Between the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1815) and the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States (1861), the political and economic sinews connecting the Old World with the New expanded to include ever increasing numbers of immigrants. One shipping firm in particular, located in the German harbor city of Bremen, regularized its routes to Charleston, South Carolina, with one of its captains, Heinrich Wieting, so heavily dominating the Bremen-Charleston route that he bears near total responsibility for populating Charleston with Germans.
Captain Heinrich Wieting is the ostensible subject of Andrea Mehrländer’s beautiful two volume, lavishly illustrated, German language history. Her research is based on a sizeable collection of Wieting’s letters, which he posted on a regular basis to his bosses in his shipping firm. In Mehrländer’s very sympathetic treatment, Wieting emerges as a very capable captain, devoted family man and loving husband, not to mention amateur poet, who had the good fortune to live in a German port at a time of expanding opportunity, peace and German desire to emigrate. Heinrich Wieting and his transport of so many of his countrymen and women to Charleston is only the starting point for a much larger history, or series of histories in this wide-ranging work.
An American Studies professor, Mehrländer informs broadly on the maritime and sailors’ culture at the high point of the age of sail; steamships appear to the reader as they did to Wieting: an unavoidable future, looming on the horizon. Like Wieting himself, Mehrländer does not just bring her Germans across the Atlantic and deposit them on Charleston’s wharves, but brings the reader ashore as well for a first-hand look at antebellum Charleston. For this latter aspect the sketches, drawings and color reproductions of Charleston, as well as the sea craft of the age are of high value and interest.
While never offering analysis of her subjects, Mehrländer does inform on the activities of the sizeable German community in Charleston. Germans and their offspring brought by Captain Wieting occupied every economic niche in the city, from brewer and grocer to slave owner, and lived in all social strata, from slum up to the mayor’s office, with many fighting for the Confederacy. She situates her story in the broader historical context, and though Wieting was not a slaver and only a few of his Germans went on to own slaves, Mehrländer includes sections on slaves and slave life, as well as the effects of the Civil War on Wieting’s career and trans-Atlantic shipping more generally.
Visually the two volumes have much to offer. However the text will be an obstacle to anyone who cannot read German fluently. (An expensive English €150 translation is available from de Gruyter publishers) Having said that, Mehrländer’s work is an absolute treasure trove for the genealogist, as she reproduces Wieting’s crews’ names and duties, passengers’ names and points of origins and much more besides, for the nearly twenty years that he sailed back and forth between South Carolina and Bremen.
- Bremen: Verlag H.M. Hauschild GmbH, 2011
- 7” x 9”, two hardcover volumes in slipcase, 368 + 288 pages
- Illustrations, map, tables, notes bibliography, index. €68.00
- ISBN: 9783897575172
Reviewed by Chad Ross, East Carolina University