Foreign Soldiers in the American Civil War

by Andy Waskie

The decades preceding the outbreak of the American Civil War witnessed an unprecedented influx of immigrants who sought security and opportunity in America. The overwhelming majority of these foreign born settled in the North and were especially attracted to urban areas or communities where their compatriots were already established. From 1820 to 1860 approximately four million people immigrated to the fledgling United States. The majority of these came from:

The German States (c. 500,000) particularly after the social and political upheaval of the 1848 revolution;

Ireland (c. 1,000,000) most as a result of economic hardships brought on by the infamous "Potato Famine";

England (c. 300,000) many of whom came from the depressed areas of Scotland and Wales.

Although newly arrived, these hearty souls adapted quickly. Most took out American citizenship, sent their children to school and in the case of the Germans, made attempts to learn English. Politically, most were loyal to the Union, with many supporting the Republican party. The Irish were an exception to this, however, as they became ardent Democrats, forming the backbone of the machine politics of the great cities of the East. Upon the outbreak of hostilities of 1861, these ethnic groups responded to Lincoln's call for troops in stirring fashion. Often, men from the same background and origin banded together to form regiments from the states where they had settled. Others joined local units and served with their native born neighbors. The overwhelming majority of these foreign born immigrants served loyally and well in the Union armies. It was an absolute falsehood, however, that the majority of all Federal troops were foreign born, as was an oft repeated assertion of the Southern and British press of the time. Based on enlistment rolls and other official reports and stated in round figures, out of approximately 2,000,000 Union soldiers enlisted during the war over two-thirds (2/3) were native born Americans. Thus, only under one-third (1/3) of all troops were non-natives distributed approximately as follows:

German c. 200,000

Irish c. 150,000

British c. 150,000

Canadians c. 50,000

others c. 75,000 (mostly European)

Comparing the percentage of native and immigrant troops to the total population of the North (c. 21,000,000) reveals that the per capita percentage total enlistments from both groups is approximately equal. Thus, we can assert that the foreign troops did their fair share of service in their adopted land for the cause of Union. Overall comparison of the ethnic makeup of the regiments in Federal service shows that:

- in 75% of these units the majority was of native American birth;

- in 7% the majority were German;

- in 6% the majority were Irish;

- in a further 6% the proportion of native to non-native born was equal

- in the the remaining 6% we find a mixture of troops of diverse origin, including Colored troops.

The contribution of the foreign born immigrant troops to the cause of the Union was decisive in securing victory over the Confederacy. The loyalty and patriotism of these new Americans, with a few exceptions, never flagged. Their efforts helped insure a united country and a secure future for the nation.

Since most foreign born troops were scattered throughout the volunteer state regiments, it is difficult to single out any "American" regiments for the outstanding individual contributions of its foreign born elements. One need only scan the muster rolls of the average Union regiment to recognize the significant roll of the foreign born whose names appear there.

As a typical case of an immigrant who served most admirably in a non ethnic regiment, I can state the record of Michael Dougherty, buried in St. Mark's Cemetery in Bristol, Pennsylvania who enlisted in a company of cavalry composed of mostly Irish immigrants from the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, which was mustered into the 13th Pennsylvania cavalry regiment. The majority of this regiment were native born. For valor in action in Virginia in 1864, Dougherty received the Medal of Honor.

It is easier, however, to chronicle the service and record of regiments wholly or mostly composed of a particular foreign origin, in order to illustrate the role of these troops in the Civil War. The listing which follows attempts to name some of the more famous of the foreign units.

German speaking elements

Immigration from the German speaking areas of Europe, including the as yet un-united German states, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine, etc. was particularly heavy prior to the Civil War, mainly because of economic and political troubles which culminated in the revolution of 1848. These new settlers had not had enough opportunity to become assimilated and retained their language and customs despite their intense loyalty and feelings for their new homeland.

The Germans, or "Dutch" as they were derisively called (Deutsche is the German word for "German," hence the confusion with the name for Hollanders) were resented by their native born neighbors, as are all new immigrant at the 1st Battle of Bull Run.

McClellan granted Blenker permission to form a division of German regiments from the Army of the Potomac.

Blenker's German Division

1st Brigade: (Stahel) 8th, 39th, 45th N.Y., 27th Penn. 2nd Brigade: (Steinwehr) 29th, 54th, 68th N.Y., 73rd Penn. 3rd Brigade: (Bohlen) 41st, 58th N.Y., 74th, 75th Penn., 4th N.Y. Cavalry with Schirmer's, Wiedrich's, Sturmfels' Artillery batteries.

The division was assigned to Fremont's corps in the Mountain department and the Shenandoah Valley. Command passed to Carl Schurtz. The division under Schurz was incorporated into Franz Sigel's corps of Pope's Army of Virginia. In September of 1862, shortly before Antietam, the army corps was reorganized and the German division now mixed with American regiments became the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, initially under Sigel, then entrusted to Oliver O. Howard just before the battle of Chancellorsville. Transferred to the Western army, the corps merged with the XII Corps to form the XX Corps in April 1864. The XX Corps served under Sherman in the West until the end of the war. By the time of the consolidation the German character of any unit larger than a regiment had been lost through field losses, muster out, conscripts and an admixture of Americans.

