Max Kade Institute

for German-American Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

German Americans in the Civil War Era

This interdisciplinary research project examines the time before, during, and after the Civil War from a unique angle, focusing on immigrants (especially those from German lands) and the global impact of the war (especially within German-speaking Europe).

The decade before the beginning of the Civil War saw an unprecedented spike in immigration to the United States. Almost three million Europeans came during this period, over a third of them from German lands. Many settled in Wisconsin and neighboring Midwestern states, where they purchased newly available land or established themselves in fledgling towns and cities. Most of these German immigrants were small farmers, craftsmen, or merchants from the Southern and Southwestern German States, or intellectuals, students, and others who had participated in the failed revolutions of 1848/49 and now hoped to make their ideals reality in America. Both groups contributed to America’s culture, society, and political debate in the antebellum years. When war broke out, German immigrants (many of whom were not yet American citizens) fought in large numbers on the Union side, and some of the regiments, such as the 26th Wisconsin Infantry volunteers, were almost entirely German. After the war, these immigrants, together with another large wave of German-speaking immigrants, helped shape a new America.

Meanwhile, German Americans as well as Germans living only temporarily in the United States published extensive reports about events and developments in the German-language press and included American themes in literary texts intended for readers both in this country and in Europe. Their discussion of the American issues (almost exclusively from a pro-Union point of view) influenced public knowledge and opinion in Central Europe on issues such as slavery, abolition, the war itself, and its aftermath.

Sternberger CW Veteran's pension

         letter Mathison-Sternberger 1861Documents from the Sternberger Collection at the Max Kade Institute: 
Civil War pension document for the widow of a German-American soldier;
1861 letter from a Norwegian-American to his German-American friend, seeking help with the recruitment of Norwegian immigrants for a military company.