|Unit History Project|
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
The great revolution of 1789-1848 was the triumph not of 'industry' as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general, but of middle class or 'bourgeois' liberal society The history of [the] period [1848-1875]....is primarily that of the massive advance of the world economy of industrial capitalism, of the social order it represented, of the ideas and beliefs that seemed to legitimize it and ratify it: in reason, science, progress and liberalism. It is the era of the triumphant bourgeois" (1)
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part....during its rule of scarce one hundred years, [it]] has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground....(2)
The revolutionary shock waves of 1830-1848 in Europe, their neutralization by the failures of 1848 and the return to reactionary regimes sent a stream of political expatriates from Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Italy to the handful of European cities that offered comparatively free expression, and to the United States. These refugees, most of whom were republicans or radical democrats, bourgeois or petit bourgeois liberals of one stripe or another, came seeking a sympathetic political haven, at least until oppositional movements in their homelands grew powerful enough once again to spawn new revolutions of nationalism, unification, and republicanism. Others, many of whom came to the United States, were looking for a permanent home. One such man was Carl Schurz. Schurz was born into a small landholding family in "Liblar, a village of about eight hundred inhabitants, on the left bank of the Rhine, three hours' walk from Cologne." (3) His father had enlisted in the allied war for liberation against Napoleon and after his discharge entered a "teacher's seminary" at Bruhl. He then became the village schoolmaster, and in true parental fashion determined that his children, particularly young Karl, in whom he sensed an aptitude for learning, would receive a far better education than their father. Financially unable to support his family, much less to pursue this dream of formal education for his children on the paltry salary of a schoolteacher, the elder Schurz left his teaching job behind and opened a hardware store. He continued to supplement his eldest son's learning experiences so that Karl could read and write by age six and entered the German gymnasium at Cologne at age ten. When Karl was seventeen and ready to matriculate from the gymnasium, his father made a bargain to sell his property and move the whole family to Bonn. Karl's excitement about attending the university there was shortlived, however, when the property deal fell through and, sadly, his father ended up in debtor's prison. The younger Schurz left his studies to deal with family matters, and finally entered the university on a fellowship, sustaining himself and his family further with various tutoring jobs. (4) But his intent to become a professor of history was disrupted by Schurz's decision to become involved in the making of history.
In February 1848, the news reached Bonn that the French people had overthrown Louis Philippe and proclaimed the Republic. In that "springtime of peoples" as Schurz later wrote the "tidings rushed in upon us from all sides like a roaring hurricane." Before long the German duchies too were enveloped by the tide of a revolution against Frederick William IV and for the establishment "of 'German Unity' and the founding of a great, powerful, national German Empire." Revolutionary demands included:
the convocation of a national Parliament... civil rights and liberties, free speech, free press, the right of free assembly, equality before the law, a freely elected representation of the people with legislative power, responsibilty of ministers, self-government of the communes, the right of the people to carry arms, the formation of a civic guard with elective officers....in short, that which was called a 'constitutional form of government with a broad democratic base. (5)The news of students in the vanguard of liberty in Vienna and the overthrow of Metternich propelled Schurz into the leadership of Bonn's radical democrats and the organization of a Democratic Club. Revolutionary successes produced a national parliament. But Frederick William appearing to embrace the demands of German nationalism maneuvered himself into the position to neutralize German republicanism. Swayed by the traditional forces of reaction and using a "few street excesses...in Berlin...to frighten the timid men of the bourgeoisie with the specter of anarchy" the Prussian monarch once again proclaimed his "unrestrained royal power...for the maintenance of law and order." (6) When the reaction set in, Schurz entered into the more dangerous game of armed insurrection with his compatriots . But after one humiliating failed assault, he found himself a wanted man. The German Volkerfruhling was over, and Schurz was on his way to London and finally the United States.
