“Out of Pure Patriotism I Have Taken Up This Service”: Political Refugees in the American Civil War

“Out of Pure Patriotism I Have Taken Up This Service”: Political Refugees in the American Civil War

We are currently living through what could well be considered the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. With over sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the question arises how the history of political refugees can inform current policy-making today. Historical analogies often conceal as much as they reveal, but one lesson they impart is that decisions about asylum seekers have long-term consequences. The history of the United States offers countless examples for how refugees, if granted asylum, become part of and shape a country’s history. The participation of political refugees in the Civil War is one.

Starting in the spring of 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. Although each revolution had its own local dynamic, they also shared a key characteristic: revolutionaries from the Italian states, France, the various German states, all across Central Europe, and Ireland fought for more political representation, social justice, and autonomy. The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the details of their goals—about the specific structure of a unified Germany, or about the extent of political and social reforms in France—but they often invoked the United States’ own revolution as a source of inspiration. Public opinion in the US welcomed the European revolutions; events across the Atlantic reminded Americans of their own history, both as a source of pride and also as standards that they should uphold.

As the revolutions were crashing across Europe, waves of political refugees fled persecution. Some stayed close to home (in England, Switzerland, France, or Belgium), others fled as far as the Ottoman Empire, or crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific in search for safety and a new beginning, making political exile in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 a truly global phenomenon. Thousands of former revolutionaries, the forty-eighters as they came to be called, found asylum in the United States.

Political refugees arriving in the United States were a diverse group comprised of various nationalities. They came from diverse professional groups (lawyers, scholars but also artisans and soldiers), different faiths (Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and free-thinkers), and held various political persuasions, ranging from radical socialism to moderate liberalism. Former revolutionaries from France, the German states, and the Kingdom of Hungary, as well as members of the Young Irelanders and Polish revolutionaries who fought against Prussian occupation, hardly added up to a homogenous composite. Their common denominator was the experience of revolution and exile. While political refugees accounted for a comparatively small section of the immigrants reaching the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, they often rose to prominence in the following decades as a result of their continued political and social engagement.

Forty-eighters, especially those who became active in public life in antebellum America, remained committed to the causes they had fought for in the Old World. As Mischa Hoeneck has shown, this often led to alliances with abolitionists, but they were always rooted in specific local conditions.[1] In fact, the attitude of forty-eighters to chattel slavery was as diverse as the refugees themselves. When Lajos Kossuth, a key figure in the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence visited the United States in 1851 and 1852, American abolitionists expected Kossuth, the “William Lloyd Garrison of Hungarian liberty” as one contemporary newspaper dubbed him, to speak out against slavery.[2] Yet Kossuth, who wrote and spoke passionately about liberty, remained silent on this subject. His goal was to secure American political support or at least financial assistance for a new Hungarian revolution, and he was therefore wary of alienating the Southern states. Kossuth’s lecture tour did not produce either the financial or the political results he had been hoping for.[3] His example, which, considering his mission and the publicity his lecture tour received, was in many ways exceptional, sheds light on the complexity of the attitudes of political refugees towards slavery, nonetheless.

Image of Franz Sigel on horseback, facing right, with troops lined up behind him
Lithograph of Major General Franz Sigel on horseback, c. 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Even if they had been divided on the issue of slavery, the rhetoric of nation-building and national unity constituted familiar territory for former European revolutionaries and goals they readily identified with.[4] The outbreak of the Civil War saw political exiles join the ranks in great numbers, the overwhelming majority serving in the Union army. There were many reasons for political refugees to join the army, ranging from the practical to the ideological. For one, the Civil War offered the professional soldiers among the refugees who, after arriving in America had to find civilian occupations, an opportunity to return to their original vocations. General Franz Sigel, for example, had attended military academy in Baden (a German state) and had extensive command experience but worked as a teacher in America in the decades preceding the war. Similarly, Sándor Asboth, a refugee from the Kingdom of Hungary with military training and experience as a civil engineer, worked as a mining and landscape engineer before joining the Union army. Although few political refugees had as much military training as Sigel and Asboth, most of them had participated in armed conflicts in Europe as army recruits or members of a militia.

Regardless of their military experience or professional trajectories, for most political exiles participation in the Civil War was inextricably linked with a sense of loyalty to their new home. As one émigré from Hungary, a military officer, put it: “out of pure patriotism, I have taken up this service.” Another officer wrote of himself as a “friend of the long-oppressed.”[5] For political refugees living in Southern states, the Civil War presented a clash between their values and loyalty to their new homes. A letter by Dr. Hermann Nagel shows this inner conflict. Nagel settled in Texas after fleeing Europe for political reasons briefly before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848. In a letter to his brother, he wrote in 1861:

I will be sad to leave Texas, a beautiful country that has offered me such happiness and satisfaction for so long, but I will have to. I will never be able to reconcile myself with the belief that slavery is the actual foundation of the state, that the continued existence of slavery is not merely a temporary necessity but the true essence and basic principle of the state, without which civilized society cannot exist.[6]

In addition to building on their military experience, political refugees also fulfilled the role of cultural brokers. Exiles often rose to prominence in immigrant communities or were able to draw on their experiences from the European revolutions to mobilize their constituencies: Franz Sigel played a key role in gathering German-speaking recruits, while Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski, a Polish nobleman who fled to the United States after a failed Polish uprising against Prussia, organized a “Polish Legion.”[7] Several units consisted primarily of immigrant recruits, who answered the call to arms in disproportionate numbers. The influence of political refugees within the army was not limited to their own ethnic communities, however. Historian István Kornél Vida showed, for example, that at least ten Hungarian refugees military officers served in the United States Colored Troops.[8] Scores of refugee physicians and engineers also offered their services to the army.

