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  • Louisville's Germans in the Civil War Era
  • Joseph R. Reinhart (bio)

Despite the fact that almost one-third of Louisville's 1860 population of 89,400 comprised persons born outside the United States, published histories of Louisville during the American Civil War have virtually ignored its large foreign-born population and their attitudes about and participation in this bloody conflict. Although Louisville historian Robert Emmet McDowell noted Louisville had a "large foreign population" and Bryan Bush and Charles Messmer each mention the city was home to 26,120 foreign-born residents, half of whom came from Germany, little else is revealed in their works about this sizable component of Louisville's 1860 population.1

As historian John David Smith argued, "more work on the Germans and Irish in the city [Louisville] … needs to be done. … Scholars must examine their roles as … soldiers during the conflict. To what extent did they clash with native whites and African Americans? How did German … immigrants respond to emancipation? How many entered the war in Union armies?" This article addresses these questions about Louisville's Germans during the war and [End Page 437] reveals much more about the city's most diverse ethnic group at mid-century.2

Louisville's Germans were distinctive, controversial, and significant to the community. Many of these newcomers did not speak English and maintained the institutions and customs they practiced in their homelands, disturbing many Anglo-Americans who objected to some of their customs (such as drinking beer and celebrating on Sundays). Approximately one-half of Louisville's Germans were Roman Catholic, a religion the Protestant majority generally despised. Germans played an important and little-studied role in antebellum politics in the city, due to their distinctive ethnic history, and especially as a result of hostile nativist actions against them. Relations between the dominant Anglo-American nativists and the rapidly growing number of German and Irish immigrants significantly deteriorated in August 1855 when naturalized German and Irish men were denied entry to polling places to vote in local elections. Rioting erupted and by day's end, twenty-two persons were killed and many more injured—many of the casualties were immigrants. [End Page 438] In the same year, nativist mobs attacked Germans in other cities, such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Baltimore.3

Germans were a heterogeneous group and disagreed on many issues, including political ideology and religion. Notably, while few Louisville German households owned slaves, fewer supported emancipation and granting suffrage to African Americans. Early German immigrants to America initially supported the Democratic Party; however, after the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, many in the Free States and in Missouri's largest city, St. Louis, joined this new party (whose objectives included preventing the spread of slavery to the western territories, and with a radical element supported the abolition of slavery). By 1860, a large majority of Germans in St. Louis supported the new party, voted for Abraham Lincoln for president in both 1860 and 1864, and favored emancipation of Missouri's slaves. Such strong support set St. Louis's Germans apart in Missouri and in other states. Many large Midwestern cities, such as Cincinnati and Milwaukee, contained sizable numbers of German Democrats throughout the Civil War—a large majority of Germans residing in Louisville clung to the Democratic Party and opposed emancipation and black suffrage, dispelling claims that all Germans were staunch supporters of the Republican Party during the Civil War and favored emancipation.4

Significantly, Louisville's Germans supported the Union and helped check an attempt to elect a pro-southern legislature in August [End Page 439] 1861. At least 1,225 local German-born men joined the Union army during the war. Their rate of enlistment was a little less than that of non-Germans in Louisville, but was much lower than in all but one of the loyal states, possibly due to their connections to the Democratic Party. Two-thirds of Louisville's German-born men served in mostly German companies while the remainder served in mixed companies predominated by Anglo-Americans—little if any fraternization took place across ethnic lines. Importantly, few of the city's Germans fought for the Confederacy...


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pp. 437-484
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