A ceremony was held Monday in a small town in western Maryland to remember the bloodiest day in American history.
One-hundred and fifty years ago, on September 17th 1862, a Union army led by General George B. McClellan attacked Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
The Union didn’t win outright, but rebel forces were forced to retreat the next day.
The human cost, to both sides was immense.
Twenty-three thousand men were killed, wounded or went missing that day.
Never before, or since, have so many Americans fallen in battle in a single day.
The “victory” allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation a few days later, freeing the slaves in the rebel states.
Those are the well-known facts about the Battle of Antietam.
One of the not-so-well-known facts is how many of those who fought that day were foreign-born.
The attack on one key rebel position, a sunken road, was led by the Irish Brigade, immigrants recruited by the states of New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Elsewhere, the 79th New York Regiment was distinguished: they were Scottish Highlanders, complete with bagpipes.
Germans formed a huge proportion of the Union troops.
An entire Corps of several divisions was formed of German volunteers, and every order from the general down to the lowest corporal was given in German.
Complaints about such bilingualism in the military were overruled by Lincoln.
Major Leopold Blumenberg, a Jewish immigrant from East Prussia, led the all-German 5th Maryland Regiment against a position held by the 12th Alabama, led by another German Jew, Captain Adolph Proskauer.
Overall, immigrants made up 25 percent of the Union army in the Civil War: that’s a far greater proportion than immigrants made in the general population.
According to Patrick Young, a history blogger and immigration advocate, many joined because of their opposition to slavery.
Others, Young says, were always writing about how the United States was the only hope in the world for freedom and democracy — what they called republicanism.
“Princes and Kings would rejoice,” Young quotes foreign born soldiers as saying, “if the United States were split apart.”
Young says the war also transformed the place of immigrants in the minds of many native-born Americans, at least in the north.
Read the Transcript
The text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is “The World”. A ceremony was held today in Western Maryland to remember the bloodiest day in American history. One hundred and fifty years ago, on September 17th, 1862, a Union army attacked Confederate forces along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Now, the Union didn’t win outright, but the Confederates were forced to retreat the next day. The human cost to both sides was immense. Twenty-three thousand men were killed, wounded or went missing that day. Never before, or since, have so many Americans fallen in battle in a single day. Those are the well known facts about the Battle of Antietam. One of the not-so-well-known facts though is how many of those who fought that day were foreign-born. Patrick Young has written dozens of articles on the role of immigrants in the Civil War for his blog and he joins us now. As you write in your blog, Patrick, the Civil War generally is thought of as a conflict among Anglo-Americans. You are from Long Island, so why don’t we start there? What role did immigrants from New York play in the Battle of Antietam one hundred and fifty years ago today?
Patrick Young: One in four soldiers in the Union army was foreign-born, about a third of ‘em from Ireland, about a third from Germany, and a third came from places as diverse as Scotland, Hungary, Nicaragua, Siam, really all over the world. And at the Battle of Antietam they played a particularly and a really heroic role. Many of the New York Irish were in a unit called the Irish Brigade, which was named after a brigade in the French army that fought against the British, and they attacked the Sunken Road, which was a very heavily defended position at Antietam, and they essentially stood up in front of intense Confederate fire. And the lead unit, the 69th, the Fighting 69th New York, which was recruited just a few miles from where I’m speaking right now, lost sixty percent of it’s soldiers in just a few minutes. We also had German troops that played a major role in the battle as well.
Mullins: Yeah. Tell us about the German troops.
Young: Well, German immigrants had joined units, and these were very interesting units. They were units that spoke German. Today, we have big debates over bilingualism, and in 1861 the Secretary of War tried to ban the speaking of German in the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln overruled him and because of that we find tens of thousands of Germans who were fighting that day at Antietam who really played an important role in various parts of the campaign.
Mullins: There were a lot of reason why immigrants, why those who were foreign-born, would want to be part of the Civil War here in America. They were assigning bonuses who were given to those, in fact, there was recruiting that went on just on the docks where immigrants would be coming in. What were some of the other incentives that were provided to them? Why did they fight?
Young: Well, most of the immigrants who fought in Antietam were actually part of the first wave of recruits, so many of the bonuses or the draft really came in after Antietam. These soldiers said, particularly in the north, Germans said they were opposed to slavery. In fact, I was just reading a German, August Fricke [SP], who lived in Missouri, who, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22nd, said, “Now our motto is ‘All men are created equal, white and black.’” And so that was an important role. Another thing that both the Irish and Germans kept talking about was if the Union split up, it would damage republicanism or democracy around the world. The US was the only major democratic nation in the world and many of the German immigrants, many of the Irish immigrants wanted democracy in their homelands and they said that princes and kings would rejoice if the United States was splintered up into two, three, the Germans thought it might splinter up into five or six small countries just like Germany had.
Mullins: What do you think people should take away from this fact, that there were so many participants in this central piece of American history – the US Civil War, who were foreign-born? And, Patrick, this gets into, I think, what your own interest in the subject it.
Young: Well, I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that America was a lot more diverse from a lot earlier stage than we often give it credit for. We had Latino colonels in the Union army in 1861, long before we even allowed the recruitment of African-Americans. It also tells us that coming off of a ten-year period of intense anti-immigrant agitation, including violent attacks on immigrant communities, Abraham Lincoln stepped up and created a much more inclusive, much more multicultural America, and I think that he wasn’t frightened by the fact that new immigrants spoke other languages. In fact, he hired a German publicist who published all his speeches in German because he wanted immigrants to know what was going on, he wanted to include them in the war effort, and he understood that they were an important part of the new America that was being built.
Mullins: Did they get treated as well as soldiers whose families had been in America longer?
Young: At first I think there was a lot of resistance to them and there was certainly, after some battles, scapegoating of immigrants. If an immigrant unit ran it wasn’t ascribed to that particular unit; it would become “All Germans are cowards” or “All Irish are cowards”. But at the end of the war you really see a much broader acceptance of immigrants. So I think that there was worked in the American heart a change because they had seen that native-born whites in the South had, in the belief of many Northerners, betrayed the United States, whereas immigrants had stepped up to defend the United States to try to keep it together as a nation.
Mullins: Patrick, I’m still interested in what sparked your own interest in the subject.
Young: I’m a Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University, but I also have spent many, many terms as the chairman of the New York Immigration Coalition, which is an alliance of two hundred and forty organizations in New York of immigrant groups in New York, and with the 150th anniversary coming up two years ago I decided I’d begin doing research to see if there were any commonalities or if there were any lessons to be learned by today’s immigrants about what happened back then. And the series was originally written for immigrants so they would understand the Civil War, but it’s interesting right now, I find that almost seventy-five, eighty percent of my readers are native-born, often civil war buffs or members of ethnic organizations, not immigrants themselves, but people who have found the fact that I’ve combined scholarship with lively storytelling to be something that’s engaging and also informative for them.
Mullins: Did you have any ancestors who were in the Civil War?
Young: My grandmother’s two uncles fought in the Civil War and one of her uncles was killed in the final campaign of the war around Richmond.
Mullins: Patrick, thank you very much for your help on this. We appreciate it.
Young: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
Mullins: Patrick Young is a Long Island attorney. He writes about immigrant soldiers in the Civil War on his blog and we’re gonna have a link to his blog at theworld.org. We’ll also have link to a pretty incredible slideshow of the Civil War, photos taken by a photographer from Scotland. Patrick, thanks again.
Young: Thank you.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.