A Brief Look at Life in the Immigrant Wards of New York at Mid-Century

The Thorny Rose: The Americanization Of An Urban, Immigrant, Working Class Regiment In The Civil War. A Social History Of The 39th New York Volunteer Infantry

In 1949, Robert Ernst published an exhaustive study of life in the immigrant wards of New York City between 1825 and 1863. (1) Chapter by masterful chapter, relying upon every conceivable primary and secondary source, Ernst followed the immigrant from the Old World to New York harbor, the initiation into job hunting, house hunting, to the cultural and religious institutions of the immigrant wards, to the labor movement and American politics, and finally to what Ernst called "The Making of an American." He accompanied his study with statistical tables, charting everything from population in the immigrant wards to occupational groupings to immigrant admissions to the lunatic asylum and criminal reform institutions, to registered voters. Enlarging upon one of Ernst's chapters, and using some of his statistical charts, Sean Wilentz published more recently a look at immigrant work life and the New York City labor movement in his Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class. (2) And Jay P. Dolan's chapter on "The Ethnic Village" in his The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics 1815-1865, is an excellent short source for about the material conditions of the laboring poor in the immigrant wards. This paper does not seek to replicate the artistry of those three works fundamental to a depiction of New York working class life before the Civil War. But even Ernst, notwithstanding the remarkable intensity of his research, Wilentz with his labor movement focus, and Dolan on the immigrant parish-community, could in their academic analyses do justice to an intimate depiction of the continuing daily drudgery of life in the immigrant working class wards of Civil War era New York City. Scholarly documentation requires the use of statistics and the organization of convincing evidence in a manner that often sidesteps the individual sequence of events in the foggy daily reality of urban working class life. It is up to the reader to visualize what days and nights in the immigrant wards meant to the people who lived there. One might wonder why there has not been an American equivalent to the theatrical depiction of life in Dickensian London, but that would require a set of images in the American consciousness adding up to a far less than heroic depiction of the Civil War era than most Americans could muster. Collective memory is selective memory, or perhaps not memory at all, but an agreement to forget the worst and remember only those scenarios that point to our greater glory, or in the case of consensus historians, tailor history to fit that glory. Even historians who offer a serious critique of a consensus analysis do not often provide an alternative that does much more than investigate or measure particular aspects of immigrant life that can be "scientifically" measured such as economic mobility, residential and geographic mobility, based upon various kinds of extant, official records. Their results lead to hypotheses about immigrant life or challenge past assumptions. But they rarely illuminate the psychic pain and trauma that accompanied not only uprootedness, but the demands of a competitive society that the quest for social mobility should equal or surpass much more dearly held cultural values.

In the earlier days of the nineteenth century, after the unsettling experience of middle passage, immigrants often disembarked to become immediate victims of robbery and fraud perpetuated by confidence men and bond-brokers of every stripe and nationality, promising them jobs, housing, and services and delivering robbery and heartless exploitation. It was not until 1855 that the state of New York installed an immigration commission to oversee a regulated registration depot at Castle Garden to protect the newcomers. (3) Once the commission sent the foreign-born safely away from the docks, with advice for finding housing and work, medical care if necessary, and even public financial assistance, immigrants oftentimes found others of their own kind to guide them through the first days of transition.

A wide variety of immigrant institutions served a dual and sometimes contradictory purpose of paving the immigrant's route to Americanization while providing opportunities for meeting others of the same nationality and thus reinforcing cultural values and characteristics. Emigrant aid associations greeted the immigrant fresh from Castle Garden and performed five services, auxiliary to the state commission:

They gave advice to the stranger and tried to shield him from the swarms of tricksters waiting to prey on him. They acted as clearinghouses for information about relatives and friends. They gave immediate financial help in case of serious need....the most important service was the effort to find them jobs, and...an even greater undertaking was the effort to "keep them moving." (4)

These organizations never had sufficient funds to aid even a fraction of those disembarking in New York Harbor, but they existed, nonetheless, for those lucky enough to benefit from their services. In the immigrant wards themselves, ethnically based trade unions, "fraternal, benevolent and mutual aid societies, social clubs, [the aforementioned] target companies and militia corps, and athletic teams" offered associational links; "hospitals and orphan asylums....savings banks and building and loan associations" attended to other immigrant needs.

