Swedes and the Civil War in America
Exhibit on view November 2015–March 2016
The United States census of 1860 listed some 18,625 Swedish immigrants in the country, most of them in the Midwest. Once the Swedes had settled in their new land, they quickly obtained the right to vote. Naturalization was necessary to take up homestead claims, and most of the Swedish immigrants were eager to own land.
Initially, many Swedes were Democratic as the party portrayed itself as the friend of the immigrant. However, after 1852, Swedes turned away from the Democratic Party when it advocated the extension of slavery. The Swedes instead found themselves aligning with Lincoln’s anti-slavery, pro-temperance platform and largely supported him for President in 1860 and again in 1864.
“We have among us Germans, Irish, French, and Scandinavians--men that have come from Europe themselves or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.” —A. Lincoln at Chicago, July 10, 1856
…This country is in danger; a mighty power has engage it in war, threatening its very life and freedom itself…We have the same duty as the native born; the road to glory and honor is open to us as it is to them and we have sworn allegiance to this government…Let us prove ourselves worthy of it and of the land of our fathers…let us, without hesitation, place ourselves on the side of freedom and our adopted country, not with words alone but with arms and our lives if necessary…We shall be happy in fulfilling our duty and if death meets us in the strife, our parents, wives, children and friends will find comfort in having made sacrifices for the sake of right and freedom.” —Hans Mattson, published in Minnesota Swedish papers
Swedes were ready to back Lincoln on the battlefield as they did in the polls. When Lincoln issued the first call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, the Swedish immigrants responded as promptly as native-born Americans. Swedes accounted for more than 3,000 Union soldiers. In 1862, there were 14,000 Swedes in the Midwest. Of this, 2,250 enlisted. Illinois alone supplied 1,300 Swedish soldiers.
Naturally, foreign-speaking recruits sought companies or regiments composed of their fellow countrymen. One such company was The Bishop Hill Company of the Fifty-seventh Illinois Regiment, composed wholly of Swedish troops.
At first Swedes were prevented from enlisting because federal law did not allow applications from foreigners who could not speak English. Later, Secretary of State William H. Seward learned that many immigrants had military training from their home countries and the law was repealed. Lincoln’s call for volunteers was heard across the Atlantic. Some American consulates convinced young men who wished to emigrate to enlist in the Union army and paid their voyage to the United States. So many Swedish men sought to take this path that the Swedish government felt need to issue a warning to its citizens to not act hastily in emigrating.
Swedes aligned with the Union for several reasons. Some ideological, some practical--if slavery were permitted to expand, land would be absorbed into large estates, pushing out the poor immigrant farmer.
“…As you know, I enlisted as a soldier in Minnesota in the beginning of December, 1861…I belong to the Minnesota 4th Regiment Company. In that company was 11 Swedes and 11 Norwegians, the rest were Germans or Americans. We were in Minnesota until the beginning of April. Then we went to a slave state in the south, about fifteen-hundred English miles. We made the whole trip on steam boats. On the 29th and 30th of May I was involved in a battle and we took a city called Corinth. We took 10,000 prisoners and a lot of fire. If we had an insistent General we could have taken their whole camp. And if the North would have had devoted generals the war would have been over. But they want the war to last for many years because they have large salaries…The war continues just as horrible as before with no hope for an end. But I thank my god that I made it out uninjured from there...” —Letter from Swede Eric Young to family in Sweden, December 2, 1862 “To the Scandinavians of Minnesota!"
The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack
In August 1861, Union intelligence was that the Confederacy had developed an ironclad ship. This ship would have the ability to break up the Union blockade off the coast of Virginia. Almost immediately, Congress passed a bill to develop an ironclad ship of their own, with the help of Captain John Ericsson.
John Ericsson was born in Sweden in 1803. He served in the Swedish army and went on to devise over 2,000 inventions, including improving the model of the screw propeller to power large ships. His plans for the USS Monitor included a rotating turret that housed two cannons--a radical design at the time.
The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, or Battle of the Ironclads, was arguably the most important naval battle of the Civil War. It was fought over two days, March 8-9, 1862, in Hampton Roads off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. The battle ended in a stalemate between the two warships; neither were able to sink the other. The Union blockade remained and numerous ironclad ships were built contributing to the naval victory of the Union. Ericsson’s design, particularly the rotating turret, is considered one of the greatest technological advances in naval design and influenced the construction of future ships worldwide.
“Sir: The writer, having introduced the present system of naval propulsion and constructed the first screw-ship of war, now offers to construct a vessel for the destruction of the Rebel fleet at Norfolk and for scouring the Southern rivers and inlets of all craft protected by Rebel batteries… In making this offer I seek no private advantage or emolument of any kind. -- Attachment to the Union alone impels me to offer my services at this fearful crisis, my life if need be, in the great cause which Providence had called you to defend.” —John Ericsson to President Lincoln, August 29, 1861
The 1860 United States Census lists only 713 first generation Swedish immigrants in the Southern states--mainly in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Perhaps not more than 50 joined the Confederate Army and Navy. The South attracted few Swedish immigrants because the climate, soil, and products were unusual to them and because slave labor provided competition for jobs. Nonetheless, some Swedes did settle in the south and a few became slave owners.
Swedes served the Confederacy for a variety of reasons. Some because of their brief in the Southern cause, some because they were caught by Southern draft, and others for the increased compensation which was offered, especially by the Southern Navy.
“We live in a slave state, are in daily contact with both masters and salves, and find that the slave are provided with better food, accorded better treatment, and are better cared for than the working classes of Sweden. A few of us own slaves and all of us aspire to own slaves when we are in position to purchase them. In a slave state a white man has many advantages…” —Svante Palm in Hemlandet, July 7, 1855
Wives of Swedish volunteers sent supplies to the front and sometimes accompanied the troops to act as cooks and nurses. One woman who won distinction as a nurse was Mrs. William H. Holstein, a direct descendant of the Delaware Swedes. She lived for several years in army camps and hospitals. She won praise for her work after the Battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
We know, of course, that the Civil War ended in 1865 and the Union stayed together. It can be said that Swedish immigrants played a role in this victory--the victory of preserving the union and abolishing slavery--from helping elect Lincoln to fighting on the battlefield.
“Svenskarna under stjärnbaneret: insatser under nordamerikanska inbördeskriget 1861-1865,” Alf Åberg. Stockholm : Natur och Kultur, c1994.
“Skizzer från nord-amerikanska kriget, 1861-1865. Bref och anteckningar under en fyraårig vistelse i Förenta Staterna,” Adolf Carlsson Warberg. Stockholm, O. L. Lamm [1867-71].
“Swedish Generals and Colonels in Gray, 1861-1865,” Bertil Häggman and Lars Gjerlveil. Oslo : Sons of Conf. Veterans, 1996.
“The Story of the Monitor,” William S. Well. New Haven, Conn. : Cornelius Bushnell National Memorial Association, 1899.
“Swedish immigrants in Lincoln’s Time,” Nels Hokanson. New York ; Harper & Bros., 1942.
“Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy,” Ella Lonn. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press [c1951].