Missouri German immigrants helped keep state in Union

Sunday, November 30, 2008
Mo. State Museum collection via News-Tribune
Col. Albert Sigel, as shown in this painting found in the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City, along with his brother, Franz, and father, Moritz, emigrated from Baden, Germany, to the United States after a failed revolution in Baden in 1848.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Drawn by Missouri's fertile valleys and rolling wooded hills, German immigrants made significant contributions to the Union Civil War effort.

Missouri was settled by a variety of people. But settlers from the Old South -- the land holders -- dominated the state politically and economically.

"They were overrepresented in the political system, shall we say," historian Ken Luebbering said. "Slave owners comprised only 2 percent of the population in 1860, but their attitudes were important in the political culture."

Germans were not welcomed by everyone. Clairborne Fox Jackson, Missouri's governor in 1861, declared in a speech: "Germans seeking homes in Missouri should be met on the threshold, knocked on the head and driven back."

"Jackson understood they were a tide that were going to change things," declared Luebbering. "And he didn't like it."

In 1830 only a few hundred Germans lived here. But by 1860, the population had grown to about 90,000. Germans began to outnumber slaveholders 3-to-1.

"Things were going to change and they did in the 1860 elections," Luebbering said.

Three main groups -- pro-secession Democrats, centrists and anti-slavery Republicans -- dominated that election.

Luebbering estimates that Republican Abraham Lincoln might have received as few as 24,000 votes across the entire South. But St. Louis Germans cast 15,000 votes for him.

"It gives you some idea of the preponderance of support for Lincoln that came from the German community," Luebbering said.

Luebbering believes Jackson was really a Confederate sympathizer who ran as a moderate and won the election. He said Jackson tried several unsuccessful tactics to turn the tide in Missouri toward the Confederacy, including assuming to power to conscript men into the state militia controlled by the governor and holding a special convention to decide Missouri's future.

When southerners fired on Fort Sumter and Lincoln responded with a call for troops, Jackson called Lincoln's action "illegal, unconstitutional, revolutionary, inhuman and diabolical."

A Union arsenal in St. Louis was a tantalizing target for Union and Confederate forces. Jackson called for the state militia to gather near St. Louis in camp in 1861 for a weeklong muster to drill.

"They were in handy proximity to the arsenal, should they decide to do something," Luebbering said.

But the plan didn't unfold as envisioned.

The Camp Jackson Affair

"The Germans in St. Louis were largely pro-Union and raring to go. Some of them were veterans of the 1848 revolutions in the German states. They knew something about military affairs," he said. "In that stereotypical German way, they got organized."

When Frank Blair, a Missouri Republican Congressman credited with raising military units among the German-Americans, received permission to enlist troops, he signed 2,000 men in two weeks.

"And so we get one of the defining moments in Missouri's history: the Camp Jackson Affair," Luebbering said.

The state militia had camped with fewer than 1,000 men. Blair, in contrast, had 8,000 predominantly German troops.

The state militia surrendered without a shot fired. But the aftermath didn't go as smoothly. Angry crowds began to gather and events grew chaotic.

"St. Louis was not entirely in love with the Germans," Luebbering said. Antagonistic Irish and southern factions rebelled.

In the ensuing riot, soldiers and civilians were killed and more were wounded.

"It was not an auspicious first outing for the Union army in St. Louis," Luebbering said.

But the weapons were safe and the state militia was disarmed. And though a sizable number of men joined the Confederate cause, the state's role was decided.

"The Camp Jackson Affair ends any attempt to realistically take Missouri out of the Union," he said. "You could argue, somewhat justifiably, that if it weren't for the German immigrants, Missouri might have seceded."

Why did Germans ally themselves with the Union cause?

That's a harder question to answer, Luebbering said. Many Germans identified with democratic values. Also, a freethinking German press swayed readers to support the Union, and German intellectuals opposed slavery.

But German families suffered. Guerrillas repeatedly targeted German settlements with raids.

Even worse than battle was the exposure to disease and the weather.

The sacrifices, however, paid off in a new acceptance for Germans into American society.

"The German immigrants figured they'd paid their dues and were not interested in being second-class citizens again," Luebbering said. "The Germans had a profound impact on Missouri's history."

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