Review: Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home
Walter D. Kamphoefner (editor), Wolfgang Helbich (editor) Susan Carter Vogel (Translator)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (October 11, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807830445
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807830444

GermansInTheCivilWarTheLettersTheyWroteHomeThe song “I Goes to Fight Mit Sigel” encapsulates our understanding of Germans in the Civil War.  Howard’s cowards, the Flying Dutchman and Franz Sigel sum up the standard understanding of German contributions.  Some people will point to the Missouri Germans in 1861 and 1862.  Who rallied to the Union cause and were largely responsible for keeping that state from joining the Confederacy.  Irish, Germans and Blacks are the major ethnic or racial groups in Northern armies.  The first the Irish and later the Blacks have a good deal written about their contributions.  Very little has been written about the Germans and even less contains their thoughts.  This book is a collection of 343 letters written by 78 German immigrants to family and friends in Germany from 1860 to 1865.  The majority live in Northern states but residence and being German is all they have in common.  This is a varied population reflecting the experiences of immigrants and Americans during the war.

Politically, the range is from Radical Republicans to Douglas Democrats with a couple of Confederates.  Abolitionist to those indifferent to slavery or do not want competition from blacks in the labor market.  Fourtyeighters mix with those seeking opportunity, fleeing their military obligations or are disgraced at home.  We have men who rushed to enlist, enlisted when it became necessary, were drafted, bought a substitute, bounty jumpers and those that stayed home.  Most of the correspondents are single men.  Most married men write the letter and their wife might add a few lines or they enclose her greetings.

This is a large book, over 550 pages that is almost completely text.  The letters, Introduction and Epilogue fill 480 pages.  Eastern and Western Theater divides the letter writers.  Choice of theater is place of enlistment not by service.  This places our three letter writers from the Red River Campaign in the Eastern Theater.  While this creates some problems for those in the military, it makes sense for the civilian population.

Any book of letters from unconnected individuals will lack sequence.  This is the case here.  Each set of letters is complete in and of itself telling one story.  As one story ends, another starts.  This allows us to start reading at almost any point in the book but can produce a feeling of sameness when read cover to cover.  The quality of the letters and the reader’s engagement in them will vary depending on the reader’s interest in this writer.

This is much more than a collection of letters from the front!  This is a collection of letters from immigrants trying to explain the Civil War.  The explanations of how the war came about, views on slavery, the South, Lincoln and Douglas can be amusing and astounding.  The civilian letters are some of the most powerful in the book.  Here are men trying to make a living, worrying about the draft and worrying about their responsibilities as men during wartime.  The civilian letters give us a look at life 150 years ago.  The acceptance of death, abiding faith and difficulties in feeding and clothing a family make these times real for the reader.  They provide a foundation for understanding the people how they feel and what they want.

This is a valuable book for your library providing a first person view of the war.  While not the easiest read, it is a rewarding read increasing our understanding of the people and the times.


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