Marcus Spiegel: From Conservative Democrat to “Strong Abolitionist”

November 24, 2022
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Colonel Marcus M. Spiegel, 1863. By permission of Jean Powers Soman who solely owns all rights hereto.

Marcus Spiegel: From Conservative Democrat to "Strong Abolitionist"

Of all the servicemen in the Shapell Roster, the one who left behind perhaps the most comprehensive extant first-hand narrative of what it was like to be a Jewish soldier in the Union army during the Civil War was Marcus Spiegel. What makes Spiegel even more unique is that he was also amongst the highest-ranking Jewish officers. Beyond this happy coincidence of statistics, the truly remarkable thing about Marcus Spiegel was his multifaceted transformation. He went from being an immigrant to an American. From a financially struggling civilian to a solvent soldier. From captain to colonel (and well on the road to being a general). Perhaps Spiegel’s most important transformation was from a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat to how he referred to himself in one of his final letters: “a strong abolitionist.” [1]

Spiegel’s story offers a rare insight into the life of a family man fighting in the Civil War, negotiating the tensions between domestic and civic duty, between his nuclear family and his “boys” – the men serving under him. Spiegel’s account also sheds light on the experience of many Jewish soldiers who were often alone in their regiments and only occasionally encountered other Jews or were able to attend religious services. And perhaps most notable is  Spiegel’s humility and willingness to change deeply-held political convictions upon encountering slavery in person. In order to understand Spiegel’s evolution, we will examine his life chronologically.

Marcus Spiegel was born in the village of Abenheim, now part of modern-day Worms, Germany, on December 8th, 1829. His father, Moses, was a rabbi for the small Jewish community in town, as was his father before him.  Conditions had been deteriorating for the Jews in Europe since Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and Marcus’s parents were prescient in realizing that the situation would only get worse. In 1845, depression hit Europe. The following year, the Spiegels emigrated to New York. Marcus, however, stayed behind. In 1848, a short-lived revolution swept throughout Europe, and eighteen-year-old Marcus idealistically participated in the fight against the Prussian monarchy. With the failure of the revolution, many participants were forced to flee, and Marcus joined his parents and siblings in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1849.

The Spiegels next moved to Chicago, where Marcus’s sister Sarah lived with her husband, Michael Greenebaum, a staunch Republican and abolitionist. Marcus would later visit the Greenebaums a few times as a soldier on leave. Like many new immigrants, Marcus both received help from established relations to get on his feet, and began as a peddler; in this case, his sister and brother-in-law kitted him out to become a peddler, and in 1850 Marcus set off for Ohio.

There, Spiegel met his future wife, Caroline Hamlin, in Stark County, Ohio, and by 1853 they were married. The couple returned to Chicago, and Caroline, a Quaker by birth, converted to Judaism. The following year, Marcus and Caroline settled in Ohio. Like many of his compatriots, and unlike his brother-in-law, Michael Greenebaum, Marcus Spiegel threw his support behind the Democrats. At the time, much to Lincoln’s despair, the  Republican party contained a strong nativist contingent who were anti-immigrant as well as anti-Catholic, which was understandably offputting to many German immigrants. [2] Marcus Spiegel was politically active, speaking in German at rallies on behalf of Stephen Douglas, an Illinois senator seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination. [3] His political activism earned him the patronage position of postmaster. With his success, and moving up a rung in society, he paid forward the kindness Michael Greenebaum had shown him, helping other immigrants become peddlers and earn a living.  

By the outbreak of the Civil War, the Spiegels were living in the heavily Democratic town of Millersburg, Ohio, and had three children. Though they were not impoverished, Marcus and Caroline felt the stress of scraping by. Spiegel’s patriotism, as well as his ambition to provide better for his family, made the army, with its regular salary and benefits, an attractive option to become more upwardly mobile in his adopted country, and so he enlisted in December of 1861. Spiegel had made a name for himself as an outgoing and solid citizen, respected across the political divides by his local acquaintances. He entered the army as a recruiting lieutenant and was eventually mustered into the 67th OH Infantry as a captain. In his very first letters, Spiegel expresses the paternal care for his men that was, in turn, reciprocated: “they love me, like they would a father,” marking the transition into the leader he would become. [4]

Spiegel’s men didn’t just adore him because of the kindnesses he showed them. They also revered him for his valor and courage on the battlefield. Though Spiegel started seeing action in March of 1862, it was not until February of 1863, after he had been commissioned as a colonel of the 120th OH Infantry, that Marcus seemed to fully identify as a seasoned soldier, writing to Caroline “For the first time my dear Wife let me say to you I believe I am a Soldier, every inch; no fear, perfectly cool, yet snap enough to encourage my men.” [5] Elsewhere, he describes himself as “perfectly enraptured. I could talk to every one [sic], knew the danger, but the fear of death had perfectly left me.” [6]

As Spiegel grew more into his role as a colonel beloved by his men and respected by his superior officers, he began to see the war from a different perspective. Not as a Democrat or a Republican but as a military man, first and foremost. Though most Democrats were against the war, and indeed there were problems of insurrectionism in the army on the part of Democrats, Spiegel was able to put his politics aside in favor of military duty. And though he was occasionally smeared by Republican papers, by the middle of the war, he was not only respected but sought after by both the Democrats and the Republicans. [7]

As the war dragged on, Spiegel’s Democratic zeal would be further tempered by personal experience. At the beginning of his service, in June of 1862, Spiegel had longed for the perspective of Douglas and that of most Democrats: in favor of war to save the Union, but not for abolition. Three months later, in September 1862, Lincoln proposed the Emancipation Proclamation, and many Union soldiers, even Republicans, found this a hard pill to swallow. Democrats raged against the Proclamation, there was insurrection in the army, and, almost six months later, as the Union began drafting men into the service, under The Enrollment Act of 1863, many refused the call, because of the Proclamation.