Schurz and his young wife, Margaretha, disembarked in New York in September of 1852. But after a few days of touring a city which looked to Schurz remarkably like what he had just left behind in Europe, his optimism and excitement dissolved into melancholia. (7)
Despite his initial misgivings, Schurz set to work acquainting himself with his newly chosen homeland. He interviewed Americans of "various classes" and was introduced to American personalities as different in their perceptions of America's possibilities as Lucretia Mott and Jay Cooke. (8) Manifesting an accommodationism that would later help him create for himself a successful political career in the Republican Party, Schurz wrote home to a friend offering to other "European revolutionary idealists" a preparatory rationalization for what he knew would be their first reaction to this far-from-Utopian republic. They would be "startled, if not shocked" by what Schurz now characterized as the "aspect of a really free people,"
a democracy in full operation on a large scale, --the most contradictory tendencies and antagonistic movements openly at work, side by side or against one another, enlightenment and stupid bigotry, good citizenship and lawlessness, benevolent and open handed public spirit and rapacious greed, democracy and slavery independent spirit and subserviency to party despotism and to predominant public opinion-all this in predominant confusion.
For that "perplexed...European democrat...with no practical experience of a democracy at work", Schurz had some reassurance. All these seeming contradictions, this violent democratic energy, these (class?) and social antagonisms offered evidence of a free society. The nature of the field of conflict itself assured the happy victory of liberty and democracy. Schurz wrote:
In a condition of true freedom, man manifests himself not as he ought to be, but as he is, with all his bad as well as his good qualities, instincts and impulses: with all his attributes of strength as well as his weaknesses: that this, therefore, is not an ideal state, but simply a state in which the forces of good have a free field as against the forces of evil, and in which the victories of virtue, of enlightenment, and of progress, are not achieved by some power or agency outside of the people, for their benefit, but by the people themselves.
Schurz explained that one must be patient: Such victories of the forces of good may be slow in being accom¬plished, but they will be all the more durable and thorough in their effects, because they will be the product of the people's own thought and effort. (9)
Schurz's whiggish idealism in the face of certain grim American realities reflected not only his youthful political optimism, but a perceptive rendering of the basic dogma of the forward-looking democratic vision, the acceptance of which has been essential in keeping generations of Americans loyal to the democratic system even when their socioeconomic success under that system has been questionable. (10) As a leader of students in the German democratic struggle of 1848 Schurz concluded with nothing short of democratic determinism that "in a republic, and only in a republic, all evils of the social body could be cured, and the solution of all the political problems would be possible." (11) This brand of reductionism played a significant role in politicizing he common people of Europe, for whom a representative system was but a fantasy, because, according to Eric Hobsbawm:
its programme provided both a general expression of the aspirations of 'little men' everywhere (shopkeepers, teachers, peasants), an essential component of the aspirations of the workers, and a convenient appeal for liberal politicians asking for their votes. Liberty, equality and fraternity may not be precise slogans, but poor and modest people confronted with rich and powerful ones know what they mean. Even when the real programme of democratic radicalism was realized, in a republic based on universal equal unconditional suffrage, as in the United States,* [*E.H. notes-'male suffrage'] the need for 'the people' to exercise real power against the rich and the corrupt, kept democratic passion alive. (12)
In the United States, where universal white manhood suffrage had become a reality in the Jacksonian era, it was still possible for most thoughtful Americans to see the contradictions between radical democratic ideas and the forces of economic privilege and monopoly. Andrew Jackson had enhanced his political popularity by his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, the symbol to common Americans, and particularly agrarians, of everything that was wrong with monopoly and capital. (13) But American democratic ideology was already engaged in a losing battle with modernizing industrial capitalism. The reality of representative government and the rhetoric of egalitarianism tended to mask the machinations of capitalism and serve the interests of the elite in a stratified economic system. This miscegenation of democratic rhetoric and laissez faire economics, bastard child of the Enlightenment, would be the fundamental basis of the capitalist process of achieving hegemony that would not be complete until after the Civil War, and would place new immigrants like Schurz and those far less politically conscious and far less intellectually inclined in a position of hopeful rationalization when faced with economic and social realities.
For the greatest, most far-reaching revolution of the hundred years before the American Civil War was not the American Revolution, nor was it the French Revolution nor the violent upheavals of 1848. It was not a revolution to restore lost citizenship rights and secure individual profits against the demands of Empire. It was not even a revolution against monarchy in favor of republic, although the latter with its emphasis on liberalism and individual rights certainly set the larger stage for its more precise implementation. No. The greatest revolution of the post-Enlightenment era was an on-going revolution that transformed the economic life of the Western world and recreated the relationships of work and production in the new image of modern industrial capitalism.
