Culture  /  Retrieval

Socialist Gym Rats Fought to End Slavery in America

Veterans of the 1848 German revolution immigrated to America with three passions burning in their hearts: barbells, beer, and socialism.

Civil War St Louis

On the eve of the Civil War, German papers observed that America was influenced by “stupid boys,” by which they meant the English. Slavery, the church (a “state within a state”), and outrageous levels of materialism seemed to make the basic functioning of a democratic government impossible. Consequently, writes Hofmann, “Many Turners saw it as their duty in their new homeland to continue fighting for democracy, liberty and fraternity as they had done in Germany.”

At this time, what we now know as the Civil War was a nameless set of heightening tensions and sharpening contradictions. To many Germans, with their worldview shaped by the ’48 revolution, the Confederacy meant church and planter rule over a racial caste system. It would resemble feudal Europe, but this time, exploitative industrial capitalism would poison the air, bind huge populations to machine toil, turn artisans into button pushers, and mangle children’s limbs in textile machines.

Immigrant children would be first-generation Americans if the Union won. If the nativists had their way, the next generation would be a permanent factory underclass.

In Germans for a Free Missouri, Steven Rowan argues that the Forty-Eighters viewed the American Civil War as life-or-death episode in a revolutionary tradition, drawing on “a shared language and symbols going back at least to the era of the French Revolution and the wars of liberation against Napoleon I of 1812–1814.”

The Socialistische Turnerbund von Nordamerika, the Socialistic Turner Union of North America, swore to fight any attempt to limit “freedom of conscience.” The group opposed slavery, nativism, and temperance constraints as part of the same struggle to create a dignified working class. The Socialistic Turner Union guidebook stated the end goal: A “democratic-republican constitution, prosperity guaranteed for ‘all,’ the best-possible free education according to the ability of each one, the elimination of hierarchical and privileged powers.”

Days after Lincoln’s election, a Baltimore Turner hall was burned, causing members to flee the city — punishment by Southern sympathizers for refusing to exchange their Union flag, even as Maryland remained in the Union. With flags and drum rolls, those same Baltimore Turners joined the Washington group to form the “Bodyguard of Honor,” protecting Lincoln’s train upon arrival in Washington, DC, and accompanied the newly elected president in procession to his 1860 inauguration. That Turner regiment formed the first volunteer military unit, the 8th Battalion, and Turners often served as Lincoln’s public security.