Graduate Student Interviews - John Sarvela (Oklahoma State University) and German American regiments in the Civil War

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Hello H-CivWar subscribers, 

Welcome back to another installment of the Graduate Student Interviews. Tonight, we welcome John Sarvela, a second year PhD student at Oklahoma State University studying under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Murray. His research interests center on nineteenth century German immigration to the United States and their contributions to the Union Army in the western theater of the Civil War. You can contact John at <>.

Hello, John! Welcome. 

Thanks for you sharing your thesis, "Saldaten des Westens: An Analysis of the Wartime Experiences of Three German-American Regiments from the St. Louis-Belleville Region," with me. Let’s chat about that project!
What inspired you to research these three German regiments? 

John Sarvela: I chose to study these three regiments for several reasons. Due to the short time provided to finish a Master’s thesis, I simply did not have the means to conduct a study on a grand scale. With this in mind, I chose to focus on a tighter geographic region, the St. Louis-Belleville region, as opposed to a more expansive area such as the Midwest. This particular region, which encompasses the Missouri and Illinois counties surrounding St. Louis, offered a small area with a large German-American population that fielded several German units for Union service. The majority of studies on German-American soldiers during the war concentrate their analyses on eastern-serving German units, such as the XI Corps Army of the Potomac. I chose these three regiments, the 12th Missouri, 43rd Illinois, and the 30th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiments, because each unit served in the underrepresented western theater. Paramount to my decision to utilize these units for this work was the remarkable amount of primary documents available on each regiment, from private letters and journals to sizable regimental files. In addition, I chose the 12th Missouri and 43rd Illinois because both regiments consisted of at least 85 percent German-Americans, where the 30th Illinois had a foreign-born population of around 20 percent. My inclusion of the 30th Illinois, but I wanted to examine how Germans were treated and viewed outside of their regiments and inside regiments where they represented the minority. 

As the war raged on, what sort of experiences did German-born soldiers face in the ranks of the U.S. Army? 

JS: I identified two main periods of German-American service in the Union Army in relation to anti-German nativism. The first was that German-American soldiers were slow to trust their native-born comrades in arms, and for good reason. Prior to the war, the region experienced excessive nativism as the Know-Nothing Party swept elections in St. Louis. Even as the Know-Nothing Party receded in the latter half of the 1850s, their nativist tendencies remained into the first year of the war. Many German-Americans experienced direct or perceived anti-German pressures within three-month regiments, and their distrust of native-born officers and enlisted men accompanied them into predominantly German three-year regiments. However, this distrust began to fade as the second period took root in late 1861 and early 1862. After the Germans of these regiments proved themselves in battle (the 30th Illinois at Belmont, the 12th Missouri at Pea Ridge, and the 43rd Illinois at Shiloh) ethnic tensions began to fade, as each regiment received praise from native-born commanders and soldiers for their actions in combat. Such approval reversed most anti-German sentiment in the ranks, and ethnic relations remained favorable until the war’s end.    

How did this differ between theaters? 

JS: During the first two years of combat, German-American soldiers in the eastern and western theaters experienced remarkably similar degrees of nativism. In 1862, anti-German nativism began to fade in the east. However, as Christian Keller argues in Chancellorsville and the Germans, nativism returned to pre-war levels after the German XI Corps Army of the Potomac retreated during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Keller identifies the resurgence of anti-German nativism in the east to the scapegoating of the XI Corps by Union generals and government officials. In contrast to the eastern theater, western-serving Germans were dispersed throughout the western armies, and no unit above the brigade level consisted of predominantly German-American soldiers. More important than German-American dispersal within the Army of the Tennessee was their success within the army. The Army of the Tennessee experienced less failure than the Army of the Potomac; therefore, no groups faced blame for total military defeat, such as the XI Corps at Chancellorsville.     

Why did German men choose to fight in the Union Army in general? 

