New Ulm proves resilient in face of wars, hostility


MN 2020 Editor’s Note: Minnesotans haven’t always been among the most tolerant Americans. New Ulm residents over the years have experienced the dark sides of humanity involving war with neighbors – the Dakota – and intolerance and suspicion with state government and institutions surrounding their German ancestry.

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In this second of a three part series on New Ulm, Professor Amato reviews how New Ulm used community strengths to rebuild from the ashes and weather hostility from the state and other Minnesotans. Having faced far greater odds than the external forces now challenging hundreds of rural Minnesota communities, New Ulm shows how a strong sense of community can help people through periods of change. – Lee Egerstrom, Minnesota 2020 Fellow

The Dakota Conflict, Wars with Germany make New Ulm an All-American City

New Ulm became ground zero in the war for the Minnesota River Valley that is usually called the Dakota Conflict.

Comparable to the Indian-King Phillip’s War in the Seventeenth Century and the Pontiac Rebellion in the Eighteenth century, the war in Minnesota is often ignored, hidden in the shadow of the Civil War. Instigated by a handful of braves, the Dakota mercilessly attacked individual farm sites up and down the 200-mile Minnesota River Valley.

The war proved as terrible as it was unexpected for the recently arrived Germans settlers, who constituted the majority of the new settlers. Five hundred or more of them were murdered, and the vast majority of the survivors (including orphans and fatherless and motherless families, whose fates are still to be documented) permanently abandoned their land and newly established homes.

Provoking the U. S. Army, the military resources of the new state, and the outrage of its citizens, the Dakota also suffered profoundly in the uprising: they lost their place and claim in southwestern Minnesota. On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors, of the more than 200 whose sentences were not commuted by President Lincoln and were convicted, were hung in a mass execution in Mankato. The remaining Dakota, including those who had remained neutral, aided, helped, and even saved the lives of settlers, were exiled.

New Ulm heroically withstood two major attacks by the Indians before being burned to the ground. It would rise again like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.

The economic growth of the Civil War, which, according to Hoisington, gave rise to what would become the dominant flour, beer, cigar, and bricks industries, coincided with the coming of the railroad and repopulation of Southwestern Minnesota. While Brown County remained an identifiably German landscape, even though it was sprinkled and dotted with pockets of New Englanders, Scandinavians, Irish and other settlers, the enthusiastic flames of secular, free-thinking, and nationalistic Turner communi-tarianism cooled.

If New Ulm would thrive, it would do so under a new banner. It would no longer seek to be an idealized German republic in the countryside. Rather, it would become a productive national agricultural service center. Testifying to this transformation, Catholics and Protestants institutionalized themselves in the town itself in the late 1860s and 1870s. The Catholics built their first Church in 1870 and promptly followed with the establishment of a Catholic academy in what was once a Turner town.

Under the spiritual and political guidance of a prairie patriarch, Father Berghold, Catholicism sunk its roots deep in New Ulm. The father’s novels attracted hundreds of German-Bohemian immigrants to Brown County. Rather than a German republic, they sought subsistence farms. On Sunday, all of these good Catholic peasants—Bauern und Landsmanleute, who wanted to embody the old way—flocked to the Turner’s new republic to attend mass.

In 1883 alone, showing that religion and tradition had baptized New Ulm, Congregrationalists opened a new church; and the Evangelical Lutherans of Minnesota, intent on securing their Biblical views and church, resolved to build a Lutheran grammar school. At the same time, showing that literacy and Turner progressivism had not disappeared entirely, the new library of the New Ulm Readers’ Club was opened.

The Turner Society, ever active in relief projects, celebrated the 200th Anniversary of German settlement in America. Showing that grounds of compromise and accord were found, the featured speakers at the dedication of the town’s regional hospital and its 34-acre grounds in November of 1883, Father Berghold—the Catholic church’s founder—Reverend C. F. Mowery of the new Congregational church, and William Pfaender, who spoke in German, were the featured speakers. Soon a Catholic religious order would run the hospital.

