Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2016

"The Migration Factor in the American Civil War: The Impact of Voluntary Population Movements on the War Effort" by Éva Eszter Szabó

Éva Eszter Szabó, PhD, Historian and Americanist, is assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, School of English and American Studies, Eötvös Lorand University, Budapest. Member of LASA, SHAFR, HAAS and HUSSE. Her fields of research include the history of inter-American relations, the correlation between U.S. foreign and immigration policies, Latino communities in the U.S., and global migration in global politics. Email:


The migration factor permeates historical events and the exploration of the significance of population movements in the course of events can give additional dimensions to our understanding of history. This paper addresses the American Civil War through the mirror of the migration factor or the combined effects of international and internal migration. It analyses the significance of immigration and of voluntary internal migration, i.e. homesteading, in the war effort.1 In addition to economic and labor considerations, the point for us to explore is in what ways the migration factor constituted a military resource and to what extent the promotion of migration, international and internal, was a conscious, militarily driven policy of the Lincoln administration.

Population Growth and War

The labor needs of the economy and the manpower needs of the military are intricately intertwined in war times and they constitute vital resources in the war effort, especially as the death toll begins to rise. The casualties suffered during the Civil War surpass that of all the other wars the United States has ever fought up to the present. Although it is impossible to come up with even relatively precise numbers, the century-old estimate of the loss of lives most frequently referred to in the literature totals about 620,000, including some 360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate casualties.2 More recently, however, the census-based research of the 1850-1880 data by demographic historian J. David Hacker revealed that the likely total was 20% upward, about 750,000 (Hacker; Cohen). It is all logical to expect that a country ravaged by war and going through carnage of such dimensions would be far from constituting an attractive destination for would-be immigrants. This logic, however, proves right only in the first two years of the Civil War.3 Otherwise the war did not function more of a deterrent than the five-year economic recession prior to it. According to the statistics, whereas in the 1856-1860 period there were 849,790 immigrant arrivals, during the Civil War years of 1861-1865 a total of 801,723 immigrants entered the country (U.S. Bureau of the Census 34). The difference is only 48,067 people, i.e., 5.6% more immigrant arrivals in the antebellum years. In sum, immigration did not decrease significantly during the Civil War, which is quite surprising given the destruction and the bloodshed experienced.

Events in Europe at the beginning of the 1860s contributed substantially to increasing the pool of potential emigrants. The crisis of the English cotton industry, the meager harvests in Ireland, the military draft due to the second German-Danish War (1864), but even more importantly the low wages all over Europe could easily motivate those toying with the idea of emigration to cross the ocean. The 800,000 immigrants arriving in America in 1861-1865 signal that the New World continued as a favored destination despite the ongoing Civil War (Fite 195). The fact, however, that immigration did not fall drastically below earlier numbers can be accounted for more by the events in America than by the events in Europe.

There are two reasons for the continued attractiveness of America as an immigrant receiving country and both reasons are to be found in conditions in the North. First, immigration had historically centered on the Northern states. Some 95% of the foreign-born lived in the states of the Union and the immigrants arriving here did not have to face up to the atrocities of the Civil War at all. With the notable exceptions of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Kentucky, the territory of the North was practically unaffected by the war, while most of the South had turned into a battlefield and suffered terrible destruction (Archdeacon 82). Out of all the Civil War battles4 75% were fought in the South and 24% in the North, where it was predominantly the border states, i.e., slave states that had not seceded from the Union, whose territory was the most subjected to the ravages of war (CWSAC, “Civil War Battle Summaries”).

Second, the Northern states were in fact much more affected by gearing their economies towards the war effort than by the actual military events. That is what explains the steady influx of immigrants throughout the war, especially from 1863 on. The Civil War was accompanied and also followed by an enormous economic boom and huge geographical and agricultural expansion. Consequently, there was a continuous demand for an increasing number of working hands. In addition, the heightened labor force needs of the war time economy were coupled with the recruitment demands of the military that was constantly and heavily pushed for new sources of manpower amidst the bloodbath the war was producing. Under these conditions immigration was considered and welcomed as a national blessing that received substantial encouragement from not only the federal government, but from the overwhelming majority of native-born Americans as well. Except for a minority of labor interests anxious about the negative impact of the cheap workforce of the immigrants on natives’ wages, practically each and every segment of American society was unified in their support for increased immigration: the federal and state government officials, private companies, the press, and public opinion alike (Higham 14; Fite 195; Erickson).

