³I Goes to Fights Mit Sigel²: Immigrant Soldiers
Corporal Anton Steffens, Company C, 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
³I willingly give my life for South Carolina. Oh! That I could have died for Ireland.²
- Last words of Irish-born CS Captain John Mitchel, 1st South Carolina Artillery, Fort Sumter, South Carolina, July 20, 1864
Late in the afternoon of December 11, 1862, three Union infantry regiments volunteered to try and force their way across the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg, where Leeıs Army of Northern Virginia had established two tight lines of defense. All morning men of the 50th New York Engineers had tried to construct a pontoon bridge across the freezing cold river, but had suffered crippling casualties from infantrymen of CS Brigadier general William Barksdaleıs Mississippi Brigade, well emplaced and barricaded in cellars and houses near the riverbank. A long bombardment from 150 heavy guns had done nothing to slacken or even lessen the accuracy of the Confederate fire, as a follow-up company of engineers on the half-completed bridge had discovered, to their fatal distress.
Infantrymen of the 7th Michigan Infantry were the first to row across and land on the far shore, at the foot of Hawke Street, suffering horrifying casualties from the point-blank fire of the Mississippians, followed in short order by men of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. Survivors of both regiments quickly began kicking in doors and entering cellars of the houses on Sophia Street along the riverbank, clearing out nests of Confederate infantry, and establishing a tenacious toehold for other regiments to exploit. The third regiment to land, immediately behind the first two, was the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, the ³Harvard Regiment,² whose ranks will filled in part with the sons of Bostonıs most prominent families. The 7th Michigan had cleared out a few houses to the left of the beachhead, and the 19th Massachusetts was occupying a house just to the right. As the three regiment fought in the streets, houses and cellars, the Union engineers returned to their work, and in short order had finished the first pontoon bridge across the river.
The beachhead established and reinforcements swiftly coming across, orders came down to clear out the town. The 20th Massachusetts formed up in ranks, and prepared to assault into the town in column formation. Standing next to the Company Iıs commanding officer, US Captain George N. Macy, who was leading the assault, was the color bearer, Corporal Anton Steffens of Company C.
Ordering ³Forward!ı and turning onto Caroline Street, Macy prepared to lead them at the column march into the town. As they turned, however, the entire formation was raked by a hot, heavy and deadly accurate fire from Barksdaleıs Mississippians, ³almost every ball struck² according to one of the lieutenants. Macy urged them on and his men obeyed, though they soon had Confederates firing down on them from three sides, and casualties were mounting at an alarming rate. Sending word back for reinforcements, the 20th stopped in the street and held their ground, sending companies to clear the houses on each side. The 59th New York ran up to support, but just as quickly fell back under the withering fire.
As darkness fell the volume of fire did not, with some of Barksdaleıs men re-occupying one of the adjacent houses, and the street heaping with the bodies of the slain. Macy sent some of his companies up the left side of the street, while other stayed in the middle and took the houses on the right, but the fighting had been so protracted that many menıs rifles were becoming fouled, and unable to load. Finally, as the blackness of night made it impossible to tell friend from foe, Macy ordered a slight retreat back to the intersection nearest the beachhead, and the Confederate fire gradually slackened, before petering out completely.
As Barksdaleıs Mississippianıs pulled out during the night, withdrawing to the strong line of defense on Mauryıs Heights above the town, the Union infantry cautiously checked the piles of dead for any wounded. 93 men of the 20th had been killed or mortally wounded to gain less than 50 yards of ground. It was the ³most useless slaughter I ever witnessed,² according to one eyewitness, though the regiment had accomplished its primary mission. Sprawled out on the street, among the heaps of other dead and dying, they found the body of Corporal Steffens, killed during the vicious brawl.