Recruitment poster aimed at German-speaking Americans (including political refugees and immigrants). The main text reads: “Citizens! Our Country is in danger! To the weapons! To the weapons!” Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

Most political refugees joined the Union army. This reflected in part their political affinity; many forty-eighters supported Lincoln and the Republican Party. Also most political refugees, like most immigrants in general, settled in the North, where they could integrate easier and where they found work. That said, we find immigrants and also few political refugees among the ranks of the Confederate army, though in incomparably smaller numbers.[9]

The Civil War was a formative experience for many forty-eighters who settled in the United States. Looking back at his life in 1911, Julian (Gyula) Kuné, a political refugee from Hungary reminisced about his involvement in the Civil War. When the war broke out “it took but a moment for my decision (to join the Union Army).” Kuné then proceeds to draw a direct line between revolutionary Europe and the American Civil War, writing that “never before, unless I except my early experience during the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was history made so fast as it was during the winter of 1860-61.”[10] Such direct connections between the moral and the military aspect of the European revolutions in the distant and more recent past and the Civil War were a common trope at the time and also in émigré memoirs.[11] It had more than symbolic significance that one army unit consisting primarily of European immigrants was even named after the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.[12]

Drawing direct connections in émigré biographies between the revolutions in Europe and the Civil War in America is challenging, given the different contexts. Such direct connections can obscure the wide spectrum of the meaning of such terms as “freedom“ or “liberty,” terms that forty-eighters often used when they described their motivations for joining the Union army. At the same time, these direct lines connecting émigrés’ revolutionary experience in Europe with their participation in the Civil War in America reveal that émigrés refocused their life stories. Through the Civil War émigrés turned the experience of political exile from a traumatic rupture into a basis for biographical continuity or, to quote Kuné again, into a story of a “heart and soul…always devoted to the cause of liberty.”[13]


[1] Mischa Hoeneck, We Are the Revolutionists: German-speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[2] Donald S. Spencer, Louis Kossuth and Young America (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1977), 67.

[3] Sabine Freitag, “‘The Begging Bowl of Revolution:’ The Fund-raising Tours of German and Hungarian Exiles to North America, 1851-1852,” in Sabine Freitag, ed., Exiles from European Revolutions. Refugees in Mid-Victorian England (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003), 164-186. Timothy Mason Roberts, Distant Revolutions. 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 146-168. A dated but detailed overview of Kossuth’s visit in the United States is John H. Komlos, Louis Kossuth in America, 1851-1852 (Buffalo, NY: East European Institute, 1973).

[4] For a broader contextualization of the Civil War in a transatlantic framework, see Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations. An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

[5]Cited by István Kornél Vida, “ ‘A rég elnyomottak barátai:’ Magyar katonák az észak-amerikai polgárháború néger ezredeiben” [“‘Friends of the long-oppressed:’ Hungarian Soldiers in the Colored Regiments in the North American Civil War.”] Aetas (2008 XXIII: 2), 68-81.

[6] Letter from Dr. Hermann Nagel addressed to his brother, dated Milheim, April 28, 1861, published in Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich, eds., Germans in the Civil War: The Letters they Wrote Home (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[7] Teofil Lachowicz and Albert Juszczak, Polish Freedom Fighters on American Soil: Polish Veterans in America from the Revolutionary War to 1939 (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2011).

[8] For an overview of the participation of Hungarian political refugees in the Civil War: Vida Istváb Kornél, Hungarian Émigrés in the American Civil War: A History and Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

[9] In general on immigrants in the Confederate army, see the classic work of Ella Lonn and William A. Blair, Foreigners in the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[10] Julian (Gyula) Kune, Reminescences of an Octogenarian Hungarian Exile (Chicago: Published by the author, 1911), 94.

[11] These connections were not limited to the Civil War, however. As Lajos (Louis) Schlesinger, a forty-eighter from Hungary put it already in 1852: “We refugee soldiers of Hungary are in peculiar position, rendering attractive to us any military adventure, honorable in its spirit and object. Any cause of liberty, of popular rising against despotism, was already half our own cause, on whatever particular spot of the globe the battle was to be fought.” In Louis Schlesinger, “Personal Narrative of Louis Schlesinger of Adventures in Cuba and Ceuta.” Democratic Review (September 1852): 211. For an analysis of the participation of forty-eighters in military conflicts prior to the Civil War see Michael L. Miller, “From Central Europe to Central America: Forty-eighters in the Filibuster Wars of the Mid-nineteenth Century,” in Charlotte A. Lerg and Heléna Tóth, eds., Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861 (Boston: Brill, 2017), forthcoming.

[12] Frank W. Alduino, David J. Coles, “‘Ye come from many a far off clime; And speak in many a tongue:’ The Garibaldi Guard and Italian-American Service in the Civil War,” Italian Americana (January 2004): 47-63.

[13] Kune, Reminescences, 88.

Heléna Tóth

Heléna Tóth, Ph.D. (2008) Harvard University, is Assistant Professor of Modern European History at Otto Friedrich University, Bamberg, Germany. She is author of An Exiled Generation: German and Hungarian Refugees of Revolution, 1848-1871 (Cambridge, 2014). She has published widely on the history of political exile in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and the cultural history of socialism.

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