Monday, February 10, 2020

Booknotes: German Americans on the Middle Border

New Arrival:
German Americans on the Middle Border: From Antislavery to Reconciliation, 1830–1877 by Zachary Stuart Garrison (SIU Press, 2019).

From the description: "Before the Civil War, Northern, Southern, and Western political cultures crashed together on the middle border, where the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers meet. German Americans who settled in the region took an antislavery stance, asserting a liberal nationalist philosophy rooted in their revolutionary experience in Europe that emphasized individual rights and freedoms. By contextualizing German Americans in their European past and exploring their ideological formation in failed nationalist revolutions, Zachary Stuart Garrison adds nuance and complexity to their story."

Though wary of the contributions of former Know Nothings to the newly formed Republican Party of the mid to late 1850s, the more central ideology nevertheless appealed to many Germans. "Liberal German immigrants, having escaped the European aristocracy who undermined their revolution and the formation of a free nation, viewed slaveholders as a specter of European feudalism. During the antebellum years, many liberal German Americans feared slavery would inhibit westward progress, and so they embraced the Free Soil and Free Labor movements and the new Republican Party. Most joined the Union ranks during the Civil War."

Recent published scholarship of the German-American experience during the Civil War era has largely rejected the old assumption that the Civil War was a defining moment in German assimilation into mainstream American culture, arguing instead that many (most?) actively resisting being stirred into the melting pot. However, at least on a regional basis, Garrison maintains that some prewar attitudes were moderated during Reconstruction to fit in better within the more conservative Midwest body politic. "After the war, in a region largely opposed to black citizenship and Radical Republican rule, German Americans were seen as dangerous outsiders. Facing a conservative resurgence, liberal German Republicans employed the same line of reasoning they had once used to justify emancipation: A united nation required the end of both federal occupation in the South and special protections for African Americans. Having played a role in securing the Union, Germans largely abandoned the freedmen and freedwomen. They adopted reconciliation in order to secure their place in the reunified nation."

For such a short work, this is a pretty ambitious survey. Addressing the social, political, and military impact of German-Americans from early antebellum mass immigration through the end of Reconstruction, and doing it in only 150 pages of narrative, is no mean feat! The book also joins a fast-growing facet of the Civil War scholarship interested in the conflict's global context. "Garrison’s unique transnational perspective to the sectional crisis, the Civil War, and the postwar era complicates our understanding of German Americans on the middle border."

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