In the United States, the ideological vernacular of economic individualism linked entrepreneurship with concepts of progress and freedom. This integrated cosomology was supported by the federal system of centralized power set in motion by the genius of Hamiltonian fiscal policy and its constitutional interpretation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Combined with the boom of American industry and urbanization in the mid-nineteenth century, these factors created the perfect scenario for capitalist advance: As Eric Hobsbawm proposed: "Every institution of the new [American] republic encouraged accumulation, ingenuity and private enterprise. No economy in this period [1789-1848] expanded more rapidly than the American." (14) The Civil War, according to Hobsbawm, was an extremely important factor in expediting the transformation of the United States into a world economic superpower because it facilitated "the unification of America by and under Northern capitalism" and settled the future of the American economy. (15) These optimum conditions would make the United States the leading commercial power in the world by the time Carl Schurz wrote his reminiscences in 1907. (16)
In the thirty years before the Civil War, immigrants formed the bulk of the urban work force that made that transformation possible. (17) Just as native people entrapped in the genocidal snares of the fur trade, and Black slaves, brutalized into the backbreaking labor of cotton cultivation, produced the seedbed for the growth of commercial capitalism, immigrant labor became the gears and wheels of its industrial expansion. Their "Americanization" or "assimilation" or elimination was contingent upon their role and their value in the economic process. The success with which they internalized the economic "values" of American life, (indeed, of life in the rising world capitalist order) and the manner in which they dealt with the contradictions between America's rhetorical myths and competitive capitalism's working realities determined their "rate of assimilation" and their success. The immigrant story is the story of trying to "make it" in the American variant of industrializing capitalism. Historians and sociologists, in the past two decades, have examined this "making it story" with much more critical analysis than past generations who accepted it as a natural "American" process.
Contemporary sociologist Colin Greer in his Divided Society: The Ethnic Experience in America, (1974) offers a series of analytical essays with alternative ways of viewing ethnicity and assimilation. To Greer, the quintessential" making it story" is characterized by myths that "celebrate the democratic structure of American society" (18). Traditional scholars of ethnicity and immigration history have tacitly accepted the idea that there is an unavoidable price that an immigrant must pay for upward mobility and assimilation/Americanization. Most have refused "to question either the route or the outcome." (19) Greer characterizes this as nothing short of an acceptance of ideology:
it serves to confuse social conscience by a romantic involvement with the magnificent triumph of some individuals over great diversity. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the spectacle of that triumph exonerates our system from reponsibility for the less fortunate or for the everydayness of adversity itself. (20)
One of the "ironic contradictions of capitalism", according to Greer, is that "it perennially throws up the expectation of improvement among those it needs to exploit." (21) Immigrants have acted primarily as American capitalism's labor pool, and the extent to which American industry has required massive numbers of cheap laborers to sustain economic expansion in a particular historical epoch has been the fundamental determinant of the rate at which economic assimilation has taken place. For most immigrants, however, that process was a "slow, arduous, intra-generational and inter-generational change in status" (22) The persistent reality of the material conditions of their lives was a "constancy of economic immobility and subsequent poverty. " (23)
To scholars like Greer, it is primarily in the interests of capitalists and capitalism that assimilation take place as a means for enforcing work-discipline and for retention of the work force itself.. American scholars' "obsession with measuring rates of mobility has distracted [them] from a more searching analysis of class and its historical meaning in the United States," (24) according to sociologist Robin M. Williams, Jr. Perhaps we can say then that the whole concept of assimilation/Americanization has been at heart merely a subterfuge for the initiation of new working classes, particularly immigrant, into the American system of class stratification based upon the needs of corporate capitalism. As a process, it certainly places little value on immigrant culture or at least assumes the natural superiority of American culture. Although this interpretation seems to involve much that is true, it also leaves little room for the study of the ethnocultural aspect of the assimilation facade even with attention to the importance of class. Indeed, Colin Greer in his essay entitled "Remembering Class" contends that "ethnic centered analyses serve to perpetuate the illusion of classlessness and legend of equal opportunity and mobility:"
It is a pernicious syndrome. In large measure, these myths account for the rationalization of poverty in this country through the promise that everybody who is willing and able can eventually make it. In other words, a secular state of grace is instituted that legitimates the existing pyramid of power, encourages competitive and oppressive relationships along the various ethnic horizontals on the pyramid and diverts attention from the parallel oppression and exploitation of the larger class system. (25)
