Interview: Joseph Reinhart, “A German Hurrah!”

9 10 2010

Joseph Reinhart has been writing about German-speaking soldiers in the Union army for quite some time now, and is considered an authority in that area.  His new book, A German Hurrah!: Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Strangel, 9th Ohio Infantry, from Kent State University Press, was released this year.  Joe is a Facebook friend, and was nice enough to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Joe, I’m always curious about the backgrounds of Civil War authors and how they wound up doing what they do – it’s usually a winding road.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself.

JR:  I’m a native Kentuckian and lifelong resident of Louisville. After graduating from Bellarmine College and earning an M.B.A degree from Indiana University, I pursued a career in public accounting. In 1974 I was admitted as a partner in Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). I am now retired.

I have been interested in military history since I was ten years old and a majority of my leisure reading since then has been on that subject. The discovery in 1993 that my great great-grandfather Nicolas Reinhart and his wife’s two brothers, John and Frank Hettinger, had fought in the Union army rekindled my interest in that war, and launched me into researching and writing about it. I belong to and am the web master for the Louisville Civil War Round Table and the Manatee Civil War Round Table in Sarasota, Florida (where my wife and I spend some winter months). I have three married daughters and seven grandchildren in Louisville and enjoy spending time with them.

BR:  I did a little work with Coopers when I was in internal audit with the G. C. Murphy Co. a lifetime ago.  We may know some of the same people.  But back on track – you specialize in German-speaking soldiers and regiments. What got you interested in this area?
JR:  I became interested in genealogy after I retired and that is when I discovered my family connections to the Civil War. I began researching both Nicholas Reinhart’s military records and those of his regiment, the 28th Kentucky Infantry. I soon decided to write an article about the Civil War regiments organized in Louisville. When I discovered my great-great uncle Frank Hettinger’s regiment, the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, contained four companies of German immigrants from Louisville, I decided to write that regiment’s history (A History of the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry U.S: The Boys Who Feared No Noise). My research on the Germans in the regiment was possible because I had recently completed five college courses in the German language to facilitate my family research. All but one of my foreign-born ancestors was German.

My research uncovered a good number of letters and several diaries of both Germans and Anglo-Americans who fought in the 6th Kentucky— substantially enriching the history. One of my sources was the Louisville Anzeiger (a German American newspaper of the time). It contained a treasure trove of letters from many of Louisville’s German-born soldiers. I realized that if I did not translate these letters and get them published they would forever be lost to history. The University of Tennessee Press published my Two Germans in the Civil War: The Diary of John Daeuble and the Letters of Gottfried Rentschler, 6th Kentucky Infantry in 2004. Kent State University Press published August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry in 2006, and A German Hurrah!:Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry in July of this year. The latter two works also contain letters discovered in the Cincinnati Volksfreund.

BR:  How did the A German Hurrah project come about?

JR:  While researching in the Cincinnati Volksfreund for letters from soldiers in the 32nd Indiana, I found a large number of letters from an officer in the 9th Ohio. Added to the letters from soldiers in the 9th that I previously found in the Louisville Anzeiger, there was sufficient material for another book revealing views and experiences of German immigrants fighting in the Civil War and first hand accounts of life in a German regiment. I was checking the Volksfreund because the 32nd Indiana contained a company of Germans from Cincinnati. The 32nd Indiana and 9th Ohio each contained over 20 Germans from Louisville, thus the letters from those two regiments found in the Anzeiger.

BR:  What have you learned in the process of editing A German Hurrah and your other books? Any surprises, any challenges to previously held opinions?

JR:  First I want to point out that there is a scarcity of published primary source materials for German American Civil War soldiers. Little more than a dozen books containing different letter collections of Germans exist and unpublished letters are very difficult to find, so it’s not possible to obtain a representative sample from the 200,000 Germans in the Union army.

Two of my three books of translated letters, as well as the letters from the 82nd Illinois that I am currently editing, were written by officers and men in German regiments. These three German regiments, like most of the North’s thirty or so German regiments, were organized by refugees from the German Revolution of 1848 and like-minded persons, who held radical political, social and economic ideas, and strongly supported the abolition of slavery. Many of the organizers and officers were socialists or communists and they were suspicious of or despised organized religions, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore such regiments did not contain a cross-section of America’s Germans. For example, one-third of German immigrants were Roman Catholics and few Catholics served in the 32nd Indiana, 9th Ohio and 82nd Illinois. Only a very small percent of German Americans were radicals or crusaded for the abolition of slavery.  Just 20 percent of native Germans in the Union army served in German regiments, so all but one of my works includes letters from the most liberal/radical Germans. That said, the letters reveal strong German pride along with strong prejudices against Anglo-Americans and other ethnics.

The letter writers believed that they and their fellow Germans were better soldiers and superior culturally and morally to Anglo-Americans and other nationalities. They worked hard to outshine their competition to prove they were better. Yet they freely criticized fellow Germans for a variety of shortcomings and actions. Many also criticized American military and civilian leaders for not pursuing the war with sufficient vigor and being too lenient on enemy civilians. They fought hard. Beer was part of their culture and they mention it frequently in their letters. Most of their historical memories were of Germany and many references were made to German places, literature, and historical figures. They had a strong attachment to their native language and customs and wanted to retain them, while still being good American citizens. The literature I read when I first began investigating Germans in the Civil War professed that fighting for a common cause with Anglo-Americans accelerated their assimilation or Americanization, but the authors provided little or no evidence to back this up.  The anecdotal evidence I have seen indicates that the nativism exhibited against German Americans caused them to draw inward for mutual protection and not jump into the melting pot for many decades.

BR:  Can you describe your writing/research process?

JR:  I search archives for suitable diaries and letters from Germans and once I have a sufficient number I translate them and research the lives of the letter writer[s]. Once the letters are translated I draft the introduction to explain why the letters are worthy of publication and provide highlights of the letters. I also provide biographical information about the correspondence’s authors and pertinent information about America’s mid-nineteenth century German immigrants, their culture, and their differences in religion, political views and so forth. I then begin the editing process including deciding what, if anything, can be left out of the letters due to unimportance or unnecessary repetition. Next I begin working on the chapters. I compose the explanatory matter that precedes each letter, i.e., text designed to help the reader better understand the letters. This could include describing important events that have taken place since the preceding letters, more fully describing a battle referred to in the letter, pointing out errors in the letters, and pointing out changes over time. I type supporting references in red after sentences or paragraphs to facilitate footnote preparation. I also verify what is said about battles and other things in the letters to the extent practicable and disclose any errors or questionable items. My sources include the Official Records, compiled service records, pension files, diaries, letters and journals of other soldiers, secondary works, and various genealogical records. I always have two other persons read and criticize the manuscript before I send it to a prospective publisher. 

BR:  How has this book been received?

JR:  A German Hurrah! has only been out since mid-July, so it’s too early to tell, but I believe persons interested in Germans in the Civil War (there were 200,000 of them in the Union army) and parties interested in the battles and campaigns in which the 9th Ohio participated will be pleased with what they find. Almost half the book focuses on the war in western Virginia in 1861 and only a few books of soldiers’ letters are available about this part of the war.

BR:  What’s next for you?

JR:  I am near completion of the first draft of a manuscript of a collection of letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry (the 2nd Hecker Regiment). The 82nd fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before being transferred west with the 11th Corps. The letters cover the regiment’s organization in 1862 through the Carolinas’ Campaign in 1865. After this is finished I hope to write the long-deferred article about Louisville’s Union Regiments.

I’m sure students of the Civil War are looking forward to more from Mr. Reinhart on this little explored and fascinating aspect of the times.  I know I am.