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Lincoln and Immigration

By Harold Holzer

Amidst the carnage of the Civil War—upward of 700,000 dead with 40,000 of them from New York, more than any other state—came not only mass-mourning, but an urgent need for additional recruits to replenish the depleted Union army.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proposed an innovative solution: in his annual message to Congress that December, he called for increased immigration to fill long-vacant civilian jobs in farming, mining, and other industries. Such an influx, Lincoln argued, would allow more American citizens to enlist without harming the nation’s economy. “Under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life,” Lincoln rejoiced. “This noble effort demands the aid, and ought to receive the attention and support of the government.”

The following year, Lincoln went further, proposing that the government finance the ocean voyages of new arrivals from Europe. That initiative proved a bridge too far for the press. Even the pro-Lincoln New York Times warned that “a system of hired emigration would export to us the very refuse of the sinks of Germany and Ireland.” Congress shelved the idea, but under the otherwise progressive bill it sent to the President, immigration to New York and other ports, on the decline since the outbreak of the war, again began rising. Lincoln made it plain: “I regard our emigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war, and its wastes of national strength and health.”

Lincoln’s extraordinary immigration initiatives came after decades of controversy, and occasional violence, over the nation’s longstanding policy of welcoming, or at least tolerating, migrants and refugees. Immigration had spiked in the 1840s, spurred by the potato famine in Ireland and by the failed political revolutions in Germany. Many German refugees moved westward, but impoverished Irishmen tended to resettle in the Eastern urban centers where they first landed, gaining low-wage employment on the docks and in factories.

It proved a recipe for discord. Easy as it was for new arrivals to obtain voting rights in the 1840s—citizenship required only five-years’ residence— mass migration to the US, particularly by Catholics, stirred fear and anger. Whigs in particular raised objections to the influx of Catholics, spawning a nativist element within their party (and hastening its doom). Democrats embraced Irish Americans, who in turn gave that party loyal support for decades.

Street Riots
In 1844, anti-Catholic street riots broke out in Philadelphia. From Illinois, young Whig legislator Abraham Lincoln reacted by advocating tolerance. He rejected bigotry against “foreigners and Catholics” and held that the path to naturalization should remain “as convenient, cheap, and expeditious as possible.”

Nonetheless, New York soon saw the rise of anti-Catholic journals like the Spirit of ’76. New Yorker Thomas R. Whitney helped found the antiforeigner Know-Nothing movement, which eventually emerged as a political party, and authored its toxic bible, A Defence of the American Policy. In 1844, patrician Manhattan lawyer George Templeton Strong confided to his diary the noxious observation that “[w]retched, filthy, bestial looking Italians and Irish, the very scum and dregs of human nature filled the [immigration] office so completely that I was almost afraid of being poisoned by going in.” Even the noted New York artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse embraced nativism, authoring a bigoted screed entitled Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the
United States.

Although Lincoln would privately declare in 1855, “I am not a Know-Nothing,” he continued quietly to woo support for the new Republican Party from anti-immigrant factions, insisting he had “no objection to fuse with anybody” who opposed slavery. Not until 1860—the year he delivered his Cooper Union Address in New York and won the presidency in November—did the anti-foreigner movement fade.

It was not a sign of suddenly vanished prejudice. Rather, with Southern secession came the urgent need for troops to defend the Union. Lincoln quickly and wisely concluded that he needed Irish- and German-born officers, regardless of party, to recruit fellow countrymen into the federal military.

Carl Schurz, for example, Lincoln’s German-born Minister-designate to Spain, won a three-month leave from the diplomatic corps to “organize a volunteer regiment of cavalry.” Schurz hastened to New York to recruit fellow countrymen, only to discover that many patriotic Germans there had already joined the infantry. Schurz’s effort fizzled, but Lincoln promoted him to brigadier general; he, like the German-born onetime New York City schoolteacher Franz Sigel, became a lightning rod for German recruitment throughout the North. 

German Rifles
Lincoln’s search for foreign-born talent sometimes went awry, as with General Louis Blenker, a German boasting vast military experience in Europe. A month after the Civil War erupted, Blenker formed the New York unit known as the “German Rifles,” which mustered into service in mid-May 1861 at a rally outside city hall. Demonstrating the non-partisan nature of Union recruitment, the troops were saluted that day by another New Yorker, August Belmont, the German-born national chairman of the Democratic Party. Belmont hailed the unit as “one of the finest corps [it was in fact a regiment] yet furnished in the noble quota from New York.” Blenker responded by assuring the crowd that his men, “although adopted citizens,” would defend “this land of the free and home of the brave.”

In early July, the German Rifles headed to the defense of Washington DC, and serenaded Lincoln himself outside the White House. General-in- Chief Winfield Scott generously called it “the best regiment we now have here.” Just two weeks later, however, the best the unit could do in the first battle of the war was help maintain some semblance of order during the Union Army’s frenzied retreat from Bull Run. Growing increasingly unpopular with his own men, Blenker ultimately lost his command.

Italian Troops
Some ten thousand Italian Americans, most from New York, joined the army, too, serving in units like the “Spinola Brigade” (named for Colonel Francis
Spinola, a Manhattan politician), and the 51st Infantry Regiment under Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, born in Spain to Italian parents. A dance instructor in civilian life, Ferrero would later command a unit of the newly formed US Colored Troops. But at the 1864 Battle of the Crater, he would stay sheltered behind the lines, imbibing liquor as his Black troops went to their slaughter. Such was his value as a symbol of immigrant recruiting that Ferrero was made a major general anyway.