Since there were class differences among the immigrants, both within ethnic groups and between them, differing levels of education existed as well. Cultural activities and institutions such as "libraries, lecture groups, literary societies, [and] debating groups" as well as English and vocational education classes, theater groups, ethnic art galleries and musical societies abounded. (5)

The first order of business for the vast majority of immigrants was, of course, finding work, housing and food. Many arrived penniless and whole families were sometimes forced to dwell for weeks at a time in almshouses and charity boardinghouses until they could secure a means for survival. (6) Most then searched for dwelling places in areas congenial to their ethnic group. Irish and German areas were, of course, more distinct since those groups dominated immigration at mid-century, and, in this paper, we are more interested in the latter. By 1860, the Irish accounted for one out of four New Yorkers. One out of six New Yorkers was German. (7) Nearly all the immigrant wards of lower Manhattan, where most working people lived, were dominated by the Irish, but there were concentrations of Germans in the Tenth, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Wards as well as in some areas of the Seventeenth and Twenty-Second Wards. The Tenth Ward, in particular was called Kleindeutchland, or Little Germany. In the 1850's, the German business district was centered near the Bowery. Germans seemed to prefer the East side of Manhattan. The Swiss and French often found community with the Germans, and many of the Dutch found their way to the Seventeenth Ward. Scandinavians were found in the Fourth and Seventh Ward, and the Lower East Side was already Jewish by mid-century and more than half of the German-born lived here by 1865. Hispanics and Italians by the 1830's had communities on the East Side as well, many in the Sixth and Fourth Wards in the vicinity of many Irish Catholics. They were joined by increasing numbers of Central and South Americans and West Indians, who also were found in the Fifth, Eighth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, east Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Wards. The Portugese found other Spanish speakers in the Fourth and Sixth Wards and by the 1850's, more Italians had congregated around Five Points in the Sixth Ward and moved across Broadway northwest into the Eighth Ward. (8)

The first glimpse of proposed dwelling places for the immigrants must have sent their hearts straight into their stomachs with dismay. Many had experienced urban poverty before, but it is unlikely that they expected to find something so similar to the industrial slums of western European cities. Robert Ernst characterized the reality of domestic urban architecture in the immigrant wards as "the first stage in the development of the modern New York slum." Old houses became tenements by the placing of partitions in rooms to create minimal accommodations for three or more families. As the immigrant tide increased, and the extreme profitability of renting real estate became more obvious, the first specifically devised tenement buildings were created in the 1830's. Ernst described these early tenements, which by the late 1850's were characteristic of the only housing affordable and accessible to the immigrant working class, in dismal terms:

Usually such a building contained a narrow hall opening from a street or court; on each floor, including the cellar, two suits of rooms opened into the hall. Front and rear rooms of the building contained windows, but the bedrooms and closets in the middle were dark. In most cases, there was another tenement in the back yard, frequently altogether enclosed and accessible only through an alley. Alongside these buildings and in the yards were many, little irregular frame structures, some in dilapidated condition, serving partly as sheds and partly as homes for the overflow of the tenements. Such haphazard combinations of front and rear buildings on the same lot created an intricate array of rear courtsand alleys, notoriously dark, foul-smelling, and encumbered with accumulations of filth. (9)

The Tribune ran a series of articles about Labor in New York in 1845 that graphically depicted the home and work environment of craftsmen in particular trades. One in particular described a typical dwelling place of a journeyman shoemaker and his family. We can only assume that conditions became worse since there were no serious tenement reform laws until after the Civil War:

The floor is made of rough plank laid loosely down and the ceiling is not quite as high as a tall man. The walls are dark and damp, and a wide, desolate fireplace yawns in the centre to the right of the entrance. There is no outlet back and of course no yard privileges of any kind. The miserable room is lighted only by a shallow sash, partly projecting above the surface of the ground, and by the little light that struggles down the steep and rolling stairs. In this apartment often live the man with his work bench, his wife, and five or six children of all ages, and perhaps a palsied grandfather or grandmother, and often both. In one corner is a squalid bed, and the room elsewhere is occupied by the work bench, a cradle made of a dry goods box, two or three broken and seat-less chairs, a stewpan and a kettle. (10)