The anti-immigrant and xenophobic attitudes of nativism of the previous two decades had vanished into thin air to be replaced by the unifying power of nationalism. The war dealt a death blow to organized nativism since it brought xenophobes and immigrants together in service of the common goal of preserving the Union. The Civil War cast a new light both on the immigrants working in the home front and on the immigrants fighting in the front lines. The once hated foreign-born turned into comrades-in-arms, what is more, into fellow compatriots sharing the very same destinies. The fights and efforts established more and more personal ties between the immigrants and the struggling nation, and this experience speeded up their Americanization. The nostalgic feelings for the past in Europe were outshone by the commitment to the future in America. The immigrants contributed to saving the nation from disintegration; and even though they may not have participated in its creation, in its preservation they certainly played an unquestionable role. This feat increased their appreciation by native-born Americans and raised their own self-esteem at the same time (Hansen 140-142; Daniels 270; Higham 13; Jones 174-176).

Indeed, a remarkable moment of the Civil War period for us to highlight is this abrupt, swift and radical change of heart of the public opinion regarding immigration. It was a singular moment if we contemplate the history of the American nation. It is especially so in light of the fact that less than ten years before, the whole nation had been taken over by the nativist movement and been feverish with the xenophobia instilled into the native-born by the American Party commonly referred to as the Know-Nothings5. Obviously, it was the combination of domestic political interests and economic interests as dictated by the national crisis that led to the quick redirection of the public opinion (Fite 195-196). It became crystal clear to Union leaders very early in the war that without substantial immigration the future was looking dim at best. With a home front weakening from the loss of labor force to the battlefields coupled with the shrinking armed forces due to heavy casualties, the Civil War could not be fought for long and even less so could it be won. Thus immigration and the war were intricately intertwined. The migration factor proved crucial in meeting the war demand economically, in contributing to the military efforts and securing victory, and finally in reconstructing the nation.

Due to financial considerations and everyday needs, the military had always been attractive to a large number of immigrants long before the times of the Civil War. By the 1840s, 50-60% of the enlisted men were composed by the foreign-born6, mostly by Irish and German immigrants (Batalova; Archdeacon 83). The military had traditionally offered permanent jobs, food, clothing, lodgings and federal bounty land7 to the enlisted, i.e., all the things that the usually poor immigrants were badly in need of. The circle of benefits offered was broadened further following the outbreak of the Civil War. In the territory of the Union, volunteers received cash bounty upon enlisting, and in addition to this, immigrants as new recruits were offered to receive expedited citizenship once they entered the army8. The Act of July 17, 18629 governing naturalization through service required a one-year residency (Lee and Wasem 3). Many immigrants also took advantage of the Enrollment Act of 186310, the first compulsory conscription for wartime service in the United States,11 by acting as substitute draftees for $300 (Coffey 381; Jones 173-174; Daniels 270; Catton 223).

Even though the available data on the precise numbers and the composition of the Armies of the United States and especially the Confederacy12 are incomplete and difficult to evaluate, they attest to the fact that immigrants were represented in both armies in large proportions (Archdeacon 82; Avila and Coffey 75; Doyle). Despite the fact that recent research pointed out the tendency of ethnic authors to inflate the proportion of the foreign-born volunteers in order to emphasize their contribution to the cause of the Civil War (Mahin 10), their commitment to the war effort and their military performance had outdone any expectations (Doyle). Ever since Ella Lonn’s pioneering works13 on foreigners’ military participation in the Union and the Confederate armed forces published in the 1940s and 50s, in addition to the German and Irish contributions research has expanded into the Civil War role and experiences of less conspicuous ethnic groups, such as the Hungarians or the Polish thanks to the scholarly investigations of István Kornél Vida14 or Teofil Lachowicz15 respectively.

In general terms it has been established that in the North, the foreign-born constituted 18% of a population of 21.5 million and they gave 22% of the new recruits. In the South, the population was 9 million out of which 5 million were whites; 4% of whites were foreign-born and they made up 5-10% of the army. Given the fact, however, that 95% of the overall foreign-born in antebellum America lived in the Northern states, the military potential of the immigrants could be taken advantage of primarily by the Union (Jones 171; Archdeacon 82). Since nearly the entire war was played out in the territory of the South and during the Civil War years there was practically no immigration to the Confederate States, there was no way to make up for the losses in lives, which led to population decrease. In contrast, in the North, thanks to the more than 800,000 immigrant arrivals there was enough human material not only to complement the lives lost at war and to fill up the shortages in the labor force, but the United States even experienced population growth during those critical years (Adams 274-275; Catton 179). Between 1850 and 1870, the population grew by 3.3 million every five years, including the war years.16 Without immigrants this could not have materialized.

