Irish Catholics have predominated the historiographies of 19th-century American Catholic history and the American Civil War to the extent that other ethnic Catholic groups have become largely invisible. Certainly a number of excellent historians such as Christian Keller and Alison Clark Efford have contributed greatly to our understanding of German American history during the middle of the 19th century, but their focus is on liberal Forty-Eighters, not conservative Catholics. Similarly, John McGreevy, Randall Miller, Susannah Ural, and many others have written very useful studies of the Irish and other English-speaking Catholics during the Civil War era, but Germans were largely left out of their studies.
Admittedly the two main reasons for German Catholics’ exclusion are quite understandable. First, sources are hard to find, and, second, they are written in a language not read by many American historians. Certainly a knowledge of German is necessary to immerse oneself fully in extant primary sources, both manuscript and newspaper. Still, there are a number of important primary source collections translated into English that will help scholars who seek a broader understanding of Catholic and German life in the 1860s. Here are what I consider to be the five most important such collections.
Letters by German Catholic Priests
One of the best ways to understand German Catholics’ religious life is of course to read the letters of the German-speaking clergy. Two works worth consulting are Sincerely Seelos: The Collected Letters of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos (2008, ed. Rev. Carl Hoegerl, C.SS.R.) and Boniface Wimmer: Letters of American Abbot (2008, ed. Jerome Oetgen). Both Wimmer and Seelos were deeply conservative men who wrote a number of insightful wartime letters. Both commented repeatedly on the federal government’s refusal to exempt clergy from the national draft, a major reason why Catholics grew to dislike the war in 1864. Seelos’s letters are interesting, not just because of their religious content, but also for his frank comments on politics and race that show how thoroughly he adopted Southern values after moving to the United States in the early 1840s. Both men agreed that the Republican Party would persecute the Church as soon as the war was over, with Wimmer fiercely criticizing the Republicans and Protestants throughout Reconstruction.1
Letters from the German American Laity
Of course another useful kind of source for the historian is the letters of German lay men and women. The two best published collections of German American letters from this period are News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home (1991) and Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home (2006), edited by Wolfgang Helbich and Walter D. Kamphoefner. Both are primarily drawn from an awesome collection of letters housed in Gotha, Germany, known as the Emigrants’ Letter Collection (Auswandererbriefesammlung). Although female voices are few and Catholics are very underrepresented in both books, their letters show a variety of opinion for and against the war as well as assimilationist and antagonistic toward non-Catholic Germans and the rest of American society. While one German farmer in Iowa assured his family that the war barely affected his life, another from Kentucky enlisted in the Union Army and lost his life at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. The variety of voices, political views, and life experiences makes these two volumes extremely useful for understanding lay German Catholic life in this period.
My favorite source of all, however, comes from a website run by an amateur historian named Russ Scott called Civil War Letters of Corporal Adam Muenzenberger. Although the site is visually dated, the letters themselves were edited and translated by Marquette Historian Dr. William L. Lamers, who also wrote an important biography of Union General William S. Rosecrans. Muenzenberger’s letters reveal the problems German Catholics faced in practicing their faith in the field. There were a few German-speaking priests who served in the Union Army, so Muenzenberger had very little opportunity to receive the sacraments, leading him to superstitiously ask his wife to read his fortune in her tea leaves. He was captured at Gettysburg in July 1863 and sent to the prison on Belle Isle in Richmond, VA, where he suddenly died sometime in late October or November. Considering the emphasis that 19th-century Catholic theology placed on the importance of confession before death to insure the believer died in a state of grace and would thus enter heaven, it is little wonder that tragic stories such as Muezenberger’s and the fear of dying beyond the reach of a priest who spoke their language probably served as powerful deterrents to German Catholic service in either the Union or Confederate armies.
For more general information about German Catholics in the Civil War era, please see my book as well as a number of excellent articles and book chapters by historian Kathleen Conzen.
1 Another important account is the memoirs of Father Francis Xavier Weninger. Weninger’s memoirs have been translated into English and are available at The Jesuit Archives of the Central United States. Written with the benefit of hindsight, Weninger’s views on the war, its causes, and the political parties of his day are just as articulate, insightful, and useful to historians as those of Seelos and Wimmer. It would be a tremendous service to the study of 19th-century American Catholic history if this important book was annotated and published in English.