German Cockades and the American Civil War

German cockades were on my list to re-create, but a customer recently made them a priority by asking me for some. He is a living historian and wants to portray a German immigrant serving in the American Union army.

As always, studying the stories of cockades leads to fascinating tidbits of history. This is one of them.

Did you know that 10% of the Union army was German?

Over 200,000 Germans served in the Union army. Thousands of Germans also served in the Confederate army. US Major General Franz Sigel was perhaps the most famous Union German officer, inspiring a popular song of the era, "I Goes To Fight Mit Sigel."

The massive 6'4" Lt. Col. Heros von Borcke was probably the most famous German Confederate, running the blockade to serve in the Confederate army.

Space constrains me to be brief, but if you want a lot more details on German involvement in the war there's an entire article on wikipedia to get you started, called German Americans in the Civil War.

But why did these German immigrants come to America? And what does that have to do with cockades? 

In 1848 a series of revolutions swept across Europe, instigated in party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The "March Revolution" revolution in the Austrian, or German, Empire featured reformers protesting the autocratic political structure of the separate states in the Empire. They pushed for political reforms and a united Germany. The Revolution eventually failed however, and many political exiles came to America.

These Marxist revolutionaries had been wearing tricolor cockades in their home country. For instance, the "Criminal Code of the German Empire" (published in 1871) observed, "Of course, Prussian criminal code prohibited wearing the national cockade as punishment for certain crimes. In 1848, it became the symbol of the revolutionary party."

An 1848 entry in the Burlington (VT) Free Press stated, "Leipsic, March 24 – News was last night received from Brunswick, that the Duke of Brunswick had placed his dominions at the disposal of the German Confederation and declared in favor of the German Empire. Tricolored cockades and flags of black, red and gold had been distributed to the military."

And another source tells us, "A united Germany now became the watch-word of the day….The students not only marched under German banners, but paraded the streets decorated with German cockades and ribbons."

And finally, Chambers Encyclopedia informs us, "Black, with some distinction, enters into the cockades of the German nations…..After the German war of liberation in 1813, a national cockade of black, red, and gold came into general use, and was afterwards assumed by the military and by officials. The wearing of these German cockades was prohibited in 1832, by a resolution of the German Diet; but in 1848 they were again introduced, not only by patriots as a badge of German union, but into the armies. Since 1850, the German cockade has disappeared, with other signs of the revolution."

Why do we care?

German marxists influenced both the war and Lincoln himself. M. Jeff Thompson of Missouri wrote, "A Missouri man had once written the Confederate authorities that all they had to do to get rid of the Saint Louis Unionists was destroy the local breweries and seize all the beer: '... By this means the Dutch [Germans] will all die in a week and the Yankees will then run from this State.'" German immigrants not only served with distinction in both armies (a penchant for beer notwithstanding!), but they influenced several states to stay in the Union.

An interesting book called "Red Republicans and Lincoln's Marxists" tells the story of these immigrants' influence, as well as the influence of Marx's philosophy on the Union. Many things we take for granted in our nation today, such as income taxes and mandatory government schools, were first brought to America by Marx's disciples.

So here is my re-creation of the German cockade. I hope you enjoy it, as well as this interesting piece of history!


  1. This is a great whimsical piece and all, but it is infact just that: creative whimsy.

    There’s two main points here that you seem to be overlooking.

    The first is that two of your sources hint at the very obvious fact that not everybody, even in “Germany” 1850-1871, would have openly worn these, and the fact it appears in the Imperial Code of 1871 further reenforces that while the German Empire was in power up until 1919, this is not something you would have wanted to be seen wearing.

    “Germany” isn’t even Germany until 1871 when unification happens; from 1850 there was the German Confederation, and from 1866-1871 there was the North German Confederation. There was no unified country and each of the 22 member states remained a sovereign nation unto itself. Depending on which side of the Prussian/Austrian conflict one finds oneself on, a cockade in black, red, and gold quickly becomes unlikely. The Prussians ultimately won the fight and moving forward from 1866 such a sign of patriotism would have been dangerous. Indeed, as your source points out, it was against the law in 1871. Both it and the encyclopedia reference clearly point out that any Prussian-controlled part of “Germany” at the time would have repressed this symbol of the 1848 revolution once the confederation reconvened in 1850. A fact you conveniently choose to ignore here.

    Second, you make no effort to even approach the subject of immigrants in the United States trying to assimilate into our culture. It wasn’t popular to be seen as anything other than American, so one would not go out of their way to attract undue attention to the fact that they’re a foreigner. Other than some themed events hosted by various “ethnic” societies, one simply did not stroll around calling attention to the fact that they weren’t born an American. The same mindset lingered for decades. They were in America; they were Americans now.

    This is some pretty work, but unless you have some original cockades with American provenance from 1861-1865, this is, as I said, a piece of whimsy, and not a piece of history.

    1. Saphirsymphonie, thanks for your comment. A couple things I'd like to note.

      First, I created this cockade to be worn by anyone who wishes to show pride in their German heritage. There is nothing in my listing insisting that the cockade be worn for Civil War reenacting only. Many people purchase my cockades for daily wear and simply wish to know the story of the cockade's colors and emblems. Hence, this post.

      Secondly, as you noted, I was upfront in my blog post about when the cockades would actually have been worn. I'm not claiming that German immigrants in the Union army were all wearing these cockades. :)

      And thirdly, though I have just begun my journey in researching this cockade, in a previous journey concerning an immigrant cockade I discovered that soldiers did indeed wear their national cockade with pride. I'm speaking of the "forty-eighters" from Ireland who wore a green Irish cockade on their sleeves. I have documentation, including photos, of this. So it's not that far a stretch to think that possibly some German "forty-eighters" also wore their national cockade.

      I'm simply distilling an episode in history into a short blog post. Those who would like to know more details about the subject are welcome to follow up the many links I provided in the post.

      Thanks again for your interest.

  2. For a little different viewpoint on the Forty-Eighters than is usually provided by establishment historians read the book "Lincoln's Marxists" published by Pelican Publishing in Gretna, Louisiana.