The Blessed Place of Freedom

This book by Dean B. Mahin is about immigrants from Europe and their participation in the American Civil War. We can divide the book into three main parts. The first deals with European immigrants to the North, and a chapter is devoted to major immigrant groups such as Germans, French, Irish, non-Irish Britons, and other European immigrants. The second part replicates the first part, only for the southern states. The third part looks at how immigrants viewed and wrote about the various events of the war.

He gives us a lot of numbers in the first two portions of the book, and starts pretty quickly. “The census of 1860 indicated that 4,138,697 residents of the United States–about 12 percent of the total population of 34.3 million–were born in other countries. Nearly 98 percent of them came from Europe or Canada; only 83,026 immigrants were from Latin America, Asia, or Africa. The European immigrants were strongly concentrated in Northeastern and Midwestern cities and in agricultural and forested areas in the upper Midwest. Only 233,455 persons born in other countries–5.7 percent of the foreign-born population in the United States–lived in states that would form the Confederacy the following year. The 1,611,304 Irish immigrants, the largest ethnic group, accounted for 39 percent of the foreign-born in the United States. Many factors contributed to the massive Irish immigration to America in the late 1840s and 1850s; the most significant of these was the terrible famine in Ireland in the late 1840s after the potato crops failed. In 1860 the great majority of Irish immigrants in America–1,526,541 persons–lived in Northern states with only 84,763 in future Confederate States. Nearly 60 percent of the Irish in the North were in three states: New York (498,072), Pennsylvania (201,939), and Massachusetts (185,434). Most of these Irish were in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. There were also many Irish in other urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest including 87,573 Irish in Illinois and 76,826 in Ohio. Irish immigrants rarely had sufficient funds to travel farther than the port city at which they arrived.” [p. 1] The Irish, we find, “were disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paid, least-skilled, and most dangerous and insecure employment. With few exceptions, they also displayed the highest rates of transience, residential density and segregation, inadequate housing and sanitation, commitments to prisons and charity institutions, and excess mortality.” [p. 2]

We next get to the other most numerous European group. “The 1,301,136 U.S. residents born in one of the thirty-four German-speaking states of central Europe accounted for 31 percent of the foreign-born in the United States. The emigration of Germans had been stimulated in the 1840s and 1850s by overpopulation, limited agricultural land, displacement of artisans by factory production, and the unsuccessful revolution in Germany in 1848. In contrast to the predominance of young, unmarried, and unskilled immigrants from Ireland, the German immigrant was more likely to be married, to arrive in a family group, and to possess skills as handworker or farmer. The vast majority of the German immigrants–1,229,144 persons–lived in Northern states with only 71,922 in future Confederate states. New York City had more German-speaking residents than any city except Berlin, Vienna, and perhaps Hamburg; there were 120,423 Germans in Manhattan plus 18,254 in Brooklyn. The second largest German settlement was in Philadelphia, which had 83,232 Germans. Germans were about a third of the population of three Midwestern cities–Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. There were also many Germans in Baltimore, Chicago, Buffalo, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Newark.” [p. 2]

Mahin next introduces us to the non-Irish Britons. “In 1860, 587,775 residents of the United States listed their birthplace as the British isles other than Ireland. They included 433,494 from England, 108,518 from Scotland, and 45,763 from Wales. In addition, 249,970 residents were born in ‘British America’ (Canada); a high percentage of these residents were of French descent. Despite the sustained tensions between the British and American governments and the widespread distrust of ‘the British’ in America, the individual British immigrant was usually cordially received in America. Immigrants from England and Scotland adjusted quickly to American ways and soon became indistinguishable from native-born Americans. Welsh immigrants, whose language and culture were distinct from those of both Britain and America, established distinctively Welsh communities in several states.” [p. 3]

Finally, Mahin looks at other European immigrants. “About 83 percent of the immigrants in America were born in British or German jurisdictions. Most of the rest were from western or northern Europe–109,870 from France, 53,327 Swiss, 28,281 from the Netherlands, 9,072 Belgians, 43,995 Norwegians, 18,625 Swedes, and 9,962 Danes. The era in which America would receive very large numbers of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe had not yet begun. The 45,763 ‘Austrians’ included both German-speaking immigrants from the area of present-day Austria and many Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and others from the Slavic dependencies of the Hapsburg empire. There were also 7,298 Poles, whose country was ruled by Russia, and 3,160 from Russia and the other eastern European areas under its control. Only 20,366 immigrants were from southern Europe; they included 11,677 from Italy, 4,244 from Spain, 4,116 from Portugal, and 328 from Greece.” [p. 3]

Abraham Lincoln realized the potential strength of the immigrant vote. “His interest in the German vote is indicated by his secret purchase in May 1859 of the German-language newspaper in Springfield, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger. The editor, Theodore Canisius, continued to publish the paper in German with occasional articles in English. After the election, Lincoln sold the paper back to Canisius. German support for Lincoln at the Republican National Convention in Chicago was assured by the adoption of an anti-nativist ‘Dutch Plank’ drafted by a German member of the platform committee, Carl Schurz: ‘The Republican party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws, or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home or abroad.’ ” [pp. 5-6] While Lincoln’s outreach to immigrants seems to have helped him secure the nomination, whether it helped him in the general election is in question. The Irish, for instance, were virulently anti-Republican. “In 1860 Lincoln received few Irish votes in the North, less than half the German votes in the North, and few immigrant votes in the South; a majority of the immigrant votes were cast for his opponents.” [p. 7] While immigrant support for Lincoln’s election was thin, once the Civil War began, immigrants supported the United States in large numbers. “Although the majority of immigrants had not voted for Lincoln in 1860, immigrants enlisted in the Union army in droves. The typical immigrant in the North enlisted for a combination of reasons that transcended his personal feelings about Abraham Lincoln or the abolition of slavery. He enlisted to maintain his ow freedom and that of his friends and neighbors, to preserve the Constitution and the Union, to preserve and advance his own status in America by demonstrating his patriotism, and to support democracy and freedom in his native country and elsewhere around the world. For some immigrants, economic motives were also important. Most immigrants volunteered in the period in which Lincoln denied that abolition of slavery was a Union objective. There is very little evidence that immigrants–or indeed native-born enlistees–were thinking about the abolition of slavery when they enlisted.” [p. 9]

