Sunday, June 15, 2008

Keller: "Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory"

[Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory by Christian B. Keller (Fordham Univ. Press, 2007) Cloth, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 179/234 ISBN: 978-0823226504 $65 ]

It would be difficult to argue against the assertion that the German* contribution to the Union war effort exceeded that of any other ethnic minority group, yet they have not received a corresponding amount of scholarly and popular attention. The language barrier has undoubtedly daunted certain avenues of professional inquiry. Additionally, lingering effects of the "flying dutchmen" calumny stemming from the Chancellorsville disaster, and the two world wars in the 20th century, undoubtedly did little to inspire for the Germans the popular romantic imagery attached to other ethnic soldiers such as the Irish Brigade. A sense of betrayal certainly stayed with the veterans themselves. Decades after the war, their speeches, writings, and monument dedications yielded bitter complaints about past nativist insults.

But did the fallout from the Chancellorsville defeat lead the German population of the north to reject assimilation? Historian Christian Keller believes so, and attempts to make his case in Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory. Ultimately convincing or not, it's a provocative thesis and the author presents much evidence in support of it, at least on the community leadership level.

It is safe to say that modern historians and students of the Chancellorsville Campaign have long reached the conclusion that the German units of the XI Corps** fought as well as could be expected, considering their faulty alignment and exposure to a powerful flanking attack conducted by a greatly superior enemy force. Keller concurs, supporting his assertion that the Germans performed "reasonably well" [pg. 72] under these circumstances with a detailed, chapter-length recounting of the XI Corps defense of the Union right flank on May 2. The author's regimental-level scrutiny of the attack, written with clarity and supported by some nice maps, is evenhanded with conclusions judiciously drawn.

However, the book's greatest contribution to the literature is its deep examination of the reaction of Germans, both on the home front and within the military, to the surprisingly rancorous attacks against German units in the mainstream press and military high command. Prior to Chancellorsville, German units had performed exceptionally well across all theaters, and they were dumbstruck by the degree of vitriol and scapegoating attached to their conduct after a single defeat. From his examination of German-language letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, and journals, Keller is able to provide the clearest picture yet of the German reaction to the upsurge of nativist feeling post-Chancellorsville. He marks the aftermath of the battle as a traumatic turning point in the German immigrant experience. The backlash united the politically and culturally fractious Germans like nothing had before. There were even serious attempts during the war at the creation of a German political party that would exert itself in the 1864 election. According to Keller, the turmoil over Chancellorsville led the German population to delay assimilation. At some level, the author's case is convincing (it certainly appeared to gain traction among many public leaders, intellectuals, and newspaper editors), yet it remains unclear whether the average German-American subscribed to these notions. Perhaps future studies*** will address this point.

Another major theme addressed by the book is the common assumption that the war itself was a catalyst for assimilation within ethnic units. Keller refutes this notion as applied to the German units examined by his study. As the war dragged on and German replacements became increasingly scarce, ethnic units were forced to incorporate sizable numbers of native born soldiers into their ranks. However, this did little to promote assimilation. Keller cites evidence that German regiments very actively sought to retain their exclusive ethnic flavor throughout the war, even to the point of blocking the promotion of 'American' officers.

Chancellorsville and the Germans is a truly groundbreaking work of research and analysis. By concentrating his efforts on bringing neglected German-language sources to light, Keller has greatly enhanced our understanding of the German experience in the Civil War and beyond. While reasonable minds may differ with the author's willingness to broadly stretch his delayed assimilation thesis, his evidence certainly demands attention. Highly recommended.

* - By 'German', the author means German-born immigrants or the U.S.-born sons of German immigrants.
** - the relative numbers fluctuated, but, at the time of the battle, German soldiers comprised slightly less than half of XI Corps strength.
*** - speaking of future studies, in the notes Keller mentions that a study of Germans in the Confederacy is in the works, written by Andrea Mehrlaender and promising "splendid analysis".

A post on this blog from last year (Germans in the West) briefly discussed books dealing with the German contribution in that theater.

Brett Schulte reviewed Keller's book recently on TOCWOC. Read it here.

1 comment:

  1. hello, i am trying to trace family on my Keller/Kellar side and found a George Kellar and Prior or Priar keller as well... are these two related, i did find a widows paperwork from sarah related to Priar from civil war, he was a musician in union army
    thank you


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