Thursday, August 14, 2008

ed. Reinhart: "August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry"

[August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry ed. and trans. by Joseph Reinhart (Kent State University Press, 2006). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliographical essay, index. Pages main/total: 198/275 ISBN: 978-0873388627 $35]

By author Joseph Reinhart's count, only fifteen book-length diary or letter collections written by German-American Civil War soldiers have been published. His own latest book, August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen, is a worthy addition to this growing body of Civil War literature dealing with the ethnic soldiers of the Union army.

While the great majority of Germans that served in the war were not members of ethnic regiments, the 32nd Indiana was clearly a "pure" German regiment. In his insightful introduction, Reinhart revives the debate over the issue of delayed German-American assimilation, a situation exacerbated by real and perceived wartime nativist prejudice. His research uncovered little evidence to support the once influential idea that the war acted as a prime mover in accelerating the cultural integration of Germans into mainstream American society. Conversely, the author finds more compelling the work of historians such as Christian Keller [see my review of his recent book Chancellorsville and the Germans] and Stephen Engle, both of whom have advanced the thesis that the war actually delayed assimilation. However, like those two historians, Reinhart takes the very reasonable and judicious tack that the available evidence is far from overwhelming and more research is needed on the cultural front.

August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen contains 60 letters (edited and translated by Reinhart) from eleven soldier-correspondents, all originally published in German-language newspapers1. Some official battle reports are also transcribed and inserted where appropriate. Each passage is fully annotated by Reinhart, who also penned useful narrative passages that serve to smooth the transition (chronologically, geographically, etc.) between the various letters written by numerous authors and also to correct errors. It's all quite well done.

Battles and campaigns covered include Rowlett's Station, Shiloh, Corinth, Murfreesboro, Tullahoma, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Pickett's Mill. In terms of those that shed more light on engagements with comparatively scant attention in the literature, eight letters are devoted to the 1861 battle at Rowlett's Station (KY), the positive result of which led to some renown for the 32nd. A company-level terrain and troop position map of this small fight is included as well. These letters give readers rare insight into Union movements within Kentucky during the first year of the war.

Reinhart duly notes that the correspondence fairly bursts with ethnic pride, often excessively so. As with many of the quoted passages in the aforementioned work by Keller dealing with German units from the eastern states, these feelings of military superiority over native-born American units were widespread, and certainly not conducive to harmonious cooperation. This, and hypersensitivity to perceived slights2, did little to promote cultural understanding.

August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen is a particularly valuable collection of letters from Indiana's German soldiers. Well constructed in durable cloth, the book also has more maps and illustrations than the typical letter compilation. A number of appendices3 are included, as well as detailed footnotes. A bibliographic essay rounds out this fine study. Beyond providing insights into the German political, cultural, and military perspective of the Union war effort, and details of battles fought, the letters also highlight the importance of German-language newspapers to the soldiers in the field, supporting the efforts of the fighting men, combating nativist slights in the mainstream press, and highlighting the achievements of ethnic regiments. Recommended.

1 -
Louisville Anzeiger, Cincinnati Volksfreund, and Freie Presse von Indiana.
2 - Reinhart uses the term "victimization complex" (pg. 21) to describe the feeling, common to many ethnic units, that every distasteful assignment or misfortune was due solely to prejudice.
3 - Appendix (A) - Officer and color sergeant list by company; (B) - Brief history of the Cave Hill National Cemetery monument to the 32nd; and (C) - Source list of German diaries and letters published in English.

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