Anton Steffens was not from one of the wealthy and prominent families of Boston, nor one of the wealthy and prominent families anywhere else for that matter. He was born the first of five children of Petronella Schmitz and Peter Joseph Steffens in Koblentz, Prussia, in 1843. He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1852, settled in Boston, and began working as a brass finisher. Shortly after the war broke out, he volunteered for service with the 20th Massachusetts, and was present at their initial mustering-in on September 9, 1861, at Readville. Steffens was assigned to Company C, one of two companies in the 20th Massachusetts that filled its ranks with German and Prussian immigrants. His war service was lamentably short, in number of years, but very long in the number of battles he fought in; the hand-to-hand combat during the disastrous day at Ballıs Bluff, all through McClellanıs Peninsular Campaign, the long bloody day at Sharpsburg (Antietam), and then this final savage fight at Fredericksburg
Immigrants in the War
Primarily due to political unrest and a revolution in Germany, a potato famine in Ireland, and assorted political troubles in Italy and France, the United States had witnessed a boom in immigration shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. The overwhelming majority of these immigrated to the northeast, to New York, Boston and Philadelphia, though a good percentage moved on west almost immediately, and a smaller percentage landed in North Carolina and Georgia, as their Irish and Scottish predecessors had been doing for well over a hundred years.
With the outbreak of war in 1861, these same groups of immigrants faced some very hard choices; should they join the Union forces, representative of the country they had immigrated into, should they join the Confederacy, emblematic of the struggle against entrenched powers that they had fled from in so many cases back in the ³old country,² or should they try to remain neutral, moving west in the frontier, where land was cheaper, more available, and the stirrings of war drums more distant? Even this last choice was a bitter one to make, whereas the eastern part of the country was consumed by the preparations for war, the far west was still far from being peaceably settled, with another, even more savage war being fought against the various Indian nations. Mass slaughters of civilian settlers in the Plains and parts further west were far from rare occurrences.
Even with all of these issues to consider, quite a few immigrants answered to the call. Of the roughly 2 million Union soldiers who served, about 500,000 had immigrated to the U.S. before the war. Small percentages, mostly Germans, were even recruited into the Union Army from overseas, in the dark days of late 1863 and 1864.
Strike For the South
The Confederacy did have a sprinkling of immigrants in its ranks, and almost all were from Ireland. This was due primarily to the fact that so many Irish had already immigrated into various parts of the South, and the countryside was a known quality as a result. Both Scots and Irish had fled or been kicked out of their respective countries, after losing a long series of revolts against their English occupiers, and had flooded into the new country, starting well before the nation had even gained its own independence from Great Britain. There were so many men in the Southern ranks whose families originally hailed from these Celtic countries that it has been presented as one of the primary reasons for their own defeat; Grady Mcwhineyıs landmark study, Attack and Die: Civil War Tactics and the Southern Heritage, held that the old Celtic ways of constant offense, using cold steel and blade in frontal assaults, were ³programmed in² to the mostly Scots and Irish-heritaged Confederate high command. While this method worked very well in the days of muskets and pikes, modernized weaponry including rifles and accurate long-range artillery caused massive casualties in such attacks.
A separate, but very directly related reason so many Irish went south was due to their Democratic leanings. Most had little to no sympathy for slaves, but greatly feared the work of Northern abolitionists, who they saw as no different than the English lords who had taken their own rights and property away back in Eire at their whim. In fact, it was Irish immigrants in the north, who were violently opposed to military service based on their political beliefs, who helped start the 1863 New York draft riot, where 103 people lost their lives.
According to one source, about 40,000 Irishmen served in the Confederacy, the best known and most prominent by far was the Western Theater corps commander, CS Major General Patrick Roan Cleburne, who was killed in action at Franklin, leading his men into battle in the old Celtic manner. There was no major unit in the Confederate army that was Irish by specific designation, but a number did carry the colors, symbols and names of old Ireland in their devices, and some had a full complement or nearly so of Irish in the ranks.
Due in part to certain Hollywood productions, perhaps the best known ³Confederate Irish² unit was the 24th Georgia Infantry, commanded by Antrim, Ireland, native CS Colonel Robert McMillan and including many native-born Irishmen in the ranks. It was present at Fredericksburg that same terrible day in December 1862, lined up along the Sunken Road behind a stout stone wall on Telegraph Road, at the foot of Maryeıs Heights just west of the town. To their left was a unit with another strong Irish connection, the 19th Georgia Infantry, with itıs Irish colors bearing Company B, ³Jacksonıs Guards,² then-commanded by Irish born Captain John P. Kelly.
