Finding Oral History in Print is Validating

I feel like I owe my ancestors an apology, for having the doubts I once had about the history they passed down to me.

My great-great-grandfather Harry served as a soldier in the U.S. Civil War in the Union Army. He was in his late twenties when the war began. I don’t know when he immigrated to the United States, but I know that he was born in Cologne, which at the time of his birth was part of Prussia (now it’s part of Germany). A generation before him, Cologne had been part of France, and Harry’s mother had French ancestry. The oral history I heard is that he left Cologne/Prussia because he was opposed to the political direction that Prussia was going towards. He immigrated to the United States, which he perceived to be much more democratic. What I heard is that German immigrants were so devoted to the Union cause in the Civil War because, after having their political ambitions frustrated in Europe, they valued American democracy. And to them, plantation owners and the institution of slavery represented what they were trying to get away from in Europe. To hear the way it’s been described in my family, German-Americans were responsible for keeping many areas under Union control which otherwise would have become part of the Confederacy, heck, the Union might not have even won the Civil War without the German-Americans.

I’ve never exactly disbelieved this oral history, but…I’ve also questioned it. I could think of ways this could have been distorted through the generations. None of this was every covered in my American history classes in school. I remember learning a little bit about ‘the old immigration’ (i.e. Irish and German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century) but not how that related to the Civil War. I’ve occasionally encountered references to Irish-Americans in the New York Draft Riots (content warning: anti-black racial violence), but the only reference I can recall finding in print to German-Americans in the Civil War was a brief mention in a Civil War memoir.

That is, until now.

Recently, I’ve read some of the letters which Camille Ferri-Pisani (I’m linking to French Wikipedia because there is no article about him in English Wikipedia) wrote during his visit to the United States and the Confederacy as part of a French diplomatic delegation in 1861. When he visited St. Louis, he found that almost all of the Union’s “Army of the West” were immigrants from Europe. “The numerous staff of General Frémont includes only one American [born in the United States].” For a more extended quote from the letter (translated into English by Georges J. Joyaux):

We often heard the Yankees systematically dismissed-this proud American Nation whose guests we are-in terms so insulting that I do not want to repeat them. Their insults were so much the worse as they came from men walking under the American flag and supposedly defending American Institutions.

If one were to judge the United States by the talk heard around Saint Louis headquarters, one would easily believe that the heirs of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Jackson have become a people of selfish and cowardly nouveaux riches, whose only social mission is to pay the brave children of the German fatherland to defend them, their institutions-of which they are unworthy-and the great principles of freedom.

Still, on the whole, I am convinced that there are excellent military qualities in all those German officers. Without them and without the energetic appeal to the German population, the whole of Missouri would have been lost for the Union after the defeat of Springfield.

There it is. Camille Ferri-Pisani says that my family’s oral history is right, that the whole state of Missouri would have joined the Confederacy if it weren’t for German-Americans. I also recognize the ring of contempt. Frankly, I think my German-American ancestors had reason to feel contempt. Did Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, or Jackson abolish slavery? No, they did not.

Most citizens in Missouri who were not of German origin favored secession. And keeping Missouri in the United States required violence. According to Ferri-Pisani, there were local militias in Missouri who were trying to at least remove the Union government (if not outright join the Confederacy) and the Union army had to fight them in guerrilla warfare. It was different from the battles that the Union army fought against the formally organized Confederate army, which is why there weren’t any famous Civil War battles in Missouri.

And there’s more, in the section where Ferri-Pisani explains why German-Americans volunteered for the Union Army more than any other demographic group. First, he says that being a Union soldier is the highest-paying job many German immigrants can get. Second, he refers to the German culture of professional mercenaries. And then-

Finally, must I say it? Most Germans who come to America nowadays bring along a kind of hatred for the political regime of their fatherland, a democratic sentiment less pure from the traces of envy than that of the older Americans … In Missouri, the man who represents best, in German eyes, aristocracy and fortune – the objects of his dislike – is the slave owner. This explains the instinct which leads these people, as a whole, to enlist under the flag of abolitionism, and now under the flag of the Union.

This basically sounds like what I heard about great-great-grandfather Harry as a kid. I don’t know where he served in the Union army, but it’s possible that he was in the Army of the West in Missouri under the command of General Frémont.

