Non-English speakers fighting in the civil war

While watching Gangs of New York again I wondered how accurate the “off the boat and into the army” scenario was and how many non-English speakers may have fought in the civil war.

My reason for asking about whether or not they spoke English is curiosity about how one would train and manage a soldier that does not speak the native language. Point and shoot, here’s your food, and sleep here may be enough I guess.

Many of them were arranged in regiments which recruited from a specific nationality.

See: and the specific links for various nationalities.


I really need to up my game re: Wikipedia searches, and actually looking there first.

The Légion étrangère doesn’t seem to have a problem with training non-French speakers. Of course, there’s more to it than “point and shoot, here’s your food, and sleep here”. The FFL has been doing their thing since 1831, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the US Army had some similar training regime in effect by the time of the Civil War.

I’ve read they also had distinct uniforms different from the usual Union blue.

Some 145 units in the Union army had all or nearly all German personnel (source for this is “Encyclopedia of the American Civil War” by David and Jeanne Heidler). Their performance, particularly in the North, was considered mixed. Many Northerners felt they drank too much, were too mechanical and slow on the offensive. Two-third of the 11th Corps was German or mixed-nationality and their performance at Chancellorsville earned them the nick name “Flying Dutchmen”. But a number of Confederates later testified the German outfits were some of the best they fought against. German outfits helped prevent a complete rout at Second Bull Run and at Shiloh William Tecumseh Sherman praised the 32nd Indiana for its actions at Shiloh.

Out of some 180,000 to 216,000 Germans in the Union Army, some 5,000 fought in insurrections in Germany in 1848-49 and were known as “48ers”

The Confederacy had about 71,000 to 73,500 Germans living in it, the second largest (white) ethnic group after the Irish. There were some 40 regiments that contained Germans but not one entire German outfit.

 Uniforms could vary depending on the regiment and even color. Everything nowadays gets portrayed as blue and gray but it took a while for the Confederacy to get gray..some units even started as blue with the American flag (they figured they were the true heirs of the American revolution and constitution). One type of uniform that was popular early on was the  Zouave, based on French army in North Africa. White leggins, baggy red trousers, dark blue jacket and a fez. 
 The 79th New York (Highlanders) wore Scottish kilts. The 39th New York Infantry regiment (Garibaldi guard) wore a uniform almost identical to the Italian Bersaglieri Light Infantry. The 3rd New Jersey Cavalry Regiment (1st U.S. Hussars) wore European hussar-style uniforms.  The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment (Rush's Lancers) wore a uniform similar to European lancers and originally had lances instead of rifles or pistols.

As far as languages go, Stephen Ambrose in several of his books talks about Americans capturing four Asian men in German uniforms at Normandy in 1944. Initial attempts to communicate with them proved unsuccessful (he notes that dealing with Poles in the German army, some of them knew French for their schooling). Eventually they figured out they were Koreans. Grew up in Japanese-occupied Korea, conscripted in the Japanese army to fight against Russia in the late 1930s on border wars in Siberia, captured by Russians and put in their army only to be captured by the Germans and put in their army.

Poor sods… (I’ve heard a similar tale about a couple of Tibetans who went geographically astray in the late 1930s, and ended up in the German army in Normandy in 1944, without the slightest idea about “who / where / what / why”). Re the Koreans, have seen a cynical suggestion that after capture and taking to the US, they might possibly have found themselves conscripted for the “Western” side in the Korean War – “full circle”, if you like…

Ambrose says nobody knows what happened to these four Koreans but says it is entirely possible they were repatriated to Korea after the war ended…and could well have been in the war when the godless commie tyrants in the north launched their war of aggression and conquest.

My great-great-great-grandfather Martin Buck was a German immigrant who enlisted in the 45th NY Volunteer Infantry at the start of the war. The regiment was made up almost entirely of German immigrants and was also known as the “Fifth German Rifles.” The regiment was led by Col. George von Amsberg, who was an Austrian immigrant. Buck had been in the US for more than a dozen years and so certainly spoke English, but many of the others may not have. Immigrants whose English was poor would probably try to serve in a regiment with others from the same country who knew the language and could translate. I would guess most officers and non-coms would be able to speak both so they could pass on orders.

