During November I made book presentations about Trading With the Enemy in the Midwest and Northeast. It was fun to meet members of each group and learn how they got interested in the Civil War. Presently, however, I wish to share thoughts prompted by the Milwaukee visit.
The Milwaukee Civil War Roundtable meets downtown at the prestigious Wisconsin Club pictured below. It was founded as the German Club in 1891 for the purpose of promoting “German-American understanding and fellowship” in response to the large German immigration into the city toward the end of the nineteenth century. Even today the number of Milwaukee families with names of “Schmitt” or “Schmidt” far outnumber those with “Smith,” which is the Anglicized transformation.
When our country entered World War I most Americans were suspicious of citizens with German roots. Therefore, the German Club changed its name to the Wisconsin Club. But the tyranny of the domestic majority demanded even greater suppression of German-American culture. Former President Theodore Roosevelt openly voiced his disdain for what he called “hyphenated-Americans.”
Even our language changed to erase German-American influence. Nearly 100 years ahead of today’s college students, Americans apparently demanded that the country become a “safe space” where no offensive words could be expressed. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.” The frankfurter became a “hot dog,” the hamburger a “liberty sandwich,” and Salisbury steak was changed to “meatloaf.” Dachshunds were called “liberty pups.” Many families named Mueller felt impelled to change it to “Miller,” while Schmidt and Schmitt became “Smith,” as noted.
Fortunately the suppression eventually relaxed. Nobody today gets angry when hearing nouns like hamburger, frankfurter, or Dachshund. Consequently, President Obama correctly cautions us to avoid hostility toward those of Muslim faith merely because of the actions of “a tiny minority” of violent jihadists.
Simultaneously, however, our country is presently on a rampage to eradicate much of Southern heritage. While the Confederate flag signifies racism and slavery to some, to others it symbolizes the fight of our ancestors to protect their homes from invasion. Both groups of us are Americans and entitled to differing viewpoints. As Will Rogers put it, “If I don’t see things your way, well, why should I?” It was only a small minority of Southerners who waved the Confederate flag in direct confrontation with those enforcing court-ordered school integration. The great majority of white Southerners stayed at home, away from the protests, and let history run its course.
But the present hostility does not stop with the flag. Instead statues are being removed, school and street names changed, and legacies exterminated. For example, at Princeton University it is “demanded” that Woodrow Wilson be dishonored because his racial attitudes were consistent with the majority of Americans of his time but repugnant to ours. Yet even though Theodore Roosevelt’s contempt for “hyphenated-Americans” – also common in his time – is repulsive in ours, there are no “demands” that schools or streets named in his honor be changed because Roosevelt was a New Yorker…that’s different, see?
In short, I enjoyed learning about Milwaukee’s German heritage, which would have been more evident had the Wisconsin Club never changed its name.
My Civil War Books