Quite a number of other Confederate units claimed an Irish connection, justified or not, including Company H of the 8th Alabama Infantry, the ³Emerald Guard²; Company B of the 27th Virginia Infantry, the ³Virginia Hibernians²; and the Company K of the 1st South Carolina Infantry (Greggıs), the ³Irish Volunteers.² This last company, raised in Charleston early in the war as part of an intended ³Irish Battalion,² had a beautiful silk battle flag presented as they entered service, white and green silk with an Irish harp and cross surrounded by a wreath of oak leaves, palmetto leaves and shamrocks, eleven silver stars and a silver silk fringe. Over the cross in silver script was the motto In Hoc Signo Vinces, ³By This Sign You Conquer.²
One other Confederate regiment with a strong Irish connection was the 10th Tennessee Infantry, claimed by one source to be known as the ³Bloody Tenth.² Most unusually, it had a large population of Irish Catholics in the ranksmost Catholics had tended to immigrate to the North. The regiment saw good service at Forts Henry and Donelson early in Grantıs Western Rivers Campaign, surrendered after the fall of Donelson, and while they were being held at Camp Douglas, awaiting parole, an officer from the Union Irish Brigade tried to convince the lads to switch sides and join his brigade. (few accepted the offer, but it was overturned in any stead by higher command) Their battle flag was as spectacular as the South Carolinianıs, light green silk outlined in Kelly green emblazoned with a gold Irish harp, and itıs motto in white lettering trimmed in maroon, ³Sons of Erin, Where Glory Awaits You.²
All For the Union
The Irish in the Union armies was a whole different story, with many full companies and regiments consisted of nothing but sons of Eire. About 170,000 volunteered for the ranks, and many of them for precisely the opposite reason of their Southern brothers. They saw in the Southern planter class, who ran politics down South, the same sorts of people as the lords and landowners of Ireland, who had starved and abused them nearly to the point of death. The families in old Ireland and Scotland alike had long before organized into clans, with wealthy hereditary chiefs and chieftains controlling all aspects of the lives of those living in their territories. Too often these privileged few men born into such power amused themselves by warring with the surrounding clans, both bringing death and misery into their impoverished people who filled the ranks, and weakening both countries through internal strife to the point that even the despised English could take invade and them over without much problem.
The Unionıs best known and most easily recognizable all-Irish formation was the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, consisting of the 63rd New York, 69th New York, 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments, known collectively as the ³Irish Brigade² under their Irish-born flamboyant commander, US Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. They earned their battlefield reputation the hardest way possible, during bloody assaults on two well-protected Confederate positions; the first at Sharpsburg (Antietam), where they suffered over 500 casualties, and the second against the stone wall on Telegraph Road at Fredericksburg.
At Fredericksburg, 1,200 men of Meagherıs Irish marched past the site of Steffens fatal fight two days later, on through the shattered, battle scarred town, then across a small canal and upwards on a slope towards Leeıs positions, atop a low hill called Maryeıs heights about a mile west of the town. Most of their beautiful emerald green battle flags had been torn and ripped into shreds by the previous campaigns, and on that fateful day only the 28th Massachusetts still carried their, in the center of the line of battle, waving gently in the breeze above their heads. After a short pause, Meagher gave the order, ³Men of the Irish Brigade! Forward at the double-quick, guide center, March!²
The Irish Brigade never really had a chance. It constituted the third assault of the day up that deadly space, and the Confederate artillerymen by then had the range dialed in to near perfection. Solid shot and shell were falling in their ranks even before they got into the line of departure, and as they came at a slow trot up the slope, great holes were ripped in their ranks by exploding case shot. Because their own infantry were below the artillery position, up on the crest of the hill, the artillerymen didnıt even have to pause their deadly work when it came time for the infantry to begin theirs.
