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Regardless of how “conservative” the Republican Party may or may not be, it is easy to forget that there was a time when the Party was far from conservative, that in the early days of the party, socialists and outright communists played an active role. In fact, it can and will be argued here that the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was made possible by communists and socialists, most of them German immigrants in the Midwest, and indeed the prosecution of the War depended in large part on those same alien people. Consider, for example, the following.
Union General Franz Sigel had been a leader in the communist Revolution of 1848, a revolution fought to destroy the individual state governments of Germany, and forciby unite them under an all-powerful central, socialist government. Thanks to some inept leadership, part of it provided by the young Sigel, that revolution failed and Sigel, along with thousands of other “forty-eighters,” fled Europe for America, bringing their revolutionary socialist ideas with them. During the War, his troops declared “I fights mit Sigel.” After his diastrous retreat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, a Confederate song made fun of Sigel and his Hessian troops this way:
Ven first I came from Lauterback
I works sometimes by bakin’
Und next I runs my beer saloon,
Und den I try shoe-makin’,
But now I march mit musket out
To save dot yankee eagle
Dey dress me up in soldier clothes
To go and fight mit Sigel.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Massachusetts Yankee transcendentalist and hater of the South, wrote so approvingly of Sigel and his countrymen: “This revolution has a feature new to history, that of socialism.”
Carl Shurz was another forty-eighter, who had met Karl Marx at the Democratic Club in Cologne. Schurz later went on to deliver the votes of 300,000 German immigrants to Lincoln in 1860. He was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to Spain. War broke out just before his departure, but Lincoln prevailed upon him to go anyway. While in Spain, Schurz concluded (1) that the possibility of Europe recognizing the Confederacy was very real, and (2) that Lincoln should declare the War a crusade against slavery. It was Schurz’s ideas and influence that eventually held sway with Lincoln, and resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation.
Communist communities were numerous in the North and the Midwest in the 1850s: Fruitlands at Concord, Mass.; the Owenite community of New Harmony, Indiana; the various Amanite communities in Iowa. Emerson’s own personal favorite communitarian was Fourier , who inspired a number of communist utopian communities and became the spiritual leader of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. Students of the War are well-acquainted with the role of Greeley and his newspaper. They may not be aware that the Tribune had avidly covered the Revolution of 1848, and frequently employed Karl Marx as a correspondent. (In fact, Marx and Engels’ book, The Civil War in the U.S., consists of collected articles and dispatches from the Tribune. In those pieces, the two inventors of Communism fret over every Union setback and cheer every Union advance.)
Another communist community in the midwest was that of Communia, Iowa, founded by a German immigrant named Wilhem Weitling, who had been one of the principal revolutionary figures in Europe as a leader of the communist organization known as the League of the Just. Coming to America after the Revolution, he involved himself in a number of communist causes, included the Arbeiterbund, a German workers’ association, and in Communia. His life and ideals, which are detailed in his biography, The Utopian Communist, by Carl Wittke, present an excellent case study in communist revolutionary thought in America in the years leading up to the War.
These German immigrants were different, socially, religiously, and politically from those who had come before. Colonial German immigrants and those prior to 1848 were mainly farmers, a mixture of Lutherans and various small sects, all of whom were pious Christians. Most became Democrats. In America, they settled in Pennsylvania, then began to filter down the Great Wagon Road to places in the South such as Salem (now Winston-Salem), North Carolina. These Germans were hard-working and of sturdy stock, though considered somewhat dull and plodding.
Forty-eighters, on the other hand, came to America for its socialist promise, such as that of free land as was represented by the Homestead movement. Most settled in cities, however. They were rootless, with no particular attraction for a homeland. As Marx said, “the proletarian knows no fatherland.”These Germans coming after 1848 were more urban, more educated, less willing to work and more apt to look to the welfare state. They tended to be irreligious, even atheistic.
The government of the city of Chicago in the 1850s and 1860s came strongly under German socialist influence. A forty-eighter, Dr. Ernst Schmidt, called “the Red Schmidt,” ran for mayor on the Socialist party ticket in 1859 and received 12,000 of the 28,000 votes cast. When another forty-eighter, Friedrich Hecker, called on Lincoln at the 1861 inauguration, Lincoln is said to have asked: “What became of that long, red-haired Dutchman [German], Dr. Schmidt? Almost every Dutchman has been in here asking for a job; why doesn’t he come in?” Most of them, one might add, came away happy.