The article went on to characterize the shoemakers as "the worst paid and [they who] live the least like life of all men who have spent years in learning trades." The Tribune found that foreigners, particularly Germans, some Irish and French, had taken over the shoemaking business in just a few years and had nothing but good to say about the Germans' work ethic: "There is not perhaps a more industrious working class in our city." It complimented them on their "untiring industry, economical habits and plenty of elbow room." (11)

Unscrupulous landlords rented any tiny space they could partition to new immigrants including cellars, lofts, attics and stables so that the population density per acre reached 163.5 in 1850 with the average number of people living on a city block being 272.5. For apartments, poor working families paid from $3.00 to $13.00 per month, and from $.75 to $1.25 a week for a room. There were either no or inadequate toilet facilities and three-fourths of New York had no sewers. Twenty-four million gallons of raw sewage ended up in alleys, cellars, gutters and the city streets daily. The contract system provided insufficient garbage removal, and people simply dropped their refuse and the contents of their chamber pots and slop jars out the windows.

In the Sixth Ward alone, with its notorious Five Points slum, there were 1665 tenements and 139 underground tenements as well as 116 grog shops in 1861. Five Points, scene of the infamous Draft Riots of 1863, was home to 4896 Irish families, 664 Italian families, 289 German families and 111 Black families, according to a New York Daily Tribune article of May 5,1861. Rent for a typical house, many of which were the "dirtiest of pens" or "miserable old shanties" with each room inhabited by a family, was $600 a year. The Statistics of Tenant Houses for 1864 calculated that each tenement housed 7 1/4 families or 34 1/3 people on the average. The worst density appeared in the Eighteenth Ward, where the average tenement housed 8 3/4 families or 42 6/7 people. The total cellar population was worst in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Wards, each with over 2100 cellar dwellers. Of 305 houses surveyed by the Tribune. 116 were whole or part grog shop. (12)

Since the majority of urban working people crowded into these repulsive conditions were immigrants, they also suffered a much higher proportion of the diseases associated with unhealthy living conditions and lack of sanitation as well as mental illness. Moreover, population density created a perfect environment for the lightning-like spread of epidemics.

Alcoholism and pauperism stalked the immigrant population as well. In 1860, 80% of paupers were foreign-born. As always, immigrants and others of the working poor shared their neighborhoods with organized and disorganized criminal elements, houses of prostitution, gambling dens, and other illegal enterprises. Gang warfare abounded, and most tragically, children, subject to these conditions during their formative years, committed petty-thievery and a multitude of other offenses. Many became vagrants and orphans and lived pitiable lives on the streets. (13)

Popularly shared notions of nativism as well as the newspaper's political editorial policy were evident in the Tribune's assessment of Five Points' Irish and Italian Roman Catholic majority. Despite the fact that immigrants did not create the tenements nor did they invent the industrial system or its abuses, there is nearly always a subtle element of blame directed against them. Thus, according to the Tribune, the conditions of life and the characteristics of the population there accounted for

two well known facts: the brevity of human life and the large Democratic majority at every election it is a singular fact that nearly all our mendicants of that nationality, with the organgrinders and monkeys, live in a few houses in this region....the negro inhabitants are getting fewer every year: the place is too dirty for them...only 205 Americans out of 7213 persons can stand it there and these are along Pearl and Chatham Streets where there is a possibility of keeping reasonably clean. (14)

The Tribune exhibited a sort of dark political humor in its description of Five Points tenement dwellers' occupations which included "junk gatherers, rag¬pickers, organ-grinders, beggars, gamblers, soap-fat gatherers, keepers of apple stands, cinder gatherers, sweeps, members of the Legislature, boot blacks, councilmen, song sellers and others." (15)

