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  • Men of PrincipleGender and the German American War for the Union
  • Mischa Honeck (bio)

Entire families gathered at the federal arsenal in St. Louis on May 4, 1861, to hail the soldiers who were reporting for duty. German songs, toasts, and speeches filled the air, which gave the rally a distinct ethnic flavor. The atmosphere was festive, and an Anglo-American bystander would have marveled at the singing and beer-drinking that accompanied the martial spectacle. After the heavily German 3rd Missouri Infantry had received its weapons, a delegation of women, led by Josephine Weigel, unfurled the regiment flag, which they had sewed, and presented it to Franz Sigel, the commanding officer and popular veteran of the European Revolutions of 1848–49. Addressing the crowd, Weigel praised the men who had donned the uniform in defense of their adopted country. She stated, “In keeping with old German custom, we women do not want to remain mere onlookers when our men have dedicated themselves with joyful courage to the service of the Fatherland.” She then wished “shame and disgrace to the German man who does not offer everything to the Fatherland in this hour of peril.” Sigel took the colors under rapturous applause and declared that his men would never desert the flag, save through death.1

The demonstration of military preparedness and ethnic patriotism that galvanized St. Louis’s German Americans was one of hundreds that electrified northern immigrant communities in the Civil War spring of 1861. War fever gripped the country’s native and foreign-born citizens alike. Weigel’s use of the word “fatherland” indicates that her people did not view their stay in the United States as temporary exile. After the fall of Fort Sumter, German Americans in the North and Midwest turned out in throngs to answer President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Recruitment posters in German script urged able-bodied patriots to join newly organizing ethnic units. Fervent home-front support and the leadership of romantic revolutionaries like Sigel drove hordes of young men into service. When the Civil War ended four years later, about two hundred thousand men born in the German-speaking parts of Europe had fought and bled for the [End Page 38] Union. According to another estimate, almost a quarter of all soldiers in the northern army had German roots.2

This article sets the collective emotional rush with which German Americans marshaled for war in a wider cultural context. It takes its point of departure in questions similar to the ones historian Nina Silber asked about the Civil War not too long ago: What made these men fight? Why did they risk their lives for a country that did not welcome them wholeheartedly? And what made women send their loved ones into battle?3 Rather than engage with the older filiopietist historiography, this article joins a renewed scholarly conversation about the causes and catalysts of German immigrant mobilization in the Civil War North.4 While many of the recent studies show how ethnicity, class, and race framed particular German American responses to contentious issues such as nativism, antislavery, and secession, gender remains somewhat of an analytical blind spot. This lack of attention stems in part from a false understanding of gender as a realm of human experience confined to questions of sexual identity, when in fact imagined differences between men and women play a crucial role in politics and war. Like their colleagues working in other areas, historians of German America need to examine not only how masculinity and femininity were constructed in relation to the political but also how gender operated as an instrument for legitimizing power and justifying violence. They need to trace the multiple ways abstract concepts such as citizenship, patriotism, and fatherland, according to the historian Joan W. Scott, “have been made comprehensible (and thus legitimate) in terms of relations between male and female.”5

Gender is a neglected aspect of ethnic soldering, but the transnational legacy of 1848 and the divisive politics of the 1850s devalued compromise, militarized German American culture, and nurtured an ideal of manhood that flaunted ethnic honor, principle, and sacrifice as its defining characteristics. The following discussion focuses on German...


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