Civil War Talk Radio: November 20, 2009

by Brett Schulte on November 20, 2009 · 1 comment

Air Date: 112009
Subject: The Germans at Chancellorsville
Book: Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory
(Read the TOCWOC Review)
Guest: Dr. Christian B. Keller from the U.S. Army Command and Staff College

Summary: Christian Keller discusses German-American participation at Chancellorsville and that battle’s effect on German-American participation in the Civil War from that point forward.

Brett’s Summary: Dr. Keller teaches at a Virginia satellite of the U.S. Army Command and Staff College, which is based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Officers are taught tactics, leadership, logistics, and history, among other topics.  It functions as a graduate level set of coursework, and is a step below the National War Colleges.  These officers are prepared for brigade level staff assignments.  Dr. Keller teaches the history portion of the coursework.  The goal is to share recent and long past lessons learned and drawing parallels to their upcoming jobs.

Dr. Keller was a traditional academic for 10 years prior to his current position.  He earned his PhD from Penn State.  He called his move to the military as his best career decision to date.  Interestingly, he takes his students on staff rides on the Chancellorsville battleground.

ChancellorsvilleAndTheGermansNativismEthnicityAndCivilWarMemoryChristianBKellerTalk turned to Dr. Keller’s book Chancellorsville and the Germans.  Gerry pointed out immediately that this is not a traditional battle study.  Rather, the book focuses on the German-Americans in the Army of the Potomac, especially the XI Corps, and German-American attitudes on assimilation.  German-Americans were the largest antebellum ethnic group, similar to Hispanics today.  Political and economic reasons motivated German-Americans to come to the United States.  Economic means and occupations varied widely.

In the second segment, talk turned to Nativism and the rise of the Know-Nothing party in the United States.  Germans and other foreign elements were regarded by Anglo-Americans as a threat politically.  A result was the rise of the nativist Know-Nothing party from the ashes of the Whig party in the 1850s.  Some nativists were eventually folded into the Republican Party as Nativism lost popularity.  German-Americans were disturbed by Nativism and its resurrection during the Civil War years.

The majority of more recently immigrated Germans lived in large Northeastern cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee.  They created their own ethnic neighborhoods in these large cities.  Germans living in these neighborhoods were much more likely to join all-German regiments and experienced the war from a wholly German viewpoint.  Those Germans living in the country tended to join more diverse regiments which were predominantly Anglo-American, but they tended to form their own German companies.  These men tended to see the war from an American viewpoint at least as much as the German viewpoint.  The wholly German regiments from Pennsylvania tended to have an average enlistment age almost ten years older than the overall average.  A high percentage of these men were involved in European military events, especially the revolutions of 1848 in Germany.  These men had families and had more to lose than your average recruit.  These men were concerned about proving their loyalty to the Union due to the nativist sentiments from the 1850s.  In the 1860s, Germany was a collection of many states rather than a country.  Interestingly, the actual German background mattered very little to these men once the war started.  The all-German regiments were very mixed in terms of where in the German states these men came from.  All that mattered was that you were German in ethnicity.

ChrisKellerGerman political affiliation typically started Democratic.  The longer Germans lived in the United States, says Keller, the more likely they were to switch allegiance to the Republican Party.  Gerry mentioned the special “beer ration” all-German regiments tended to get early in the war.  It was removed in the East in 1862.  Oliver Otis Howard, the commander of the XI Corps, restricted all access to beer for his corps after Chancellorsville.  A strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the pre-war years came roaring back during the Civil War, and nearly half of the Germans were Catholic.

During the war, regiments were organized into brigades and divisions.  Ethnic politicians tried to get the German regiments assigned to serve together.  In the East, nearly all of the German regiments in the Army of the Potomac were assigned to Ludwig Blenker’s division in late 1861.  The core elements of the XI Corps were all from Blenker’s division, a group which saw quite a bit of action prior to Chancellorsville.  Blenker’s men were sent on a wild goose chase during the Valley Campaign in poor conditions, all while being poorly supplied.  Many men in Blenker’s division questioned and resented this treatment, suspecting it was because they were Germans.

The third segment jumped ahead to the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.  Oliver Howard, a pious man and one who abhorred drinking, was the ill-fitting commander of the mainly German XI Corps.  To make matters worse, he had replaced the incredibly popular Franz Sigel, a German-American celebrity and hero, in February 1863.  The German officers and soldiers in the Corps were not at all impressed with Howard.  Howard, in turn, did not trust his German-American soldiers.

After Joe Hooker initially outmaneuvered Lee’s Army, he dug in with Howard’s XI Corps on the far Union right with its flank wide open.  Stonewall Jackson’s Corps made a long flanking march and decimated the XI Corps in a Union disaster.  Traditional Anglo accounts originating with the New York City press stated that the German-Americans all ran immediately in a panic.  German-American accounts described three successive stands (according to Keller’s research) made by the German-American troops.  These stands occurred despite a 3:1 numbers deficit and an extremely poor deployment by Howard.  Keller called it an “unfair fight” from the beginning.  German-American accounts described German scouts who knew about Jackson’s flank march but whose warnings were dismissed by Anglo commanders.  The men on the far right really had no choice but to run during the initial assault, but stands near the Wilderness Church and Dowdall’s Tavern each stalled Jackson’s men for about 25 minutes.  Keller believes these stands prevented a far greater disaster.  Keller looked through the battle casualties for each regiment in  the XI Corps.  He found that the farther regiments were from the right, you see higher numbers of dead and wounded, indicating a greater tendency to stand and fight.  Gerry asked Chris Keller about the 154th New York, an Anglo regiment who stood and fought whose men castigated the Germans in the Corps after the battle.  Keller responded by saying that the 154th New York had only served with the Germans for about five months prior to the battle.  The 154th was in a position where they took a lot of punishment and naturally the need to blame someone took hold.  The Germans who ran from the far right provided a likely, easy target for the 154th New York to find a scapegoat.  The Northern Press tended to blame the Germans after the event as well.

The hour ended before the topic was discussed, but Keller argues in his book that the trauma and blame of Chancellorsville really kept German-Americans from truly assimilating into mainstream America until World War 1.  It’s a fascinating book and one I HIGHLY recommend.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.

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