The Revolution of 1848 was in some respects a reverse image of the War for Southern Independence. Germany, which existed as hardly more than an abstraction, was in fact a decentralized collection of autonomous states. In keeping with the Marxist emphasis on the large, omnipotent, central government, these so called “revolutionaries” were actually intent on overthrowing local rule and setting up a totalitarian dictatorship. Such socialist “reformers” included, in addition to those already mentioned, one August von Willich, future brigadier of the Ninth Ohio and the 32nd Indiana. Von Willich had been an ardent follower of Karl Marx and had once led a Communist mob against the Cologne City Hall. Though at times a rabble rouser, Willich was a military man through and through. At Shiloh, he amazed his fellow officers (who included Gen. Lew Wallace, who described it) by putting his men through the manual of arms drill while under Confederate fire, even as many of them were being shot down. Willich, known for his regimental drills even after 20-mile marches, was prone to address his men as “Citizens of Indiana” and lecture them at length on the virtues of communism.
Alexander von Schimmelfennig was another German revolutionary who became a Union general. So was General Max von Weber, who had served as a colonel under Sigel in the revolution. So too was Karl Leopold Matthies of Iowa.
In the lower ranks, the former German revolutionaries were even better represented. Among them were Lt. Colonel Carl Gottfried Freudenberg, who had led insurgents at the age of 15 in an engagement near Mannheim, and the Austrian Ernest Fahtz, who became Lt. Colonel of the 8th Maryland. There was also Dr. Friedrich Hecker, who had been a leader in the Baden, Germany, rebellion. Another was Col. George von Amsberg, who had been a leader in the socialist revolt in Hungary. Adolf Dengler, a Baden Revolution veteran, was the colonel of the 43rd Illinois. Colonels Joseph Gerhardt, Carl Eberhard Salomon, Wilhelm Heine, Konrad Krez, Henry Flad, Fritz Anneke, Franz Mahler, Adolf von Hartung, Edward Kapff, August Mersey, Friedrich Poschner, Franz Wutschel, Rudolf von Rosa, and other such names form a list that goes on and on. All of them were socialists, all of them were Union officers. There were at least 50 German-born majors, though that number is probably far too low. Most of these men were from midwestern states: Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
As far as enlisted men were concerned, the number of Germans, most of whom had also seen service in the Revolutionary armies, was, literally, legion. In New York City alone, thousands of Germans volunteered immediately after Fort Sumter. New York state had 10 purely German regiments during the war. The NY German regiments included: the Steuben Rifles, Blenker’s 8th NY, the Astor Rifles, the German Rifles No. 5, the SchwarzeJager, and the German Rifles No. 3. Blenker’s Regiment was reviewed by Gen. Winfield Scott and Lincoln in June, 1861, during which Scott called them “the best regiment we now have.”
The preponderance of German-born officers and men in the Union armies is overwhelming. It is estimated that in 1860 there were approximately 1,204,075 Germans in the states that would remain in the Union. During the War, approximately 100,000 additional Germans entered. That makes for a total of about 1,300,000 Germans living in the Union during the War years. It is calculated that about 118,402 would have been subject to military service. The number who actually served was by some estimates around 216,000. This means the Germans were over-represented by nearly 100,000 men. Of the total of those serving, at least 36,000 served under German officers. If the total number of German troops is assumed to be 216,000 and we accept that the total of all foreign-born troops was nearly 500,000, which was about one-quarter of all Union troops, we see that as many as 1 in every 4 Union troops was actually of foreign birth, and that that foreigner was as apt to be a German as not. This is an astonishing statistic, and bears out the widely held Confederate belief that they were fighting an army of Hessians.
What were the political beliefs of these men? As noted above, a great many of the Germans, and virtually all those who had arrived since 1848, were former revolutionaries and socialist in political orientation. Many were imbued with the Liberal ideas that had come into prominence in Europe with the Jacobins in the French Revolution, and had remained around in various guises ever since. In America, these radicals retained their beliefs, finding encouragement in such something-for-nothing policies as the Homestead movement. Most of the recent immigrants came to be free-soilers. Combined with their Liberal antipathy to slavery, and their ideological devotion to omnipotent central government, they were thus natural-born Unionists.
