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The Thorny Rose: The Americanization of an Urban, Immigrant, Working Class Regiment in the Civil War. A Social History of the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry

Consensus historian John Higham, in his Strangers in the Land (1963) contended that as a result of the Civil War, "the foreigner had a new prestige, he was a 'comrade-at-arms'. The clash that alienated sections reconciled their component nationalities." Twenty-five years later, in a seemingly similar vein, William L. Burton suggested in Melting Pot Soldiers (1988), that "the best kept secret of the ethnic regiments is how truly American they were." Whatever these men intended, there is much about each of their definitive conclusions that is perceptive, questionable and unintentionally provocative. Even in the short, intense history of this one urban working class ethnic regiment, the Garibaldi Guard, one can observe the operation of relationships based upon class and ethnicity in the middle nineteenth century as well as what "being an American" came to mean in a war to insure the unobstructed hegemony of the new industrializing capitalist order.

Higham's generalization, as has been suggested in an earlier chapter, was called into question immediately by his own evidence Even his subtitle "Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925." suggests this. If the history of the Garibaldi Guard, and, indeed, of the German Division as a whole, can be offered in evidence, just the opposite was more often the case. The new prestige of the foreigner was a passing fancy animated by war fever and popularized by the ostentatious exhibition of the trappings of pluralism in the recruitment drives of the first months of war. This new notoriety stimulated hopeful fantasy in the minds of the foreigners themselves of American acceptance. But theirs was a tenuous repute that could, with one mistake, turn into scapegoatism, discredit and dishonor. Nativism did not melt away as the result of the war, as Higham expostulated; it simply drew back for a fleeting moment, and permitted the necessities of conflict to "pass to the front." It was always waiting in the reserve, both culturally and operationally, to victimize foreign-born soldiers or at least to produce a fertile atmosphere for blame and abuse.

Discrimination had come to be expected by the immigrants, and as such, turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so that what was sometimes primarily the product of chronic mismanagement of resources and supplies in the early years appeared to the foreign-born as one more count in the conspiracy of ethnic prejudice... To this perceived discrimination, they reacted individually with acts of disobedience and desertion, or collectively with petitions (here they were learning to be rational sons of republican government), and mutiny. These reactions were and are typical to the cycle of oppression, the latter particularly when the victims are organized and have a heightened collective consciousness of their victimization. In wartime, this is especially so, since conscious and unconscious acts of prejudice can cause clear, immediate and obvious collective physical suffering through insufficient provisioning as in the March of Death, destructive or humiliating operational use, harsh punishment etc. Since attitudinal syndromes like racism and prejudice pervade social systems in both blatant and insidious ways, it is sometimes difficult to delineate what is personal, what is institutional, what is intended and what is unintended. In the case of nineteenth century nativism, which unlike racism was supported by few legal structures, it is even more difficult for the historian to identify with any degree of perfect certainty, any but the most blatant nativist actions described in written documents.

With all the other problems of mobilizing for such an immense war effort, nativism became one of many complications in the life of a Civil War ethnic soldier, especially when that nativism was compounded and camouflaged by officer conflicts, vendettas, and intrigues at every level. In the case of the March of Death in Spring 1862 insufficient provisioning that may have resulted Lincoln's political sparring with John C. Fremont could easily have appeared to have been nativistically inspired. Fremont may have also invited the antagonism of key Republicans and other skeptics by his keeping court in high fashion with European aides-de-camp with their aristocratic style.

The German Division under Blenker had a considerable amount of power and prestige, based upon the organizational consciousness and political importance of the German-American community in the North. Also because of that political importance to the Republicans, token Germans did become Major Generals and commanded a degree of respect. But tokenism and political importance do not neutralize what is essentially a social and cultural condition People do not relinquish ethnic stereotypes because ethnic soldiers have fought in a war. It is more likely that those stereotypes will simply acquire uniforms. Paddy Murphy will brandish his shillelagh at the rebels and Corporal Schnapps will "fight der pattles uf der flag"., and people will continue to blame all kinds of mercenary depredations on the Germans, and drunken Papism, as well as cowardice on the Irish.

Immigrant soldiers, although not to the extent of African- American soldiers, would often be used as cannon fodder, just as their peacetime counterparts would be used as "factory fodder"; the most noted example being Fredericksburg, where the Irish Brigade lost 900 of its 1200 men in a desperate but futile assault against rebel cannon and a stone wall on Marye's Heights. Painful, but ironic, is the fact that the Confederate Irish Brigade was behind the wall. As the Union Irish charged closer and closer, the defiant sprigs of evergreen in their caps became visible to the Southern sons of Erin, and moments before the Confederate line fired the final shattering volley, someone cried, "Oh, God, what a pity! Here come Meagher's fellows." Their bodies littered the field as they fell "like corn before the sickle." One witness noted that the battle plain looked like a poppy field; some of the Irish wore red Zouave pants, and a lone Irish sergeant, wounded and shell shocked, wandered aimlessly among the bodies, crying over and over, "Oh where, where are the Irish gallants? Where are the Irish gallants?" (1)