One unique regiment forming an original part of the Blenker division is noteworthy. The "Garibaldi Guards" (the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry) was composed mainly of Italians and Germans, but with a unique admixture of men included real Zouaves from Algiers, foreign legionnaires, Cossacks, Indian Sepoys, Turks, Slavs, Swiss, Spaniards and Austrians. Its commander, Colonel D'Utassy, was a Hungarian who had been a circus trick rider. He proved to be a rogue, however, later spending time in prison. The unit was uniformed in the distinctive green and plumes of the Italian Bersaglieri -- light Infantry.

The Irish

Arriving in America mainly to escape social and economic deprivations in their homeland, the Irish flocked to our shores in the two decades preceding the Civil War. Settling for the most part in the urban centers of the North, they formed a most powerful minority. The Irish were to be found mostly in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and the urban areas of other Northern states. Although they spoke English, they were often the object of scorn and hatred from the native born population due to religious, cultural and class differences. In addition, the native born Americans feared they would form a cheap labor source and take away jobs.

The Irish were mostly loyal to the Democratic party, but many enthusiastically answered Lincoln's call for troops to defend the Union only, since abolitionist sentiment was low among them. Mention of the Irish in the Civil War brings immediate thought to the most celebrated Irish organization in the Union army, the Irish Brigade. Organized by Thomas Francis Meagher of New York, it was composed of the "Fighting 69th" New York Infantry Regiment (originally a militia unit), the 63rd, and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts and later the 116th Pennsylvania. The Irish Brigade distinguished itself through all the great battles in the East, priding itself on the fact that it never lost a flag or a gun to the enemy. Later in the war as the ranks filled with conscripts, however, the Brigade did suffer some humiliation.

There were several other wholly or mainly Irish regiments which served in the Union armies from New England (the 9th Massachusetts, for example) to Wisconsin (the 11th Wisconsin), but most Irish were dispersed throughout the units of the American born. They were also well represented in the small Regular Army.

Other nationalities

Other groups which made significant communal efforts within the Federal armies also deserve to be mentioned. Though their numbers are small in relation to the Germans and Irish, they loyally answered the call to defend their adopted land.


The 55th New York Volunteer Infantry (the Lafayette Guard) organized by Count Philippe R‚gis de Trobriand and composed of many French residents of New York, distinguished itself on the field of battle early in the war. Later it was consolidated with the 46th New York.


The 39th New York (the Garibaldi Guard) contained many Italians, but this unit was mostly German speaking and boasted a large and diverse contigent of ex-patriots from around the world.


The 58th New York (Pulaski Guard) contained many German speaking Poles from the Prussian and Austrian ruled sections of partioned Poland. Its commander, Colonel Krzyzanowski, was a brigade commander of the XI Corps at Gettysburg.


Large numbers of hearty Norwegians and Swedes had recently settled in the mid-West, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota, prior to the Civil War. These Scandinavians answered the call to service and formed some ethnic units which served in the Western campaigns. Perhaps the most famous of these was the 15th Wisconsin, whose commander, Colonel Heg, died at Chickamauga.


The famous 79th New York "Highlanders" was composed principally of men of Scottish birth. They sported kilts, bonnets, and were accompanied by the bagpipes, but at the battle of 1st Bull Run wore tartan "trews" (trousers) of the Cameron clan, to honor its Colonel. Though they did once mutiny, they later gave good service in action.

The number of ethnic regiments in the Union army is small compared to the vast number of units raised. But most immigrants scattered throughout the Northern states ended up joining their neighbors in local organizations, thus effectively bringing their contribution to an individual level indistinguishable from the American born majority.

Also lost from view are the contributions of the English and Canadian immigrants who served nobly and for the most part anonymously alongside their American born brothers-in-arms. Many varied peoples from all areas of the earth seemed to have participated in the cause of Union. There were even American Indian regiments raised in the West. Attempts were made to attract Mexicans to the ranks, and several thousand immigrant Jews served with distinction, one being awarded with the Medal of Honor for valor. There were also reports that Orientals saw some limited action.

America is a land of great diversity, and nothing is more diverse than the myriad of origins of its people. We are an immigrant nation whose ancestors sought opportunity in a new homeland. As if to demonstrate their belief in an eventual united people and hope for the future, they wholeheartedly supported the Union cause in the Civil War. This support was paid in both blood and sweat, for these recent arrivals fought and died in every battle and engagement of the war, and they who stayed at home provided the labor to clothe, feed and supply the armies. By their deeds did these newly arrived prove their devotion to the cause of Union. Without their considerable contributions, it is very doubtful whether the Union could have been preserved.

Major sources

Commager, Henry Steele, ed. The Blue and the Gray , Fairfax Press. New York. 1950.

Lord, Francis A. They Fought for the Union . Telegraph Press. Harrisburg. 1960.