Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we feature Zachary Stuart Garrison to talk about his new book German Americans on the Middle Border: From Antislavery to Reconciliation, 1830–1877, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
Zachary Garrison teaches history at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and he is currently working on a dual Masters-level degree in education and business at St. Louis University.
Zach, could you tell our readers a little about how you came to write a book about German Americans and what your argument in German Americans on the Middle Border is?
ZSG: I grew up in southeast Missouri, and in that region, you can find strong remnants of both German and southern culture, almost as if they’d been smashed together awkwardly at some point. In fact, one side of my family is tied to the Germans, and the other solidly southern. When I first seriously started studying Missouri’s guerrilla war experience during the American Civil War, I kept running into episodes where these seemingly out-of-place Germans stood in direct opposition to the state’s rebellious elements, and I became more and more curious the deeper I dug. Really, I was originally interested in southern sympathizing families in the bootheel (the geographically unique southeast corner of the state), where cotton and slaves were found in numbers similar to “Little Dixie,” or central Missouri. These people complained quite a bit about the federal government, Lincoln, Yankees, and the like, but they seemed to focus their ire on Germans who settled in neighboring counties. Once I realized that southeast Missouri was not the only place where these animosities developed, I decided to expand my study. And again, it was never meant to be solely about Germans, but rather their relationship with the “Middle Border,” as I call it.
As for my argument -- First off, the setting, the time and place, is crucial: German Americans settled along the Middle Border, a region divided not only by powerful rivers, but also by the sectional politics over slavery and secession that threatened to rip the country in two. Because of their experience with two failed nationalist revolutions among the fractured German states and the political and economic fallout that resulted, transplanted Germans experienced this American schism through the lens of European liberal nationalism, or a focus on individual freedom, cultivation and education, and a suspicion of aristocracy. Broadly, Germans, whether the high-browed political refugees known as the Forty-Eighters, or the craft workers who sought economic opportunity, saw southern slave owners as a specter of European feudalism, an autocratic nobility that sought to destroy American democracy in order to protect their property. As a result, they almost naturally were drawn to free soil and free labor policies and slowly began to embrace anti-slavery as an extension of liberal nationalism. Because they often articulated this position in communities where their numbers were concentrated along a fragile border, Germans were labeled as radicals and abolitionists, a foreign horde determined to destroy the delicate balance. And when secession finally broke out, Germans did in fact carry the banner for Union and nationalism. But it was only when the war took on emancipation as its cause that the Germans fully radicalized. Because of this, by the war’s end they found themselves in the tenuous position of representing post-war radicalism in a region that wholly rejected any form of racial egalitarianism and sought to forget emancipation in general. Ultimately, Germans retreated by claiming the nation, the Union, was preserved, all enmity should fade, and reconciliation should commence. But by doing so, they largely disappear from the story.
You are embracing two interesting methodologies here that I want to address a little more. You classify the region as the Middle Border, which you also have with Christopher Phillips' award-winning book or Matt Stanley's work on memory. Why do you think of this region as a Middle Border and how does your study of German's enhance or complicate the region's history? You also look at pre- and post-war, why did you feel it was important to showcase this change over time?
ZSG: My rendering of the Middle Border is a product of my time in the graduate program at the University of Cincinnati, and the work I did with Matt Stanley, who was two years ahead of me in the doctoral program, and Chris Phillips, who was advisor. Not only did we share interests professionally, but we developed a close friendship, which meant we had many conversations about the region and its significance to the Civil War era. Labeling the region as a border is crucial, because it conjures up a sense of stark divisions and physical separation, which is what happens at the end of the story. Now, before the war, the region was united, with strong economic, cultural, and familial ties crisscrossing over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Of course, some of these states were slave and their immediate neighbors were free, but this was an accepted condition that went largely ignored and rarely commented on. But as sectional politics sharpened, the fragility of those ties was revealed, and the bonds started to break. Stephen Aron describes the meeting of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio river valleys as the American Confluence, this place where northern and southern, free and slave, crashed together. It’s a place of competing visions for the western frontier, whether slave labor or free. The Missouri Compromise was a band-aid placed upon a gaping wound, it buried some of those tensions, but they remained just below the surface. So, when the secession crisis erupted, the region became a borderland, separating North and South. In my mind, the concept of a middle border implies a people caught in between, and so the concept stuck.
The Germans are an anomaly on the Middle Border. Most obviously they spoke a different language, but they also offered these subtle critiques of America’s slavery problem. They sort of scoffed at slavery and slave masters, treating the institution as a disease that should be isolated. But at this time, roughly the 1830s-1850s, to even acknowledge slavery as problematic was to invite discord—it was the kind of radical talk one might hear from New England abolitionists. But as national debates heated up during the 1850s, German critiques grew louder—they couldn’t help but point out the contradiction of a free country dependent on human chattel. The Germans didn’t pound their fists and demand immediate abolition, but they crossed their arms and shook their heads at the notion of southern slave owners, a veritable aristocracy, threatening to destroy the nation. And because of this demeanor, Germans became a little dangerous to a region desperately trying to maintain the balance.
The reason I follow the story into the post-war years is to demonstrate that ultimately, most Germans (not all! I always feel the need to qualify) were unwilling to remain the foreigners, the outsiders in a region badly scarred and sensitive to forced reconstruction. It was much easier to call for reconciliation and reunion than to demand racial equality or support the Radical Republican agenda, which was truly loathed in the West. The Germans never really fought for African Americans, they fought for an ideal: a democratic liberal nation, and after the war they could claim victory and return to the fold.