Even The New York Tribune's relatively progressive editors were unable to report objectively on this mire of urban poverty. The middle class reformers who had to deal with the human wreckage cast by the wayside as the roaring engines of capitalist progress lunged forward had an insufficient understanding of the way the system worked to offer any kind of a perceptive analysis that could have facilitated change. They were too bound by the Protestant work ethic, too subject to xenophobia, and too tied by class background to those who benefitted from the exploitation to blame anyone but the victims for their poverty. Thus, Charles Loring Brace of the New York Children's Aid Society, whose job it was to care for the "vagrant, homeless and criminal children" of the city wrote in 1854:

The greatest danger that can threaten a country like ours, is from the existence of an ignorant, debased, and permanently poor class, in the great cities. It is still more threatening if this class be of foreign-birth, and of different habits than those of our own people. The members of it come at length to form a separate population. They embody the lowest passions and most thriftless habits of the community. They corrupt the lowest class of working poor who are around them. The expenses of police, of prisoners, of charities and means of relief, arise mainly from them. (16)

Probably the majority of immigrants who stayed in the city for any length of time were exposed to unsavory neighborhood conditions as well as to the dangerous working conditions in the small factories, workshops and docks of lower Manhattan, where the norm was a 12-16 hour day and even the best wages for skilled artisans were only in the range of $10-15 a week. The largest bloc of immigrants, primarily Irish, provided unskilled and semi- skilled labor and they were lucky if they received $1.00 a day. (Organized laborers struck for $1.12 a day in the 1850's.) Journeymen upholsterers, shoemakers and cabinetmakers (trades with a majority of Germans) averaged about $7.00 a week and most laborers received considerably less. (17) The New York Times estimated in 1853 that workingmen spent about $600 a year on essentials. (18) Difficult as it is to validate newspaper figures, we can deduce that even in the best of hypothetical situations, an immigrant family struggled tremendously for survival. A skilled German cabinetmaker employed fifty weeks out of the year would make only $350.00 in yearly wages, and for most, such consistent employment was extraordinary. If his wife was working, too, (and it is even more unusual that her employment would be consistent) she might get a portion of his wage, perhaps 60 cents a day, 6 days a week. Her additional $180.00 year's wages would bring family income up to $530 a year. If the Times is writing about one workingman's individual expenses of $600 yearly, we can already see that this amount would not cover expenses for one person, much less a family. The income of several more people, including children would be essential.

Regardless of who got what, it was not enough to make ends meet Rent alone took half of a family's income and throughout the 1850's food and fuel prices rose. With the great demand for labor, newer immigrants undercut the wages of both natives and older newcomers. Just as historians have discovered for the post-war era, employers would hire a woman at half or less of a man's pay and a child for even less than that. Unskilled laborers brought home less than $5 a week, and the lowest paid seamstresses earned $2 a week. Immigrant women, Germans, Irish and others toiled heavily in the sewing trades, domestic service, so called "petty enterprises", department stores and other manufacturing trades. Married women with young children took in boarders, and young single women peddled wares and foodstuffs. (19) Domestic service was not a province monopolized by the stereotypical Irish maidservant. In reality, a higher percentage of German women worked as servants, many of them in German boardinghouses, than Irish and a higher percentage of German women between the ages of 20 and 49, as many as one-third, worked outside the home. Carol Groneman, in her study of Sixth Ward working women in the 1855 New York City census manuscript gives us these statistics: (20)




15-19 50.2 89 47.9 333
20-29 50.4 327 46.9 828
30-39 34.7 118 39.3 435
40+ 31.1 55 37.4 402


Employment had no stability. Although some trade unions existed, for the immigrant worker, language and nativism were serious problems in attempting to join older labor organizations. Organized labor's power was undeveloped and unstable in a wide open job market. The free labor individualist mentality of the mid-century North, a boon to incipient capitalists, worked to challenge the cooperativism of organized labor. Stephan Thernstrom and others have told us that that immigrant and native workers did a great deal of moving around, from city to city and job to job in search of better employment options. And a greater number than previously assumed returned to Europe. Indeed, the repatriation rate in the post-Civil War period may have been as high as 30%. Whether these immigrants had made the money they intended to make and went back home, or whether they returned because of disappointed aspirations, whether they were lonely for their families, or homesick, we are left to speculate. Similar studies specific to pre-war repatriation do not exist but it is not unlikely that a similar percentage returned to Europe. (21) The existence of this "floating proletariat" has led Michael Katz to propose that "transiency and inequality" were the "two great themes of nineteenth century urban history." This "continual circulation of the population" characterized a "virtually closed social structure in which the majority of people roam about the land looking for success." This "floating social structure [was] composed of failures, people poorer and less successful at their work, even if that work was professional." To Katz, the extent of American equal opportunity was that one was free to look for opportunities that rarely existed. (22)

