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Our Rich History: Honoring Cincinnati’s German regiments who heeded the call during the Civil War

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

When the Civil War broke out, Cincinnati’s Germans heeded President Lincoln’s call to arms, and enthusiastically supported the Union cause by forming several all-German regiments.

Members of the 28th Ohio Infantry Regiment. (Photo provided)

German immigrants and their offspring opposed slavery in a country they called “das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten” (“the land of unlimited possibilities”). Further, the German-American press had long since advocated abolition, calling slavery “a political and moral cancer.”

Coming from a country that was divided into more than thirty states, German-Americans also opposed secession, since they didn’t want the United States to become the Disunited States. So, Cincinnati’s Germans formed a total of six German regiments for the Union Army: the 9th, 28th, 47th, 106th, 108th, and 165th.

Additionally, they formed three Ohio militia regiments during the so-called Siege of Cincinnati: the 6th, 8th, and 11th. They were sent to Northern Kentucky during the Siege, and served alongside the 106th regiment, which was commanded by Lt. Col. Gustav Tafel, formerly head of the Cincinnati Turnverein. So, a total of four Cincinnati German regiments were in Northern Kentucky for the defense of the area.

Lt. Col. Gustav Tafel. (Photo provided)

The Confederates referred to German-American troops as “the Dutch Devils” due to their tenacity in battle. And legend has it that Robert E. Lee said: “Take the Dutch out of the Union Army and we could whip the Yankees easily.” Casualties were high: Of the 1,155 soldiers in the 9th Ohio Regiment, 674 returned home. This regiment consisted mainly of Turners from Cincinnati, but also from elsewhere in the area, including Covington and Newport.

Veterans of the 9th helped raise funds in 1877 for the erection of the statue in Washington Park honoring Col. Robert L. McCook, its first commander. When Tafel was Mayor of Cincinnati, he invited the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans association, to hold its national encampment in Cincinnati in 1898, and it was one of the largest in the group’s history.

In Memorial Hall in Cincinnati there is a statue inscribed with the names of some of the casualties of the 9th Ohio Regiment, as well as a framed picture from a Cincinnati German paper listing the dead and wounded of the regiment. It also contains fragments of what remains of the regiment’s battle-torn flag.

1898 reunion of members of the 106th Ohio Infantry Regiment. (Photo provided)

However, there is no historical marker honoring the Civil War service of Cincinnati’s German-American soldiers. With a total of nine regiments, there would have been approximately 9,000 who served in Union and Ohio militia regiments.

Much of the 20th century was characterized by anti-German sentiment emanating from the world wars, so it is not surprising that memory of Cincinnati’s German Civil War regiments faded and disappeared. A Civil War general from St. Louis, Missouri, Peter Joseph Osterhaus, once commented that he was “an utterly unknown person.”

Osterhaus’s comments ring true with regard to other German-American officers in the Union Army, and the many German regiments as well. A good example of this lack of awareness of their service record was the PBS miniseries The Civil War by Ken Burns. Not one word was mentioned about them.

The service record of Cincinnati’s German Civil War regiments and their commanding officers seems to be generally unknown. As it is now 160 years since the Civil War broke out, it would seem altogether appropriate to erect a historical marker honoring their service, so that they do not remain “utterly unknown.”

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Don Heinrich Tolzmann is a nationally and regionally noted historian of German Americana. He has written and edited dozens of books, and contributed to many others, including The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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  1. Amanda says:

    The old Germans just couldn’t help themselves when it came to war. It’s a shame that they’ve changed.

  2. Dennis Zlatkin says:

    My GG-Grandfather, William Kaiser, came here from Wurttemberg, Germany in 1861 and enlisted in the 106th. He was only 17 years old. After the war in 1871 he married Emma Pfalsgraff who was born in Cincinnati but her parents were German Immigrants from Bavaria. William and Emma both died from encephalitis in 1883 and 1884. They are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

  3. Wayne Schwegel says:

    My great, great, grandfather, Jacob Schwegel came to the U.S. in 1848 with many other Germans at that time and they became know as the German “48ers”.
    He came to the U.S. from Schrollbach, Rhineland-Pfalz, Germany and entered the U.S. in New Jersey.

    His first known residence was in Indiana, then moved to Ohio sometime around 1850.
    His Montgomery County, Ohio census records indicate he was a “Sadler” or harness maker.

    He enlisted in the U.S. Army in Dayton and trained at Camp Dennison, on the east side of Cincinnati.

    He, and the surviving members of the 106th O.V.I. we’re captured by Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan
    at the battle of Hartsville, Tennessee.

    There was a great deal of debate as to who was responsible for the reported poor performance the Union forces, and in particular the 106th OVI during the battle, but ultimately the blame must fall on certain commanders during the battle and poor training and preparation of the 106th prior to the engagement.
    It must be understood that these were young immigrants/enlistees, both German and Irish in the 106th, and there may have been poor communication among the various regimental officers that may have involved language problems.

    Eventually, he and the other captives, were paroled and permitted return to the 106th. Jacob finished his enlistment with the 106th as a private.

    I believe there is considerable truth that much of the accomplishments of the German troops in the civil war have been overlooked due to the anti-German sentiment that existed during World War I and World War II.

    My great, great grandfather died in 1917 in the VA home in Dayton, Ohio just a few days before my father was born.

    In fact, the anti-German sentiment that has been mentioned, kept my grand father from being involved in the war effort during the First World War even though he was English speaking, well educated and a telegrapher with a “fast fist”, that is, he could send and receive at around 21 words per minute.
    In fact he had worked for Western Union, the Dayton Ducks Baseball team and would later telegraph the Dayton Triangles football games.
    He was was a very loyal American was hurt by the prejudice and insults he experienced.

    That anti-German feeling continued into the Second World War.
    My uncle Howard was assigned to an a B-24 crew of all German descent, and he died serving his country when his plane crashed after take-off on a bombing run two days before D-day!

    And my father received 3 bronze stars during the Battle of the Bulge, but anti-German sentiment continued.

    The irony in all of this is that when I was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force, I had a German surname, and yet I was treated with hostility by of many German nationals with whom I worked.
    Additionally, my surname was not unfamiliar to them, as my dad’s family was originally from Schrollbach, which was just outside of Ramstein AB, about 40 miles from where I was stationed.

    Years later, I took my wife to see the town on the Mosel River near where I was stationed. And while there, I attempted make a connection with my distant relatives in Schrollbach, and they were anything but welcoming.
    Although polite, they obviously did not want to mend the wartime fences.

    So prejudice can be a double edged sword.

    I think it sad the many in our country, like Ken Burns can overlook the service of so many Americans of German descent who have given so much for this country and it’s ideals.

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