Fighting for a Free Missouri: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Issue of Slavery. Edited by Sydney J. Norton. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2023. Hardcover, 300 pp. $55.00.
Reviewed by Jeff Kluever
If asked to name important figures in Civil War era Missouri, novices and scholars alike are apt to note William Clarke Quantrill, Jesse James, Sterling Price, and even Claiborne Fox Jackson, all men whose loyalty lay with the Confederacy. And yet, as we know, Missouri remained in the Union, with far more men donning Federal blue than Confederate gray. In Fighting for a Free Missouri: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Issue of Slavery, readers are introduced to Friedrich Muench, Eduard Muehl, Henry Boernstein, and Arnold Krekel, among other forgotten free labor advocates, who served as an important counterbalance to pro-slavery voices in the state and contributed to large-scale German support for the Union cause in Missouri.
One of the strengths of the book is Chapter 1, in which editor Sydney J. Norton introduces the major characters and themes that receive coverage in subsequent chapters. This essay provides meaningful context that helps the reader link what could otherwise be disconnected chapters. If one read no further, chapter one itself serves as an excellent primer on German immigrants and slavery in Missouri. The next eight chapters explore themes that emerge throughout the book – how different waves of German immigrants, the Forty-Eighters and Turnvereins for example, differed from one another, the critical role of German newspapers in keeping the German-speaking population informed on slavery-related issues locally and nationally, and how immigrant’s lives in Germany influenced their antislavery views.
Perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the text is that even in this relatively small group, we must reckon with “complicated and varied viewpoints (xi).” Few of the men mentioned above meet the strict definition of “abolitionist.” In fact, Muench and Krekel, while advocating for free labor, owned slaves themselves. We also see how views of slavery changed over time in response to current events, especially in Kristen Layne Anderson’s chapter, “Evolving toward Abolition: German Attitudes toward the Fugitive Slave and Kansas-Nebraska Acts.” Though we can generalize about German immigrant’s attitude toward slavery, the actions and perceptions of each individual remain their own, always an important lens to keep in mind in any historical study.
Likewise, contrasting various essays reminds the reader that historians reading similar sources can arrive at different interpretations. In Fighting for a Free Missouri, several authors disagree on how much credit individuals like Muench and Krekel should get for expressing antislavery viewpoints, while participating in a slave system. Or, how much of the antislavery rhetoric was motivated by “a commitment to racial equality and racial justice, [or] more out of a conviction that slavery was an institution that stifled American economic and political process (xix).” These disagreements notwithstanding, the book generally concludes that “German immigrants knew slavery was bad and wrong, and that it was inconsistent with the American dream of self-determination. That alone makes them worthy of our admiration and thanks (xx).”
It’s worth mentioning the tenth and final chapter deviates from previous essays. Written by Cecilia A. Nadal, this chapter focuses on her journey to dramatize the story of German immigrants and slaves in Missouri into a play, and how that dramatization allows audiences to connect with the past and inspires dialogue about the legacy of slavery and German immigrants in the state. It’s an interesting read that serves a useful purpose in this volume, but doesn’t add to the historical scholarship of the previous chapters and is better considered an afterword.
Two minor quibbles: First, unless one is quite familiar with Missouri geography, it is unlikely readers will know any location, outside of St. Louis, referenced in the book. A map of the state labeling the counties and other key locations, like Hermann, would be helpful. Second, the subtitle lists African Americans as a key subject, but only chapter two devotes pages to their story. The book is primarily focused on German immigrants’ reaction to slavery as an institution. Readers hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the African American experience in Missouri before the Civil war should look elsewhere.
Those two critiques aside, the book is a worthwhile read for those interested the antislavery views of German immigrants in Missouri. The text does a fine job of introducing the reader to what is likely an unfamiliar topic, while still being a well-researched tome that will be useful to those hoping to deeply engage with this aspect of history.
Jeff Kluever holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Grinnell College and master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Carroll University. He has worked as teacher, high school and college football coach, the Executive Director of a history museum, and Education Supervisor at a Civil War battlefield museum and living history plantation. He served on the board of directors of the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center and offers Civil War-themed tours of Woodland Cemetery for the City of Des Moines. In addition, Jeff has published a novel titled Waking the Shadows.