Immigrants also settled in what would become the confederacy. “In 1860, 233,651 residents of future Confederate states were born abroad; 15,157 of these were in western Virginia counties that subsequently seceded from Virginia, leaving 218,494 foreign-born in the Confederacy. Although immigrants accounted for only about 4 percent of the population of the South, they were much more significant fractions of the populations of Louisiana and Texas and of six Southern port cities. Over a third of the foreign born in the South–81,029 persons–were in Louisiana, mostly in or near New Orleans. In 1860 it had 174,791 people and was four times larger than the next-largest Southern city, Charleston. The 66,359 foreign-born in New Orleans were 38 percent of the city’s residents. They included 24,385 Irish, 19,729 Germans, 10,525 persons born in France (who blended into the larger group of French-speaking Creoles born in Louisiana), 3,042 British, 1,390 Spanish, 896 Italians, 600 Swiss, 140 Swedes, 119 Poles, and 109 Portuguese, as well as 1,832 persons born in other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Texas had more foreign-born residents than any Confederate state except Louisiana. The 43,422 foreign-born Texans included 20,553 Germans, many Mexicans who had remained in Texas after its independence from Mexico in 1836, and smaller numbers of immigrants from other countries. Except in Texas, most of the Germans and Irish in the South were in or near cities and/or were employed on docks and steamboats on the Mississippi and other rivers. Memphis had a higher percentage of foreigners–30 percent–than any Southern city except New Orleans. About a fourth of Mobile’s population were born abroad.” [pp. 59-60] These immigrants had an impact on the southern economy as well. “Immigrants from Europe played a much more important role in the Southern economy than was acknowledged by Southern leaders. They provided many types of labor–as stevedores, draymen, waiters, boatmen, railroaders, construction workers, canal diggers, levee builders–for which neither slaves nor native-born whites were suitable or available. They did a number of dangerous and debilitating jobs for which slaveowners were unwilling to risk their valuable slaves. Some of the immigrants provided skilled services–as merchants, engineers, doctors, druggists, mapmakers, and engravers–that were badly needed in the South. But many Southern leaders believed that the South did not need and should not encourage the immigration of white workers from Europe. … This hostility to immigration was based primarily on fear that too many immigrants would endanger the crucial political and social consensus among Southern whites.” [p. 60]

Large numbers of immigrants in the confederate states volunteered for the confederate armies. Mahin identifies four reasons for this. “The first reason for enlistment was to support their friends and neighbors. … A second reason was to defend their homes, their country, and its institutions against attack from the North. Historian James M. McPherson observed that ‘in fighting for their home and their country, Southern soldiers took slavery for granted as the basis of the society and the country for which they fought. … Nonslaveholders also had a stake in slavery, for it was the basis of the South’s social and economic organization and the instrument of white supremacy. A third reason for the enlistments was to protect and perhaps advance their own economic and social interests. Many poor immigrants thought that the maintenance of slavery was essential for the maintenance of their own fragile status. … A fourth and often overriding motive for enlistment was to avoid the severe persecution that the immigrant feared would be his fate if he did not volunteer.” [p. 62]

In his conclusion, Mahin considers the impact immigrant soldiers had on the war efforts of both sides. “Although there are no statistics on the number of foreign-born in the Union or Confederate armies, the available information suggests that immigrants accounted for 18 percent to 20 percent of the men in the Union army–even though they represented only about 15 percent of the population of the Union states–and that the percentage of immigrants in the Confederate army was somewhat below the proportion (about 4 percent) of immigrants in the Confederate population. Immigrants played an important but not decisive role in each army. The North would still have had a huge manpower advantage over the South even if there had been no immigrants in the Union army. The South still would have had a great manpower deficit even if there had been several times as many immigrants in the Confederate army. But immigrants and volunteers from Europe provided badly needed skills and experience–especially as artillerymen, engineers, and doctors–in both armies. The participation of immigrants in the war contributed significantly to their postwar assimilation and acceptance in both North and South.” [p. 222] I have to disagree with him here. I think he doesn’t have a firm enough appreciation for the critical manpower need filled by immigrants, especially with the Union war effort. While there were fewer than 200,000 black soldiers in the Union armies, Abraham Lincoln himself felt they were essential to victory. So too with immigrant soldiers. Take them and their skills away from the army and the Federals are in trouble. As the attackers, they needed to have an overwhelming manpower advantage, especially as they detached soldiers to garrison areas of conquered territory.

The book is useful for its data on immigrants from various countries, and Mahin provides a number of insights. While not perfect in its conclusions, the book nevertheless fills a need for students of the war who are interested in learning about immigrants in the war. If you have that interest, this book will be a good addition to your collection.

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