Immigrants in the Union Army

In a letter written shortly before June 16, 1862, to his parents, Captain August Horstmann of the 45th New York Infantry Volunteers said, “As for me, despite all the horrible hardships, despite hunger, rain, & sore feet, I am healthier & stronger than ever & this life of war does me good. My only wish is that I could see you again; if this can be fulfilled, in the near or more distant future, then I will be happy & content. But even if I should die in the fight for freedom & the preservation of the Union of this, my adopted homeland, then you should not be too concerned, for many brave sons of the German fatherland have already died on the field of honor, & many more besides me will fall!—Much the same as it is in Germany, the free and industrious people of the North are fighting against the lazy and haughty Junker spirit of the South.”[1]

Captain Horstmann was one of over 200,000 German-born men who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. The Civil War fought from 1861 to 1865 was a defining moment of the nation’s history. Eleven southern states seceded to preserve the institution of slavery. The ultimate victory of the federal government resulted in the freeing of four million enslaved men, women, and children. Scholars continue to approach this complex era of American history through a multitude of lenses. One facet of the war left undisturbed for decades is the role of immigrant soldiers. Twenty-five percent of the entire Union Army were immigrants while another eighteen percent of the men who enlisted had a parent who immigrated to the United States. This percentage dwarfs that of the Confederate Army, where immigrants only made up five percent of all forces.[2] An amalgam of men and women from countries such as Germany, Ireland, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russiam, the Philipines, China, and Japan, played a critical role in the victory of the Union Army over the Confederacy. However, these soldiers—especially German immigrants— found themselves victims of a resurgence of nativism that influenced how the public interpreted their efforts during battle.[3] Disparaging news reports facilitated the construction of a narrative that eschewed the overwhelming presence of immigrant voices in the Civil War and framed it as a solely American event.

Understanding what motivated individual immigrants to enlist in the Union Army remains a complex historiographic question. Those who partook in the Revolutions of 1848 viewed the preservation and longevity of the United States as critical to the fight for republicanism in Europe. Some accounts from individual soldiers, such as Horstmann, often compared the autocracy of Europe to the political and social landscape of the south and argued that the abolishment of slavery was necessary within the global fight for freedom.

This project builds on the efforts of historians who within the past few decades have critically examined the lives of immigrants who enlisted in the Union Army. Using story maps, I traced the journeys of four soldiers; Albert Cashier, Włodzimierz Bonawentura Krzyżanowski, Joseph Pierce, and Carl Schurz. The link for these maps can be found on the Story Maps page. Both Schurz and Krzyżanowski were forced to flee Europe under similar circumstances. They were part of a larger group of European revolutionaries whose prior military experience allowed them to rise through the ranks of the Union Army. Despite the unequivocal ties between the European Revolutions of 1848 and the Civil War the standard historical narrative of the latter fails to recognize how the former shaped the Union Army. Juxtaposing the information provided in the maps of Schurz and Krzyżanowski and those of Pierce and Cashier should raise questions about the politics of memory, specifically whose lives are worth preserving at the expense of those whose experiences are erased from records.

On the Learn More page there is a working list of monographs, articles, memoirs, databases, and websites that examine immigration in the Civil War. If you are interested in conducting a similar project, there is a working list of immigrants who enlisted in the Union Army on the “Discover More” page. As of now, this site solely focuses on immigrants who fought in the Union Army since there are more scholarly sources on their experience than those who fought in the Confederate Army. With time, however, I hope to integrate the narratives of some immigrants who fought for the Confederacy as well.


[1]Walter D. Kamphoefner and Helbich Wolfgang, ed., Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home, (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 122.

[2] Don H. Doyle, “The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers,” Zocalo, last modified June 30, 2015.

[3] Ryan W. Keating, “Immigrants in the Union Army,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, Accessed April 1, 2020.