Yankee Dutchmen under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry edited by Joseph R. Reinhart. Kent State University Press, 2013. Cloth, IBSN: 1606351761. $45.00.
Joseph R. Reinhart’s new volume opens with an important statistic: nearly ten percent of the men in the Union Army were born in Germany. The ethnic diversity of the Union Army is easily overlooked, but this statistic — along with the letters and essays in Yankee Dutchmen under Fire — make a strong case that we should look more closely at the German experience during the Civil War.
This book presents a selection of letters written by the soldiers and officers of the 82nd Illinois Infantry, a German regiment raised in Chicago. Most of the letters were written to German language newspapers like the Illinois Staats-Zeitung and the Westliche Post, although a few private letters are also included.
The regiment wasn’t just largely German — it was almost exclusively so. Reinhart explains that while Germans served in various regiments throughout the Union Army, only a few units were mostly or entirely German. Additionally, the 82nd was one of only two regiments in the Union army to contain a company of Jews; in fact, at one point, it was led by Jewish Lt. Col. Edward S. Salomon.
As with most Civil War letter collections, the letters of the 82nd — painstakingly translated by Reinhart — provide a glimpse into the experiences of individual soldiers and the regiment as a whole. The men write about their lives in camp and on the march, and provide first-hand accounts of several battles and campaigns. While these letters are interesting, they are not uncommon. Like many soldiers, they thrilled over fresh food and complained about unappetizing rations, lamented the blood and filth of battle, and grumbled about long marches and bad officers.
The letters that are most compelling, then, are the ones that offer a glimpse into the unique culture of the 82nd. To celebrate commanding officer Colonel Friedrich Hecker’s birthday, for instance, the regiment sang and danced in a German-style festival. Many letters reveal that beer played no small part in regimental life. First Sergeant William Loeb wrote to the Illinois Staats-Zeitung with a request in September of 1862: “To you my dears, Best, Busch, Brand, and all other manufacturers of the exalted liquid, now come words from my heart, the emotions and feelings of our regiment. Have pity on 800 drooling throats! Send beer in special trains, much beer, and your name shall be emblazoned in golden letters in the memories of our soldiers…” (36). When their corps commander, fellow German Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, was replaced with teetotal Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the men were not pleased to lose their ale.
The soldiers of the 82nd were keenly aware that their ethnicity set them apart from their American comrades. An unidentified soldier described “a little battle” that the 82nd nearly had at Camp Butler with a recently arrived American regiment. “It would have resulted in bloodshed because of nativism and hatred toward the Germans,” he wrote, “but the combatants lacked weapons” (31). Their ethnicity was also a point of pride. Another unidentified soldier thought that the Americans were simply jealous: “It seems almost as if they could not endure the strapping appearance and the cheerful nature of the ‘Dutchmen’” (35).
Reinhart’s introduction and other notes throughout the book are crucial to understanding the context of the letters. He explains that the regiment’s leadership largely emanated from the Forty-eighter and Turnvereine segments of the German immigrant community. These groups were involved in the German revolutions of 1848, and carried their revolutionary politics with them to the United States. Forty-eighters tended to be anti-slavery, and they generally supported the Republican Party. They were also wary of organized religion. The Turnvereine was an associated political organization for German men that centered on “muscular manhood” achieved through gymnastic exercise. These elements gave the regiment a unique perspective on the war and how to fight it. As George Heinzmann of Company B wrote to the Illinois Staats-Zeitung: “We have strengthened and toughened our bodies long enough through gymnastics to bear the stresses and strains of military service…. The time has come to stand the test of arms and strength in the face of the enemies of the Republic, the enemies of freedom” (21). Reinhart does not explore it, but the descriptions of the Turner vision of masculinity do seem ripe for a gendered analysis.
Throughout the book, there are a few minor typographical errors. These stand out all the more because on balance, the book is carefully translated and researched. This collection of letters — and Reinhart’s contextual analysis — constitute an important addition to the scholarship on the experience of immigrants during the American Civil War.
Sarah Handley-Cousins, a Ph.D. candidate at the University at Buffalo, is working on a dissertation about veterans and disability in the post-Civil War North.