The Pennsylvania immigrants who were part of an enormous wave of Europeans who landed in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s were fleeing political upheaval, persecution and, in the case of the Irish, a great famine brought on by a potato blight.
Throughout the North, these immigrant groups faced a whole new set of challenges and, despite being impoverished or non-English speaking, played an important role during the years preceding the war.
Two historical events in particular drove this new period of immigration: the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845, and the European revolutions of 1848. The largest two ethnic groups by far were Irish-Catholics fleeing starvation and eviction in Ireland and Germans of various religious and political affiliations (Catholics, Protestants, “freethinkers,” liberals, and conservatives) fleeing the revolutions or subsequent repressions that swept across Germany in the late 1840s.
These recent arrivals from Germany joined a much older and well-established community of “Pennsylvania Dutch” (Germans who had immigrated earlier during colonial times), thus making German one of the most common languages spoken in Pennsylvania. By 1860, there were more than four million foreign-born citizens living in the United States. Of the 400,350 in Pennsylvania, more than 200,000 were from Ireland and nearly 140,000 were from the German states. Nearly 15 percent of Pennsylvania's population, and almost 29 percent of Philadelphia's, was foreign-born by 1860.
Immigrants in the pre-war years struggled to find employment and the means to support their families with clothing, food and decent living conditions. Settling primarily in or near the country's large cities, many took unskilled jobs as laborers working in urban factories. Others owned small businesses that catered to immigrants from their own country. The Germans and Irish set up their own ethnic newspapers, clubs, charitable organizations, businesses and militias separate from those of American-born citizens. Immigrants balanced a desire to maintain their native cultures, languages, and institutions with the need to assimilate into American society.
Many native-born Americans, however, resented the growing political power of the immigrants in the North's largest urban cities like Philadelphia. Mob violence broke out in Philadelphia in May 1844, leading to the destruction of several Irish-Catholic churches in the city.
Anti-immigrant Americans (known as “Nativists”) in the early 1850s created the “American” or “Know-Nothing” party to try to limit the influence of immigrants in American society and politics. Formed around a secret society whose members would say “I know nothing” if asked about their secret order by outsiders, Know-Nothings won a series of impressive political victories at the state level in the mid-1850s. Yet their power did not last long; the Know-Nothing presidential candidate in 1856 finished in third place, and the party rapidly fell from prominence before 1860.
Because of the Nativists' failure to change naturalization laws, immigrants were able to vote in large numbers during the 1850s. The Irish were almost all devoted to the Democratic Party whereas the German community split its votes between the Democrats and Republicans in 1856 and again in 1860. Lingering fears of Nativist elements in the Republican Party ensured that many immigrants voted for the Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1860.
Though some immigrants had not voted for Lincoln in 1860, like most Northerners, they rallied to support the Union after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Initially, anti-foreigner sentiment waned as immigrants and Americans fought side by side for their common country. Many immigrants seized on the opportunity to prove their loyalty to their new nation during the war. Pennsylvania's immigrants served alongside Americans in mixed regiments, but also in separate ethnic regiments. Many Irish joined the 69th PA regiment, and the Germans formed several more including the 74th and 75th PA Regiments (recruited from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia respectively). The war brought hope, new loyalties, new challenges and a fresh round of personal tragedy to Pennsylvania immigrant families not long removed from the chaos of Europe.