Foreign-Born Soldiers in the Civil War
The American Civil War not only had native-born soldiers fighting for each side but it also saw foreign-born soldiers from many foreign countries. One out of every four Union soldiers was either foreign-born or a second-generation immigrant.
The Civil War Era was a time of great immigration to the United States. Millions of people came to this country from all over the world, fleeing poverty, famines, war and political or religious persecution. They were farmers, artisans or tradesman who saw in America a land of opportunity where they could find a better life. But first, they fought for the new countries: North or South.
Immigrants came to the United States for a variety of reasons. The North had the larger ports and in turn, the bigger cities to accommodate many of these new arrivals. The North was industrializing rapidly and needed the manpower that these immigrants provided. As the Northern cities grew they required yet, more laborers to build their cities, homes and infrastructure. The states of the Midwest also had ample areas of open land that was perfect for farming and animal husbandry. Wisconsin and Minnesota was noted for northern European immigrants from Germany, Norway and Sweden.
Irish, Germans, Italians, Englishmen and Canadians served in both armies but most especially in the Federal army. There were also Norwegians and Swedes in the Upper Midwest and Frenchmen from New York. The Confederate army had a large number of Irish immigrants. In all, there are estimates that over 400,000 immigrants served in the Union army; 216,000 Germans and 170,000 Irish were the largest groups.
The Confederate Army had only about 9% foreign-born soldiers. The largest group was Irish, followed by the Germans, French, Mexicans and British. There were Irish Brigades, a Polish legion and a European unit from New Orleans. The most noted foreign-born officer in the Confederate army was Irish-born Major General Patrick Cleburne who was killed at the Battle of Franklin. Then there was Johann August Heinrich Heros von Borcke who ran the Union blockade and offered his services to the Confederate government. He served as J.E.B. Stuart’s adjutant general and was present at his death after Yellow Tavern.
Immigrants tended to join companies or entire regiments composed of their fellow countrymen. Some of the well-known Union regiments were the various regiments that made up the famed Irish Brigade: the 69th, 63rd and 88th New York Infantry regiments and eventually the 28th Massachusetts. There were scores of regiments with German-Americans. The 9th Ohio, 74th Pennsylvania, 32nd Indiana (1st German), and the 9th Wisconsin Infantry consisted entirely of German-Americans.
Representative of 15 foreign nations served in one New York regiment. Fortunately the Hungarian-born colonel could give orders in 7 different languages. The 15th Wisconsin was predominately Norwegian. This unit had 128 men whose first name was Ole and one company had 5 men named Ole Olsen. Imagine mail call!
Along with the foreign-born soldiers came foreign-born officers. The German-Americans produced some of the more notable, men such as Carl Schurz, Franz Sigel and Alexander Schimmelfennig. Irish-American Brigadier General Thomas Meagher led the Irish Brigade. Colonel Hans Christian Heg led the 15th Wisconsin from September 30, 1861 until his death on September 20, 1863. Colonel Heg was killed in action in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Late in the war, a Union regiment with an Irish-born color bearer got to far in front. They were surrounded and captured by Confederate troops. The Confederate officer demanded, “Hand over the flag, Yankee”. The Irishman replied, “I’ve been in this country 10 years and that’s the first time I’ve been called Yankee”, and he handed it over.
After the war the foreign-born soldiers of both armies went home and helped to build the greatest country in the world. I know, my great great grandfather Michael Patrick Murphy of the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry was one of them.