Review in Brief: Melting Pot Soldiers by William L. Burton

Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments. William L. Burton. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1st Ed., 1988. 282 pp. No maps.

Many people assume that immigrants coming to this country are often harassed and discriminated against solely by “Native” Americans until they assimilate, hence the “melting pot” analogy. William L. Burton sets out to debunk such a black and white approach to the immigrant population of the United States during the Civil War period. He does so within a framework of the Union ethnic regiments raised during the war. The author points out that much of the discrimination of certain ethnic groups was by other ethnic groups, rather than by native-born Americans. The story of these ethnic regiments was also largely a story of political and religious scheming, personal advancement, and to further the reputation one’s own ethnic group as patriotic and loyal Americans. As the war progressed, many ethnic regiments lost their ethnic identities as conscription and lack of ethnic volunteers caused these regiments to become more and more like any other Union regiment. The experiences of the two main ethnic groups, the Germans an the Irish, are compared and contrasted throughout the book, with other groups such as the Scandinavians, the English, the Scotch, the Italians, the French, and others are handled as well.

Burton believes that the political parties of Civil War America embraced rather than discriminated against ethnics. The Know-Nothings and other anti-foreign and anti-immigrant groups were dying out by the time the Civil War started in 1861. In addition, political parties were happy to have famous foreigners such as the German Carl Schurz and the Irishmen Michael Corcoran and James Mulligan. These men tried to align their countrymen with whatever political party they were affiliated with. The Irish tended to be overwhelmingly Catholic and loyal to the Democratic Party. Germans, on the other hand, tended to vote along the same lines as native Americans, with no one religion or political party holding sway. In many cases, fights over ethnicity were not between ethnics and natives, but rather between two different ethnic groups, says the author. Each group basked in the glow of battlefield victories by their units, while also sharing in the shame of any defeat.

The raising of ethnic regiments differed in some cases, but in many ways the characteristics were the same. Many ethnic regiments started the war with a strong ethnic identity. Others, however, had difficulty fulfilling their quotas when an ethnic group did not have a large representation in a given state. The 79th New york Highlanders, ostensibly a Scotch regiment, was from the start made up of people of many different ethnicities. Other regiments, like the 32nd Indiana (German),8th New York (German), and 69th New York (Irish), were almost exclusively composed of one ethnic group at the beginning of the war. One pattern seemed to hold true throughout the war, according to Burton. As disease and bullets took their toll and ethnic heroes were disgraced or disillusioned, the pool of ethnic manpower dropped rapidly. As conscription became the norm, the ethnic character of these regiments slowly disappeared. By the end of the war, many of these regiments were filled with a polyglot collection of different nationalities and religious groups.

The men who led these regiments were as varied as the regiments themselves. Consider August Willich and Louis Blenker, both German immigrants. Willich was a poor Prussian who never did learn to speak English well and who commanded in a down to earth, no-nonsense style. This colonel of the 32nd Indiana led it to great renown as one of the hardest-fighting Union regiments of the war. His countryman Louis (Ludwig) Blenker was a “Forty-Eighter”, a failed revolutionary from the unrest in Germany in 1848. Blenker, a former wine-maker from Worms, led a lavish lifestyle while in the Union Army. His 8th New York was known as somewhat of a “tourist attraction” for their opulent parties and other activities around Washington, D.C. In addition, Blenker had what was essentially an entourage surrounding him at his headquarters. Many German mercenaries and other German notables who could not find a place elsewhere were welcomed into Blenker’s “family”. In fact, Blenker eventually rose to command the only all-German division ever assembled during the Civil War. Two Irishmen show serious contrasts as well. Some men such as Thomas Meagher of Irish Brigade fame were open Fenians, Irishmen who wanted to eventually see the independence of Ireland come by force if necessary. They believed that the Civil War was a perfect proving ground for future soldiers of the Fenian movement. Meagher welcomed his association with the Fenians. Others, such as political mastermind James Mulligan in Chicago, catered privately to the Fenians while publicly denying any involvement with the group. This was to curry favor with the Catholic Church (who despised the Fenians) and to also seem less dangerous to mainstream America. One thing united most of these men as the war went on: ambition. To hold a colonelcy was to wield power, and these men did anything they could to keep their regiments in the field as viable fighting machines. This led, as discussed earlier, to the loss of ethnic identity in regiments. Anyone who wanted to join was welcomed as a way to fill the ranks.

I enjoyed Melting Pot Soldiers, but this book is more of an introduction to the topic rather than a full blown, in-depth study of the various ethnic regiments of the Union army. Weighing in at 282 pages long, Burton’s book does succeed in showing how the various ethnic regiments often experienced the same problems of political intrigue, power-mad individuals within the regiment or outside of its ranks, dissatisfaction with the introduction of other ethnic groups, etc. The author also provides an interesting look at how native-born Americans and ethnics interacted within their own groups and when dealing with other ethnics. Burton’s main point seems to be that these ethnic groups, despite their differences with native-born Americans and with each other, were truly Americans from the beginning. These various groups of people had chosen to come to America from their native lands for one reason or another, and whatever the reason, forged a new American way of life. Burton closes the book by saying, “the best-kept secret of the ethnic regiments is how truly American they were.” Those whose ancestors came to this country and participated in its greatest tragedy will particularly enjoy this book. Those interested in how ethnic populations interacted with native Americans during the war years will also find the book to be a good read. If you are new to this subject and want a solid primer, you cannot go wrong with Melting Pot Soldiers.

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2 responses to “Review in Brief: Melting Pot Soldiers by William L. Burton”

  1. […] in the Union Army and Navy) and William Burton (Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments, see my review of this work here) contend the ethnic regiments tended to lose their ethic flavor by the end of the war. This is a […]

  2. […] Union Army and Navy) and William Burton (Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments, see my review of this work here) contend the ethnic regiments tended to lose their ethic “flavor” by the end of the […]

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