But other labor historians have questioned this emphasis on occupational and more generally social mobility. Those who emphasize social mobility often do so more as part of a critique of American promises and ideologies than as serious subjects in the daily lives of immigrants. They give us not only statistics but contemporary sources to support these studies. Thus, Stephan Thernstom in his classic study of Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth century City quoted an 1855 editorial in a Boston newspaper that probably came close to the truth in stating that among the Irish laborers in that city, "Five or ten out of a hundred may rise in the world while ninety-five will live and die in the condition in which they were born. (23) However, as James Henretta contends in his critical analysis of historians' attention to social mobility, acceptance of the concept itself shows the historian's "capitalist-individualist" analytical orientation, even when statistics are used to unmask the myth of social mobility because

the test of the "quality" of a society becomes the ability to "rise" above others in a free, open competition, not the extent to which a culture offers all men and women the means to achieve a basic dignity and sense of identity...all of those events which had immense personal significance to the working population (family tragedies and triumphs, recreational outings, collective movements) are routinely ignored in a one-dimensional presentation of occupational changes and residential mobility. Consciousness and meaning have been usurped by data and diagrams. (24)

As Henretta suggests, the existence of the concept of itself proves the inequality of the system: "...without inequality the concept of mobility has no meaning. A person or a group rises "above" another, some individuals succeed, others fail. Mobility presupposes the existence of inequality. More importantly, the existence of mobility may be used as the justification of inequality." (25) Veteran labor historian David Montgomery agrees that such an emphasis "contains an inherently self-confirming bias". What is, in effect, another kind of reductionism, creates an historical scenario in which "the social life of the working class is ignored in favor of an interpretation which emphasize[s] middle class attitudes toward work and social values." (26) William H. Sewall in his study of a European city concurs, suggesting instead that a "quest for 'security and dignity' rather than an acceptance of the middle class idea of occupational advancement" is more descriptive of working class aims. (27)

This is particularly important in assessing the work life of German immigrants, many of whom placed great value on crafts and skilled work passed down through generations of family life. Thus, in the case of nineteenth century Philadelphia, historians have found that Germans had the same occupational distribution in 1880 that they had in 1850. These historians remind us that "the independent craftsman... was not reduced to the factory in one fell swoop." And despite contemporary lip service paid to the German stereotype of efficiency, industry and the ability to make a little money go a long way, "we might consider the possibility that German immigrants were not that much better off than their Irish counterparts simply because they were likely to become skilled workers. German immigrants were locked into declining crafts." (28)

John Bodnar places the family at the true center of the working class' value system. According to Bodnar, "family obligations dominated working class predilections and exerted a moderating influence on individual expectations and the formulation of social and economic goals." "Job security" and "a steady wage" were the "means to family stability." (29)

Carol Groneman, in her study of the immigrant family in the Sixth Ward has called for a reassessment of the contention that the immigrant family disintegrated under the terrific pressure of urban poverty in the nineteenth century. According to Groneman, the experience reinforced "traditional familial values", just as Herbert Gutman has shown in his study of the Black family in slavery and freedom. At least in the 1850's the great majority of German and Irish immigrant households were "kin-related" composed of "nuclear family members". Indeed, the native-born families showed the lowest percentage of kin-based households, although all poor households' percentages were more than 60%. Groneman contends that:

If the immigration process had been as disorganizing and disintegrating as is often suggested, it is highly unlikely that the immigrants in this poor, working class ward, especially those who had fled the Irish famine, would have exhibited this stable, structural pattern in the reconstitution and creation of their households in America…despite the physical deprivation which immigrants suffered, strong family and kin ties provided an internal coherence to their daily lives which must be recognized. (30)

