In the late 1840s there were a series of revolutions and wars across much of Europe. In Germany lots people were displaced and/or fed up and decided to emigrate to America. They were called the Forty-Eighters as the war that forced them out happened in 1848. Quite a few of them settled in Wisconsin near Lake Michigan. Regardless of what profession they had back in the ‘old country’ many became farmers. The countryside was gridded and parcelled out. Even today the county roads tend to run straight north-south or east-west. While they came from all over Germany and Prussia they had enough in common to set up a large Germanic enclave. They spoke German, ate German food, played German music and mostly intermarried.
Wisconsin was a ‘free’ state and most of the German settlers found slavery repugnant. But when the American Civil War broke out in 1860 many of them felt like it wasn’t their fight and wanted to stay out of it. But there were some who wanted to show their appreciation to the Union (the free Northern states) for taking them in and they volunteered in droves. The Union army had to scramble to find officers who spoke German!
One such volunteer was my ancestor August Olm. He was originally from Prussia, in his late 30s and unmarried. He was mustered into the 26th Wisconsin infantry unit. He was with the troops that were routed by Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville and many of the English speaking soldiers thought that the Germans were cowards and worthless. Eventually they did prove their worth. The 26th Wisconsin fought in many battles including the first day of Gettysburg.
Today you can visit the Gettysburg battlefield and see where particular units were stationed. Because the area has been fairly well preserved and protected it can be a bit spooky, looking out over terrain that has not changed much in 150 years. You can really feel that you’re slipping back in time. (I highly recommend the movie Gettysburg based on the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The film was made mostly on the actual battlefield with the cooperation of hundreds of re-enactors providing period uniforms and weapons.)
After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox August went home to Schleswig, Wisconsin and eventually married the widow of one of his cousins, Johanne Augusta Louisa Schultz. Over the years his uniform, weapons and medals got lost or destroyed (I suspect some of my great uncles used them as toys) and by the time I was born it all seemed a long time ago. Post-World War II America was a dynamic, modern country. More people were going to college, buying cars, moving around the country. The past was mostly left behind. It wasn’t until the 21st century that I really became aware of much of my family background and August Olm. A couple of years ago I and my father got a chance to try and find his grave. We knew he was buried in one of the small local graveyards that dot the Wisconsin countryside. In many cases the associated church has disappeared. I was unable to find his grave but I did find his son and his grandson. Along with lots and lots of my other ancestors resting in the soil of their new home land. No longer Germans but Americans.
A website about the 26th Wisconsin: http://www.russscott.com/~rscott/26thwis/
And August’s page: http://www.russscott.com/~rscott/26thwis/augusolm.htm
And a Wikipedia article about the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1848_Revolution
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