The Rise and Fall of Hermann, the German
By the end of the century, New Ulmites had built a good American prairie town. Though still German in name and speech, immigrants and their children became by circumstances, law, and actions—the force of everyday life—true Americans.

Amalgamated by the mediums of U. S. money and English, they had bought and held land, opened businesses, and succeeded in mastering the wily free enterprise economy. Obeying the nation’s laws, they learned to express their interests and loves in English and practice their rights in a democracy. Germans were a prominent presence across the rural Midwest, and in thriving New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and their own Cincinnati. Germans constituted the third largest ethnic group in America. Many of them, in measure more educated and free of locality, stood ready to accept the belated American nativist invitation to become, to use the formulation of historian Russell Kazal, “old-stock Americans on the basis of belonging to one of the two northern white races (British and Teutonic) …”

This, Kazal noted, helped them “to differentiate themselves from the waves of recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and what they perceived as the repugnant amalgam of recent immigrants and foreign peoples and creeds and ideas gathering in the turgid bowels of industrializing and urbanizing America.”

At the same time, increasingly confident of their own emerging place in America, a portion of New Ulmites, like urban Germans across the nation, stood ready to tell society at large that—yes, we are Germans! Despite their growing assimilation into American mass, national, and poplar culture and beyond internal and fundamental differences of German identity, they were willing to put on a German public mask and take up an identifiable, though stereotypic and mythic place in self interrogating and self-declaring America.

On the eve of the celebration of Columbus’s discovery of America, which was held belatedly at the great Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, labeling and identification—no doubt a condition of cultural survival in mass democracy—reached a crescendo across the nation. Inheritances were discovered and invented; statues and monuments were erected; parks, streets, and buildings were named, and all sorts of associations and societies flew their banners brighter and higher. Indeed, it was as if every group was compelled both from within and without to tell every other group who they truly were—or would like to be. There was a frenzy of naming and labeling.

New Ulm would have been the exception if it had not joined the rush of self-definition. Surely the time had come to declare and commemorate its two founding events: its original settlement and its survival of the uprising and war. In 1892, four hundred years after Columbus set sights on the New World, New Ulm successfully convinced state legislators to pay for the erection of a 25-foot high monument, with two bas-reliefs, to the New Ulm defenders in the war with the Dakota.

With the blessing of 500 chapters and 30,000 members of the Sons of Hermann (a society founded in 1840 in New York City), New Ulm set the cornerstone for a major monument to German-Americans in 1888. The monument would be dedicated to Hermann the German, the tribal chief who defeated three Roman armies in 9 AD, spelling the end of Roman dominance in Northern Europe. Hermann stood in contrast to Roman farmer and warrior Cincinnatus, the Fifth Century BC Roman leader who had militarily saved Rome first from the surrounding tribes and then again from Rome’s discontented plebes. Cincinnatus was the patron saint of Cincinnati, from where New Ulm’s founding fathers had fled.

Having conceived the idea and done almost a decade of politics within the national Herman the German Society, New Ulm poised itself to speak German American when in 1888 it prepared the site for the monument on a promontory high above the town. Nine years later in 1897, with financial problems finally overcome, New Ulm, in concert with Sons of Hemann across the nation, crowned itself as the most German town in the nation with the erection and the celebration of the monument.

The sing-song rhyme of the heroic defender’s name in English, HERMANN the GERMAN, didn’t detract from the pomp and gravity of the celebration of the town’s commemorative monument. The only community in the United States to erect such a monument, New Ulm took for its model the colossal Denkmal to Herman erected in Ditm, Germany, in the aftermath of German unification in 1870.

With a citizenry of only four thousand and the help of a national fund drive, the small Minnesota agricultural town threw up an imposing structure. Set on the crest of New Ulm’s most prominent hill and visible from 25 miles, Hermann, with his up-thrust sword, stood as the largest free-standing copper statue of its kind in the United States with the exception of the Statue of Liberty – which was made in France.

Germans from across the Midwest flocked to the dedication by the train-car full. Sons of Hermann lodges, German bands and choirs, along with the Governor, other dignitaries, and thousands of others joined in the celebration. A parade, picnic, and speeches took place over the weekend celebration of Hermann.