A Civil War urban ethnic regiment is a good place to study the effects of class, class conflict and social struggle as well as the products of individual greed and ambition in the increasingly competitive capitalist system in a microcosm, War often has the effect of presenting the conflicts and defects of a system (as well as its positive possibilities) writ large. But because war is a microcosm of crisis, it is also possible to get a distorted view of those defects, and one must guard against that. For the new immigrant soldier, the war also provided his introduction and initiation into the American way of doing things making the reactions of individuals and groups of soldiers in the Garibaldi Guard a paradigm for immigrant/native and class relationships in society as a whole. This was particularly so because the Garibaldians comprised a multi-ethnic unit, just as immigrant communities were multi-ethnic communities sharing the economic problems associated with class more pervasively in their everyday lives than the cultural problems associated with ethnicity. That the realities of a "rank and file" working class life became dimmer as the realities of the "rank and file" soldier's life became central did not create a classlessness conducive to more opportunity in the military or in life thereafter. Common soldiers, if they survived, returned to the lives of common people of a particular class; the only skill they had learned, if they hadn't already known it, was soldiering. Most did not escape proletarianization by a brief sojourn in the army. And when they returned, it was to an urban nightmare of overcrowded filthy tenements, speed ups in a new system of mass production to meet army supply needs, wages undercut by starving wives and children of soldiers in the factories and prices that had outstripped wages threefold. Although late war bounties for re-enlistment were quite attractive, only the shrewdest and most cognizant of the intricacies of the system could invest the money wisely enough to make it last, or perfect bounty-jumping enough to make it lucrative.

On the other hand, it was probably more likely that a common soldier would be plucked out of the ranks to be a non-commissioned or even a commissioned officer in the War than that a common worker would be plucked out of working class to be a foreman or a boss in the city, if only because of the continual depletion of the ranks by sickness and death. It was also more likely that a soldier would lose his life in the factories of death that were Civil War battlefields, than to lose his life in an industrial accident. Regardless of life's trade-offs, wartime service became another variant of the competitive marketplace, with a better chance to outlast your competitors and "make it" if you yourself survived.

As the experience of the Garibaldi Guard's officers demonstrates, one could learn some valuable lessons about "making it" in America and even utilize some of them in the volunteer Army. There was almost an open field of opportunity at the company and regimental level. It was a good place to hone one's competitive skills with rewards and incentive for success. And there was a multitude of ways to line one's pocket as well, as long as you didn't get caught. As a foreigner, you were more apt to be suspected and more likely to be convicted. In this sense, William Burton's contention that the best kept secret of the ethnic regiments was how American they actually were is quite perceptive. They were learning how to be Americans, how to men of the new era. The interethnic conflict that resulted pitted men with middle-class aspirations against each other, fighting to exploit the common soldiers with the greatest efficiency to acquire the profits of officership. Thus it was critically important to create a disciplined, loyal and obedient, combat "work-force" so that their reputation and actions in battle would pave the way to success and upward mobility.

It would be incorrect to suggest that in all cases the Union Army used the immigrant troops in destructive ways with malicious intent. D'Utassy begged his superiors to use the Garibaldians to his (and their) greater glory as riflemen, skirmishers, in advance and rear guard actions, in dramatic bayonet charges, in operations of daring. Yet every failure on the part of the men, whether in the field or in camp ground antics or in depredations in the countryside hammered nails in the coffins of the officers' ambitions....

In an atmosphere of nativism, the ethnic officer corps presented almost a caricature of the "dog eat dog" world of competitive capitalism, or perhaps, we might say, "cog eat cog," for simultaneously they too were sacrificed to an increasingly efficient system that would eventually victimize many of them and neutralize their wartime successes. D'Utassy eventually lost hope and began lobbying for a brigadiership in an American brigade, pandering to the nativistic impulse in his native-born colleagues and superiors. D'Utassy tried to "out-American the Americans" to achieve his success, and because he was not skilled in the subterfuge essential to turning acts of deceit into acts of shrewdness, and because he was foreign-born, he ended up in Sing-Sing.

But D'Utassy and others among the foreign-born who either succeeded or failed in the American system were men schooled in the ways of a European capitalism unencumbered by the democratic mask of plebeian republicanism. Just as the Civil War was the taking off point for monopoly capitalism, as the economic system sailed forth for the first time unencumbered by a reactionary South, booming in war industry, the United States government and the Army became the first major institutions to undergo the rationalisation of the bureaucracy and the solidification of infrastructures necessary to run an efficient and profitable war.

