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Project description

The American Civil War fundamentally changed the United States. Between 1861 and 1865 more American soldiers lost their lives than in all other American wars combined. Four million slaves were emancipated, an industrial “great power” established, and immigrants by the hundreds of thousands were forced to decide what American citizenship meant to them.

The Civil War’s enormous impact on the United States’ development is also reflected in the historiography on the subject: no other American conflict has been studied with the same fervor. Yet despite more than 50,000 books on the Civil War, according to American historian Susannah Ural there is still “no comprehensive study of immigrants and nonwhites in the North and South during this era, who constituted nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population in 1860.”

The Civil War left significant imprints both inside and outside American borders. As American historian Sven Beckert demonstrates, the Civil War significantly affected the global cotton trade, and the conflict also revealed transnational ties to Denmark. By the war’s outbreak, a steadily increasing emigration from Denmark had begun to transplant notions of Danish identity to the America as evidenced by the flow of letters, money, goods, people and ideas across the Atlantic.

More than 1,000 Danish immigrants served in the military during the Civil War and ten times as many felt the war’s consequences on the home front. The Danish-American amateur historian P.S. Vig estimates that more Danes per inhabitant participated in the Civil War than any other ethnic group. Yet in contrast to recent scholarship on Danish soldiers’ service in “Waffen SS” during World War II, little is known about the cultural values that encouraged Danish participation in the Civil War, nor what meanings war service held in these pioneers’ everyday lives during the 1860s.

International studies of other ethnic groups, particularly German and Irish, indicate that immigrants served in the American Civil War to defend what they perceived as American values, but were also lured by the promise of adventure and relatively steady pay. Additionally, the Civil War, according to the secondary literature, helped immigrants in military service become integrated into American society more quickly. Moreover, related studies point to the fact that through their war service immigrant soldiers created broader social networks, won the right to a state pension, and subsequently used their veteran status as a shortcut to achieve local leadership positions in immigrant communities. Thus through their military service, Danish pioneers, who arrived in the United States at a time characterized by an increasing fear of foreigners, created an important political and economic foundation for the more than 300,000 countrymen who followed in their footsteps and emigrated after the Civil War.

Research Questions

This project examines what the Civil War meant personally, socially, and politically to the Danish immigrants – on the battlefield and on the home front - and answers the following questions.

  • How did Danish immigrants in New York, New Denmark and New Orleans perceive, construct and apply concepts such as race, ethnicity and Scandinavism as well as Danish and American identity between 1860 and 1865?

Moreover, the Civil War forced Danish immigrants to consider regional and national allegiances as well as American values, which leads to the questions:

  • What motivated Danish immigrants to risk their lives in a bloody Civil War? How did the Danish immigrants describe and commemorate their Civil War service? How did the Danish immigrants interact with other ethnic groups including Anglo-Americans? Lastly, how did the Danish immigrants use their veteran status in American society after the war?

Theory and method

This project takes as a starting point that American history as a whole, and the American Civil War in particular, cannot be understood without knowledge of how ethnic groups, and the question of race, significantly shaped the conflict from the grassroots level to a broader diplomatic level. Danish immigrants’ experiences in the American Civil War can therefore not be separated from their cooperation and conflict with other ethnic groups, nor the transnational processes that helped shape the United States and Denmark in the time after 1860.

As Danish historian Nils Arne Sørensen has pointed out, good national historical writing requires ”transnational perspectives” – a prominent research paradigm within the field of American Studies. In the context of this project, “transnational perspectives” means focusing on people, “the social space that they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.”

Additionally, the current project is based on the theoretical premise that national identity and ethnicity are constructed and adapted to fit individual and group needs as part of a culture constantly re-negotiated. The transnational ties between Denmark and America will be explored through a reduction of the analytical scale, a methodological tool inspired by new cultural history, in the expectation that a detailed analysis of individual and group behavior will reveal meanings and practices related to greater societal and cultural structures. Consequently, the project is delimited to a study of three Scandinavian-American immigrant communities.

A central concept in the construction and renegotiation of identity is the idea of “complementary identity,” which the American historian Jon Gjerde defines as “dual loyalties to nation and subgroup.” For example, during the Civil War this freedom and dual loyalty was expressed in military units that volunteered to fight for the American government, yet maintained a strict Scandinavian component such as the 15th Wisconsin Regiment, also known as The Scandinavian Regiment, whose battle flag read “For Gud og Vort Land (For God and Our Country).”

The project hereby adds a new identity and cultural historical angle to Danish emigration history in a research field that has previously been dominated by demographic-statistical studies focused after 1868. As Torben Grøngaard Jeppesen noted in his influential study from 2005, “actual individuals can seem far away.” The current study helps fill this historiographic void and places the focus before 1868, while following in the methodological footsteps of Anne Magnussen by analyzing the interconnected physical spaces, narratives, and practices of three Danish immigrant communities.