Despite Caroline urging Spiegel to resign and come home, he felt duty-bound to his men and to the army, explaining to his wife “I do not fight or want to fight for Lincoln’s Negro proclamation one day longer than I can help,” yet he insisted on putting military duty above political partisanship, remaining in the army. [8] Spiegel’s letters provide important insight into the mindset of many Union soldiers. Far from being an impassioned band of abolitionists, many Northerners had little interest in breaking down the institution of slavery. On the contrary, most worried that their own jobs would be at stake if emancipation was to occur, including German-American Democrats who dealt with the same fears of the nativist elements of the Republican Party. 

But by that December, the seeds of doubt about the Democratic party’s anti-abolitionist stance were taking root in Marcus Spiegel’s mind and conscience. Spiegel and his men encountered previously enslaved people in Tennessee. He wrote to his wife about the cheerful reception of newly-freed slaves. And here he starts to think a bit differently about slavery. On one hand, Spiegel finds it hard to comply with the slaves’ request to be “taken out of bondage” – presumably to be taken North. But on the other hand, he implies that if the abolitionists had not agitated for their freedom, perhaps the enslaved people would have been better off, albeit in a more “social, philanthropic and human Auspice,” but, he muses, “it seems to deny a privilege to be free.” He is far from convinced of abolition, because the continuation of his thought, upon reflecting on the plight of the newly-freed slaves is “in a spirit of philanthropy you will say, better be in slavery than such freedom as I can give you…” [9]

Throughout 1863, Spiegel continued to be exposed to slavery, but he would simultaneously have also been aware of the formation of the United States Colored Troops, former slaves who served alongside Spiegel’s own troops, fighting for the same cause. In January of 1864, four months before his untimely death, he writes to Caroline that since he has been in the South, “I have learned and seen more of what the horrors of Slavery was than I ever knew before and I am glad indeed that the signs of the times show, towards closing out the accursed institution.” And here, Spiegel is confronted by the reality that perhaps the Democratic party can no longer be home: “You know it takes me long to say anything sounds antidemocratic and it goes hard, but whether I stay in the Army or come home, I am [in] favor of doing away with the institution of slavery.” Spiegel then goes on to tell Caroline that henceforth, he will never speak or vote in favor of slavery, likely evoking memories of him speaking to German crowds on behalf of the party. Spiegel’s transformation from active Democrat to abolitionist is gradual and reflective – he informs Caroline “this is no hasty conclusion but a deep conviction.” [10]

A month later, Marcus Spiegel had seen enough and is finally ready to identify as an abolitionist. He tells Caroline “I am now a strong abolitionist […] Slavery is gone up whether the War ends to day or in a year and there is no use crying over it it has been an awful institution, I will send you the “black code” of Louisiana some of these days and I am satisfied it will make you shudder.” To Spiegel, this is an issue that transcends party politics, and even race. Spiegel is an abolitionist not for “party purposes but for humanity sake [sic] only, out of my own conviction, for the best Interest of the white man in the south and the black man anywheres [sic].” [11]

Marcus Spiegel’s letter identifying as an abolitionist is one of the last he wrote. Shortly after, in March 1864, he made his way home to recruit more men for the war efforts, and to be with his family (Caroline was pregnant with their fifth child). On May 3rd, 1864, Spiegel was mortally wounded when his regiment was ambushed as they traveled down the Red River on a steamboat. Most of the regiment was taken captive, including his brother, Joseph, who had been a sutler for the 120th OH Infantry. Spiegel died the following day. Spiegel’s last letter ends mid-sentence, echoing a life that was cut off early.

As a man who was admired for his bravery on the battlefield as well as his sober and honest politics in civilian life, it’s very possible that Spiegel would have enjoyed a successful post-army political career. His cousin, Simon Wolf, was a Washington insider who had assured Spiegel shortly before he died that he was to be “starred,” or promoted to General. Spiegel’s story is an immigrant story, in which Spiegel’s hard work and ambition paid off as upward mobility. As a Jewish immigrant, his progress is all the more emblematic of the possibilities that America offered. Indeed, his aunt in Mainz kept a photograph of Marcus “in the most prominent place in her home,” indicating the awareness of his relations still residing in Germany that the glass ceiling under which they were living was something that could be shattered in America. [12] Above all, Spiegel’s story teaches us that it is possible not only to break the glass ceilings of prejudice but to transcend political partisanship when confronted with certain truths. 

  1.  Spiegel, Marcus, et al. A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War: Marcus M. Spiegel of the Ohio Volunteers. Annotated, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p. 320
  2.  The nativist contingency in the Republican party declined after 1855, and therefore became a more inviting party for immigrants well after Spiegel had joined the Democrats. Many German-born Republicans were actually Forty-Eighters who viewed the Republican party as a second chance for the ideals they had fought for in Europe. To that end, many worked for a change in the Republican party from within. In the end, for many of the German Republicans, Lincoln did not go far enough in his support for abolition, and they ceased to endorse him for the 1864 election, preferring the more radical John Fremont instead. Alison Clark Efford, Abraham Lincoln, German-Born Republicans, and American Citizenship, 93 Marq. L. Rev. 1375 (2010).
  3.  Spiegel, p. 12
  4. Ibid, p. 25
  5. Ibid, p.221
  6. Ibid, p.213
  7. It was understood during the war that men who achieved a high rank in the army were likely to be considered fitting candidates for sundry political posts and positions of power after the war.
  8. Spiegel, p. 226
  9. Ibid, p. 204
  10.  Ibid, p. 316
  11. Ibid, pp. 320-321
  12. Ibid, p. 323