By Samantha Litty
German is one of the “older immigrant languages” spoken (and written) in Wisconsin. German-speaking immigrants began settling in the region after it opened to white settlement following the Black Hawk War of 1832 (Conzen 2009). By 1850, when the Schneider family of Germantown, Wisconsin first appears in the U.S. Census, the population of the state was nearly one-third foreign-born (Nesbit 2004: 148). Of those, the largest group by far was “German” or German-speaking and the Schneider family belonged to that group. They emigrated from Nassau, Hessen, in 1847 and settled in Germantown, Washington County, Wisconsin soon after. The oldest son, Phillipp, was only 12 when the family arrived in Wisconsin and the youngest child, Fritz, was born in Wisconsin in 1850.
At the outset of the Civil War, Wisconsin’s population was heavily foreign-born, but many immigrants who were not U.S. citizens enlisted and fought in the war. Phillip Schneider was 24 when he enlisted in the Wisconsin 28th Volunteer Regiment on August 21, 1862. There were several German-speaking regiments formed in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin 5th Militia and 9th Infantry were predominantly German, and the 18th and 20th Volunteer Regiments were each more than half German-speaking. Schneider, and five other “Germantown Boys” as he called them, joined a primarily English-speaking regiment, suggesting that they were also able to speak or at least get along in English.
Much of Schneider’s time in the Wisconsin 28th is chronicled in letters he sent home to his mother and siblings. From March 1864 to August 1865, Schneider wrote 45 letters (that we have today), mostly in standard-like German with some English interspersed. It is unknown where or how much schooling Schneider received, but it is clear from his letters that he had some German language instruction (possibly both in Germany before emigrating and in Wisconsin after arrival) and was able to distinguish between both the old German script, Kurrent, and the Latin Script used for English. Overall, Schneider’s letters are almost 94% German, with most English consisting of only individual or pairs of words, rather than larger grammatical structures. However, over the 18-month period Schneider writes, the overall amount of English increases by about 3% (Litty 2019).
One idiomatic expression from English that Schneider uses several times in his letters is “to raise hell” (1) or “to give hell” (2), often with the verb simply used in German. While he does have a German equivalent, he seems to prefer the English variant.
(1) das halt die boys von
“that stops the boys from
(2) der Gränd soll dem
alten Lee hell geben haben
“Grant is said to have
given that old Lee hell”
Another interesting aspect of Schneider’s letters is shown in the pictures of the word, “theater”, which is spelled the same in German and English, but which Schneider writes in different scripts and with different spellings, indicating he distinguished between when he was using it as an English word versus when as a German word.
Figure 3. March 1, 1864, page 1, line 15
Figure 4. January 1, 1865, page 3, line 67
Even though Schneider was born in Germany, and even after spending more of his life in Wisconsin than in Germany, he still chose to write in German. Maybe this was due to his own ability to write German or because his audience would understand it better. In the relatively short time he writes, his English use increased which may have been due to increased contact with English. His letters are just one example of how German and English were used simultaneously by a Wisconsin author in the 19th century and give us a fuller picture of American history.
The originals of the Schneider letters were donated to and are housed by the Lomira Historical Society.
Conzen, Kathleen Neils. 2009. Germans in Minnesota. Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Litty, Samantha. 2019. Letters home: German-American Civil War soldiers’ letters 1864-1865. In Joshua R. Brown (ed.), Heritage language ego-documents: From home, from away, and from below. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Nesbit, Robert Carrington. 2004. Wisconsin: A history. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
About the author
Samantha Litty is an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Europa Universität Flensburg and the Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, 2019-2021. In 2017 she received her Ph.D. in Germanic Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her emphasis was German and English varieties spoken natively in Wisconsin. Her current research focuses on the sociohistorical development and language use in the multilingual German-Danish border region in the 19th century.