Niels Eichhorn is Assistant Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Liberty and Slavery?
NE: The project started in my freshman year in college when I took a Civil War history class (senior-level class), where I became interested in German-U.S. relations. I was especially curious about Rudolph Schleiden, Bremen’s diplomatic representative in the United States. Schleiden, a former 1848 revolutionary, who had tried in April 1861 with a visit to Alexander Stephens in Richmond to stop the war, seemed to have a unique story to tell. I wanted to know more about him. As I continued in graduate school, I expanded to include other Schleswig-Holstein revolutionaries of 1848 and how they translated their experiences from Europe to the United States. Aware that this was still a narrow subject matter, I went even larger and decided to also include Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, who shared a similar set of arguments about political and national oppression with the U.S. South. All four of these migrant groups had important leaders involved politically or militarily in the U.S. Civil War. Born was Liberty and Slavery, European revolutionaries facing southern secession.
JF: In three sentences, what is the argument of Liberty and Slavery?
NE: Liberty and Slavery illustrates that separatism was a universal experience across the Atlantic World during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the various movements intellectually and personally influenced each other. European separatists who had feared political or national enslavement in Europe frequently looked to a southern minority forcing its will on, enslaving, the United States, whereas the vast majority of European migrants supported the Union against an aristocratic-looking minority intend on destroying or at least dominating the United States, eliminating the beacon many European separatists had looked to for help and inspiration during their own rebellions. Their European background and interpretation of the sectional struggle influenced their decision to side with Union or Confederacy.
JF: Why do we need to read Liberty and Slavery?
NE: Because it is a really important book … humor aside, Liberty and Slavery illustrates that residence alone did not determine allegiance. Only because Hungarians resided in the North did not mean they automatically sympathized with the United States. The book aims to illustrate the complexities of the ideological baggage migrants brought with them to the United States, especially revolutionaries, and their difficulty of translating their arguments and experiences into the United States. Furthermore, while the Irish are a relatively well-known group fighting in the Civil War, the Hungarians and Polish are much less familiar. The book has a heavy dose of European history in the first two chapters because scholarship of 1848 revolutionaries in the United States often overlooks the background these revolutionary migrants bring with them, their language and experiences, creating the perception that they are Union-loving, liberty-embracing anti-slavery advocates when they get off the boat. It was not that simple. Liberty and Slavery illustrates the complexities of nationalism and the construction of identity, especially when in a foreign country.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
NE: Well, there are some out there who have openly wondered if I am actually a U.S. historian, I do think so, even if my approach is rather unique. The first spark came when my VHS recorder gave out on the last hour of Gettysburg–I had school the next day and could not stay up until midnight. It was incredibly tough finding any literature about the U.S. Civil War in German bookstores. That is where I started to read about U.S. history, mostly books brought home from vacations in the United States. The decision to pursue history professionally, came in my freshmen history class when I realized that German-U.S. relations had no literature. Thus I went from military history-interested to diplomatic history to transnational history.
JF: What is your next project?
NE: The difficulty here is that Liberty and Slavery has two concurrent projects. While working on this book, I have also been working with my friend and colleague Duncan Campbell at National University in San Diego on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism, the first-ever study placing the Civil War in a global context. I also have forthcoming later this year The Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century (Palgrave), which takes a broad look at the Atlantic region and how people, ideas, commodities, and money continued to crisscross the Atlantic during the nineteenth century and how that helped to create a coherent and vibrant Atlantic community. These three were concurrent projects. About two months ago, I asked myself the same question you asked, what next. I am/was torn between two projects that really interest me going forward: a nineteenth-century history of the South to illustrate continuities within the region or my long thought about work on Civil War diplomacy. I have opted for the latter for the moment since I have most of the research in hand, but as I am going through the thousands of microfilm scans and archival-material photographs, I am not sure where this project will lead yet.
JF: Thanks, Niels!