Physical space. Where did the Scandinavians settle? In three case-studies the predominantly Scandinavian enclave New Denmark in Wisconsin, for example its public buildings and street names, is compared to more ethnically diverse cities such as New York City in the north and New Orleans in the South and related to the narratives and practices surrounding these spaces.

Operationalization: The three chosen communities all experienced an influx of Danish and European immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s which forced the inhabitants to relate to values of the “old” and “new” world. Fritz Rasmussen of New Denmark exemplified, among others, this complementary identity through a discussion, in many of his 450 diaries now in the possession of Wisconsin Historical Society, of Danish and American political ideology when going to the local school house for elections. Moreover, what is the significance of the earliest Danish immigrant community in Wisconsin being named New Denmark? Also, what does it mean when Danes in New York celebrated “Grundlovsdag (Constitution Day)” and Danes in New Denmark did not?

Narratives. How have Scandinavians described religion, race, ethnicity and identity through newspaper articles, pension applications, letters, diaries and memoirs?

Operationalization: Publicly the majority of Danish immigrants created a narrative of antislavery views but privately concern over race at times existed. For example Ferdinand Winsløw publicly exclaimed his anti-slavery views, but privately wrote his wife, “I hired Homer Grimes, an elegant free darkie from Dubuque, for my exclusive servant (…) the nigger stand[s] in front, ready for any command.” In another example concerning politics, rhetoric and practice, the Scandinavian Association of 1844 in New York in 1864 made clear that, “the canon thunder from Dybbøl’s Redoubts reached us and with pride we received accounts of your heroic defense.” Yet the letter was seemingly not followed by concrete involvement in Denmark’s defense.

Practice. Which connections and discrepancies exist between rhetorical and the practical experiences on the battle field and home front?

Operationalization: Among Scandinavian immigrants and politicians, as well as the local papers, there was a strong public current of pan-Scandinavian brotherhood in the early 1860s which was apparent in the call to arms for a Scandinavian regiment in Wisconsin which included references to a “Scandinavian population.” Yet as the Civil War progressed, Scandinavian societies took on an increasingly old world nationalistic focus. For example, a Danish immigrant in 1864 wrote, “We have here in Chicago 4 Scandinavian Societies (…) Of these, the Danish Society Dana is the only one that has a Scandinavian stamp; the others are rigorously separated within their ethnic boundaries.”

In Denmark the source material is primarily located at the national archive Rigsarkivet, The Royal Library, and the Emigrant Archive, while other relevant material is preserved in several American archives. The Wisconsin Historical Society holds an extensive collection of letters and diaries from New Denmark’s Fritz Rasmussen, while the Brooklynite Christian Christensen’s letters can be found in California and Seattle. Concerning the Danes in New Orleans, Louisiana State University holds a substantial letter collection from Danish sailor Christian Koch, whose sons were forced into military service for the Confederacy. The study is supplemented by several newspapers, criminal and pension records, military reports, and memoirs. Large parts of this source material have never previously been used in Danish or international historical research.

Internationalization and Collaboration

Professor Eric Foner, who in 2011 won the Pulitzer Prize for his research regarding the Civil War and the centrality of slavery, has invited me to Columbia University’s Department of History in New York as a visiting scholar in 2013. The research affiliation with Columbia University enables scientific discussion at the highest international level and simultaneously provides a centrally-located base from which to collect the necessary source material.

When I am not at Columbia University, the project will be anchored at the Center for American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark where Associate Professor Jørn Brøndal, who is an expert within the field of Scandinavian-American history, and Associate Professor Clara Juncker, who has previously published research on class, race and gender in the American Civil War, can offer valuable input. Cooperation with Copenhagen University’s Professor Russell Duncan, who has published and edited several books on the Civil War, is also planned.

Research Plan and Societal Perspectives

The project will produce the first English-language academic monograph on the topic of Danish immigrants in the Civil War. I have initiated contact with The University of Illinois Press, which published Jørn Brøndal’s Ethnic Leadership and Midwestern Politics in 2004. Simultaneously at least two peer-reviewed articles, to be published in international journals such as Journal of American Ethnic History, The Journal of the Civil War Era, or Civil War History, are planned.

The first article answers the question of why American slaves were never colonized on the Danish island of St. Croix in 1862 despite the Danish government’s best efforts to transfer former slaves to its Caribbean possessions. The article thereby engages the first part of the research questions regarding transnational notions of race and ethnicity. The second article deals with ethnic conflict and cooperation in Civil War regiments and in particular examines the relationship between historical artifacts and subsequent narratives, in Danish called levning and beretning. The article answers the question of whether the Danish-Norwegian officer Ole Balling was in fact shot in the back by his own men due to ethnic conflict as is claimed in his memoirs. If so, this incident could be the first known example of “fragging” during the Civil War.