Just to the front, across the wide, upward sloping ground, were the Irishmen of the 24th Georgia. Despite Hollywoodıs pretensions and oft-told tales to the contrary, Colonel McMillan had no qualms about firing on ³brother² Irishmen, and he did so with gusto that day. He was recorded as noticing the green flag of the 28th Massachusetts through the flash and smoke of falling artillery, remarking aloud, ³Thatıs Meagherıs Brigade!² He may have indeed paused and entertained brief thoughts about fratricide of his Irish brethren. But as soon as the Irish bluecoats came into rifle range, he gave the command to fire, shouting over the incredible din, ³Give it to them now, boys! Now's the time! Give it to them!² The Confederates were four ranks deep behind that stone wall, nearly impervious to incoming fire as they worked like an assembly line to load and pass up rifle-muskets to men on the line, who picked off the onrushing Union Irish like so many tin ducks in a county fair target shoot.
The Union Irish Brigade were standing up, moving forward on the upward slope of the shell-blasted hillside, naked to Confederate fire, without so much as a shrub to hide behind, and a hurricane of lead balls, iron shot, and exploding shells were tearing through the ranks, decapitating company officers, thudding through soldiers desperately trying to reload, dropping others by the twos, threes, and dozens, until only half their number remained in the line. The survivors dropped to the ground, clawing for cover, as the Confederates still raked their lines, stopping only to fire on the following brigades as they in turn tried to gain the heights. All the rest of the afternoon until well after dark the Irishmen stayed under that hellish fire, until they could crawl back down the slope to the relative safety of Fredericksburg, in some cases dragging bodies of the dead behind them as a sort of macabre sandbag, to absorb the rounds still being fired after midnight by Confederate sharpshooters. At a cost of over 540 of their own, the best they could later claim was that they made it the furthest up the hill towards the Confederate position.
The Irish Brigade didnıt survive to the end of the war as a unit, either. Meagher, wounded severely at Sharpsburg, rebuilt his shattered ranks as well as he could, then led them into further hellish battles in the Wheat Field at Gettysburg, and finally the swirling mess at Chancellorsville. Meagher asked permission in May 1863 to pull his brigade out of the field, and rebuild it through recruitment efforts in New York. When this was refused, he resigned his commission, losing command of the brigade for good. The whole brigade by then was reduced to approximately the strength of a normal regiment, about 1,000 men and officers, and was finally broken up in June 1864.
In two years of service, in the midst of some of the heaviest fighting in the Eastern Theater, the Irish Brigade had a total muster of over 7,000, and suffered over 4,000 casualties, more than ever served in the ranks at any given time. The 69th New York, almost always on the right of the line, suffered the most as a result, losing 16 of 19 officers, and suffering 75 percent casualties over those two deadly years.
Meagher, like so many combat veterans, fought a losing battle trying to adjust to civilian life back in New York. He tried for a time to raise support for a group called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which intended to invade and cease Canada to try and force the English to let Ireland be free again. Meagherıs fiery personality and take-no-prisoners approach probably did more to harm this movement than to help it. After a few years wandering around New York, he moved to Montana Territory, where on the basis of his war reputation he gained an appointment as Territorial Secretary. When the Territorial Governor resigned over a political scandal, Meagher was tapped to take his place. About a year later, on July 5, 1887, while traveling on the riverboat Thompson down the Missouri River, he fell over board and drowned. His body was never recovered.
Other Immigrant Soldiers
About 20,000 French immigrants, and another 40,000 French-Canadians served in the Union Army, despite the tensions caused by the Trent Affair, and the subsequent threat by Great Britain to invade the U.S. from Canada. These tensions were exasperated by the ill-considered rumblings of William Seward, who remarked on several occasions his desire to use the Union Army to invade and annex Canada. One entirely French regiment was formed in the Union ranks, the 55th New York Infantry, the ³Lafayette Guards² commanded by US Colonel (French Count) Philippe Regis de Trobriand. One company of the supposedly all-Italian ³Garibaldi Guard² was composed mostly of Frenchmen, as well.
