How did German emigrants to St. Louis, Missouri, influence the Civil War? In part 1 of this series, we explored reasons why Germans migrated en masse to Missouri in the 1840s and 1850s. In part 2, we will meet two ordinary people who experienced this period in vastly different ways. Guest blogger, Heidi Mathis provides us with an in-depth view of the time and place.
With the influx of German and Irish immigrants moving to St. Louis in the 1840s and 1850s, how did earlier settlers from the southern states react? The story of how these two groups worked out their differences or did not reveals much about the tensions in Missouri during the Civil War. We will take a peek into the mindset of two ordinary characters who help illustrate this divide.
Our first character is Euphrasia Pettus, born about 1839 in Missouri. Her father, a veteran of the War of 1812, William Grymes Pettus (1794-1867) migrated from Virginia to Missouri and married Euphrasia’s mother Caroline in 1827. Southern Missouri was settled in the early 1800s mostly by families who originally came from slave-owning areas like Virginia, and brought this pro-slavery economy and mindset to Missouri.
The Pettus family was enumerated in St. Louis on the 1860 US Census. In the previous twenty-five years, St. Louis had gone from a handful of Germans to 22,534 out of a total of 77, 860 St. Louisans (Abolitionizing p.8). How did the Pettus family feel living in a St. Louis that had been rather suddenly swamped by newly arrived Germans? In 1857 the pro-slavery newspaper, The Leader, said about Germans, “These people want to revolutionize our political system, vote away our property, and banish our Negro population [sic] from our territory.” (Abolitionizing p. 73).
One of those newly arrived Germans is our second character, Burkhard Schlag, my third great-grandfather. He arrived in St. Louis in 1854 from the German state of Hesse, and by 1861 Burkhard was married, had two children, and was the proprietor of a saloon. In a society fracturing between the Union and Confederacy, what side was he and his fellow Germans on?
In her book, Abolitionizing Missouri, author Kristen Layne Anderson speculated that perhaps the St. Louis Germans may have been uniquely more pro-Union because St. Louis was so far south. It was the city farthest south with the largest population of newly arrived Germans. Anderson argued that Germans everywhere blended in with attitudes around them, and were no more or less anti-slavery than their neighbors, except in St. Louis around the period of the Civil War.
St. Louis Germans would have been around slavery and its tensions regularly, and this may have served to provoke them into picking a side, more than Germans in a city further north like Cincinnati, also with a large wave of newly arrived Germans but no slavery (Abolitionizing p.19, 81). From an extensive reading of newspaper sources in German and English, Anderson argued that from 1854 onward the St. Louis Germans were progressively radicalized up through the Civil War (Abolitionizing p. 79). What side did Burkhard take? In 1864 he would name his third child Julius Sheridan Schlag after Union general Philip Sheridan.
The Camp Jackson Affair: Germans Help Tip the Balance in the Civil War
Lincoln was reputed to have said, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” Keeping the border states out of the Confederacy was crucial to the success of the North in the Civil War. While border states like Missouri occupied strategic territories vital to the execution of the war, they sat on evenly divided populations, which made their control volatile at best.
In the run-up to the start of the Civil War in April 1861, St. Louis had become an armed camp. Proto-Confederate Minutemen and proto-Union Wide-Awakes militias had formed. The newly elected governor was pro-Confederate, Claiborne Fox Jackson. Federal forces in Missouri were commanded by an equally driven but pro-Union man. Shortly after Lincoln took office in March of 1861, he had replaced the previous pro-Confederate general with Nathaniel Lyon, an uncompromising anti-slavery New Englander. All over Missouri people took up sides, and St. Louis was a tinderbox.
All eyes began to turn to the St. Louis Arsenal. It was the fourth largest in the U.S. and the largest within bounds of a slave state. Who would control the arsenal, St. Louis, and the strategic confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers? Whoever did would have the high ground in Missouri for the war.
Burkhard Schlag likely would have regularly read one of the local German-language newspapers, Anzeiger Des Westens, where his funeral would be announced in 1876. Anzeiger had a stridently pro-Union editor who was a 48er, Henry Boernstein. Throughout the winter and spring of 1861, Anzeiger printed article after article exhorting the Germans to help preserve the Union.
On 19 April 1861, a few days after Fort Sumter started the Civil War, Burkhard may have read Anzeiger’s urgent call to arms to protect the “fatherland,” the United States.
Not more words, but weapons will decide. We ourselves can enlist bayonets and cannons, commanders and regiments. We will certainly do it, and will place our whole legion at the service of the fatherland and under the command of the President…Every doubt, every question is now untimely. The fatherland calls. We stand at its command…No German fit to carry arms will fail to defend.. His freedom, and his fatherland. (Missouri Historical Review, Vol.042, Issue, January 1948, p.124).
On May 1st Governor Jackson called up pro-Confederate militias for maneuvers just outside of St. Louis. They then set up “Camp Jackson” less than five miles from the arsenal. Confederate President Jefferson Davis delivered heavy weapons to the Camp on May 9. On May 10 Captain Lyon marched 6,000 of his troops out to Camp Jackson and captured the 669 men there. As the Union troops marched the captives back through St. Louis, angry pro-secessionists shouted and threw rocks at the mostly German troops, reportedly saying, “Damn the Dutch (Dutch was a common misnomer of Deutsch or German).” Eventually, shots were fired at the Union troops, they fired back, with 28 killed and 75 wounded in the city that day (wikipedia.com, Camp Jackson Affair).
Like Burkhard, Euphrasia lived in St. Louis in these times and it must have been alarming to see so many foreigners with views opposite to her involved in armed conflict in her neighborhood streets. She wrote a letter on May 20 to her sister, where she succinctly summed the feelings many Missourians must have felt after mobilized immigrants forcibly swung their city to the Union, “…my blood boils in my veins when I think of the position of Missouri – held in the Union at the point of the Dutchmen’s bayonets.” Later that summer of 1861, St. Louis and its arsenal were firmly in Union hands, where they would stay for the rest of the war.
When we hear popular histories of the Civil War, we do not hear too much about St. Louis despite its vital arsenal and strategic spot on the superhighway of its day, the Mississippi River. We have likely heard a great deal about Vicksburg instead. Why? Unlike Vicksburg, St. Louis remained uncontested for the rest of the war, in part because of these newly arrived Germans.
Kristen Layne Anderson, Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America (Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World), (LSU Press, 2016).