Then there was the Garibaldi Guard (39th New York Infantry), named for the Italian military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, whom some admirers hoped in vain to lure here to command the entire federal army. The unit became the army’s first multi-ethnic regiment, soliciting recruits under the banner: Patrioti Italiani! Honvedek! Amis de la liberté! Deutsche Freiheits Kaempfer. This call to arms alerted “Italians, Hungarians, and French, Patriots of all nations” that the “aid of every man is required for the service of his adopted country!”

The Garibaldi Guard’s flamboyant organizer, Colonel Frederick D’Utassy, claimed to be a Hungarian nobleman exiled from his country after fighting in the revolutions there. He turned out to be a horse trader named David Strasser whose sole military experience had come from selling steeds to soldiers in the old country. Two years after forming the Garibaldi Guard, “D’Utassy” was convicted of fraud—for horse trading—and imprisoned at Sing Sing.

In the end, German Americans contributed the largest foreign-born contingent to the federal army, 216,000 soldiers. But Irish Americans proved a close second. Some 150,000 Irishmen took up arms for the Union during the Civil War. A patriotic response from the overwhelmingly Democratic Irish community could not have been predicted before the April 1861 Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. A few days later, at a Union Square rally, attorney Richard O’Gormon told a crowd of 100,000: “I am an Irishman, and I am proud of it,” but “when I assumed the rights of a citizen, I assumed, too, the duties of a citizen.” The attack on the American flag in Charleston was “more to be regretted,” O’Gormon argued, “than if the combined fleets of England had threatened to devastate our coast.”

“Stormy Cheers”
Already in existence for ten years, the largely Irish 69th Regiment of the New York State Militia marched down Broadway en route to the seat of war on April 23—barely two weeks after Sumter—accompanied by the “stormy cheers” of half a million onlookers. Leading the unit that day was 33-yearold Colonel Michael Corcoran. Just a year earlier, the native of Irish County Sligo had aroused both municipal fury and ethnic pride by refusing to assemble his men to welcome the Prince of Wales to New York, arguing that the royal family was “the oppressor of Ireland.” Corcoran’s obstinacy earned him a court martial, only to be dropped once the rebellion began. He was too important to Irish recruitment to be discarded.

A member of the Fenian Brotherhood, which supported Irish independence, Corcoran was also a politically active Democrat who served as a New York City district leader. When Irishborn New York Archbishop John Hughes wrote to urge the Republican president that “Corcoran should be appointed” to lead the Union’s first Irish regiment, Lincoln concurred. Lincoln identified Corcoran and two other sons of Erin, Thomas Francis Meagher and James Shields (a onetime Illinois political rival), as ideal Irish commanders—and managed to recruit all three.

In July, the 69th saw action at the Bull Run catastrophe. Corcoran fell into Confederate hands, leaving his second-in-command, Meagher, to take over the regiment and get them safely back to Manhattan when their ninety-day enlistment ended. There, Union defeat notwithstanding, they received a heroes’ welcome. Ethnic pride still trumped military glory. At Lincoln’s urging, Meagher worked to enlist and command additional Hibernian regiments. By the Battle of Gettysburg in1863, the Irish Brigade had achieved fame and glory.

Despite the Gettysburg triumph, the war was only half over, and the quest for foreign-born enlistees continued. Eventually, European leaders objected to the growing exodus of their productive citizens to the US, threatening a diplomatic crisis. With Secretary of State William H. Seward, a former New York governor and senator, leading the response, the administration assured London and Dublin it was not actively luring their men to fight on our shores. Yet the State Department continued to distribute literature overseas offering privately subsidized ocean passages, American jobs, and free-land opportunities to prospective immigrants.

The British were hardly fooled. In September 1864, the widely read Illustrated London News published a full-page engraving showing Union recruiters “Enlisting Irish and German Emigrants on the Battery at New York” as they emerged from Castle Garden. That onetime entertainment venue on the southern tip of Manhattan had been serving for years as the pre-Ellis Island disembarkation point for new arrivals. Now, a newspaper illustration alleged that American military recruiters waited just outside its gates to ensnare them, wooing Irishmen with drink and luring Teutonic arrivals with martial music. Complaining about these “strenuous efforts … to draw foreigners to the recruiting-offices,” the London weekly reported the area flooded with “immense placards in English and German” offering “the tempting sum of 600 dollars” to “induce … wavering men to enlist.”

Ignoring such reports, Lincoln lost neither his enthusiasm for ethnic recruiting nor his appreciation for American fighting men born overseas. Immigrants, he had long argued, enjoyed the right to claim—and the obligation to fight for—the promise of American freedom “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote” the Declaration of Independence.

Regardless of the plague of nativism that had long existed in New York and elsewhere in the North, Lincoln maintained that the Germans were “more enthusiastic for the cause of freedom than all other nationalities,” while boasting proudly that Irishmen ranked among his best fighting men. As he once tearfully declared when he spotted an emerald-green battle pennant while reviewing New York troops stationed in Virginia: “God bless the Irish flag.”

The Archives Connection

Although the records of nineteenth-century immigration to New York are largely held by the National Archives in Washington, DC, the New York State Archives houses the series of alien depositions of intent to become US citizens filed with the Department of State—including during the peak years of Irish and German immigration to New York. The State Archives also preserves many town clerks’ registers and abstracts of muster rolls of military enlistees during the Civil War, some of which show the country of origin of the soldier. The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center preserves a large collectionof artifacts and archival material related to the state’s military forces and its veterans, in addition to telling their stories through interpretive exhibitions and public programs. The Library of Congress maintains the papers of Abraham Lincoln.

For more by this author, see “The Poetry and Prose of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Summer 2001.

For more about Abraham Lincoln, see the Winter 2009 special issue,
“Lincoln and New York,” guest edited by this author.