern immigrants. 

Kamphoefner, Walter, and Wolfgang Helbich, eds. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Translated by Susan Carter Vogel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Presents the views of German immigrants on the war. 

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Although not specifically about immigrants, perhaps the best single-volume history of the war. 

Silverman, Jason H., and Susan R. Silverman. Immigration in the American South, 1864-1895. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. Account of southern efforts to market the region to prospective immigrants. 

Welch, Richard F. "The Green and the Blue.” Civil WarTimes, October, 2006, 22-30.Ashort account of the Irish Fenian movement and the war. 

Woodworth, Steven E. "The Other Rock.” Civil War Times, October, 2003, 44-56. An article on the exploits of a German unit during the war. 

See also: Abolitionist movement; African Americans and immigrants; European immigrants; German immigrants; History of immigration, 1783- 1891; Homestead Act of 1862; Irish immigrants; Military conscription; New York City.

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