The foreign-born supported the cause of their new homeland enthusiastically so much in the North as in the South. The Confederacy, however, was less sure of the loyalty of their immigrants and did not favor the setting up of ethnic companies and regiments to the same extent as in the Union. Even though 8 out of the 11 Confederate states did establish separate Irish military units in the beginning, the practice was more exceptional than typical (Mallory 983). Since about 90% of Confederate soldiers were native-born, as a rule the foreign-born fought in ethnically mixed units. Conversely, in the first years of the war one fifth of the Union Army, some 500,000 immigrants, usually fought in companies, regiments, even divisions organized on the basis of ethnic affiliation,17 such as the largely homogeneous German or “Dutch” Regiments, the Irish Brigade, the predominantly French Lafayette Guards, or the multinational Garibaldi Guard, Polish Legion, or Scandinavian Regiment. Most typically these ethnic units were even under the command of officers from the same ethnic group (Krogman 996-997). In fact, Southern propagandists tended to refer to, for example, the German Union regiments as the Hessian mercenaries employed by the British during the American War of Independence of 1775-1781 (Mallett). In more general terms, however, Hessian was widely used in the contemporary South to refer to Union soldiers at large as shown in the next letter found at the Confederate camp at Laurel Hill, West Virginia, and published in the Continental Monthly, Boston, in March 1862: “The Yankees have at last arrived, about ten thousand strong. For the past two days we have had some sharp skirmishing, during which time we have killed one hundred of the Hessians. We have, as yet, lost but one man.”18 The Yankees were pictured as “the hordes of Northern Hessians” (qtd. in McPherson 11).19 As the war raged on and casualties mounted, however, the ethnic units also turned increasingly mixed. Probably it was because of the organization and prevalence of these purely ethnic military units in the early phase of the war that the Confederate States was convinced throughout the military conflict that the majority of Northern soldiers was actually foreign-born. Interestingly, after the war Southerners often attributed the defeat of the Confederacy to this misconception (Hansen 142; Higham 13; Jones 169-170, 172; Vida 58, 63; Levin).

Migrations and the War Effort

But to what extent was the Lincoln administration motivated by military considerations when it took measures to encourage immigration? The facts are that apart from the July 1862 act granting expedited citizenship to immigrant recruits, numerous steps were taken to promote immigration to the Union, which if not directly then indirectly did entail the raising of the number of soldiers serving in the military. Suffice it to say that by 1865 one out of four Union soldiers was a wartime immigrant (Fite 193-194; Doyle). The promotion of migration both internationally and internally was a conscious policy of the Lincoln administration. Following secession, Congress finally passed the long-derailed Homestead Act of 186220 which on the one hand was a land law aimed at promoting interregional internal migration and on the other hand was an immigration law aimed at increasing international migration to the United States. Blake Bell, historian of the Homestead National Monument of America, summarized his research into this aspect of the act as follows:

The Homestead Act was the first of its kind to accommodate immigration and provide the necessary requirements for naturalization. The legislation went beyond simply providing an incentive to come to the United States; it integrated the components for citizenship as well. By requiring a declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen in order to file for a homestead the first component of the naturalization process was met. Furthermore, the Homestead Act required a 5 year residency period to ensure a potential settler would improve the land. This satisfied the second requirement in the naturalization process. No previous bill in U.S. history went so far to invite immigration and to provide a clearly defined path to citizenship. In many respects, it protected the immigrant homesteader from potential exploitation, succeeding where other immigration law had failed. Land and immigration in the United States have been bound throughout the nation’s history, so it is fitting that the first accommodating immigration law was actually a land law.

Between 1863 and 1865 alone, the Homestead Act—that was amended many times and was finally phased out in Alaska in 1986—made it possible for 80,000 settlers to get established on the lands of the Prairie.21 This meant the distribution of 2.5 million acres during the Civil War (Adams 274). In quick succession, the passage of the Homestead Act in May 1862 was followed by the Pacific Railway Act in July that launched the construction of the first transcontinental railroad line, and the Emancipation Proclamation in September which took effect in January 1863 declaring 3.5 million slaves in the territory of the Confederacy free.22 These three pieces of legislation worked together to facilitate immigration and internal migration. At the same time, however, these measures also contributed to the war effort and not only economically.

