I felt an odd sense of relief and satisfaction to learn that my German Missouri ancestors were on the Union side of the Civil War. While recovering from my latest gardening exploits, I was watching episodes of the Ken Burns documentary “The West.” I was surprised by the series’ level of truth-telling in stories about colonization, about racism, about the violence endemic to the history of the United States. It has been quite an eye-opener about the “settlement” of the West, and I recommend it to all students of decolonization.
In the episode about the lead-up to the Civil War, I learned that Missouri and Kansas were the site of the heaviest civilian conflict and bloodshed before and during the war. Earlier, in 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in conjunction with Maine being admitted as a free state, in the compromise to keep a balance between the free and slave states. When the Kansas territory was “opened for settlement” in the 1850s it was decided to let the residents vote on whether they would be a slave state or free state.
[“Opened for settlement,” of course, meant the removal and theft of the land from the Arapaho, Comanche, Osage, Kansa, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, plus a dozen more eastern tribes who had been relocated to Kansas/Oklahoma in what was to be their land forever. But moving on for now to the slavery question…]
This new Kansas territory turned into a tinderbox of the national tensions between slavery vs. freedom for African-Americans–white Abolitionists from New England, and white pro-slavery Missourians (with their enslaved people with them) were among those who rushed to live in Kansas to influence the direction it would go. Eventually, after much bloodshed, burning, looting, and turmoil, Kansas joined the Union in 1861 as a free state.
But my own curiosity shifted from Kansas over to what happened in Missouri, where my Heisler/Gerling ancestors had settled in the 1850s. I had thought they were on the side of the Union, so what were they doing in a slave state? Ken Burns didn’t tell their story, but I went hunting on the internet to sort it out. There I found the rather satisfying news that the German emigrants in Missouri were in fact opposed to slavery, and avid supporters of the Union. They had emigrated after a failed revolution for democracy in 1848 in the German lands, and held dear the ideals of freedom and equality. According to Patrick Young, in an article that was part of a series, The Immigrants’ Civil War,
[German Americans] saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”
Their influence was part of what kept Missouri in the Union. According to another article by Patrick Young,
Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.
German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, [Note–that would include my ancestors] where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.
When I look at the lists of Union and Confederate soldiers from Missouri, none of my direct ancestors are included, though there were two Heisler men listed as Union soldiers. It’s possible that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler, was too old to enlist–he would have been 40 years old in 1860, with young children. My great grandfather, Thomas Heisler was born in 1857–only a toddler when the war began. Maybe they just tried to farm their land, and keep the peace with their neighbors. One family story says the four Heisler brothers had left Germany to avoid being drafted into the military there. [Note: see addendum about another brother’s service in the Union Army.]
But it sounds like the war came to everyone’s land. From the same article:
Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.
Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover [by the Missouri Confederates] of the [St. Louis] arsenal and fired into the mob:
“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9
German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.
The Germans refused to leave.
So, in the midst of so much that is soul crushing about the history of this country, that’s a satisfying story to learn! There were many other stories about the Germans in Missouri of that time–too numerous to include, but check out the series, The Immigrants’ Civil War. I am inspired in my own work against racism to know they were carrying those values of equality and freedom from their homeland.
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