Thus, the "secular state of grace" that "legitimates the existing pyramid of power" encourages competition rather than class consciousness around the ladder of success. The idea that "everyone who is willing and able can eventually make it" , whether truth or falsehood, is a part of the ruling class ideology that overtly and covertly asserts capitalist hegemony. In the nineteenth century, those "young men on the make" native born or immigrant, like Carl Schurz, were compelled to become men of the new era, whether in Europe or America. (26) The only difference in the United States was that a middle class intellectual like Carl Schurz, whose lifestyle was not restricted and defined by the worst excesses of urban capitalism like his working class compatriots, could more easily rationalize the grimmer elements of the economic system. Instead of admitting the possibility that equal opportunity and quick social mobility were unlikely prospects for many immigrants, Schurz, like other nineteenth century ideologues, accepted the simpler path of blaming the victim for both his own economic failure and the social conditions in which he lived. According to this presumption, anyone who remained in the lower classes for very long did so because of character flaws, not because of flaws in the socioeconomic structure, racism or nativist discrimination. Abraham Lincoln, whose clarity of analysis and expression defined and invigorated mid-century Republican thought, (and whose golden haired German boy Schurz became) was one of the Republican party's chief opponents of nativism. He was also a champion of free labor ideology. Yet, Lincoln, too, coupled his deference for American workers with incipient Social Darwinism. Lincoln wrote in one instance:
All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two. If any man tells you he loves America, yet he hates labor, he is a liar. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people of all nations, tongues and kindreds.
And in another:
If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or imrovidence, folly or singular misfortune...Advancement improvement in condition-is the order of things in a society of equals. (27)
In other words, it was fine to be a laborer as long as you didn't remain one for very long. It was almost as though Lincoln could not see, or as with Schurz, refused to see, the realities of lower class industrial life unfolding before his eyes: the spectre of a permanent laboring class in an allegedly classless society. For many newcomers, the story was over before it began. A "bitterly disillusioned English [born] worker" quoted by Robert Ernst in his exceptionally well-researched Immigrant Life in New York City 1825-1863 may have exaggerated just a little when he insisted in 1859:
Money is the be-all and end-all in the States. With it you are everything, without it nothing. The working man is as much hemmed in the iron circle of his class as with us [in England]; the petty storekeeper even looks down on him, and the "dignity of labor" is both disbelieved in and ridiculed. I assert that in no country in the world are social distinctions more rigidly enforced. (28)
More astute (and more radical) analysts of the situation recognized and openly opposed the historic unfolding of the capitalist drama. The Amerikanische Arbeiterbund (American Workers' League) contended in the 1850's that:
social relations are no longer the same as when the Republic was founded. The introduction and development of large scale industry has produced a new revolution, dissolved the old classes, and above all, created our class, the class of propertyless workers....So long as industry serves only capital, our position must of necessity worsen with each passing day. (29)
These were the conditions men like Carl Schurz closed their eyes to, or rationalized away in visions of some future democratic/capitalist Utopia contingent upon the realization of the Republican Party program. Schurz assured himself lifelong political success and a Major Generalship in the Union Army by becoming a spokesman for Republicanism among his German compatriots and the native born alike. But Schurz and Lincoln's "society of equals" and other vagaries and catch phrases of Republican rhetoric like "free soil" for "free labor" continued to mask the realities of class antagonism that were already part and parcel of the immigrant experience in capitalist America. For despite the commonality of despair among the working masses, liberal capitalism appeared to offer unparalleled opportunities for advancement to the slowly growing, quickly adapting immigrant petit bourgeoisie. The doctrine of individualism, central to the new testament of capitalism, infected the immigrant community with a good dose of competitive consciousness, legitimizing in its new democratic setting the "dog eat dog" mentality that many immigrants had already encountered in the cities of the old world. This spirit of competition subverted the communal ties that the foreign-born established in the immigrant wards of major American cities. It turned nationality against nationality, immigrant against immigrant, all fighting to push themselves upward, increasingly more willing to gain a foothold upon the broken backs and crushed aspirations of others, and by pluck or luck, hook or crook, grasp a higher rung of the fantasmagoric golden ladder.
The coming of the Civil War offered an unparalleled opportunity to many immigrants, whether working class or prospectively middle class, to accelerate the process of "Americanization" which by then they had come to associate on some fundamental level with upward socioeconomic mobility.