At least five Australian and three New Zealand natives enlisted in the Union Navy; one, a 28-year old black man (perhaps an Aboriginal?) named John Jackson, died on March 24, 1862, aboard the USS Ohio.
Many Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians and Swedes, had immigrated to the frontier parts of the upper Midwest, Minnesota and Wisconsin, in the 1850s, and many readily answered the call to arms. Several all-Swedish and all-Norwegian company sized units formed up in the western armies, but the only regimental size force of Scandinavians in either army was the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, the ³Scandinavian Regiment.²
The 15th Wisconsin entered service in February 1862 with 801 officers and men, almost all of whom were Norwegian by birth, but there was a scattering of Swedes and Danes in the ranks. They received only 105 replacements over the next three years, all Scandinavians. It served in Army of the Cumberland at Stones River and Chickamauga, where itıs beloved commanding officer, Colonel Hans C. Heg, was killed in action. They participated in all the major actions of Shermanıs 1864 Atlanta Campaign, where the regiment was decimated crossing the field at Pickettıs Mill. After staying in reserve for the rest of the campaign, the 15th was reassigned to the garrison at Chattanooga, and mustered out in December 1864. This unit performed well under harrowing conditions, losing 267 killed in action and dead from disease, 204 severely wounded in action, and 22 made prisoner. Most of these men later died at Andersonville. Just 320 were still standing by the colors when they were discharged.
One of the POWs that survived was Ole Steensland, who was born in Hjelmeland, Norway, in 1842. He was captured at Chickamauga, held at Belle Island, and later transferred to the new prison camp at Andersonville. He survived 19 months in that deathtrap. He later described he and his friends appearance when they were released:
³We were a hard looking bunch. Some of us almost naked, unshaved, with our louse eaten hair hanging down to our shoulders. My ankles were so stiff and my feet so swollen that I could hardly hobble around.²
Steensland finally made it home in May 1865, and died of ³a stroke of apoplexy² in 1903. He had survived over 11 months in the stockade at Andersonville, one of only a handful of prisoners that lasted through such a long stretch.
The largest immigrant group by far in the Union army was from Germany and Prussia. About 216,000 served in the ranks, in a number of all-German speaking companies and regiments. One of these was actually a Polish unit, the 58th New York Infantry, the ³Pulaski Guard,² which was composed of German speaking Poles from the Prussian and Austrian ruled sections of Poland.
There was even one entire ³Dutch² (a popular nickname for German-speaking immigrants, a corruption of the proper name for German: ³deutsche²) division, Blenkerıs German Division, commanded by US Brigadier General Ludwig (Louis) Blenker of Worms, Hesse Darmstadt, Germany, under the command of yet another famed German soldier, US Major General Franz Sigel of Baden, who commanded a corps in Popeıs Army of Virginia at the time. This division was composed of eight New York infantry regiments (the 8th, 29th, 39th, 41st, 45th, 54th, 58th and 68th), four Pennsylvania infantry regiments (the 27th, 73rd, 74th and 75th), the 4th New York Cavalry, and three artillery batteries (Schirmerıs, Wiedrichıs, and Sturmfelsı), all of whom gave their orders and commands strictly in German. However, shortly after the disaster at Sharpsburg (Antietam), the division was reorganized, reassigned, and lost itıs all-German status.
One regiment in Blenkerıs Division is worthy of note for another reason, the 39th New York Infantry, the ³Garibaldo Guards,² started off as an all-Italian unit, and showed up for its first muster wearing green plumes atop their headgearthe distinct badge (worn even today) of Italian light infantry, known as ³Bersaglieri.² They quickly became a sort of hodge-podge multi-ethnic unit, all speaking German like the rest of the Division by the time they were included, but featuring Germans, Italians, Swiss, Austrians, Spaniards, Slavs, Turks, Russian Cossacks, Indian Sepoys, ex-French Foreign Legionnaires with apparently no discernable nationalities, and even a few French Algerian Zouaves. The regimentıs first commanding officer, US Colonel Frederick George DıUtassy, was a Hungarian who had formerly worked as a circus trick horse rider.
