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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.

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