I have my speculations about why this history does not reach any of the textbooks I used in school (if you went to school in the United States, did you learn any of this in school?) but I’ll keep them to myself for now. If you’ve been to school in Germany, I hope you will tell me in the comments whether this history is taught in schools there.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing my family’s oral history confirmed in print – in a primary source no less. Then again, it has not been that many generations. I (barely) met my grandfather, and when he was a young child he knew Harry.

And it’s clear in Ferri-Pisani’s letters that so much more was going on in St. Louis. I knew about Frémont before because of his role in California history (there is a city in the San Francisco Bay Area named after him) but I didn’t know much about what he did in the Civil War. But what he did is really interesting. More from Camille Ferri-Pisani:

Soon after his arrival, Frémont acted as a pro-consul; by enforcing martial law he concentrated power in his hands…He has arrogated to himself the right to expel or arrest citizens, to suppress newspapers – although he does not seem to exercise these powers to the limit – thus frightening the population. More than 40,000 people have left Saint Louis…A few days before our arrival in Saint Louis, he issued a proclamation ordering, within the whole area under his command, the confiscation of property and immediate freedom of all slaves belonging to citizens who declared themselves against the Union. You notice the very important shade of meaning. What is serious, is not the confiscation of people’s properties, although for us administrative and military confiscation is a monstrosity; the capital point is the distinction established, in the General’s decree, between property represented by a slave, and the property represented by a house or a plantation.

That the slave be confiscated is so much the better! Thus he will be sold for the benefit of the Public Treasury, just as the house and the plantation will be auctioneered! But to free him is an innovation whose importance escapes no one. This is to recognize that the abolition of slavery is the principal aim of the war, and to create between North and South an abyss that even piles of corpses will not fill.

General Frémont’s proclamation burst over Washington like thunder…Every day, New York newspapers declare that General Frémont is disavowed and that he has been called to Washington to account for his conduct. So far, no such thing has been done! The Cabinet, in Washington, is quite embarrassed; they play dead and pretend not to have heard of his proclamation…[Shortly after Colonel Ferri Pisani wrote these lines, President Lincoln annulled Frémont’s proclamation of emancipation. A few weeks later, Frémont was removed from command.]

To sum that up, General Frémont was imposing martial law in Missouri, denying freedom of the press, reserving the right to arrest anyone, seizing property, and made his own emancipation proclamation against the wishes of Lincoln’s administration, which led to him being removed from command.

This seems like such a great setting for a work of fiction that I tried to find novels set in Civil War Missouri. The only one I found was The Crisis which was a bestseller in 1901.

I knew, from my family oral history, that immigration from the German states had a filtering effect. The Germans who were most opposed to the political direction of Prussia and the other German-speaking states were the most likely to emigrate, and the ones who stayed tended to favor or at least not strongly object to the political regime. What if the Revolutions of 1848 had turned out differently? If the dissenters had stayed in Prussia and the other German-speaking states, German history might have gone in a different direction.

But there is one bit which I did NOT get from my family’s oral history which comes through in Ferri-Pisani’s letters: “The German element played an important role in the electoral success of Mr. Lincoln, and now is at the basis of the extreme popularity and political future of General Frémont.” In other words, Ferri-Pisani says that Abraham Lincoln needed the German immigrant vote to win the election. Does that mean that, if all of those Germans had stayed in Europe, Abraham Lincoln would have lost the election?

In the 19th century, German immigrants were eligible for citizenship and voting rights after living in the United States for five years, and the requirements were much simpler and easier than for anyone trying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen today. I am not sure when my great-great-grandfather Harry immigrated and I don’t know whether he was a U.S. citizen at the time of the 1860 presidential election, but if he voted, I’m pretty sure he voted for Lincoln.

I’ve heard before that oral history is important, oral history can be more accurate than written history, and that oral history sometimes preserves knowledge that is not captured in print. But it’s one thing to hear that, and another thing to experience the effect of finding evidence that, yes, the oral history your heard is true.

So what about you all? What do you know about your great-great-grandparents’ experiences with major historical events? What kind of oral history have you picked up that is not in the standard history textbooks?

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