Civil War Book Review: Yankee Dutchmen Under Fire

Reinhart, Joseph R. Yankee Dutchmen Under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry (The Kent State University Press, October 2013). 272 pages, 15 maps, 9 illustrations, notes, bibliographic essay, index. ISBN: 978-1-60635-176-5 $45.00 (Cloth). Note: Also available in Kindle format.

Yankee Dutchmen under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry (Civil War in the North) by Joseph R. ReinhartHow did German-American soldiers feel about the Civil War?  How did they see their adopted country, native American regiments, and the enemy?  How did they see themselves?  In Yankee Dutchmen Under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry, Joe Reinhart allows the men of the 82nd Illinois, the “Second Hecker Regiment,” to begin to answer those questions in the form of a select letter-writing group of men in from the regiment.  Reinhart’s translations and editor’s touch make for a fascinating look at the officer corps of a Union regiment caught in the maelstrom of Civil War.

Joseph Reinhart has written and edited numerous books on the German-American experience in the Civil War.  This is his fourth book of translated letters from members of German-speaking regiments and companies.  Previous books from Kent State University Press focus on the 32nd Indiana and the 9th Ohio.  About a third of the 6th Kentucky was German-speaking, and Reinhart’s book on two of these men was published by the University of Tennessee Press.  He displays a firm grasp of the historiography of this experience, adding his thoughts on how the Civil War affected the individual and collective German quest to assimilate into mainstream America.

The 82nd Illinois was a rather unique regiment.  It was one of thirty Union regiments composed mostly of native German speakers.  It was one of only two regiments in the Union Army which contained a predominantly Jewish company.  The 82nd also contained a Scandinavian company.  The unit fought in both the Eastern and Western Theaters, seeing action at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, in the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman’s March to the Seas, and the Carolinas Campaign of 1865.

Friederich Hecker, a German “Forty-eighter” who had led a small army in Baden in the failed Revolution of 1848, emigrated to America and settled in Summerfield, Illinois, only a few miles from this reviewer’s home.  When the Civil War arrived, Hecker recruited a new regiment, the “Hecker Regiment”, which became known as the 24th Illinois.   After Hecker’s stern discipline failed to catch on with the 24th, Hecker resigned late in 1861.  By October 1862, he was ready to try again, and he was appointed Colonel of the 82nd Illinois.  The “Second Hecker Regiment”, as it was often known, would go on to fight in the much maligned Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, eventually moving west with the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps in the fall of 1863, where it fought from then on.  Hecker was with the regiment early in its career, getting wounded at Chancellorsville, but he eventually resigned his command in early 1864, and Lieutenant Colonel Edward S. Salomon, a German-speaking Jewish officer, led the regiment for most of the remainder of the war.  As a Forty-Eighter, Hecker was virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Democrat, forces he felt were heavily in favor of organized religion.  His regiment’s makeup reflected his outlook, and even though a significant minority of German-speakers were Catholic, not many found their way into the Second Hecker regiment.

Yankee Dutchmen Under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry features letters originally written in German by members of the 82nd Illinois.  About half of the letters were written to the Chicago area German language newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Zeitung (Illinois State News).  Some of the letters are signed and others are anonymous, but they give a good cross section of the regiment’s members and how they felt about various aspects of the war.

More interesting to me are the long, personal, and often lengthy letters of Rudolph Müller to his future father-in-law Colonel Hecker after Hecker had resigned his commission.  Müller’s letters are deeply personal, and he cautioned Hecker not to publish them due to his observations about fellow officers in the 82nd Illinois as well as his observations of native American regiments and customs, many unflattering.  Müller reserved most of his enmity for Lieutenant Colonel Edward Salomon.  He regarded Salomon as a good solider, but bitterly resented the way the regimental commander tried to ingratiate himself with everyone above him in the chain of command.  By the end of the war, Müller and a group of other officers were speaking about the Lt. Colonel behind his back.  In early 1865, Müller himself faced a court martial for slapping Adjutant Loeb, a man he thought was Salomon’s lackey.  Interestingly, Loeb was found guilty of a charge while all charges against Müller were dropped.  Sadly, Müller committed suicide in 1899 after many failed business ventures.

The letters in this book focus on a few common themes.  First, these German speakers commented often on how “American” regiments reacted to them.  It was important to these men to be seen in a positive light by members of their adopted country.  These feelings reached a nadir shortly after the Battle of Chancellorsville.  The 82nd Illinois and other “dutch” regiments were blamed for the failure, even though their officers had warned Howard and Hooker of the coming blow, and even though recent research has demonstrated they mostly fought about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.  In his recent book on the subject Christian Keller argues that this swift and sudden blame, taken up by English speaking papers across the country, slowed and even halted German-American assimilation into mainstream America all the way to World War I.  German speaking newspapers, including the Staats-Zeitung, indignantly demanded retractions from some of the worst accusations in English speaking papers.

A second theme with this regiment is the common mention of the Turnvereine, the German organization of gymnastics which had many member clubs scattered throughout the country.  Members of these clubs, called Turners, believed in gymnastics to promote physical health but were also a liberal political force.  Many members of the regiment were Turners, and gymnastics exercises were often performed as a pastime in the regiment’s free hours.  Interestingly, one of the letters in this book is from a German Turner in Savannah, Georgia, who reported on his meeting with members of the 82nd Illinois shortly after Sherman’s Union Army captured that city late in 1864.  The officers of the 82nd Illinois specifically sought out the known Turner club in Savannah and provided protection while they were there.  The Turner expressed satisfaction with the German-speaking 82nd Illinois while speaking poorly of the American regiment which followed.

The third theme, due almost entirely to the inclusion of Müller’s private letters, involves the intrigue among officers present in this regiment.  It appears some were loyal to Hecker, while others curried favor with Salomon.  Some anti-Semitism is detectable in Captain Müller’s letters, where he often referred to the Lt. Colonel as “the Creole from Jerusalem.”  Another offhanded comment focused on a fellow officers’ love of money.  Whatever the root causes, it appears that tension existed in the officer corps of this regiment throughout the war.  This book allows us to see at least a one-sided view of this tension whereas in many cases those intra-regimental conflicts have been lost to history.

A book involving translations makes an editor’s job doubly difficult.  Although Editor Joe Reinhart had some help with the translations, his editorial comments in the text and the notes provide an interesting look at these German-speaking Americans, clarifying their meaning and also explaining certain phrases or comments which might be completely foreign to native English speakers reading this book.

Yankee Dutchmen Under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry, Joe Reinhart’s fourth book utilizing translations of letters written in German to provide insight into German-speaking Union soldiers, companies, and regiments, is an excellent collection.  Spanning the regiment’s entire wartime experience and coming from a nice cross section of men in the regiment, the book provides insight into the unique 82nd Illinois and the wartime experiences of its German-speaking soldiers.  Yankee Dutchmen Under Fire also looks closely at the greater German-American experience in the Civil War through the voices of this regiment.  Taken as a whole, anyone interested in the experience of immigrant soldiers during the Civil War should have this book on their shelves.  Those interested in the German-American Civil War experience will find this book even more interesting.  Finally, those readers interested in voices which are otherwise inaccessible due to the language barrier would do well to buy and read this book.  Joe Reinhart has again provided English speaking readers a fascinating and enlightening glance into the German-American Civil War experience.   Here’s hoping he does so many times more in the future.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.


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