Immigration and Immigrant Soldiers

The Embarkation, Waterloo Docks, Liverpool (The London Illustrated, 1850, public domain).

[F]or many foreign-born soldiers and citizens, this was much more than America’s war. It was an epic contest for the future of free labor against slavery, for equal opportunity against privilege and aristocracy, for freedom of thought and expression against oppressive government, and for democratic self-government against dynastic rule. Foreigners joined the war to wage the same battles that had been lost in the Old World. Theirs was the cause not only of America, but of all nations.

– Don H. Doyle, McCausland Professor of History, University of South Carolina


Blood, sweat and tears have been spilled by humans to enlighten or despoil the Earth since before the world’s first writers ever put pen to paper. Their trials and tribulations, conveyed initially through songs or poetry, held audiences rapt by descriptions of each “Hero’s Journey”; their quests for adventure and enlightenment became the source material from which Homer staged his confrontations between Hector, Achilles and Agamemnon, Marco Polo revealed the Marvels of the World, and Milton portrayed his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

But those epic tales pale in comparison to the stories of the average men and women who chose to become “strangers in a strange land”—immigrants leaving all they knew to make arduous trips by land or even more death-defying trips by sea in search of better lives not just for themselves, but for those they loved. In so doing, they transformed both their own lives and their adopted homelands.

The Impact of Immigration on a Fledgling Nation

The Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation notes that, with respect to “The New World,” Spanish settlements were established in St. Augustine [Florida] by the end of the 16th century, and “by the early 17th century thriving communities dotted the landscape: the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, and the Swedish in Delaware…. Among the early British settlers were indentured servants willing to trade four to seven years of unpaid labor for a one-way ticket to the colonies and the promise of land.”

More precisely, during “the early years of the republic, immigration was light—6000 people a year on average, including French refugees from the revolt in Haiti. By 1806, the flow of immigration [to America] was reduced to a trickle as hostilities between England and Napoleon’s France disrupted Atlantic shipping lanes.” And the “War of 1812 between the United States and Britain slowed immigration even further.”

Then, as the 18th century waned and the 19th waxed, several critical events helped revive immigration: 1.) in 1790, America “passed the first Naturalization Act, which stipulated that “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States”; 2.) the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in Great Britain, spread across Europe and to the United States, fueling a demand for factory workers and other laborers; 3.) the nation inked a peace agreement with British leaders in 1814, prompting “immigration from Great Britain, Ireland and Western Europe” to begin again “at a record pace”; 4.) the U.S. Congress passed the Steerage Act in 1819, “requiring ship captains to keep detailed passenger records and provide more humane conditions,” making it less daunting for families and single men and women to make long journeys from one continent to the next; 5.) America, which had continued to expand its boundaries with the addition of Maine and Missouri as states (1820), pushed this expansion even faster in response to the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) and the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854; and 6.) economic declines following the end of the Napoleonic wars (1815), a cholera pandemic (1832), and Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-1850) sparked an unemployment crisis and food shortages so severe that many struggling families were forced to leave their communities simply just to survive.

Between 1790 and 1820, the nation welcomed the arrival of 165,000 immigrants—25,000 from Germany, 40,000 from France, and 100,000 from England, Ireland and Scotland—expanding the population of the United States to 3.9 million (per the first census conducted by the federal government). Between 1820 and 1880, the numbers were significantly higher:

  • German Empire: 3,000,000;
  • Ireland: 2,800,000;
  • Britain: 2,000,000;
  • Austro-Hungarian Empire: 1,000,000;
  • Canada: 750,000; and
  • China: 230,000.

“Departing from Liverpool and Hamburg,” according to the Foundation, “they came in through the major Eastern ports, and New Orleans. Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the 1850’s, entering through San Francisco.”

Even as the United States passed into the darkness of secession and Civil War, émigrés from across the globe continued to make their way to America in search of brighter futures. When President Abraham Lincoln issued his mid-April 1861 call for 75,000 volunteers to help defend the nation’s capital following the fall of Fort Sumter to Confederate troops, many of the nation’s newest immigrants (including more than a few who had barely unpacked their steamer trunks) joined other men who had established themselves as respected members of their adopted hometowns to enroll for military service.