In the eyes of the rank-in-file urban Army volunteer, war service would improve his immediate economic status, at the very least. Enlistment would provide bounty money for his struggling family, consistent employment and pay, and other more lucrative opportunities that would open up as the result of his demonstrated loyalty to an adopted homeland.
In the eyes of the fledgling immigrant merchant and professional classes, the war could easily be seen as a good investment. For one militarily inclined and willing to take the risk in what most people agreed would be a very short war, a small amount of capital to invest, and a certain degree of community status, could secure a commission as a company ot regimental officer. The limelight of command, a short, illustrious career, could propel one out of the immigrant wards and into a secure and enduring middle class lifestyle, having gained the respect, the acceptance, and the financial and business contacts of one's American class counterparts. For the ethnic merchant, the provisioning needs of the Union Army could create seemingly limitless possibilities for gain, both at home and in the field. And, of course, none of this was incompatible with the most inspired patriotism; this was the American way. The Northern economy was gearing up for the war and, once oiled, its wheels would move smoothly for anyone wishing to ride the wagon of economic and social success, be he immigrant or native born. Thus, the Civil War is an excellent historical scenario in which to observe not only the dramatic and bloody climax of the sectional conflict and the immigrants' military role in it, but also the careers of immigrants who saw the war as their first serious American opportunity, and took it.
This dissertation will attempt to tell the story of the struggles of one group of Civil War era immigrants in the economic climate of industrializing capitalism, the social climate of American nativism, and the critical climate of camp and battlefield.
Footnotes for the Introduction
1 E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (New York: New American Library, 1961), 17; E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), 3.
2 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party," Karl Marx and Frederick En gels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), 37, 40.
3 Carl Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. I (New York: McClure Co., 1907), 5.
4 Ibid.,L 86-89, 93.
5 Ibid., I, 112-113.
6 Ibid., I, 137.
7 Carl Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. II, (New York: McClure Co., 1907), 3,8.
8 Ibid., II, 14-15.
9 Ibid.,. II, 16.
10 It has acted to limit the ability of Americans to critically analyze their society without "bumping into" the possibility that democracy may not be operating to serve their interests., something they find impossible to consider. Even if the economic present looks bleak ,we'll have "pie in the sky" when the system finally flies. And fly it must, because that great intangible "the people" empower it to do so. This is the essence of the American rhetorical creed, a creed that was and is a double-edged sword. It has inspired the most noble American efforts at creating an egalitarian society but has simultaneously discouraged radical actions necessary for serious socioeconomic changes or experimentation with new social ideas, for fear of destroying the only possible vehicle for the realization of that other great intangible, the American Dream.
11 Schurz, I, 138.
12 Hobsbawm, Age of Capital. 159.
13 The supreme irony of his destruction of the "Monster Bank" was that Jackson almost succeeded in destroying the American economy as well, so tied was it even by the 1830's, to wealthy investors and financiers.
14 Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, 214-215.
15 Ibid.. 214-215.
16 But the chaos that Schurz viewed in the 1850's must have seemed nostalgic then, when along with the greatest economic productive capacity, America had the most crowded slums, the most dangerous working conditions, and the most violent labor history, as well as the most heterogeneous immigrant work force in the industrial world.
17 see Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825-1863 (New York: King's Crown Press, 1949). passim.
18 Colm Greer, Ed., Divided Society: The Ethnic Experience in America (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 2, 5.
19 Greer, 6.
21 Greer, 3.
22 Greer, Footnote 13, quoting Marc Fried in "Deprivation and Migration: Dilemmas of Causal Interpretation," in Daniel Moynihan On Understanding Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 13.
23 Greer, 9.
25 Colin Greer, "Remembering Class," in Greer, 35.
26 Ibid., 406.
27 Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, III (New Brunswick, NJ., 1953), 479; see also Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. (New York: Random House, 1954), 105 and David Montgomery. Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 31; and Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Untold Story (New York: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1955), 11.
28 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825-1863 (New York: King's Crown Press, 1949), 176-177.
29 Bruce C. Levine, "In the Heat of Two Revolutions: The Forging of German-American Radicalism," in Dirk Hoerder, Ed, "Struggle A Hard Battle": Essays on Working Class Immigrants (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986), 28-29.
Copyright by Catherine Catalfamo, 1989
New York State Division of Military
and Naval Affairs: Military History