While the amount of beer and food consumed went unmeasured, the number of polka steps taken went uncounted, and grammatical errors auf Deutsch went untallied, speeches unmistakably flowed in a single direction: Herman stood for freedom, independence, and the common man against tyranny and empire. He represented what the New Ulmites, who had battled in the Civil War and withstood the great Indian uprising, took themselves to be: courageous patriots.
New Ulm’s civic leaders used Hermann to enter the spirit of a self-defining and self-declaring time. The inhabitants of this small rural town affirmed who they were. New Ulm was no different than the small towns across state and nation that sent self-promotional displays to the 1893 World’s Fair’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—to which nearby Pipestone sent its pipes and petroglyph-carved red rock.

The New Ulmites were not unlike town dwellers across the state and nation who invented and enrolled themselves in the Moose, Elks, Optimists, Rotary, and countless other civic, religious, and philanthropic groups. Beyond divisions of wealth and religion, New Ulm recognized itself, through the statue of Hermann, as a German place.

Then Came the Great War
The Great War sheathed Hermann’s sword. The belated but enthusiastic entrance of the United States into the war, sponsored by the East Coast and big money, overturned the national policy of neutrality to which rural Minnesotans, especially southern Minnesota’s German-Americans, clung.

New Ulmites had no interest in entering into a fratricidal war in Europe. The American Civil War had already written in blood what happens when brother fights brother. But with US entrance into the war in 1917, the nation judged Germany and German culture as enemies of the Anglo-American way of life. Hyphenated Americans were no longer welcome in the nation of 100-percent loyalty to country and cause. What began as concern about saboteurs and potential spies mushroomed across America into an assault on all German—and all foreign—ethnic expression.

The Minnesota Committee for Public Safety, the official embodiment of suspicion, scrutinized all individuals and institutions of alien persuasion, foreign tongue, and dissenting view. No town in Minnesota received more scrutiny than “Hunville” New Ulm. At its expense, nearby Sleepy Eye draped a banner declaring, “Berlin—ten miles east!” and the Princeton Union venomously queried, “Is it any wonder that there are those who regret that the Sioux did not do a better job at New Ulm fifty-five years ago?”

The Committee for Public Safety, in one of its most notorious actions, declared seditious the rallies of Mayor Louis Fritsche’s and son of New Ulm’s founder, City Attorney Captain Albert Pfaender aimed at sparing New Ulm and the region’s German youth from being drafted to fight against Herman’s homeland. In December 1917, Governor J.A.A. Burnquist removed Fritsche and Pfaender from office for malfeasance on charges of disloyalty.

The war forced all, especially Germans and speakers of foreign languages, to show that they were 100 percent American. Enlisting in the army and buying bonds were two ways of proving loyalty to the homeland. Changing one’s name and professing a different ethnicity were common but not usually successful devices used to escape the opprobrium of being one of Hermann’s clan. New Ulm’s German Street was temporarily renamed Liberty Ave. The town’s citizens turned their backs on Hermann and the broad synthesis of American and German ways. Thirty-five bullets were shot through Hermann during the war and after, as the Denkmal served as target practice for a countryside filled with guns and bullets and animus against the Kaiser.

Like German culture, Hermann fell into ignominy and disrepair. He was a rejected patron saint. Although his followers could drink illicitly in his shadows, he couldn’t shelter the town’s breweries from the Prohibition. He offered no solace during the Depression, which placed economic survival above cultural symbols. With no voice to repudiate his contemporary bellicose cousin Adolph Hitler or deter Nazi Germany from war, Hermann was shrouded in neglect.

The Twentieth Century was a cataclysm for German culture, despite its immense contributions to Western and American thought. Germany, their homeland, was at the center of the monstrous era and was an indisputable cause of yet another and second world war. New Ulmites had no choice but to forsake the warrior and embrace America, which indulged their primary and underlying motive: advancing the cause of their families and communities. In turn, they remained, although this would be worthy of study, secure in their locale, ethnic, and national American identities.