Buck was captured in the regiment’s first encounter with the enemy, while on picket duty at Annadale in Virginia. Confederate cavalry rode right through the lines, killed one soldier and took another dozen prisoners, including my ggg-grandfather.
The commander of the next regiment down the line complained about how the 45th had let the Confederates get through their lines both coming and going without firing a shot. He said “Colonel Pinto reports a very free use of liquor in the pickets of the Forty-fifth New York Volunteers.” So evidently my ggg-grandfather was captured because he had had a bit too much schnapps and couldn’t run fast enough. :slight_smile: He spent 6 months as a POW before being exchanged, but had contracted TB in camp and was invalided out. The 45th went on notable service in the rest of the war, including at Gettysburg and Chattanooga.

I don’t think it that it would have been all that difficult in the 19th century to train/drill an individual who doesn’t speak the language and have him “function” as a common (foot) soldier.

If I understand it correctly, the US Army to this day actively recruits Spanish speakers:

“Para padres” seems to address the parents of prospective recruits, though(?)

I dunno, I believe the Austro-Hungarians in WWI had all kinds of problems because of the many languages the troops spoke. I believe the Russians also had some communication issues with, say, Polish troops.

The fancy paints one of them perhaps being still around today, as a centenarian in one or other of the Koreas – boring his great-great-grand-kids with tales of his bewildered 15-years-odd military exploits in his youth.

Yes. This occurred in the German (Prussian) Army too, prior to 1914. Sometimes soldiers of Polish ethnicity would feign ignorance when given orders by pretending not to understand German (while, as a matter of fact, they actually did).

It does, yes. I find it more strange that they refer to the US Army as “el Army” than a call for parents to encourage or simply not disencourage their children into joining it.

Yes. I was about to mention that redirects to

I gather that mostly, Austria-Hungary kind-of managed – German was the military’s standard language, and there was a basic German “military vocabulary” of some 60 - 70 words, which was drummed into new recruits as a “first order of business”. Though one reckons that with the chaos and urgency of total war in WWI, that likely couldn’t always be done. (In one of John Biggins’s splendid novels about the Austro-Hungarian navy at that time – when the empire had an Adriatic sea-coast and a navy – a period is told of, when the hero is captain of a submarine whose crew comprises members of every one of the empire’s dozen or so different nationalities – including, for good measure, a Gypsy [Rom].)

A bit of WWI awkwardness which I’ve read of – not certain how true: the Belgian troops not caught by the German occupation of their country, and fighting on the Allied side, sometimes had problems because of their French-speaking officers giving orders which were not understandable to the Flemish-speaking rank-and-file. This would seem to be part of the long-standing issue of the two mutually unloving, different-language-speaking, communities which share Belgium. A hundred years ago, the picture seems to have been that the Belgian upper-crust and movers-and-shakers were the French-speakers, and the Flemings the prole underclass – thus officers, and “grunts”, respectively. (Nowadays, it seems that the boot is somewhat on the other foot.)

If this had truly been a problem, it would seem mostly a matter of intransigence and stupidity – “where there’s a will, there’s a way”: it surely could have been sorted out – assign to each monoglot officer, “joined at the hip”, a guy competent in both languages, who would interpret for him?

Are you sure about that (bolding mine)? Is that counting Scots-Irish? Or do you mean solely above the foreign-born population?

Before the war, the Austrian army made sure officers learned the language of their regiments (most Austrian officers knew three or more languages). Unfortunately, once the early months of the war killed off most of the officer corps their replacements often commanded regiments they barely understood. One Slovak regiment even used English as its command language because that’s the only one the men and officers both knew! (I’m using Bruce Lincoln’s “Passage Through Armageddon” as my source.)

My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1859 at the age of 15. In 1864 he enlisted in the Union Army (although for some reason under a completely different name). I have the record somewhere of what unit he was in, but I don’t feel like looking for it now. Anyway, he served for a year and was mustered out after the war was over, apparently unharmed. I don’t have any record of what action he might have seen, although it might be possible to look it up based on his unit. Since he had been in the states for 4 years, chances are that he probably spoke decent English by that time.

He was still alive in the 1920’s during which time his only income was the few dollars a month he got for his civil war pension. I have a copy of a begging letter he sent asking for the amount to be increased, but it was denied. He died in 1928 at the age of about 84, apparently friendless and alone. He is buried in a military cemetery in LA. He had the same first and last name as me, so it was a little eerie seeing the grave marker with “my” name on it.

(His son, my grandfather, was born when my gg-father was in his late 40’s, and served in WWI in the AEF. Ironically, he was a mule teamster - it’s ironic because our unusual German family name means something like “teamster.” Coincidentally, he died young, a few months before and during the same year as his father.)