When Armed German Leftists Helped Save the Union

Missouri's immigrants brought their state to join the North during America's Civil War

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In the latest American Scholar, Adam Goodheart tells the little-known story of St. Louis Germans, including many exiled revolutionaries, joined by Austrians, Poles, and Bohemians, who secured St. Louis and Missouri for the North when most of the city's leading families favored the Confederacy:

For such men, and even for their less radical compatriots, Missouri's slaveholding class represented exactly what they had detested in the old country, exactly what they had wanted to escape: a swaggering clique of landed oligarchs. By contrast, the Germans prided themselves on being, as an Anzeiger editorial rather smugly put it, "filled with more intensive concepts of freedom, with more expansive notions of humanity, than most peoples of the earth"--more imbued with true democratic spirit, indeed more American than the Americans themselves.

And Goodheart concludes:

In effect, a small band of German revolutionaries accomplished in St. Louis what they had failed to do in Vienna and Heidelberg: overthrow a reactionary state government. And they had done it in a matter of weeks, while in the East the armies were stumbling toward a war of attrition that would last almost four years. If Lincoln and his generals in 1861 had been more like Lyon and his Germans, the Union's conquest of the South might have played out very differently.

Later in the war, Marx and Lincoln corresponded indirectly, though only a few liberals and self-described copperheads seem to care now. Assimilation and twentieth-century wars also blurred the German origins of many American families, technologies, and customs, but they included the Kentucky Rifle, the Conestoga Wagon, and even Groundhog Day.

Image: The Battle of Carthage in Missouri, in 1861 during the American Civil War. Wikimedia Commons. 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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