According to Don H. Doyle, McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina:

In 1860, about 13% of the U.S. population was born overseas—roughly what it is today. One in every four members of the Union armed forces was an immigrant, some 543,000 of the more than 2 million Union soldiers by recent estimates. Another 18% had at least one foreign-born parent. Together, immigrants and the sons of immigrants made up about 43% of the U.S. armed forces.

George Junker announces formation of a company of German/German-American soldiers for Civil War service (Der Lecha Caunty Patriot, 7 August 1861, public domain).

Among those enrolling with the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry were men from Cuba, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, and Wales. One full unit of the regiment (Company K), in fact, was raised with the intent of being an “all-German company,” according to the 7 August 1861 edition of Der Lecha Caunty Patriot, a German language newspaper read widely in and beyond Allentown, Pennsylvania. Roughly translated, the announcement read:

It’s good to hear, that Sergeant Junker, of this city, is bringing a new German company of the Lehigh Valley along under the terms of recruitment for the duration of the war. It will be particularly sweet to him if such Germans already here or abroad, who have served as soldiers, sign up immediately for him, and join the company. It can be noted that Sergeant Junker, who recently returned from the scene of the war, has done important services for the Union side in this time, and has all capabilities that are necessary for a Captain. We wish him the best luck for his company.

Why Do It? Why Enroll for Civil War Military Service?

One of the persistent storylines surrounding military enlistments during the U.S. Civil War—that émigrés from Germany, Ireland and other countries only fought for the Union because they were offered money to do so—is a myth, according to Doyle—one that stems from Civil War-era propaganda spread by leaders on both sides of the conflict:

In the 1860s, Confederate diplomats and supporters abroad were eager to inform Europeans that the North was actively recruiting their sons to serve as cannon fodder. In one pamphlet, Confederate envoy Edwin De Leon informed French readers that the Puritan North had built its army ‘in large part of foreign mercenaries’ made up of ‘the refuse of the old world.’

Embarrassed Northerners claimed the Confederacy exaggerated how many foreign recruits made up the U.S. armed forces—pointing to immigrant bounty jumpers who enlisted to collect the money given to new recruits, deserted, and then re-enlisted. The underlying premise was that foreigners were not inspired by patriotic principle and, except for money, had no motive to fight and die for a nation not their own.

It was not true. Immigrants tended to be young and male, but they enlisted above their quota. Many immigrants left jobs to fight for the Union, enlisting before the draft—and the bounties—were even introduced. They volunteered, fought, and sacrificed far beyond what might be expected of strangers in a strange land.

Or, in the words of American leaders throughout the nation’s history:

  • This new World hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still. (Thomas Payne, Common Sense, 1776);
  • Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances. (Robert F. Kennedy in his forward to A Nation of Immigrants by John F. Kennedy, 1958); and
  • We came to America, either ourselves or in the persons of our ancestors, to better the ideals of men, to make them see finer things than they had seen before, to get rid of the things that divide and to make sure of the things that unite. (Woodrow Wilson, Address to Naturalized Citizens at Convention Hall, Philadelphia, 10 May 1915).

For a partial list of the immigrants and first generation Americans who fought with the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the U.S. Civil War, see Roster: Immigrants and First Generation Americans Who Enrolled with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers.



1. Doyle, Don H. The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers. New York, New York: Time, 29 June 2015.

2. Eine Deustche Compagnie (announcement of the formation of Company K, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry). Allentown, Pennsylvania: Der Lecha Caunty Patriot, 7 August 1861.

3. Immigration Timeline. New York, New York: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., retrieved online 1 September 2017.

4. Karande, Aarshin. The Politics of Compassion: U.S. Immigration Police and the Conflicted American Archetype. Nigeria: The Republic, 12 August 2017.

5. O’Toole, Patricia. A President Speaks Out on Immigration: In an address to new citizens, Woodrow Wilson spoke of the American Dream. Washinton, D.C.: The American Scholar, June 25, 2012.

6. Payne, Thomas. Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1776.

7. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

8. Snyder, Laurie. Private Rafael Pérez: One Cuban Immigrant’s Story; Tag, John G. (Private); and Private William Ellis – The First Member of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers to Die in South Carolina, in 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story, retrieved online 31 August 2017.

9. United States Census. Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, etc., 1840-1930.

10. Wilson, Woodrow. Citizens of Foreign Birth: Address to Naturalized Citizens at Convention Hall, Philadelphia (frequently referred to as Wilson’s “Too Proud to Fight” address). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 10 May 1915.