JS: This is a difficult question to answer, as each soldier held his own reasons for serving. However, there were several overarching views shared by many German-American’s within the region that shed light on why they were so strongly pro-Union. The first relates to German-American hatred for slavery. For many, slavery represented a true evil, one that closely resembled the institution of serfdom, which was outlawed in the German states as late as 1815. Other Germans in the region based their aversion to slavery on free soil as opposed to moral reasons. Additionally, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act incensed the region’s Germans, as it nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Germans in the St. Louis-Belleville region were staunch opponents of slavery, as it was present in their daily lives, which explains why it was so central to their decision to support the Union. Finally, the region’s Germans saw the war as a way to defend their adopted country, and demonstrate their worth as citizens. As mentioned earlier, this region’s Germans were especially tormented by Know-Nothing nativism, after the fledgling party won the St. Louis mayoral elections 1855. As a result, the new mayor enacted several laws aimed at disrupting German culture within the city. Upon entering Union service, many German-American enlistees recorded their desire to prove their value to native-born citizens.         

What is your central argument to your thesis?

JS: The goal of my thesis was to answer several questions relating to western German-American service in the war. “What drove western Germans into the Union Army? Did they define themselves as German soldiers, American soldiers, or both? Was the nativism experienced by these soldiers similar or worse when compared to Germans serving in the East? Did serving in a non-ethnic unit like the 30th Illinois reduce or amplify nativist sentiment? Finally, did the war increase the rate at which German-Americans adapted to native-born American society?”
I argue that German-Americans from the St. Louis-Belleville region joined the Union Army for various reasons, but the most often cited motivation was to suppress the rebellion that threatened the stability of their adopted nation. For many, ending slavery represented a commonly cited motivation. In some cases, anti-German nativism pushed Germans into the army as a way to demonstrate their devotion to the U.S.

Additionally, “for many of the German-American volunteers in these three western regiments, there was pride in being a German soldier fighting for their adopted homeland, and allegiances to the regiment, state, and country were omnipresent.” As the war continued into 1862-63, nativism began to fade within the Army of the Tennessee, as success on the battlefield reduced ethnic strain. “Nativism surly continued within the Army of the Tennessee, but evidence from these three regiments points towards its diminishing in strength. In the case of the 30th Illinois, a sense of ethnic differences were present in soldiers’ letters, but the regiment suffered few internal issues due to ethnicity.” This demonstrates that for Germans serving in non-ethnic units, nativism weakened early in the war.

I further argue “that greater St. Louis area German-American soldiers serving in the highly successful Army of the Tennessee more effectively associated and fraternized with native-born Americans in their Army because the negative images of Germans that existed in the Army of the Potomac were absent in the western theater of operations. No corps existed within the Army of the Tennessee that was viewed as uniquely “German,” or both Dutch and weak, cowardly, or undependable – all criticisms faced by the Union XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On the contrary, native-born soldiers saw the German-American volunteers in the 30th and 43rd Illinois and 12th Missouri as worthy comrades in the hard-fighting Army of the Tennessee. Together, native- and foreign-born men fought to save the Union and abolish slavery.” In light of the smooth ethnic relations within the Army of the Tennessee, and the service of German-American soldiers within the Army, the region’s Germans were more likely to associate with native-born Americans outside of their own communities. This led Germans to adopt American social and political customs, as evidenced by the surge of Germans running for and winning political office within the region. 

All sections in quotes are found in my thesis.      

Was there any correspondence between soldiers in the Civil War with the German homeland? How did Germany react to Germans fighting in the Civil War?

JS: Yes, many German-American soldiers wrote to their families and friends in Germany about their service in the war and regarding the state of the nation at war. I do not discuss this in my work and have not had the opportunity to delve into this question, but the edited collection Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich offers a glimpse into the scale of correspondence sent to Germany by soldiers, and the thoughts of those living within the German states regarding the war. 

Do you plan on expanding the study of the regiments?   

JS: For my dissertation, I plan to broaden the scope of my study by including an examination of regiments and soldiers from the broader Midwest. This will provide a more comprehensive examination of Midwestern German-American contributions and experiences in the Western armies.          

Thanks for participate in the interview, John. Best of luck with your future research and dissertation project! Stay tuned for more interviews on H-CivWar. If you’re a graduate student, contact John Legg ( to be interviewed.