Railroad constructions were crucial to more effective interregional migration and social mobility in addition to the significance of the expanding railroad system in the war machinery by moving troops, provisions, equipment and ammunition. The migratory and military aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation was also outstanding; it invited Northern and Southern African Americans to join the Union Army sparking off major interregional migration23, which led to the establishment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) with some 200,000 enlisted in 166 regiments. These strictly segregated units were led by white officers. By 1865, African Americans made up 10% of the U.S. Armed Forces with some 19,000 of them serving in the Navy. In general terms, African Americans were made to play rather support than combat roles, but there were notable exceptions as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Infantry (Avila 14-15, Briley 5).

The military potential in immigration can be clearly traced in the Homestead Act too. As an immigration inducement, the act specified that any adult citizen “who is the head of a family” (including women) or any person attending to become a citizen (immigrants) could claim 160 acres of public land for free in the Trans-Mississippi West after living on it for five continuous years.24 As a recruiting inducement, first the act provided special treatment for veterans (and their widows) regarding eligibility, i.e. persons younger than twenty-one years could also apply (“Act of May 20, 1862” 392-393). Then, as amended on March 21, 1864, the Homestead Act made it possible both for men doing their military service and for men who had filed for a homestead but then enlisted in the Union Armed Forces to meet the requirements for patenting their claims through a family member of theirs residing on the land (“Act of March 21, 1864” 35-36). Also, as a homestead bonus act of 1864, veterans with two years of service were allowed to gain title to the land after a one-year residency only instead of the original five-year term (Hecker).25 Even though it was after the war that homesteading began in earnest, the link between the immigration and military recruiting incentives incorporated in the act represent a significant dimension of the migration factor in the Civil War.

The direct promotion of immigration would also translate into legislative action soon. President Lincoln took the lead in this respect. In his 1863 Message to Congress he urged Government action:

I again submit to your consideration the expediency of establishing a system for the encouragement of immigration. Although this source of national wealth and strength is again flowing with greater freedom than for several years before the insurrection occurred, there is still a great deficiency of laborers in every field of industry, especially in agriculture and in our mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals. While the demand for labor is much increased here, tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation, are thronging our foreign consulates and offering to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap, assistance can be afforded them. It is easy to see that under the sharp discipline of civil war the nation is beginning a new life. This noble effort demands the aid and ought to receive the attention and support of the Government (Lincoln).

On July 4, 1864, the President signed the Congressional Act to Encourage Immigration into law. This contract labor law aimed to recruit skilled-workers for the Northern economy that was struggling with wartime labor shortages. The practice was far from new in America since the method of labor recruitment through indentured servants, for example, was the most important source of labor in the Colonies in the 17th and much of the 18th century. In 1864, in order to administer the new law, such federal offices were set up as the Office of the Commissioner of Immigration within the Department of State, the Bureau of Immigration within the Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. Immigrant Office in New York City (Erickson 6-12; Higham 12). The management of the flows, however, continued with state governments and local authorities, and it was not until the Immigration Act of 1891 that the management of immigration became a federal responsibility. It was the State of New York that had opened America’s first immigration depot, Castle Garden, back in 1855, much predating the famous federally run Ellis Island in New York Harbor from 1892 on (Daniels 272).

Nevertheless, no official executive decision or legislative action was taken regarding the recruitment of soldiers abroad. Definitely, not one European government would have consented to it. For example, within a month after the first shots fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861, Queen Victoria issued not only the proclamation of British neutrality, but Britain also invoked the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 to make sure British citizens would not get involved in the Civil War (Woodworth 806). Labor recruiters, however, did work in Europe. Those, for instance, who carried out labor recruitment activities in German territories during the years of the American Civil War had to face up to the dangers of being mistaken for military recruiters and getting arrested (Erickson 25). If such misunderstandings could occur it was because the allegations against labor recruiters were not groundless and some did carry out military recruitment clandestinely. The incident of the Great Western26 leaving for New York from Liverpool illustrates that the suspicions of the British authorities were not unfounded.

[In November 1864] some 200 men arrived in the port to board the Great Western as steerage passengers. The majority, reportedly ‘destitute and half-starved’, had come from different manufacturing districts of Lancashire and were joined by some Irish and Germans at the quayside. However, as was the case in Irish port cities, Confederate agents were ever watchful of such groups. These agents soon discovered that the men’s passage to New York had been paid by an American, reportedly with a view to having them work in a New York glass work (Hamilton and Shiels).

