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"Those Damn Immigrants Again"

by William Loren Katz
New York, New York

Immigrants have been a favorite American scapegoat for racists who wish to reach beyond their time-honored target -- people of color. Waves of anti-immigration sentiment flooded the country in the 1840s [largely against Irish Catholics], in the l880s [largely against Chinese] and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries [largely against eastern and southern European Catholics and Jews]. In the 1920s anti-immigrant fever had Congress passing two draconian laws that closed the gates to "undesirables." Today bigotry rides high again.

Bigots assume a patriotic stance by pointing to the night General George Washington crossed the Delaware and allegedly said, "Put none but Americans on guard tonight." But this fable makes little sense. Would the first commander in chief issue an order that would further divide his country and especially his ragged, freezing army that included thousands who were not Protestant, who were not white, and who did not come from England? In Washington’s boat that night was Oliver Cromwell, who fought bravely at Princeton, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown -- one of eight thousand volunteers of African descent.

The British were defeated by a multicultural "rabble," "Irish army," "motley crew" [their words] that had no respect for law and order, and lacked proper uniforms and military training. Who were they? 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."

During Valley Forge’s 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. His encampment had so many Irish soldiers they won the right to celebrate St. Patrick's Day -- after their General warned them to avoid "Rioting and Disorder." And Washington’s disheartened, freezing men 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.

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, and another of his 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 and a war hero. [After the war he returned home to lead his own people against Russian tyranny.] Count Casmir Polaski saved the patriot forces at Brandywine, formed a "Polish Legion" staffed by officers from France, Germany and Poland, and became "the father of the American cavalry." His chief officer was Colonel Michael Kovats, a Hungarian, whose soldiers were largely came from Germany and Hungary.

African Americans helped Ethan Allen capture Fort Ticonderoga and served alongside whites and Native Americans in Francis Marion’s guerilla forces in the Carolinas. "No regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance," reported a captured Hessian soldier. At Bunker Hill, Peter Salem, a Black sharpshooter brought down Major Pitcairn, the British commander, and another, Salem Poor, was cited for battlefield bravery by Captain William Prescott and 13 of his officers.

A host of “foreigners” bore arms in defense of the new republic -- soldiers and sailors from Spain, Cuba, France, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Louisiana’s Spanish Governor Bernard de Galvez sent food, guns and medicine across his border to the patriots. During the siege of Savannah 700 Black soldiers from Haiti helped stem the British assault.

Even unwanted aliens helped. Of the 29,875 Hessian mercenaries hired by the British many changed their mind. A third 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 U.S. General George Custer.

Immigrants from many lands -- and Africans, Hispanics and Native Americans – fought and died so the United States of America might live. The British learned this to their sorrow. When he surrendered at Yorktown, a shaken Lord Cornwallis ordered his band to play "The World Turned Upside Down."

If our defeated foe could do so in 1781, more than two centuries later we should be able to recognize our great multicultural heritage.

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

Published in In Motion Magazine June 2, 2010

Also see:

  • Over-Raided, Under Siege
    U.S. Immigration Laws and Enforcement
    Destroy the Rights of Immigrants

    Oakland, California

  • Interview with Roberto Martinez (2001)
    One of the greatest human rights tragedies in the history of the U. S.
    Border operations / Migrant life / Organizing for human rights
    San Diego, California

  • Interview with Maria Jiménez (1998)
    The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border
    Border Communities Respond to Militarization / From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol Life
    Houston, Texas