An interesting phenomenon in 1860 was the “Wide-Awake Club” movement. Wide-Awake Clubs were paramilitary German and Scandinavian Republican organizations founded to promote the Lincoln cause. A Wide-Awake Club was founded in Washington, DC, and in three days signed up over 50 members, most of whom were German Jews.
A large number of German-language newspapers were published throughout the Union, particularly in the Midwest. An example was the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, which was virulently anti-Southern. In an ironic twist on the modern-day “Southern Swastika” slander, that newspaper coined a term for the Confederate flag: Klapperschangenflagge (rattlesnake flag). Throughout the war, it spewed forth hate for the South that rivaled any coming out of New England.
Lincoln realized the power of the Germans in this region. The German vote was viewed as essential in the election of 1860. Carl Schurz was the chairman of the Wisconsin delegation to the Republican convention in Chicago. Schurz, whose communist credentials in Germany were impeccable, was also a member of the Republican National Committee. Germans such as Gustav Korner, Francis Lieber, Friedrich Hassaurek, Frederick Munch, and Judge Krekel all spoke forcefully for Lincoln. Schurz alone traveled an astounding 21,000 miles speaking on behalf of Lincoln, for whom he promised and delivered 300,000 German votes.
Numerous historians have held that the foreign-born (primarily German) vote in the Upper Midwest decided the outcome of that election. For example, in a widely quoted essay in the American Historical Review, July 1911, entitled “The Fight for the Northwest, 1860,” William Dodd analyzed the 1860 vote. He concluded that the Republicans made a concerted effort to win over the votes of the new German immigrants, through their support of high tariffs and free homesteads, in addition to liberal ideologizing. Dodd wrote that Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa “would have given their electoral votes to Douglas but for the loyal support of the Germans and other foreign citizens led by Carl Schurz, Gustave Koerner, and the editors of the Staatszeitung of Chicago.” He concluded that had one voter in twenty switched from Lincoln to Douglas, Lincoln would have lost the upper midwest and hence the election. Dodd wrote: “The election of Lincoln and, as it turned out, the fate of the Union, were thus determined not by native Americans but by voters who knew least of American history and institutions.”
The chief exponent of the philosophy of most of these people was Karl Marx. The extremely pro-Union, anti-Southern writings of Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels echo the attitude of his German followers as we have discussed here. In addition, his later followers, the Soviet Russians, adopted similar positions in their official histories of the WBTS. To quote one Soviet historian, D.B. Petrov, who commemorated the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth by writing his biography (Abraham Lincol’n, Moscow, 1959): “Lincoln sincerely sympathized with the workers and sought the fulfillment of their most important demands. In this, lay the main reason for Lincoln’s authority among the common voters.” The Confederacy, on the other hand, is reviled in official Soviet history: “The secession movement was not a struggle for the sovereign rights of states but a reactionary rebellion of slaveholders, speculating on the ideal of states’ rights.” (R.F. Ivanov, The Civil War in the USA, Moscow, 1960). According to Ivanov, the secessionist slaveholders “vigorously suppressed” all opposition; therefore, secession was an “anti-peoples movement.” Notice that these Soviet writings were published at the height of the Cold War, yet the writers are adamant to defend the U.S. Federal government. Why would they defend their supposed arch-enemy?
A look at the events that took place thirty years later in the “Evil Empire” (one is tempted to refer to it as the “Other Evil Empire”) will reveal the answer. Aside from the fact that Lincoln has long been a hero in the Communist world (witness the Communist “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War), movements like the Confederacy are a threat to empires. Mega-states, regardless of their personal differences, must hang together to maintain the myth of omnipotent government.
A forgotten chapter in the history of America is the influence of German communists in the Midwest in the years following 1848. Refugees numbering in the many thousands from the failed communist Revolution of 1848 settled there, bringing with them socialist ideas favoring large central government, land redistribution, and abolitionism.
These people avidly supported the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, providing what many believe was the margin of victory. In response to Lincoln’s call for troops, they joined the Union Army in large numbers, forming perhaps one out of eight of all Union troops in the field, a great many of them under German officers, themselves communist veterans. In the civilian sphere, socialists and communists formed a powerful element in the Republican Party, and Lincoln, himself a midwesterner who shared much of their worldview, awarded them with major appointments.