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Alumni Profile

An uncivil war

donald allendorf

Donald Allendorf spent a decade writing a book about German immigrants in the Civil War. Photo by Tracy Mershon

What started as an intriguing question about family history turned into almost a decade of detective work by Donald Allendorf. For years, Allendorf, BJ ’56, and his wife, June, BA ’97, had heard family legends about her great-grandfather and how he fought as a Union soldier during the Civil War. Why, they wondered, would a recent German immigrant in St. Louis take sides in a fight that didn’t concern him?

“I thought I would write a short family history and be finished in a few months,” Allendorf says. Those months turned into years after he started digging through records in the National Archives. When he retired in 1996 from the Gates Corp. in Denver, he moved to Columbia and uncovered more letters and diaries in historical society archives. His book, Long Road to Liberty (Kent State University Press, 2006), tells the story of a German-American regiment from the St. Louis area — the 15th Missouri Volunteer Infantry — and its role in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

Many in the German community around St. Louis were political refugees from the 1848 German revolution. They were highly educated idealists, Allendorf says. “It was Germany’s first crack at a democratic government. When the revolution failed, they had to run.”

These former freedom fighters were appalled by slavery, Allendorf says. “They were one of the earliest groups to toss the idea of slavery back into the face of American citizens.” German immigrants were among the first to volunteer for the Union Army. When Confederate sympathizers tried to seize weapons stored at the federal arsenal in St. Louis, German volunteers stopped them.

As green recruits, members of the 15th Regiment, including Allendorf’s great-grandfather-in-law, fought some of the earliest battles of the Civil War. By the time the war ended almost five years later, more than half of the 900 officers and soldiers in the regiment had been killed or wounded, and more than 100 others died of disease.
As he researched the book, Allendorf and his wife visited the battlefields where those lives were lost: The campaign for Atlanta. Chickamauga, where the 15th Regiment almost was wiped out. Missionary Ridge, where they charged without orders into withering Confederate fire. The Battle of Stones River, where German troops hunkered down in the rocks while Confederate cannon balls shattered the forest around them.

There were few happy endings for the survivors after the war. “Most simply came back and disappeared into their communities as happens with men returning from war,” Allendorf says. “I was sorry to leave these people. I really got to know them.” — John Beahler