The Great Western was held up on the Mersey for weeks as a result of the report of a Confederate attorney in Liverpool regarding the breach of the Foreign Enlistment Act. The British authorities boarded the ship and investigated the case. Due to the lack of evidence, however, the ship was finally allowed to leave for New York (Hamilton and Shiels; Erickson 20)27. Recent research into the New York Passenger Lists (1820-1957) and New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts (1861-1900), however, traces various Union recruits to the Great Western. What is revealed by Hamilton and Shiels is “the trail of potential illegal recruitment into the Federal army”:

[The 19-year-old Robert] Jenkins enlisted on the very same day he stepped off the docks in New York City. In researching this man’s past, […] a ship manifest reveal[ed] that at least 33 European men traveled together to the United States from the port of Liverpool and immediately enlisted in the Union Army. All are recorded as having enlisted either in New York City or Brooklyn, and all appear to match men who arrived in New York on the Great Western on that very same day. All of these men appear on the last two pages of the manifest listed with other men of military age. They appear to have been deliberately recorded in a separate section of the manifest, even though they were not all quartered on the same part of the ship. According to the muster rolls, thirteen were natives of Ireland, ten from England, four from Germany, three from France, one from Scotland, and one from Wales.

Southerners had no doubts that the government of the Union was making considerable efforts in order to recruit soldiers in Europe (Jones 172). Historian Don H. Doyle emphasizes that Confederate diplomats and supporters of the Confederate cause in Europe anxiously spread the information 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 of foreign mercenaries’ made up of ‘the refuse of the old world’”. Northern officials insisted in vain that “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” (Doyle). The government of the Confederacy was so much exercised by the alleged recruiting practices of the Union that in 1862 it sent two envoys to Ireland to stave off the activities of Northern recruiters. Union Secretary of State William H. Seward categorically refuted the Southern claims emphasizing that the official representatives of the United States were not engaged in recruiting soldiers abroad and did not offer official bounty of any kind in Europe to those who enlisted after their arrival in America. The measures taken to encourage voluntary emigration were exclusively aimed at compensating for the acute labor shortage experienced in the United States (Jones 172-173).

On the record, that is what actually happened. In 1862-1863 the Department of State authorized American diplomats and consuls in Europe to actively circulate information locally on the high wages available in the United States and on the advantages of the Homestead Act in order to lure potential immigrants. Expectations, however, were that this activity of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Europe could be mistaken for military recruitment carried out on false pretenses. According to Jones writing in 1960, Secretary of State Seward must have been aware of the fact that the growing volume of immigration could constitute a crucial element in filling up the manpower of the armed forces. Indeed, the newly arrived immigrants were received by a systematic recruitment program in the United States (173). As it was revealed by research into covert action during the Civil War published mostly since the 1990s,28 however, Seward was aware of much more.

Off the record, illegal recruiting did take place abroad that went far beyond the indirect but obvious military recruiting impact of the promotion of immigration represented by the special provisions for veterans in the Homestead Act or the expedited citizenship offered to the newly arrived willing to enlist. Certain forms of illegal recruiting activities, such as crimping and substitute brokerage, were well-known during the entire period, but were out of the reach of the federal government. Crimping, for instance, i.e. the practice of deceiving individuals into military service that had centuries-old history in American ports, was carried out extensively in British North America (Canada) along the eastern border, from Ontario to Nova Scotia, despite federal efforts to stop it. Since crimping was not only illegal in Canada but it amounted to the violation of British neutrality, crimps typically disguised themselves as labor recruiters (Pierpaoli, Jr., “Crimping” 462-463). The form of illegal military recruitment that did involve the federal government takes us into the realm of covert action. McNabb draws attention to the fact that research has been limited on the covert and clandestine activities of the Civil War. Yet it has been revealed that under the direction of Secretary of State Seward the U.S. government did resort to recruiting in Europe covertly. Confederate agents present in Europe could do little to counteract these activities:

U.S. newspaper executives as well as American clergy were asked to travel to Europe and work toward advancing the Union cause. One of the most important of these was Archbishop John Hughes, who worked to ensure a steady stream of Irish immigrants to the United States to enlist in the Union Army (McNabb 451).

