On Friday our Civil War reading group confronted Everard H. Smith, “Chambersburg: Anatomy of a Confederate Reprisal,” American Historical Review Vol. 96, No. 2. (Apr., 1991): 432-455. Among other things, Smith argued that Confederate anti-German sentiment contributed to the ferocity of the retaliation against the civilians of Chambersburg.
There are problems. How German was Chambersburg by 1864? No more German, perhaps, than some of the Confederate regiments that burned it. But anti-immigrant sentiment is not characterized by accurate historical assessments. Confederates recognized that Germans were among the prominent Unionists in Missouri and Texas, and that the most vocal and eloquent German-American voices in the North opposed slavery. I can accept that many Confederates were anti-German.
More interesting to me is a broader question: What did anti-immigrant sentiment mean during the Civil War? How deep did it run?
In the antebellum South it meant something to be white. It meant not being black. European immigrants such as the Germans were clearly white. The Civil War intensified the need for white solidarity to overcome distinctions in social position, wealth, and nativity. Did Everard Smith mean to adjust this widely-accepted interpretation? I think there is still room for anti-immigrant sentiment, but we need to further examine what such sentiment would mean in a war for white supremacy.
In the North, historians have shown, things were more complicated. European immigrants received citizenship rights based on their whiteness, but the Irish, and sometimes even the Germans, were considered racially different from Anglo-Saxons. There had been significant anti-immigrant riots in the 1850s, and during the war immigrants became scapegoats. The German divisions of the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac were singled out for blame in the Union defeat at Chancellorsville in Spring, 1863. Germans were disloyal cowards. One major general, who was mentioned by name in critical newspaper reports, spent the rest of his life trying to clear the reputation of his troops. But Carl Schurz also became a U.S. Senator and the Secretary of the Interior under President Hayes. Rather than suffering from the accusations, he used them to consolidate his immigrant support. Attacks on him as a German did not hurt him politically.
Anti-immigrant sentiment existed on both sides during the war. But I still don’t think we know what it really meant.
Ed. Note: Readers with access to JSTOR will find the article online.