Collaborating Toward a Global History of the US Civil War

German American Recruitment Broadside

Transnational studies over the past two decades have contributed much to placing the US Civil War into a broader, transatlantic perspective. Enrico Dal Lago’s review essay in the June, 2021 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era provides a historiographical summary of these new approaches and challenges his peers to expand these avenues of inquiry into a “global historical narrative.”[1] Unfortunately, traditional institutional and methodological barriers often obstruct this work. As an independent scholar, I operate free from some of the guardrails of the academy. We should consider thinking and acting differently to help advance scholarship and accelerate progress in the study of recent immigrants and transnational actors and their impact on the bloodiest conflict of the nineteenth century world.

I spent several years researching and writing about German revolutionary and US Civil War General August Willich because his life story was so compelling. Studying Willich and other immigrant leaders helps us gain a better understanding of the international dimensions of the US Civil War and the important roles that transatlantic revolutionaries played in the ultimate success of the Union Army.

Willich was born into the Prussian lesser nobility as the bastard son of a prince, then orphaned and taken in by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of German liberal theology. He later renounced his social status, left a 17-year career as a Prussian artillery officer, and became a Communist revolutionary. Friedrich Engels was his adjutant. Willich eclipsed Karl Marx as the popular leader of German political refugees in London and ended up dueling a Marx acolyte. As an early leader in the labor union movement in Cincinnati and a staunch abolitionist, he formed alliances with local black leaders and personally encouraged Lincoln to make war on the Southern slave aristocracy. Near the end of his life, he helped form one of the first socialist political parties in US history. The New York Times called Willich “undoubtedly the ablest and bravest officer of German descent engaged in the war of the rebellion.”[2]

Why had no one had written a book-length biography of this man? I discovered the answer to that question almost immediately. Despite the help of volunteer German translators who could read nearly illegible nineteenth century German handwriting, significant hurdles remained. To do this project justice meant consulting primary sources scattered in five European countries and in archives throughout the U.S., not to mention the extensive travel required to walk in Willich’s footsteps as he evaded authorities in Europe and pursued Confederates in America. How many potential authors can assemble the funding to complete these important tasks? Even if one manages to cobble together the means to get the work done, few scholars have enough expertise in the history of both continents to place their subject’s actions in their proper context. Even those fluent in other languages may not grasp the subtleties and nuances of archaic tongues.  So, what kept me from abandoning the project altogether?

The one-word answer was “collaboration.” My most important discovery was a German PhD candidate who was doing his dissertation on Willich and the history of ideas. It took some time to build mutual trust, as historians are not particularly skilled at sharing their original ideas and research, but we built a partnership and eventually a friendship blossomed. My colleague and I explored Willich’s haunts in Europe together and tramped US Civil War battlefields in tandem as we attempted to understand our subject’s actions, motives, and philosophy.

Felix Zimmerman of Bamberg Univ. at Chickamauga

Other roadblocks stood in the way of producing a first-class biography of Willich as a transnational radical leader. Only a handful of scholarly biographies of German American Forty Eighters have been published over the past hundred years. Most devote precious little space to their subject’s life in Europe.[3] Sabine Freitag’s fine biography of Friedrich Hecker, published in the German language and later translated into English and republished in the U.S., is a notable exception.[4]

Several university press publishers expressed interest in my Willich biography but declined to commit to an extensive treatment of Willich’s life in Prussia, given that the book would be marketed in the United States.  The University of Tennessee Press was willing to take a chance on the proposal, given my insistence on a balanced treatment of Willich’s entire life. Radical Warrior finished the fiscal year as one of their ten bestsellers.

The reluctance or inability of some academic press publishers to take risks pushes more and more transnational biography projects toward talented independent authors who publish with trade presses. An excellent example is journalist and National Book Award winner Timothy Egan’s outstanding biography of European revolutionary and Irish Brigade commander Thomas Meagher, The Immortal Irsihman. Nearly half of Egan’s narrative takes place overseas before Meagher gains fame in the United States.[5] The list of professional historians who have found critical and financial success with trade presses is long and growing. Some, like recent Pulitzer Prize finalist Megan Kate Nelson, have left academia altogether to focus on their writing while maintaining rigorous standards of research and documentation.[6]

So, where does that leave those of us who wish to pursue the study of these transnational actors and reach a broader audience with our scholarship? Part of the answer lies in adopting a radical collaborative approach. This means challenging the many institutional barriers that consign our work to the periphery and make it nearly invisible to a large cohort of educated readers who appreciate quality scholarship with compelling narrative. We need to overcome some paradigms that hinder our success.

Let’s reject the lone wolf approach to historical research and scholarship. No one owns the primary sources, so when you find a fresh one, don’t hoard it. Share it. Benefit from the perspective of your peers. Of course, you need to deliver original research and critical analysis, but you also need a good story that will not doom readers to a coma of boredom. If your best skills lie in research and analysis, why not partner with someone whose writing talent complements your archival expertise? Few can do both with excellence. Why not consider co-authoring your book with a scholar from overseas? In my case, in-depth, parallel studies of Willich the radical socialist and labor leader alongside Willich the guerilla revolutionary and military general woven together and co-authored might have made the finished biography even better.

Rather than happening upon a fruitful partnership by accident, let’s be proactive and expand our transnational network of colleagues with whom we share specific interests. Seek out opportunities to work together and leverage diverse perspectives as technological advances make research and collaboration across vast global geographies easier.

