Author Interview-- Zachary Stuart Garrison (German Americans on the Middle Border) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature the second part of our interview with 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.

Part 1

I was glad you included a distinction between Dreissiger and Forty-Eighter (especially reminding people of the former); however, political migrants were a small group compared to the vast number of economic refugees, how much is any study of German political leaders focused on just a small elite group, skewing our view of German immigrants in general? Also, how do you tackle the vastness of German-ness (i.e. Prussians, Bavarians, Hanoverians, Hessians, ec.) and political ideology (liberal, democratic, republican, socialist, communists, ec.)?

ZSG: First, I would say that my book is largely a political history, so there is an emphasis on the more politically active and visible elements of the German community. As a result, the Dreissiger and the Forty-Eighter elite do receive quite a bit of attention. However, I do make an argument in the book that I think it is a mistake to assume that German immigrants who were not explicitly political, who did not edit newspapers or lead torch-light marches, must have therefore not been political in general. Undoubtedly, most Germans focused on their own economic concerns and paid more attention to the daily tedium of life in the mid-19th century, but you could say that about any group of Americans. What’s unique, I believe, is that the Germans, as recently arrived immigrants, did have this cadre of politically active leaders who engaged with secession and war on a significant level. As I argued, someone was buying those newspapers, someone was attending those speeches and marches, and so I don’t think the political elite could have wielded as much influenced as they did on the Middle Border if their views were not supported by the broad swath of the German community.
This brings me to your next question. One of my issues with engaging with the historiography was that it felt like you could never make general claims about the German community without feeling the need to point out how such a claim did not apply to all Germans, because the German community in America was so diverse. If I had set out to write a definitive history of German immigration to America, then that becomes a major obligation, just to capture the culturally rich and distinct waves and chains of migration. But what I really wanted to do was to insert the Germans into the narrative of the American Civil War, and in that context, as with other immigrant groups, you have to be able to make argument about the broader community, or else you get lost in the minutiae. For example, when I talked about German liberalism, I know there are twenty different rabbit holes I could go down and still not adequately describe the full complexity. What I tried to do instead was acknowledge the existing spectrum but focus on how German liberalism as a broad concept impacted the Middle Border at a moment of crisis.
Similarly, one big challenge was the fascination with the election of 1860, and whether Germans supported Lincoln or if it was all self-constructed myth. But as I tried to argue, the bigger question is whether Germans supported free soil and free labor, not if they voted Democrat or Republican; it’s whether they fought for liberal nationalism over slavery and secession at the very moment the nation faced its greatest peril.
After the war, the Germans no longer have liberal nationalism to unite them – the Union was saved, slavery was dead, and so you do see the socialists become a more distinct group that breaks away, and you do have far more assimilation, which is an interesting story.

I fully agree that the diversity among these immigrant groups makes generalization extremely difficult. Now, you mention that your goal was to "insert the Germans into the narrative of the American Civil War." How do you see Germans change the narrative of the Civil War? And, do you see other immigrant groups that also left an impact but have so far been overlooked in the narrative?

ZSG: It’s not so much that they change the narrative of the Civil War, but that they’ve largely been left out or kept on the periphery. I kept seeing this antagonistic interplay between Germans and their neighbors in communities all along the Middle Border, and it seemed like most histories discounted the impact of this clash, or Germans were treated as an aside – ‘and then there were the Germans,’ as if they didn’t really fit in well. But I think if you want to understand why free soil and free labor gained a foothold in the west, why Republicans found support in key border cities, why Missouri turned so violent during the war, and so on, Germans have to be folded in, and by doing so it enriches the story.
I think it’s interesting that the Irish have always had an almost mythic place in the Civil War, while Germans were almost written out entirely. The impact of WWI and II that engendered an anti-German hysteria probably has a lot to do with this and I know some studies have explained how it played out. I’m not sure what other immigrant groups come close to the Germans and the Irish in terms of numbers.  

Let me change gear a little: you are teaching high school; how do you integrate your work into the classroom? What methods or assignments do you employ?

ZSG: The classes I teach are either Advanced Placement or dual credit, so in both cases meant to be college classes. So, much like a freshman introductory survey, we use pretty board narratives. This means that my own work really only ever appears when I take some of the source material, a quote or short document, and weave it into a class discussion. Much of the class is paring primary sources, or document based questions, with the over-arching narrative we read about throughout the class. Technology makes it very easy to access a wide range of voices, so throughout the year we try to inspect events from as many perspectives as possible. When I do (briefly) discuss the Germans, it's in the context of immigration, nativism, and competing visions for what America should look like, which tie in fairly well with modern day points of interest that my students are familiar with. 

To close, how do you hope your book will impact Civil War history, both scholarship and teaching? How do you envision the narrative of the Civil War to change as a result of your book?

ZSG: I think my book contributes to the notion of a distinct war along the Ohio and Mississippi valleys by pointing out further complexity in an already complex region. The brother vs brother, family vs family aspect of civil war is most clearly seen along this borderland, and Germans found themselves right in the mix of it all, despite being largely written out of the history books. I hope I made a strong case for German liberal nationalism influencing free soil and free labor and buttressing unionism in the West. I also wanted to make the point that Germans were overwhelmingly moderate, but were swept up in the tide of change and embraced radical positions in support of a greater cause when the stakes rose higher and higher. That they ultimately pulled back and accepted moderate and even conservative positions, essentially leaving a revolution half realized, is a lesson that seems instructive.

I wanted to avoid writing, or attempting a definitive history of German Americans, for all the reasons we discussed previously, and so while I know some scholars who care deeply about German American historiography will probably be unimpressed, I hope Civil War scholars will be able to take my work and incorporate it into the larger narrative.