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The Ethnic Mix that Launched America

By William Loren Katz
May 28, 2010

Editor’s Note: In Arizona, a harsh new law has been passed mandating that police demand to see the papers of anyone they have reason to suspect might be an “illegal alien.”

The law has been touted by anti-immigrant groups who are making political hay amid economic troubles across the nation, but historian William Loren Katz says this bigotry goes against some of the founding lessons of the American Republic:

For generations, bashing immigrants has been a favorite political tactic of American xenophobes and white racists when they need to augment their time-honored way of rallying their backers – by picking on blacks and other people of color.

There were fears whipped up over waves of immigration in the 1840s, mostly against Irish Catholics; in the l880s, largely against Chinese; and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily against eastern and southern European Catholics and Jews.

In the 1920s, anti-immigrant fever led Congress to pass two draconian laws closing the gates to "undesirables." In other words, today’s bigotry and fear-mongering about “illegal” Hispanic immigration has a long and ugly history in the United States.

“Super-patriots” and anti-immigrant bigots sometimes trace their distrust of non-natives back to General George Washington and his supposed order as he crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Eve 1776 to “Put none but Americans on guard tonight.”

However, the quotation people at say there’s no foundation for these purported words from Washington in that context.

“The only basis for this order seems to be found in Washington’s circular letter to regimental commanders, dated April 30, 1777, regarding recruits for his body guard,” the Bartleby experts said, noting that Washington at that time wrote, “You will therefore send me none but natives.”

His reasoning, however, was not that he disdained immigrants but that a few months earlier, a supposed British deserter, Thomas Hickey, had tried to poison Washington and subsequently had been convicted and hanged.

The alleged Delaware crossing quote also makes little sense because Washington’s ragtag Continental Army was filled with non-native-born soldiers, both recent immigrants and Europeans who had joined the cause and were deeply trusted by Washington.

In fact, the British were defeated by a multicultural “rabble,” a self-described “motley crew” that lacked proper uniforms and training and had no respect for the traditional social order that King George III was trying to re-impose on the rebellious colonies.

Who were these rebels? In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, seven of the first nine companies to sign up for the patriot cause were almost entirely Irish and two were largely German. In Charleston, South Carolina, 26 Jews living on King Street joined up to form “The Jews’ Company.” 

Irish immigrants not only provided thousands of foot soldiers but also 1,500 officers, including 26 generals. General John Sullivan of Ireland stood with Washington at Valley Forge.

The Valley Forge encampment had so many Irish soldiers that they won the right to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – after their General warned them to avoid “Rioting and Disorder.”

During that terrible winter, Washington’s soldiers survived because local German immigrant farmers provided food for the ragged troops, and German and Moravian women volunteered to serve as nurses.

And Washington’s freezing soldiers were whipped into an army by General Freidrich von Steuben, a German whose barking orders had to be translated from German to French to English.

Another of Washington’s trusted officers was Christian Febiger, a Danish immigrant. Another was General Johann Kalb, a giant of a man from Germany who served under General Horatio Gates.

Major Cosmo Medici of Italy survived 41 months of battles and 11 months as a prisoner of war. Poland’s Thaddeus Kosciusko became a General, a personal friend of Washington’s, and a war hero. After the war he returned home to lead his own people against Russian tyranny.

Count Casimir Polaski, a Polish nobleman, saved the patriot forces at Brandywine and formed a “Polish Legion” staffed by officers from France, Germany and Poland. Known as “the father of the American cavalry,” Polaski died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Savannah.

Polaski’s chief officer was Colonel Michael Kovats, a Hungarian whose soldiers came mostly from Germany and Hungary. During the siege of Savannah, 700 black soldiers from Haiti helped stem the British assault.

Indeed, a host of “foreigners” bore arms in defense of the new republic -- soldiers and sailors from Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and, of course, France, which supplied officers such as the Marquis de Lafayette and important naval power.

Louisiana’s Spanish Governor Bernard de Galvez sent food, guns and medicine across his border to the patriots.

Even unwanted “aliens” helped. Of the 29,875 Hessian mercenaries hired by the British, many changed their mind rather than assist the English monarchy crush a revolt on behalf of freedom.

A third of the Hessians failed to show up in Germany, and others surrendered the first chance they had. When Hessian prisoners were taken on a tour of Pennsylvania’s fertile fields many volunteered to stay as farmers. One was Private Kuster, an ancestor of General George Custer.

The British learned to their sorrow that immigrants from many lands were willing to fight and die – along with native-born soldiers from the many ethnic and racial groups already in the colonies – so the fledgling United States of America might live.

Despite the existence of slavery, there were many volunteers of African descent, people like Oliver Cromwell who was in the boat with Washington as he crossed the Delaware. Cromwell also fought bravely at Princeton, Brandywine, Monmouth and Yorktown.

Even earlier in the war, African-Americans helped Ethan Allen capture Fort Ticonderoga, providing the cannons that Washington used to drive the British from Boston.

At Bunker Hill, Peter Salem, a black sharpshooter brought down Major Pitcairn, the British commander, and another, Salem Poor, was cited for battlefield bravery.

Later in the war, African-Americans served heroically alongside whites and Native Americans in Francis Marion’s guerrilla forces in the Carolinas.

“No regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance,” reported one captured Hessian soldier.

This unlikely unity of people from so many ethnic, racial and social groupings was a message not lost on the aristocratic Lord Cornwallis when he was forced to surrender to this rabble army at Yorktown in 1781. He ordered his band to play “The World Turned Upside Down.”

It is, however, a lesson that many Americans seem to have forgotten amid today's anti-immigrant fervor.

William Loren Katz is the author of forty U.S. books, including the 8-volume school text, A History of Multicultural America. He has been affiliated with New York University since 1973. His website is WILLIAMLKATZ.COM

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