Thus, war-time capitalism and its supporting columns made a "simultaneous advance along all lines", pushing aside every obstacle in its way, government and industry working in a combined operation to transform the economic system and win the war. Militarily, this rationalisation (2 ) began with the slow but sure formation of the general staff that had been initiated by McClellan in a half-hearted attempt to mimic Europe in the early war. In what has been called "the most important military development on the European continent" the Prussians were already perfecting this General Staff. (3) Simultaneously with the acceleration and synchronization of the German industrial and political systems through national unification and economic modernization the Prussian military perfected military management and defined the essential army command structure of the new era. (4)

Revolutionary capitalism had redefined warfare as a "question of managing complex systems. " (5) The new technology was the technology of bourgeois innovation (like the telegraph) and heavy industry, whipped to a productive frenzy by ruthless but efficient entrepreneurs. It was increasingly the world of the military / industrial technician, specializing in communications, management and the perfect synchronization of logistical support systems through the building and standardization of massive railroad networks. (6) Gone was the filibuster, the old fashioned professional soldier, traversing the globe to offer his martial skills to the most glorious causes and/or the most generous governments. War was now a matter of economic integration: "Those belligerents gained the upper hand whose administrators, scientists and managers developed the means by which to set up gigantic technological systems and run them as efficiently as possible." (7) These integrative radical changes, wrought by the economic system, were progressing at varying rates of speed in the rest of the industrializing world, transforming all aspects of social and economic life. As Martin van Creveld writes in his recent Technology and War:

Since technology had turned war into a question of economic and industrial mobilization, governments set up new departments to coordinate everything from raw materials to wages...Far from giving rise to unemployment, the war effort resulted in an insatiable demand for labor that could only be met by calling up men, women and children to serve in fields, factories and offices. In their most extreme form, these efforts were aimed at turning entire nations into social systems...what counted would be big battalions--and, behind them, the big Gross National Product. (8)

In the United States, the Civil War was in full swing, and the first year of war was the last act for the unregulated marketplace of petty fraud, corruption, inefficiency, incompetence and waste that made war service a mad scramble for economic opportunity. The purchasing of provisions at the local level had created countless opportunities for favoritism, speculation and fraud. (9)

By early 1862, realizing that the war must be won through the "successful management of northern resources" (10) Secretary of War Edwin Stanton created the War Board, and General Montgomery Meigs was appointed Quartermaster. His biographer wrote: "Meigs was a man of the new day, of the materialistic, mechanically and scientifically inclined America born in the second half of the century of industrialization, urbanization, and technological change." (11) As a result of his efforts, the Union soldier became the "best-provided-for fighting man in all history." (12) In all areas of military administration, Stanton employed "the aid of the highest business talent.....this country can afford." (13)

It was the beginning of the Great Barbeque. While Frederick George D'Utassy, who had been a little ahead of his day, did hard labor at Sing Sing for allegedly defrauding the government of $3000, Philip Armour made $2,000,000 selling pork to the Union Army, "buying at $18 a barrel and selling at $40." Jay Cooke, not yet forty years old, made $20,000,000 from Union Army commissions. Acting on a tip, J. Pierpont Morgan bought a cache of condemned defective rifles from the government for $17,500 and sold them back the next week for $110,000. In their youthful prime, most of them under thirty, Armour, Cooke, Morgan, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Andrew Carnegie, James Hill, and John Rockefeller watched other men offer their bloody flesh to defeat the masters of slaves, while they paid substitutes and became the "masters of money, capitalists equipped to increase their capital" through the financial bonanza of war. (14)

It has often been said with the saccharin quality of quaintness, and the ethnocentrism of historical particularism, that "the American Civil War was the last old fashioned war and the first modern war." But the rising capitalist epoch created the conditions for the modernization of warfare not only in the United States but in all of the industrializing world. Within the context of this revolutionary transformation, just as the new mass production required multitudes of laborers whose lives were sacrificed to total profit, the new military required multitudes of soldiers and civilians whose lives would be sacrificed to total war. Working class lives in both cases remained in the balance. For the private soldiers of the Garibaldi Guard, victims of class, ethnic and military exploitation, the only thing old -fashioned about it was the way men died.


Chapter Ten

Footnotes for Chapter 11

1 Lonn, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy, 510-511. See also David Conyingham, The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns (New York: 1967) and Michael H. MacNamara, The Irish Brigade in Bivouac and Battle in Virginia and Maryland Campaigns (Boston, 1867).

2 Antonio Gramsci used the term "rationalisation" to explain the processes accompanying the increasing hegemony of the capitalist system, the drive for efficiency that transforms every aspect of a society's economic and bureaucratic life. Those structures that are not efficient are eliminated to create a streamlined system whose primary purpose is unadulterated and unfettered productivity and profit.

3 Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won : A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 107.

4 Ibid., 102.

5 Martin van Creveld, Technology and War (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 161.

6 Ibid., 159.

7 Ibid., 161.

8 Ibid., 163.

9 Hattaway and Jones, 140-141.

10 Ibid., 139.

11 Hattaway and Jones, 139, quoting Russell F. Weigley. Quartermaster General of the Union Army (New York, 1959), 7.

12 Hattaway and Jones, 139.

13 Ibid., 121.

14 Richard O. Boyer and Henry M. Morais, Labor's Untold Story (New York: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America 1980), 20-21.

Copyright by Catherine Catalfamo, 1989

Chapter Ten


New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
Last modified: May 23, 2006

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