Role of Immigrants in the American Civil War

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Role of Immigrants in the American Civil War


For minorities, as for other Americans, the Civil War was an
opportunity to prove their valor and loyalty. Among the first mustered
into the Union Army were a De Kalb regiment of German American clerks, the
Garibakdi Guards made up of Italian Americans, a "Polish Legion," and
hundreds of Irish American youths form Boston and New York. But in Ohio
and Washington, D.C., African American volunteers were turned away from
recruiting stations and told, "This is a white man's war." Some citizens
questioned the loyalty of immigrants who lived in crowded city tenements
until an Italian American from Brooklyn turned that around. In the New
York Senate, Democrat Francis Spinola had been a vigorous foe of
Republican policies and Lincoln. But now he swore his loyalty with
stirring words, "This is my flag, which I will follow and defend." This
speech gave great assurance that the masses in the great cities were
devoted to the Union and ready to enlist for its defense.

More than 400,000 European immigrants fought for the Union,
including more than 170,00 Germans and more than 150,00 Irish. Many saw
their services as a proud sacrifice. The first officer to die for the
Union was Captain Constatin Blandowski, one of many immigrants who earlier
had fought for freedom in Europe and then joined Lincoln's army. Born in
Upper Silesia and trained at Dresden, Germany, he was a veteran of
democratic struggles - a Polish revolt at Krakow, the Polish Legion's
battles against Austria, and the Hungarian fight for independence. Some
nationalities contributed more than their share of Union soldiers.

Some immigrants earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Italian
American officer Louis di Cesnola, was the Colonel of the 4th Cavalry
Regiment. At Aldie, Virginia, in 1863, he earned the Medal of Honor and
was appointed a general. He charged unarmed at the foe, read his citation,
"rallied his men ...until desperately wounded and taken prisoner in
action." In 1879 Cesnola became director of New York's Metropolitan
Museum of Art. The museum then became, wrote a critic, "a monument to his
energy, enterprise, and rare executive skill."

Italian American privates also won the Medal of Honor. Joseph
Sova of the 8th Cavalry earned it for capturing the Confederate flag at
Appomattox. Private Orlando Caruana of the 51st Infantry won it at

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Newburn, North Carolina. With bullets whizzing past him, he saved wounded
men and rescued the U.S. flag.

As 1865 came on, the feel of victory was in the Northern air. And
so the Civil War was over. Yet even the ending of the war did not bring
real peace. On Good Friday, April 14, 11 days after Union troops had
entered Richmond, an actor named John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln as
the President watched a play from his box in Ford's Theater, Washington,
D.C. The one man who might have brought about a just peace was dead.

The Civil War had solved some old problems for the United States,
but it created some new problems as well. However, many of the problems
created by the Civil War have been solved. Towns have been rebuilt, new
industries flourish, and new schools have been erected. Most of the
damage of war has been long repaired. North and South both enjoy
prosperity. But many of the human problems still remain.


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