Transnational research partnerships leading to co-authored books has been a standard practice among edited collections for some time. In the field of German American studies, Walter Kamphoefner of Texas A&M and Wolfgang Helbich of Ruhr University in Germany co-edited five books, including their groundbreaking, Germans in the Civil War, first published in the German language in 2002, then republished in English in 2006.[7] Professor Kamphoefner has published an additional three books with other co-editors.

Thomas Paine pledged, “my country is the world and my religion is to do good.”[8] Giuseppe Garibaldi and many others followed Paine’s example and fought for human rights and popular government across oceans and national borders. Recent immigrants and their families made an enormous contribution to the Union war effort, with more than 214,000 German Americans and 140,000 Irish Americans serving in the US Army. Many immigrant officers were transatlantic political refugees. Historians need to adopt their radical mentality, challenge traditional ways of working, and overcome barriers that restrain us from doing history with a global perspective.

This blog post was adapted from a paper delivered to the annual conference of The Southern Historical Association on November 5, 2021 by David T. Dixon.


[1] Enrico Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 11, no.2 (June 2021): 255 ? 271.

[2] David T. Dixon, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2020).

[3] See for example, Hans L. Trefousse, Carl Schurz: A Biography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982) and Stephen D. Engle, Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).

[4] Sabine Freitag, Friedrich Hecker: Two Lives for Liberty, trans. Steven Rowan (Saint Louis: University of Missouri press, 2006).

[5] Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

[6] Megan Kate Nelson, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (New York: Scribner, 2020).

[7] Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, eds., Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[8] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (London: J.S. Jordan, 1791), 59.

6 Responses to Collaborating Toward a Global History of the US Civil War

  1. I agree completely with Dave. Where is a really good, new book on the anti-slavery movement in England? Also, The Journal of the Civil War Era is something everyone should subscribe to. Their efforts put readers far ahead of any curve which may be out there, for sure.

  2. August Willich. Oscar Malmborg. Hypolite Oladowski. Joseph Mullineaux. Alexander Asboth. Before conducting in-depth research on the Battle of Shiloh, I was convinced that the American Civil War was fought between Johnny Reb (in gray) and Billy Yank (in blue.) Not only did uniforms of various styles and colors get worn during the war; men from across the globe found themselves caught up in the conflict. And today, Swedes, Hungarians, Poles and Australians are among the nationalities actively searching for information IRT distant ancestors who took part in the noble struggle (noble struggle is how it is perceived overseas.)
    Thanks to David T. Dixon for bringing this subject to our attention.

  3. This is an excellent piece. Just as we lose sight of the fact that the AWI and the War of 1812 were local parts of global conflicts, we tend to ignore any number of global aspects of the ACW – it was a “civil war”, after all. But the roles of recent immigrants; the influence of European military experience and developments; the diplomatic dance with Britain and France; the blockade; Napoleon’s foray in Mexico; the visit of the Russian fleet; and more, all illustrate the room for broader perspectives.

  4. My great great grandfather died in the Civil War serving as a replacement troop in the 27th Wisconsin during the last six months of the war. Until the run up to the Sesquicentennial I had no inkling that I even had a Civil War ancestor, but when I started doing a little online navel gazing I soon discovered that my ancestor’s online presence far exceeded my own. The 27th was commanded by the poet/lawyerate, Colonel Konrad Krez, who fled Landau in the Palatinate after the failure of the 1848 Revolution and settled in Wisconsin after first marrying the daughter of a prominent German-immigrant judge in New York. Several biographies have been written about him in German, though neither have yet been translated into English. The biographies are Ein Starkes Leben (A Strong Life) by Ludwig Finckh and Konrad Krez: Freiheitskaempfer und Dichter in Deutschland und America (Freedom Fighter and Poet in Germany and America) by Wolfgang Diehl, published in 1988 as the Berlin Wall was falling. Finckh was quite a popular writer in Germany during the first half of the 20th century. He was also a close associate of Herman Hesse for more than sixty years with a voluminous correspondence contained in the papers of the Nobel Prize Winner. Finckh signed on with the National Socialist Party in the 1930s and re-published the collected poems of Krez in Germany in an effort to bolster his own party bona fides. Diehl’s biography of Krez is far more scholarly and literary in that he takes pains to contextualize a wide range of the Krez output, rather than just the two or three poems Finckh used to falsely imply potential for a German-American fifth column out of Milwaukee. The fascinating thing to me about Krez and his service in the Civil War is the chain of command. The 27th Wisconsin out of Sheboygan served alongside the 43rd Illinois out of Belleville. Originally the 43rd was to be the command of Gustav Koerner until he was deemed too old to command a regiment in combat and more useful to Lincoln as the successor to Carl Schurz as Ambassador to Spain. Koerner handed off his regiment to his brother-in-law, Adolph Engelmann, who put a real soldier, Adolph Dengler, in charge of the regiment so he could have more time to hob-knob with the brothers Salomon,
    Charles, Frederick, and Herman and their brother Edward Salomon, acting governor of Wisconsin during the Civil War. Gustav Koerner had already served as lieutenant governor of Illinois and was instrumental in helping Salomon get elected to the same office in nearby Wisconsin while creating the Republican Party and making Lincoln its national standard bearer. Koerner had tutored Mary Todd in French at Transylvania University in Lexington ten years before she first met Abraham Lincoln. Koerner and Willich were mainstays among the ‘Latin farmers’ of Belleville, Illinois. Koerner’s two volume memoir in English written in the 1890s at the request of his progeny has to be the cornerstone for understanding the Civil War from a transnational perspective.

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