In general terms, the offer of expedited citizenship, the pro-immigration policies and the Homestead Act of the Lincoln administration were all expected to have the salutary effect of increasing the number of immigrant recruits. But with the dwindling enthusiasm of the volunteers by 1862 and the subsequent Draft Act of 1863 the demand for volunteers heightened further. The Act stipulated that if the prescribed enlistment quotas of the individual states and congressional districts could be filled by volunteers, there was no need for the draft. Since conscription was utterly unpopular, the states and the districts did their utmost to secure the necessary number of volunteers and thus stave off the draft. That is what led to the introduction of the cash bounty. The bounty system to encourage enlistments and reward veterans for their service had long history in the United States. From colonial times to 1855, it would most typically be given in the form of military bounty land by states or by the federal government after the American Revolution. Federal bounty-land warrants were discontinued after 1855, but as referred to earlier, Civil War veterans could take advantage of special homestead rights designed specifically for rewarding military service under the Homestead Act of 1862 and its subsequent amendments. As the granting of bounty land was thus made part of the Homestead Act, in the Civil War the cash bounty was used only. By 1864 the bounty system had resulted in the fact that in wealthier districts a soldier could obtain over $1,000 by enlisting (Catton 221-223, Luebking 451-453). During the war, the federal, state and local governments paid over 600 million dollars in cash bounty or signing bonuses to volunteer soldiers, which along with the monthly pay they received in the military amounted to 1.3 billion dollars (Fite 125-126, 289).

The enlisting of newly arrived immigrants fitted into this larger frame of volunteer recruiting. In New York City’s Castle Garden and its neighborhood immigrants were received by a swarm of recruiting officers, substitute brokers and all types of agents of European origin who offered high bounties and promised the sure way to expedited citizenship by joining the military. These recruiters were perfectly aware of the weaknesses of their ex-compatriots and they knew all too well how to take advantage of those, sometimes even by resorting to a few glasses of whiskey. If an immigrant had no money, no friends, and had no specific destination—and most of the time this was the case—then it was easy to fall for the lure of the hundreds of dollars and the prospect of speedy naturalization. Thus a great number of newcomers turned into Union soldiers shortly after arrival (Fite 194; Jones 173). The system of cash bounty proved enticing not only to European immigrants, however. Some 40,000 French Canadians served in the Union Army and Navy as a result of the bounty (Kraut 24; Hansen 183; Higham 15). The war effort was thus significantly supported by immigrant recruits, and the measures implemented by the Lincoln administration succeeded in promoting voluntary population movements internationally and internally even amidst the war.


The superiority of the Union in all areas crucial to waging war—finance, population, enlistment strength, agricultural production, number of horses, factories, mileage of railroads29—came to dominate the military landscape after simultaneous key Union victories in the Eastern Theater at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3 and the Western Theater at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863. The South had neither the money, nor the economic or material resources to stand up straight after these defeats. The fact that the Confederacy did not have the migration potential to make up for the wartime losses of lives sealed off any opportunity to replenish its manpower and workforce. Consequently, while the South had bled out economically and militarily, the migration factor contributed significantly to the North’s ability to fight a victorious war in the home front and the war front at the same time. The recruiting potential in migration turned the migration factor into a military resource for the North and as a result it contributed significantly to deciding the outcome of the Civil War. Thus in addition to the more often treated aspects of the era, the issues of internal and international migration can cast new light upon the war effort. The utmost sacrifice of the warring parties, native- and foreign born alike, brought about the crystallization of the nation into an unquestionable union. Within three decades, this new quality of union would turn the United States into a world power with the migration factor ever present as a major force in shaping its history.


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1 A forthcoming paper of mine will examine how the forms of involuntary or forced migration of the Civil War—such as political emigration, internal displacement by war, slave refugee movements and Indian removal—contributed to the war effort and to Union victory. This paper concentrates on the impact of voluntary population movements only, i.e. on immigration and homesteading.

2 See for example the following sources: CWSAC Report; Avila and Coffey 75; Coffey and Cardoso 78; Brinkley 384; Linden–Brink–Huntington 406; Sellers–May–McMillen 201.

3 In 1861 and 1862, about 91,900 arrivals/annum were registered. Ever since 1845, U.S. immigration had never fallen below the 100,000 per annum limit (which is usually considered to be the indicator of mass migration). In 1863, immigration picked up again with 176,000 arrivals and it was not until 1931—the era of the Great Depression also affected by the Quota Laws introduced in the 1920s—that immigration would be below 100,000/year (U.S. Bureau of the Census).

4 According to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission (CWSAC), the number of armed conflicts during the war totals 10,400. Out of the 397 Civil War battlefields identified by the CWSAC, altogether 386 (97.2%) were to be found in Union and Confederate states, while 11 (2.7%) in the outlying territories of the West (Oklahoma, Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico). From those 386 battles, the total of 292 (75.6%) were fought in the South (mostly in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina), and 94 battles (24.3%) took place in the North (mostly in the border states of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri). The largest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War was in the North, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863, with casualties over 51,000. (Calculation prepared by the author on the basis of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields. Note that the CWSAC identified 384 of the above as principal battlefields.)