The most famous German soldier in the Union ranks by far was US Major General Franz Sigel. He was born in Baden in 1824, was a well-regarded German Army officer who had graduated from the Karlsruhe Military Academy, but earned his reputation as both a combat officer and liberal politician by resigning his commission in 1847, and helping lead the revolution against Prussia the following year. He was forced to flee the country after the revolution failed, arrived in the United States in 1851, and soon settled down to the life of a schoolteacher in St. Louis, where he became a forceful abolitionist political influence among the many German immigrants settling in the area. Shortly after the war began, he accepted a brigadier generalıs commission personally from Abraham Lincoln,.
Sigel served in the West for the first year of the war, successfully raising many German-speaking regiments, but not showing much in the way of battlefield prowess at first. His command broke and ran at Wilsonıs Creek, on August 10, 1861, leading to the derogatory nickname for German troops that stuck to the end of the war, ³flying Dutchmen.² His command showed much more tenacity at the follow-up confrontation at Pea Ridge, where their stubborn stand helped defeat CS General Earl Van Dornıs effort to drive Union forces out of Arkansas. He was promoted to major general and transferred to the Eastern Theater, in March 1862, rising quickly to command of the I and XI Corps. His forces were defeated in the Shenandoah Valley, campaigning against CS Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan ³Stonewall² Jackson (to be perfectly fair, no-one did very well against ³olı Blue Light²!), and was sounded thrashed at 2nd Manassas. His reputation suffered another, this time fatal blow in his loss at the battle of New Market, on May 15, 1864, which featured a Confederate charge led by college cadets from the nearby Virginia Military Academy (Stonewallıs former place of employmentno doubt they were inspired by his earlier success against Sigel!). He was stripped of his command after this last blunder, and tendered his resignation shortly after the battle. Sigel dabbled in publishing and politics after the war, and died in New York City in 1902.
He was no doubt one of the worst of an already bad bunch of Union general officers, but his men absolutely adored him, and his personal charisma and reputation in the German community was priceless beyond compare, in getting the ranks filled in the tough early days of the war. A popular song of the day was written around a sort of unofficial motto of the German-speaking troops of the Union. Most could speak very little English, but proudly boasted of what they did alongside their well-regarded countryman, ³I Goes to Fights Mit Siegel.² It is hard to say today if this was intended to be a ethnic joke at the Germanıs expense or a true tribute to the man:
I Goes to Fights Mit Sigel
(To the tune, The Girl I Left Behind Me²)
I've come shust now to tells you how,
I goes mit regimentals,
To schlauch dem voes of Liberty,
Like dem old Continentals,
Vot fights mit England long ago,
To save der Yankee Eagle;
Und now I gets my soldier clothes;
I'm going to fight mit Sigel.
Ya! Das ist drue, I shpeaks mit you,
I'm going to fight mit Sigel.
When I comes from der Deutsche Countree,
I vorks sometimes at baking;
Den I keeps a lager beer saloon,
Und den I goes shoemaking;
But now I was a sojer been
To save der Yankee Eagle;
To schlauch dem tam secesion volks,
I'm going t fight mit Sigel.
I gets ein tam big rifle guns,
Und puts him to mine shoulder,
Den march so bold, like a big jack-horse,
Und may been someding bolder;
I goes off mit de volunteers,
To save de Yankee Eagle;
To give dem Rebel vellers fits,
I'm going to fight mit Sigel.
Dem Deutshen mens mit Sigel's band,
At fighting have no rival;
Un ven Cheff Davis' mens we meet,
Ve Schlauch em like de tuyvil;
Dere's only one ting vot I fear,
Ven pattling for de Eagle;
I vont get not no lager bier,
Ven I goes to fight mit Sigel.
For rations dey gives salty pork,
I dinks dat was a great sell;
I petter likes de Sour Kraut,
De Switzer Kaize un Pretzel.
If Fighting Joe (or Liddle Mac.)
Will give us dem,
Ve'll save de Yankee Eagle;
Und I'll put mine Frau in breechaloons,
I'm go un fight mit Sigel.
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