German American Allegiance before Attack on Fort Sumter
German heritage has deep roots in American history, going back to the arrival of 13 German families who formed the first German settlement in the Thirteen Colonies, Germantown, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 6, 1683. Almost two hundred years later, German Americans living in South Carolina faced confusing times and hard choices when their state seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860. Those living in Charleston especially had their allegiance tested in the early months of 1861, as it became increasingly clear that Fort Sumter, the Union fort in Charleston Harbor, would be attacked.
Then as now there was a large German American population in Wisconsin, and a local paper’s readers were very interested in the dilemma confronting those in Charleston. The Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) published this article on the front page of its April 1, 1861, issue:
The Germans in Charleston Dissatisfied with Secession
Correspondence of the N.Y. Tribune
Charleston, March 21
The more I pursue my voyages of discovery along the highways and byways of this swampy city, the more am I certain that the evacuation of Fort Sumter is no military necessity, and ought not to be ordered until the Government have taken every means in their power to obtain trustworthy information of the strength and weakness of the rebels here on the spot. If an agent of the Government will visit me in Charleston, I will undertake to satisfy him beyond the shadow of a doubt that a volunteer force of a thousand men who are now resident in this city can be found within twenty-four hours to enroll themselves on the side of the Union. Besides this, I am in possession of information, which is entirely satisfactory to me, that there are now upon the islands German companies of volunteers whose aggregate number is 669 men, 600 of whom have not the slightest sympathy with Secession, but, on the contrary, have a warm and enthusiastic love of the Union. I am assured by a lieutenant of one of these companies that the first shot at Fort Sumter would be their signal for revolt. I cannot give a better proof of the possibility of these statements being true than by assuring you that my informant, now serving on Morris Island, stumped the State of Wisconsin four years ago on behalf of Carl Schurz. Shortly afterward, business matters brought him to Charleston; he assures me that his views have undergone change only in one respect, and this in reference to the Slave Oligarchy, for which he has a great and growing contempt. He says that although the organized militia regiments have all obeyed the orders of the Governor in entering the active service, he, being a member of most of the German societies, and intimately acquainted with their feelings and intentions, can positively assert that the German companies will never fire a gun upon United States troops; that they will never consent to perjure themselves on behalf of the slave power, but that on the contrary, the first gun fired against the Government they have sworn allegiance to, will be their signal for revolt, and their bugle call to muster under the folds of the stars and stripes. This good friend of mine, who is a very intelligent man, came over from the island this morning to visit his family, and as he stood at his own door with me, in a street not far from behind the Charleston Hotel, he pointed me to ten houses in the immediate neighborhood, in which every occupant is true to his country.
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