It cannot be denied that immigrants came to America seeking a "better" life, but as Montgomery, Sewall, Bodnar, Groneman and others suggest, the perception of a better life can be based upon a multitude of values, many of which may have little to do with climbing the social ladder. Thernstrom's evidence on the Irish of Newburyport found them often giving hard-earned money to the Church. In New York not only the vast majority of the Irish but also by 1865 nearly 50,000 Germans professed the Catholic faith. These latter 50,000 attended eight German-language churches in New York, most of them founded between 1840 and 1860. Eighty and eighty-one percent respectively of German and Irish Catholics in these churches were unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers. (31)

Money saved over long years of labor was not invested in a new business, but in the security of a dwelling place: "security in their old age" and "a rent-free house to which they could retire." They redirected their hopes, their decisions and their sacrifices to occupational and educational mobility for their children. (32) One might argue that social mobility was still the central notion of this conduct. But the central value was the Irish (and immigrant) family (also the primary social institution of Catholicism) suggesting that how immigrant families related to the Anglo-Protestant middle-class social ethos was culturally determined. And the quest for economic survival was born not of American social ideology but of material conditions and cultural continuities of the Old World. Whatever new hopes the Irish had in their American immigration, their survival mechanisms were already historically and culturally well developed The same might be suggested for the Germans and other uprooted nationalities, responding more to the world-wide phenomenon of the solidification of the capitalist system and their place in it than to specifically American social values. That was why there was no place to hide.

In summary, whatever immigrants expected to find in America, most of them, at least those who came to the immigrant wards of New York City, were faced with a difficult, unsettling and unstable life. Their dwelling places were for the most part crowded, vermin and disease ridden, stinking ramshackle tenement buildings and urban shacks, lining muddy, slop and manure filled streets, a certain shock to those who had migrated from rural areas. Many came with minimal possessions, little knowledge about how to procure them, and little money with which to buy them. Those who did not emigrate from the British Isles had to deal with a language problem. When they found a job, they had no job security, no child care unless they emigrated with an extended family, horrendously long hours, with minimal pay, and increasingly dangerous industrial working conditions in which men, women and children worked with no protection or compensation in case of injury or death.

To add to these difficulties, in the late 1850's, New Yorkers weathered a depression with severe unemployment and sharply rising prices, culminating a decade long trend unaccompanied by an increase in wages. (33) The Panic of 1857 had a crushing effect upon new immigrants and old, as well as native laborers, jolting thousands out of minimally secure occupations into the army of the unemployed, placing even the barest necessities of life beyond their reach. The Germans were instrumental in organizing mass meetings of the workers and unemployed, formulating lists of grievances and demands for work, flour and bread. A Tompkins Square rally held on election day, November 5,1857 drew five thousand primarily Irish and German laborers, who promised their vote to the political party that would provide these necessities. Hunger meetings were held every day thereafter for a week. The largest drew ten thousand women and men. (34) For many if not most, in those first years, great plans for quick social mobility were rarely seriously entertained. Paramount instead was the daily struggle for survival.

As the newcomers became naturalized, the immigrant vote became an important attraction in the arena of American politics. Although immigrants were perceived to be primarily Democratic because of early Republican Party tolerance for nativists and temperance reformers, the Republicans began to shift their position and extend a hand to a foreign-born constituency by the late 1850's. The Republicans desired, of course, the strong opposition of these people to the extension of slavery. In courting support for its anti-slavery platform and candidates, the Party was assisted by politically sophisticated German Forty-Eighters like Carl Schurz who used the foreign language press and their native tongue to win sway over their compatriots. But the immigrant community never reached a consensus on the slavery issue. For those who did flock to the Republican Party, the promise of free lands through a homestead law certainly had more influence in drawing them than the Republicans' anti-slavery stance. The majority of the Irish remained in the Democratic Party. These children of Erin "associated abolitionism with the worst excesses of European radicalism, distrusted it both for its connection with nativism and with temperance reform, and were suspicious of the close connection between British and American anti-slavery leaders." (35)

