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Reviewed by:
  • True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army
  • Walter D. Kamphoefner
True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army. By Martin W. Öfele. Westport: Praeger Publishers. 2008.

Building upon his earlier work, German-Speaking Officers in the U.S. Colored Troops (2004), Martin W. Öfele here takes a broader, multi-ethnic look at the immigrant role in the U.S. Civil War. For the most part this is straight, chronological history largely structured around battles, although Öfele does present a broad sampling of immigrant voices from published primary sources, some of them in translations from his native German. By his [End Page 164] own admission, Öfele defines his task rather narrowly: Left out are ethnic Confederates as well as "ongoing political struggles on the home front" (xiii); even the Fremont presidential bid of 1864 that drew heavily on German support goes unmentioned. One of the strengths of this overview is the coverage given to smaller ethnic groups along with the Irish and Germans. Moreover, besides their relationship to the dominant Anglo-American society, their interactions with one another are not neglected. Reflective of Öfele's previous work, he devotes considerable attention to ethnic attitudes toward slavery, emancipation, and African Americans slave and free, but he also give a disproportionate emphasis to the political refugees of 1848, and to higher officers rather than the rank and file.

Although Öfele corrects German ethnic enthusiasts who claimed two Hungarian Forty-eighters as their own, (66) he falls for a similar misattribution of Gen. William Rosecrans, (130, 148) in fact a descendant of 18th century Dutch immigrants. There are several other minor errors: "Hessian Frankfurt" (7) was actually a free city till 1866; the Italian Risorgimento is erroneously associated with "conservative restoration;" (11) a translation from the St. Louis Westliche Post is misattributed to Heinrich Boernstein, the editor of its cross-town rival, (xii, 163, n. 6) with no indication given that this entire article was previously translated in Germans for a Free Missouri. Nor would one know without digging deeply into the bibliographic essay that German letters from an anthology co-edited by this reviewer, frequently cited and ably translated in excerpts by Öfele, are now available in full English translation. (186) The publisher has made it unnecessarily cumbersome to check references: placed in the back, they are identified only by chapter number, not page, while in the text, running heads give chapter titles but not numbers. Perhaps because of length limitations, the last two years of the war from Chancellorsville on is allocated a mere twenty pages.

While a slim volume of 175 pages text can hardly be considered definitive, it presents a more nuanced view than any of its predecessors, correcting some of the stereotyping and ethnic cheerleading present in the work of Ella Lonn and her Germanophile sources. It replaces the Melting Pot thesis of John Higham and William L. Burton with a more accurate perspective that Civil War service often reinforced both the American and the ethnic identity: "Whether immigrants felt patriotic devotion to the Union, whether they abhorred slavery or got carried away by the excitement—most of them acted out of a combination of motivations that often involved a certain degree of ethnic consciousness." (79)

Walter D. Kamphoefner
Texas A&M University, College Station


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pp. 164-165
Launched on MUSE
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