[Marxism] FW: Germans and "Colored Troops" in the US Civil War

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Wed Dec 27 05:13:26 MST 2006

Interesting study....

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From: H-Net US Civil War History discussion list
[mailto:H-CIVWAR at H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of Andrea Foroughi
Sent: Tuesday, December 26, 2006 11:51 PM
Subject: REV: Urwin on Öfele, _German-Speaking Officer s in the U.S. Colored

Published by H-CivWar at h-net.msu.edu (December 2006)

Martin W. Öfele. _German-Speaking Officers in the U.S. Colored
Troops, 1863-1867_.  New Perspectives on the History of the South
Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. xviii + 320
pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8130-2692-X.

Reviewed for H-CivWar by Gregory J. W. Urwin, Department of History,
Temple University

A Shunned Legacy Resurrected

In late January 1863, the Union War Department acquiesced to the
urgent pleas of Governor John Albion Andrew of Massachusetts and
granted him permission to create a "special corps" consisting of
"persons of African descent."  A committed abolitionist, Andrew
desired that his pet experiment, better known as the 54th
Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, should become "a model for all
future Colored Regiments" raised for the Union Army.  He realized
that proper leadership would be essential to the regiment's success,
and he offered commissions to young white gentlemen "of military
experience, of firm Anti-slavery principles, ambitious, superior to a
vulgar contempt for color, and having faith in the capacity of
Colored men for military service."[1]  In Andrew's opinion, no one
fit that description better than the 54th Massachusetts' first
colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, the son of wealthy abolitionists from
Boston.  Thanks to the artistry of sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens and
the 1989 film, _Glory_, Shaw has become the icon representing those
white Northerners who risked social ostracism and summary execution
to lead the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) in the latter half of the
American Civil War.

Yet most of the 7,122 men who served as officers in black Union
regiments did not speak with the clipped, cultured tones of a Boston
Brahmin.  In fact, a significant number were immigrants, and more
than 250 of them uttered their commands with a German accent.  In
_German-Speaking Officers in the U.S. Colored Troops, 1863-1867_,
Martin W. Öfele makes a unique contribution to the growing historical
literature on the U.S. Colored Troops.  An assistant professor of
American history at the University of Munich, Öfele has exploited a
vast array of archival and print sources, including many in German
that have never been examined by other Civil War scholars.  The
result is a rich and thoroughly researched monograph that explores
the backgrounds, motivations, wartime experiences, and postwar fates
of a select group of immigrants.  These men not only risked their
lives to preserve their adopted country, but they also volunteered to
stand at the cutting edge of the social revolution unleashed by the
struggle to preserve the Union.

More than 400 German-speaking immigrants applied for commissions in
the U.S. Colored Troops, and 265 survived the screening process and
actually served with black regiments.  Öfele points out that the
majority of these men (81.5 percent) came from Prussia and the other
German states that Otto von Bismarck forged into a unified Germany
half a decade after the Civil War, but 9.4 percent hailed from the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, 4.5 percent were Swiss, and 4.2 percent were
Danish.  German-speaking officers would participate in nearly every
major battle involving the Union's black defenders.  While most of
these immigrant USCT officers were educated and belonged to the
middle or upper classes, relatively few came from liberal or
progressive households.  Devotion to the Union provided the primary
motivation for their seeking commissions in black regiments.  Some
simply desired higher rank and the increased privileges and material
benefits that came with it.  Others wanted to distance themselves
from the unmilitary informality that reigned in so many white
volunteer regiments.  They expected the U.S. Colored Troops to
conform more closely to European military culture, where officers and
enlisted men occupied separate spheres and the lower ranks did not
think themselves the equals of their commanders.

Despite these elitist notions, German-speaking USCT officers tended
to believe that the authority and prestige that came with wearing
shoulder straps demanded that they accept a high degree of
responsibility for their troops.  Thanks to this sense of _noblesse
oblige_, most of these immigrants got along well with their
subordinates.  Shared hardships and dangers (including discrimination
by white Northerners and draconian threats from Confederates outraged
by the Union Army's resort to African American manpower) caused
foreign-born officers to bond more closely with their black
subordinates.  Some immigrants shed their own racial prejudices,
although only a handful recorded how they felt about serving with
soldiers of color.

The conspicuous participation of German immigrants in the Civil War
helped to further integrate them into American society.  Several
German-speaking USCT officers assumed positions of influence in the
postwar decades, but most pursued the path of success by concealing
their service with the Union Army's 178,895 black soldiers.  During
the war, the North's German-language press largely ignored or
disparaged the U.S. Colored Troops.  When immigrant officers finally
shed their uniforms and returned home, they tended to become absorbed
in their own ethnic environments.  Realizing that their service in
black regiments was a liability, they obscured their military
records, seeking credit merely for fighting to preserve the Union.
According to Öfele, only two immigrant officers who made no secret of
their USCT affiliations achieved major success as civilians.  Col.
Ignatz Kappner of the 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery settled in St.
Louis, where he became the partner of Joseph Pulitzer and co-editor
of the _St. Louis Post-Dispatch_.  Lt. Peter Karberg of the 51st U.S.
Colored Infantry also pursued a distinguished career as a journalist
by editing German-language newspapers in Michigan and Nebraska.  A
Prussian, Colonel Carl Bentzoni of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry,
entered the American regular army after the war and devoted the rest
of his military career to serving with black troops.  He retired in
October 1894 as the lieutenant colonel of the 25th U.S. Infantry.

Öfele's book is bound to be compared to the first social history of
the U.S. Colored Troops, _Forged in Battle:  The Civil War Alliance
of Black Soldiers and White Officers_ by Joseph T. Glatthaar, which
appeared in 1990.  Other recent studies have challenged some of
Glatthaar's glibber generalizations, but Öfele's reading of the
sources causes him to close ranks with _Forged in Battle_.  In
particular, Öfele supports Glatthaar's theme of wartime bonding
between white officers and black soldiers followed by postwar

What makes _German-Speaking Officers in the U.S. Colored Troops,
1863-1867_ stand out, however, is Öfele's clear-sighted focus on a
specific segment of the USCT officer corps.  Öfele deserves praise
for setting this story in proper context by sketching the political
and ethnic diversity of America's prewar German population.  Students
of history and memory will also appreciate Öfele's epilogue, which
traces how German-Americans created their own Civil War myths to
promote ethnic and historical continuity.  While depicting themselves
as staunch supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, Americans of
German descent produced Civil War narratives that minimized or
ignored the role African Americans played in winning their own
freedom--a development that also occurred in mainstream America.
German-speaking USCT officers, unwilling to antagonize their
neighbors and jeopardize their standing in postwar society, failed to
demand a more inclusive and accurate Civil War historiography.  Thus,
the very men who acted as leading agents of social change during
America's bloodiest armed conflict became mute accomplices in racist
repression and betrayed their own legacy after the guns fell silent.
Students of the Civil War era should be grateful to Professor Öfele
for reconstructing that legacy in this important contribution.


[1].  Gregory J. W. Urwin, "I Want You to Prove Yourselves Men,"
_Civil War Times Illustrated_ (December 1989), 42-43.

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Andrea Foroughi
Associate Professor
Department of History
Union College
Schenectady, NY 12308

forougha at union.edu

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