They also harbored a hatred for free Blacks and a terrible fear that a general emancipation would mean fierce competition for jobs requiring unskilled labor. Throughout the war that was soon to erupt, the Democratic Party would prey upon these fears, and one result would be the twisted and outrageous atrocities committed against Blacks during the course of the Draft Riots of 1863. (36)

Several historians have argued that the foreign vote threw the 1860 Presidential election, a contest between four candidates, to Abraham Lincoln. Two students of that election "have concluded that a change of one vote in twenty would have given [the Northwest] states to Douglas. In the seven Northwestern states, with over 283,000 foreign-born voters, Lincoln's majority over Douglas was just under 150,000." The Germans, in particular, gave strong voting percentages to the Republican Party candidate. (37)

Whatever their role in the political preface to the War, many of these new Americans were quick to enlist in Mr. Lincoln's army when the first call for volunteers went out in response to South Carolina's attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Frederick Franklin Schrader in his work, The Germans in the Making of America (Boston. 1924), attributed the "ardor" with which the Germans "embraced the cause of the Union" to "an inherent antipathy to that particularism that had been the curse of their own country, and that now threatened to create a cleavage in the country of their adoption, with all the attendant political ills they had but recently escaped." (38) Maldwyn Jones in his American Immigration concurred: "The moment that union replaced slavery as the burning issue, sectional feeling became the sole determinant of attitude." (39)

A wartime study by the United States Sanitary Commission published in 1869 determined that at least one-fifth of the volunteers of the Union Army were foreign born. This did not include draftees so that many sources place the percentage of foreign-born soldiers in the Union Army as 25%. James M. McPherson, in his recent, prize-winning narrative of the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, has proposed that past claims that immigrants volunteered in greater proportions than their numbers in the population have been in error. According to McPherson's study, only half a million of the two million white Union soldiers and sailors were foreign-born. Since immigrant men of military age comprised between 30% and 33% of the population in the Union states, they were actually underrepresented in the Union Army. (40)

Although few nineteenth century statistics are completely trustworthy, the Eighth Census of the United States provides a look at New York City's foreign-born population. In 1860, New York City had a total foreign-born population of 383,717 out of a total population of 805,651. Thus, approximately 47.62% of the city's population was foreign-born. New York County had 386,345 foreign-born out of an aggregate of 813,669, about the same percentage as the city proper. It is safe to surmise that even with large numbers of Irish Democrats who may have been lukewarm to the Union cause, New York City, with its 47% immigrant ratio, also had a larger percentage of immigrant enlistments. Ironically, this writer has been unable to locate a reliable statistic of the city's foreign born Union soldiers. The major studies by Robert Ernst and Ella Lonn have not provided such a statistic. Even using lists of the city's ethnic infantry regiments, artillery batteries and cavalry units and estimating the numbers of men would not provide an accurate figure, because not only immigrants, but the sons of immigrants and even some native-born soldiers joined ethnic regiments. New York State as a whole enlisted more than one-sixth of the Union Army, with New York City providing 20,000 three month men, 116,000 others, and 35,000 more from Brooklyn, totalling 171,000. The 1860 census counted 182,453 immigrant men in the city.. Ella Lonn has pointed to the large number of single young men in the immigrant population to explain seemingly large numbers of enlistments, but concurs with Robertson's contention that immigrant men did NOT enlist in numbers larger than their proportion in the population, rather slightly less than or roughly equal to those numbers. Benjamin Gould, in his 1869 study, estimated that 66% of immigrant men were military service age at any one time in four years of war, so that at least 120,419 service age immigrant men were still around in New York City when Lincoln called for volunteers in 1861. The missing number is that of immigrant/ethnic enlistments in the first months of war and thereafter, and it is a statistic the production of which would require careful study of the regimental record books of all of New York City's immigrant regiments, a task that is far beyond the scope and time limit of this dissertation. (41)

We must, therefore, be satisfied with the contention that many New York City immigrant men responded quickly and dramatically to the the Union's call to arms, and those who did created a vibrancy and esprit that contributed both materially and psychologically to the Union recruitment drive in the first months of the war.


Footnotes for Chapter 2

1 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825-1863 (New York: King's Crown Press, 1949).

