Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review - "German Americans on the Middle Border: From Antislavery to Reconciliation, 1830–1877" by Zachary Stuart Garrison

[German Americans on the Middle Border: From Antislavery to Reconciliation, 1830–1877 by Zachary Stuart Garrison (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Softcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,151/226. ISBN:978-0-8093-3755-2. $30]

In German Americans on the Middle Border historian Zachary Stuart Garrison has assigned himself the daunting task of measuring the influence of first and second-generation German Americans on western American history during the country's most momentous period of societal upheaval, a nearly five-decade span that encompassed mass immigration, sweeping political realignment, the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction. That he achieves this lofty goal with comprehensive success in little more than 150 pages of historical narrative is all the more remarkable.

Most general studies of the Civil War era still characterize the great waves of German immigrants that washed upon America's shores during the antebellum period's final two decades as being more politically radical than the native-born citizenry on the issues of slavery and racial egalitarianism. In doing so, much emphasis has been placed on the role of the more militant antislavery "Forty-Eighters" in shaping the growing free soil and free labor reform movement in the American Midwest. Those leaders and participants in the failed 1848 democratic revolutions of Central Europe fled to the United States to take advantage of New World freedoms and economic opportunities, but they also fervently believed they could better their adopted homeland through their own brand of Bildung (the German tradition of self-cultivation and cultural development).

However, there were earlier German social reformers in America that have been comparatively neglected, and Garrison's study accords the German immigrants of the 1830s (the "Dreissigers") appropriate credit for the critical part they played in establishing the burgeoning German-American immigrant population as a cultural and political force to be reckoned with along the country's Middle Border (for the purposes of this study, the states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky). As Garrison maintains, the Dreissigers did more than simply set the stage for the Forty-Eighters and pass the mantle. They managed influential newspapers and entered politics. A prime example of a leading individual from this group is Gustav Koerner, who was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives and served on the state's Supreme Court (all before 1848). Though there arose some rivalries and inter-generational friction between the two groups of failed European revolutionaries, there was by the author's estimate even more considerable ideological alignment and shared purpose.

Garrison's broad characterization of the Middle Border as a highly fluid geography of cultural, economic, and political exchange closely matches the vividly drawn picture of the region presented in Christopher Phillips's masterful 2016 study The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border. This is not surprising given that Garrison was a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati and credits Phillips as a mentor of his own work on the topic. Both scholars are persuasive in arguing against the dated characterization of the Ohio River as a wall between the country's free and slave societies.

Recently, the historical stereotype of the radical antislavery German-American of the early to mid-1800s has been challenged by those who insist that the Forty-Eighters were not representative of the immigrant population as a whole (the majority of whom tended to accept local customs and align themselves with mainstream, immigrant-friendly Democratic Party politics). Certainly, what it meant to be antislavery in the 1850s American West was shifting and complicated. In her excellent 2016 study Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America, historian Kristen Layne Anderson argued effectively that German-American political opposition to slavery in Missouri was largely muted until the early 1850s, when their antislavery objections to the Compromise of 1850 and especially the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 boiled over into widespread public activism and large-scale defection to the infant Republican Party. Garrison seems to agree with that timeline of events but is a bit more willing than Anderson (who emphasizes pragmatic factors) to assign ideological motivations to the change.

Sympathetic to the pitfalls surrounding the overrepresentation of urban Forty-Eighters in the political discussion, Garrison does, unlike Anderson, at least episodically venture into the rural Middle Border, where large pockets of more conservative German Catholics resided. However, while considerably more broad in his approach, Garrison's work can still be challenged on some level as being too urban-based and too narrowly focused on St. Louis (though not to the extent of Anderson's Abolitionizing Missouri, which confines its analysis to the Germans of that city). That said, historians have to go where the sources take them and St. Louis was unquestionably the great hub of German-American influence in the nineteenth-century Middle Border. That's not to suggest that other urban centers of great relevance to the subject matter at hand (including Evansville, Louisville, and Cincinnati) are entirely neglected by Garrison because they are not. In reading those sections, many readers will be surprised to learn just how proportionately large the German immigrant populations had become in a number of great Middle Border cities by the 1850s.

