May 1864

Ethnic Illinoisans during the war

Illinois in 2014 has a large ethnic population. The U.S. Census estimated that in 2010 almost 14% of the state’s population had been born in another country. That was even more the case when the Civil War began in 1861. Of just over 1.7 million people living in the Prairie State in 1860 over 324,000-about 19%-were foreign born. More Chicagoans had been born in other lands than in the U.S. Those adopted Americans played an important role in the state’s response to civil war.


Who was here?
By 1860 natives of the German-speaking states (which had not yet united as a single nation) and Austria numbered just under 131,000. Many had arrived in the United States following the failed revolutions of the late 1840s. Though German likely could be heard in most Illinois counties, especially large numbers of immigrants settled in Chicago and across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in the downstate counties of St. Clair and Monroe.


Natives of Ireland made up the second largest number of Illinoisans born outside the United States. Over 87,000 were scattered across the state, many living in and near Chicago. Irish accounted for some of the new state’s earliest settlers, but the numbers began to grow in the 1830s during construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. They rose in the 1840s and 50s as huge numbers fled famine in their homeland.


About 72,000 of those living in Illinois in 1860 had originated in the British dominions of England, Scotland, Wales, and Canada.


Natives of Scandinavia, who began arriving in some number in the late 1840s, tallied at about 11,000 in 1860. Most lived in Chicago or a cluster of settlements in Henry, Knox, and Rock Island counties. Just under 10,000 Illinois residents, many living in Kankakee County, were natives of France.


Joining the struggle
With the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 foreign-born Illinoisans, like their native-born neighbors, faced the question: What now? For Germans and Scandinavians who, generally speaking, supported the Republican cause in the late 1850s, the answer was clear. Many flocked to the colors, joining local military companies (units of about 100 men) with their neighbors. When the state’s quota of volunteers was quickly reached and new men were not being accepted for service, a number of Illinoisans crossed the Mississippi to join German units forming in St. Louis.


For many Illinois Irish the decision was likely more difficult. The Irish had remained loyal to the Democratic Party in the 1850s struggle over the extension of slavery and, like many in their party, were reluctant to fight what many saw as a Republican war. U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, the champion of Illinois Democrats and Lincoln’s main opponent for the presidency in 1860, soon settled the question for many. In late April 1861 he appeared in Springfield to declare that the firing on Sumter had changed the political landscape, leaving only two parties—patriots and traitors. Numbers of Illinois Irish stood to the colors, though many strongly disapproved of the Lincoln administration’s movements toward black freedom.


Ethnic outfits
The closest student of Illinois ethnics during the war, William Burton, carefully notes that by far most of the state’s immigrant soldiers enlisted in local units with native Americans and men of other ethnic backgrounds. Letters from soldiers in a number of “native” regiments can be found in Illinois’ foreign language newspapers.


A few outfits, however, were intentionally ethnic in their makeup.

James A. Mulligan took the lead in forming a regiment (a unit of ten 100-man companies) from the Chicago Irish community. A prominent attorney, Democrat, and peacetime-militia leader, Mulligan soon brought together what would be officially designated the 23rd Illinois Infantry Regiment but known informally as the “Irish Brigade.” The outfit played a major role in the 1861 siege at Lexington, Missouri (see this website’s feature for September 1861). Captured in Missouri, Mulligan soon was repatriated a reconstituted the 23rd, serving in the Virginia theatre where Mulligan was killed in 1864.

A second Illinois Irish regiment had a more difficult birthing, due to struggle between factions within the community. Formally known as the 90th Illinois Infantry and more popularly as the “Irish Legion,” this regiment served in the Western theatre, taking part in the campaign for Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea. The outfit carried a distinctive emerald flag, which survives today (;=Infantry&Submit;=Search+for+Flags)

Illinois Germans formed three infantry regiments. Two, the 24th and the 82nd, were initially commanded by Friedrich Hecker, a popular hero of the failed 1848 revolution. Both outfits suffered due to personal conflicts such as those common in native units. Old World prejudices affected the 82nd-a Norwegian leader begged Illinois governor Yates that the Scandinavian company nor be subjected to the command of a German colonel. By all accounts the Scandinavians worked well with their fellows, as did the “Israelitish” members of Company I.

The 43rd Illinois was “sponsored” in part by Gustave Koerner, a Belleville resident and politician who had served on the Illinois Supreme Court and as the state’s lieutenant governor. German-language advertising was used to attract recruits. The regiment saw hard service in the Western theatre. Its first colonel, Julius Raith, was killed and 40% of its men put out of action at the Battle of Shiloh. When its original three-year term of service ended in 1864, the outfit reenlisted as a veteran regiment (see this website’s feature for Feb. 1864).

Interested in learning more?
For overviews of the subject see: William L. Burton, “Illinois Ethnics in the Civil War.” Illinois History Teacher 4:2 (1997) online at and his “Ethnic Regiments in the Civil War: The Illinois Experience,” in Selected Papers in Illinois History 1980 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1982).
A sampling of studies of specific groups includes: Eric Benjaminson, “A Regiment of Immigrants: The 82nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry and the Letters of Captain Rudolph Mueller,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94 (2001-02); Suellen Hoy, “Preserving the Union, Shaping the Image: Chicago’s Irish Catholics and the Civil War,” in Ellen Skerrett, ed., At the Crossroads: Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish (Chicago, 1997); Roger Kvist, “A Social History of the Swedish Ethnic Units from Illinois in the Civil War,” Swedish American Historical Quarterly 50 (1999).
Book-length studies of ethnic Illinois outfits and collections of letters by immigrant soldiers continue to be published; check the library database to find specific titles