5 The byname of the party originates from the fact that at the outset of their operation in 1849 as the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner party members were expected to say “I know nothing” when they were asked about the activities of the nativist organization.

6 As a comparison, according to Department of Defense data, an average of 8,000 foreign-born enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces per year. In 2008 about 65,000 immigrants or foreign-born served in the U.S. armed forces, i.e. they made up 5% of all active-duty personnel. 11,000 of them were foreign-born women. The largest percentage of the foreign-born originated from Mexico and the Philippines (Batalova).

7 From colonial times to 1855, the granting of military bounty land in order to encourage enlistments or to reward veterans had been well established. Federal bounty-land warrants seized to be issued after 1855, but Civil War veterans could take advantage of special homestead rights designed specifically for rewarding military service under the Homestead Act of 1862 and its subsequent amendments in 1864, 1867, 1870, and 1872 (see Luebking 451-453; Bradsher 28).

8 It did not include people serving in the Navy and the Marine Corps until 1894, as stipulated in the Act of July 26, 1894, ch. 165, 28 Stat. 124 (Lee and Wasem 3).

9 Act of July 17, 1862, ch. 200, §21, 12 Stat. 594, 597. The requirement of the so-called “honorable discharge” dates from this Civil War statute (Lee and Wasem 4).

10 In the Union, the Enrollment Act or Draft Act of 1863 subjected all males aged between 20 and 45 to a draft lottery, but granted exemption from the draft for $300, a privilege of the wealthy only, or by hiring a substitute draftee usually from among the poor and the foreign-born, who were unable to buy their way out of the draft. The exemption clause of the act thus added a class dimension to the draft and the social injustice implied in it led to violent reactions by the poorer classes and the immigrants despite the nationalist mood of the period. Riots broke out almost instantaneously in Wisconsin and Indiana, and in the regions of the Pennsylvania coal mines. However, the most severe and violent draft riot causing the death of some 150-200 people was in the Irish community of New York City in July, 1863. The draft or class riot very soon turned into a race riot against African Americans in the city whose cheap workforce was a thorn in the eye of the Irish working-class, especially following the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 that took effect in January, 1863. The success of conscription was limited: draftees constituted 2.4% and substitutes 5.6% of the Union army. The draft, however, gave a push to volunteering (92%) for the rest of the war (Coffey 380-381; Howlett 424; Mallory 983; Archdeacon 83).

11 In fact, the first conscription law ever was enacted by the Confederate States of America out of acute need for manpower on April 16, 1862. Since volunteering had started to subside significantly by that time, conscription proved unavoidable. The act allowed for hiring a substitute until the end of 1863 when this provision was abolished altogether due to widespread indignation; the dissatisfaction stirred up by the exemptions granted to the wealthy was the most pronounced in Georgia and North Carolina (Shaw 369-371).

12 Soldier demographics for the Confederate Army are not available due to incomplete and destroyed enlistment records. The enlistment strength of the Confederate Army is estimated between 750,000 and 1.2 million, whereas that of the Union Army was 2.6 million (National Park Service). On the basis of the Census of 1860, Shaw refers to 1,064,193 white males of military age (18-45 years) in the South and 4,559,872 in the North (368).

13 Lonn’s Foreigners in the Confederacy (1940, republished in 2002) and Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1951) established a scholarly tradition in the research of immigrants’ participation in the Civil War. This tradition received formidable expression in William Burton’s Melting Pot Soldiers (1988, republished in 1998) and Dean B. Mahin’s The Blessed Place of Freedom (2002).

14 István Vida Kornél’s seminal work on Hungarian Civil War participation of the Kossuth émigrés traced altogether 99 Hungarians. While 87 of them fought with the Union, 12 sided with the cause of the Confederacy. Vida identified ten Hungarians serving in the multinational Garibaldi Guard of the Union (Vida 64-66, 72). He highlighted the roles of the three most famous Hungarian military heroes, namely Major General Alexander Asboth, Major General Julius Stahel, and Major Charles Zagonyi (79-99). His book was first published in Hungarian. See Világostól Appomatoxig. Magyarok az amerikai polgárháborúban. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2011. Interestingly, in the six-volume American Civil War. The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection (2013) only Asboth (Asboth, Alexander Sandor) and Stahel (Stahel-Szamvald, Julius) were included and Hungarians are referred to only in relation to the Garibaldi Guard under the entries “Immigrants” (Krogman 966) and “Italian Americans” (Pierpaoli 998). In “Immigrants” Matthew J. Krogman writes in the following way about Hungarians in the Garibaldi Guard: “The 39th New York Volunteers, also known as the Garibaldi Guard, consisted of three German and three Hungarian companies but also contained Swiss, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese recruits” (966-967). (Emphasis added.) The source of this overstatement is not included in the entry.