Antislavery but not necessarily egalitarian nor abolitionist, most urban and rural German-Americans of the antebellum Middle Border were, according to Garrison's research, more concerned with the nativist and temperance movements that affected their communities directly and the Free Soil politics that they felt would guide economic prospects in the expanding West. For most antislavery German-Americans the welfare of the slaves themselves was secondary to their own interests. In the author's view (and Anderson would probably agree with him), the newfound willingness of many German-Americans to join the Republican Party was rooted in their belief that the Free Soil wing of the Democratic Party could no longer restrain the perceived disproportionate power of the party's minority slavocracy element. While some Middle Border Germans were still distrustful of nativist remnants within the new Republican Party and remained loyal to the old Democracy of Jacksonian principles, others felt that the Democratic Party of the 1850s directly threatened their "free soil, free labor, free men" futures.

According to Garrison, the German response to Lincoln's presidential candidacy wasn't entirely enthusiastic (many still preferred Fremont), though Lincoln's unqualified support for a homestead act and his anti-nativist stance appealed to all. Though it was frequently proclaimed at the time that the German vote made the difference in the free states of the Middle Border going Republican, Garrison notes that the German-American vote remained split with Northern Democrats and only in Illinois did their vote count tip the balance between Republican victory and defeat.

When Civil War came Middle Border Germans, in some contrast with their more cautious eastern counterparts, enlisted immediately and in droves. According to Garrison, European turmoil of the 1830s and 40s directly informed the motivations of German American officers in the Union Army. In their view, the consequences of secession to the American Union directly reminded them of the kinds of petty states and squabbling principalities back home that crushed their own ideals of German nationalism, and they equated the power of the southern planter class with the aristocratic despotism that they left behind in Europe. While recent scholarship by Kamphoefner and Helbich suggests that the majority of German American rank and file soldiers primarily enlisted for economic reasons rather than patriotism and ideology, Garrison notes that the opposite tended to be true for the Middle Border cohort of their study (persuasively positing that the close proximity of Middle Border Germans to slavery made a great deal of difference in their outlook). While Garrison is careful throughout to remind readers that the Germans of the Middle Border were not all radicals and were never unanimous on any major issue, it is incontestable that they were leading bastions of Unconditional Unionism in the West. To most of them the meaning of the Union in America was synonymous with the ideals of liberal nationalism many fought for and lost in Germany. Though the majority of Middle Border German civilians and soldiers joined their native-born comrades in making the preservation of the Union the chief goal of the war, they were nevertheless also leading voices in promoting emancipation as a war aim early on in the conflict, well before the majority of their Middle Border neighbors.

Predictably, Middle Border Germans placing themselves at the forefront of the push for emancipation as early as 1861-62 made them prime targets for proslavery guerrillas, and nowhere was this more apparent than in strife-torn Missouri. It wasn't just the wartime assault on Missouri culture and property by "foreign" invaders that exacerbated the guerrilla war, but also three decades of pent up animosity between proslavery Missourians and German immigrants that arrived over that period in such numbers as to directly threaten slavery in the state along with any hopes for the institution's western expansion.

Indeed, their consistent support for emancipation and hard war in all its aspects made German Americans the Radical Republican face of the Middle Border body politic. Amid already long-standing ethnic tensions, their aggressive brand of wartime radicalism only further isolated them from the region's moderate and conservative majority. While German political power and bayonets helped secure Republican rule in Missouri by 1864 against disorganized (and demoralized) opposition further weakened through various wartime voter suppression measures instituted in the state, according to Garrison and others even moderate German Republicans began to question the wisdom of the most radical wing when it came to the best way to secure the German vision of liberal nationalism in the West along with the rest of reunited America. Both Anderson and Garrison found that many Germans feared that their own interests would be sidelined (or even forgotten) amid the Radical Republican focus on black civil rights and citizenship issues. To many, maintaining the radical ideology that did so much to win the Civil War in the West would only further isolate German communities in the region going forward.