2 Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

3 Ernst, 27-33.

4 Ernst, 33.

Ibid., 182-3.

Ibid., 25-26.

7 Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics.

1815-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 27, 29.

Ibid., 41-45.

9 Ernst, 48-49 capsulized from Report Hi the Tenant Houses of New York (1857), note 5.

10 New York Daily Tribune, September 9,1845.

11 Ibid., September 5,1845. See also Levine, "Between Two Revolutions."

12 Ernst, 197: from Table 16: Tenement Houses and Cellars and their Population in New York City at the Close of the Year 1864 ; "Five Points," New York Daily Tribune May 5, 1861.

13 Ernst, 53-60, passim.

14 New York Daily Tribune. May 5,1861.

15 Ibid.,

16 Michael B. Katz, Michael J. Doucet, Mark J. Stern, The Social Origins of Early Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 15.

17 Ibid., 78, 109.

18 Ibid., 83.

19 Carol Groneman, '"She Earns as a Child-She Pays as a Man': Women Workers in a Mid-Nineteenth Century New York City Community," Immigrants in Industrial America 1850-1920 ed. Richard L. Ehrlich {Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977), 34-39.

20 Ibid., 46.

21 Stephan Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City (Cambridge, 1964); Ernst, 174.

22 Charles Stephenson, "There's Plenty Waiting At the Gates: Mobility, Opportunity and the American Worker," Life and Labor: Dimensions of American Working Class History ed. Robert Asher & Charles Stephenson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 75-76. Stephenson's essay reviews recent work on social mobility and the criticisms of that emphasis. The works analyzed and cited include Michael Katz, The People of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in the Mid-Nineteenth Century City (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975); David Montgomery, "A New Urban History," in Reviews in American History, 2 (1974), 502., a review of Alan F. Davis and Mark H. Haller. The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower Class Life (Philadelphia. 1973); William H. Sewall, Jr., "Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century European City, " Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 8 (1976), 217-233; and John Bodnar, Worker's World: Kinship. Community and Protest in an Industrial Society. 1900-1940 (Baltimore: 1982).

23 James Henretta, "The Study of Social Mobility: Ideological Assumptions and Conceptual Bias," The Labor History Reader ed. Daniel J. Leab (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 37: note 21, quoting Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress. (Atheneum. 1973), 79.

24 Henretta, "The Study of Social Mobility", 30.

25 Ibid., 29.

26 Stephenson, ""There's Plenty Waiting at the Gates," 78.

27 Ibid. 79. Stephenson is quoting William H. Sewall, "Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century European City: Some Findings and Implications." Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 8 (1976), 217-233..

28 Bruce Laurie, Theodore Hershberg, George Aller, "Immigrants and Industry: The Philadelphia Experience 1850-1880," Immigrants in Industrial America 1850-1920. 146-148.

29 Stephenson., 80.

30 Groneman, 41, 46.

31 Nolan, 13, 70, 75. The parishioners in Nolan's sample were married men with at least one child.

32 Henretta, 39-40.

33 Ernst. Immigrant Life, 83.

34 John Bach McMaster, History of the People of the United States, VIII (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1920), 299-300.

35 Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 166-167. 36 Ibid., 167.

37 Carl Wittke, We Who Built America (Cincinnati: Western Reserve University Press, 1964), 237.

38 Frederick Franklin Schrader, The Germans in the Making of America (Boston: Stratford Co., 1924), 198.

39 Jones, 169.

40 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 606-607; Benjamin A. Gould, Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1869), 3;

41 The state as a whole had 998,640 foreign-born to 2,882, 095 native-born, a little more than one-fourth of the state population. And New York had one-fourth of all the immigrants in the United States within its borders in 1860. One out of eight Americans in 1860 was an immigrant. 86.60% of immigrants lived in the free states, 13.40% in the slave states; Gould, 3; Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860: Eighth Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), xxx, xxxi, 345, 346; Ella Lonn, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 573-585. Thomas S. Townsend, The Honors of the Empire State in the War of the Rebellion (New York: A. Lovell, 1889), 86.

Copyright by Catherine Catalfamo, 1989