15 The history of some 5,000 Polish in the Civil War forms part of Teofil Lachowicz’s book (39-50). The most well-known Polish military man of the Civil War was Colonel Wlodzimiers Krzyzanowski, appointed to Brigadier General in November 1862, who organized the multinational 58th New York State Regiment, also called the Polish Legion. The recently published book by Mark F. Bielski highlights new details at the level of individual motivations of nine Polish officers fighting in the Union and Confederate Armies.

16 Data computed by the author on the basis of the total population figures per year between 1850 and 1870 (see “Total Population, Continental U.S., Series B 31-39 – Population, Annual Summary”, U.S. Census Bureau 26).

17 The German and Irish companies and regiments were the largest: about 200,000 German Americans fought in the Union and 5,000 in the Confederate armies, and about 170,000 Irish Americans served in the Union Army and Navy and some 30,000 in the Confederate Army (Jones 170; Mengel 758; Mallory 982-983).

18 “Active Service; or Campaigning in West Virginia.” Continental Monthly, March 1862. The piece was written by an anonymous “Union Private of Artillery”. (Emphasis added.)

19 Similarly, Union soldiers of Irish origin were referred to as “the sweepings of Five Points” in the South after the 1863 New York City draft riots that broke out in the city’s Irish neighborhood.

20 On Southern interests blocking the passage of the Homestead Act see Éva Eszter Szabó.

21 Consider that homesteading itself was made possible by another aspect of population movements of the involuntary type, namely, the forced removal of American Indian tribes that speeded up in the decades following the Indian Relocation Act of 1830. Forced removal was going strong in the Western territories of today’s Arizona and New Mexico during the Civil War years as well as the example of the Mescalero Apaches’ removal in 1862-63 and the Navajo’s Long Walk illustrate in 1864. On the U.S. government policy of removal and reservations see, for example, Waldman 216-217.

22 The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the Union-loyal, slave-owning border states. All the Northern states had passed legislation to abolish slavery between 1776 and 1804; in D.C. and the Western territories it was abolished in April and June, 1862 respectively (Briley 3, 5).

23 The Emancipation Proclamation also contributed to the growing involuntary migration of slave refugees, a theme elaborated on in my forthcoming paper.

24 In the first three years of the Homestead Act (1863-1866), free African Americans and freed slaves from the South after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 were not entitled to homesteading since they did not hold citizenship until the 1866 Civil Rights Act—backed by the 14th Amendment in 1868—conferred citizenship on everyone born in the United States regardless of race and color. The 1866 amendment or the so-called Southern Homestead Act included former-slaves in addition to ex-Confederate citizens as potential applicants.

25 After the Civil War, Union veterans were allowed to subtract their time of service from the five-year residency requirement. The 1867 amendment of the Homestead Act extended eligibility to Confederate veterans as well.

26 Given that at this time various ships were running under the same name, such as the USS Great Western too, it is important to note that this Great Western was a packet ship built in New York in 1851 for the Black Ball Line. It is not identical with the famous Brunel vessel, the SS Great Western that was scrapped in 1856 and broken up in 1857 (Hamilton and Shiels).

27 Erickson refers to the Great Western with 400 men on board recruited for the Union Army.

28 One of the earliest works on covert action by the Confederacy is J. Blakeless’s Spies of the Confederacy from 1970, while the rest of the few scholarly works dealing with the topic appeared in the 1990s and beyond, such as W. A. Tidwell, April ’65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (1995), followed by E. C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union (1996) and D. Markle, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War (2004). The most recent work in the field is David Perry’s Bluff, Bluster, Lies and Spies: The Lincoln Foreign Policy, 1861-1865 (2016).

29 Consider the following approximate data regarding the United States v. the Confederate States: finance $263m v. $74m; populations 21.5m v. 9m; enlistment strength 2.6m v. 750,000-1.2m; factories/factory workers 110,000/1.2m v. 21,000/111,000; agriculture: except for rice and tobacco, the U.S. was far superior to the C.S., especially in corn, wheat and livestock; horses (that had major importance in the war) 3.4m v. 1.7m; railroads mileage 22,000 v. 9,000 (see the charts in National Park Service).