In the final sections of his book, Garrison offers a masterfully-composed concise explanation of how German Americans, who were instrumental to Union victory and emancipation, built for themselves a Civil War legacy of loyalty and sacrifice second to none only to have any hopes of carrying that influence over into national prominence and leadership roles almost immediately dashed by political forces both of and not of their own making. German Radical Republican ranks shrank quickly after the war concluded. With the end of slavery and restoration of the Union—the most necessary components of German liberal nationalism and Bildung—secured, most Germans felt the greatest goals of the war had been achieved. Though there remained a minority subset of German radicals who were steadfast in defending full citizenship for blacks, the majority turned to focus on class and labor issues along with the need to confront renewed Republican-led nativist and temperance movements. Many formerly radicalized Germans also felt that a great number of Radical Reconstruction policies (including military occupation of the South, disenfranchisement of ex-Rebels, and government intervention in elevating the place of freedmen in society) unwisely inhibited reunion and western development. Fearing that much of Reconstruction policy mimicked the kind of autocratic repression they fled Europe to escape, many Germans seeking the return of democratic inclusivity supported black suffrage only if it was paired with restoring voting rights to ex-Confederates. Sensing that a move to the middle was necessary if Germans were to maintain their hard fought cultural and political influence in Middle Border society, many ex-radicals joined the more moderate Liberal Republican movement or returned to the reinvigorated Democratic Party. Unfortunately for them, the pragmatic retreat to moderation did very little to alter the rapid German American socio-political decline from wartime heights of national consciousness to a distressingly marginalized, non-leadership role within the region's new postwar political reality (even with 100,000 new immigrants arriving in the country each year).

On a somewhat related matter, it might be interesting to study what effect repeated demonstration of German military prowess on western and Trans-Mississippi battlefields had on postwar assimilation trends in those regions. This could be carried out specifically as a possible source of contrast with the conclusions of eastern theater scholars such as Christian Keller, who have maintained that the popular nativist impression that Germans fought poorly during the conflict (and were largely responsible for the military disaster at Chancellorsville and the Day One collapse of the Union line at Gettysburg) contributed heavily to German Americans resisting assimilation after the war.

Melding the best of recent scholarship with his own research and creative interpretation, Garrison alternately reaffirms and challenges much of what has been popularly written about the German Americans of the Civil War era. His skillful and persuasive tracing of immigrant German antislavery and pro-Union ideology to their Old World origins firmly establishes the background context necessary to comprehend the fervency of German reaction in the border West to slavery, sectional politics, secession, and Civil War. German Americans on the Middle Border is exquisitely crafted history, both in its nuanced reassessment of the nature and results of German antislavery activism before, during, and after the Civil War and its lucid explanation of the many complicated reasons behind the dizzying rise and fall of German social and political influence and status in the region over that period of time. It would be difficult to imagine an introductory-scale treatment of the subject matter that could best the one presented in this outstanding book.


  1. Agree. This is an excellent study, well-reviewed.

  2. Thanks for the review Drew. As a fellow German-American, I always read your reviews on the German experience in the Civil War with great interest.

    1. Unlike me, you're even a Middle Border German!

  3. Drew
    Readers interested in Germans in the Civil War might want to read my article “Louisville's Germans in the Civil War Era,” which has recently been published in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Volume 117, Numbers 3 & 4, Autumn 2019, pp. 437-484
    Printed copies can be obtained from the Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Ky; it can be read online by members of Project Muse. The article, among other things, compares the differing political attitudes of Germans in Louisville, St. Louis and Baltimore, and Louisville's Germans participation in the war and reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.


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