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Gymnastics room in Turner Hall, Milwaukee, ca. 1900
3,000 Turners performed at the Federal Gymnastics Festival in Milwaukee, 1893.

Turners (German: Turner) are members of German-American gymnastic clubs that also served as nationalist political groups that were politically active and often served in German military outfits as well as the Union Army in the United States during the American Civil War.

A German gymnastic movement was started by Turnvater ("father of gymnastics") Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the early 19th century when Germany was occupied by Napoleon. The Turnvereine ("gymnastic unions"; from German turnen meaning “to practice gymnastics,” and Verein meaning “club, union”) were not only athletic, but also political, reflecting their origin in similar "nationalistic gymnastic" organizations in Europe. The Turner movement in Germany was generally liberal in nature, and many Turners took part in the Revolution of 1848.[1]

Group portrait of the St. Louis, Missouri Turnverein in 1860.

After its defeat, the movement was suppressed and many Turners left Germany, some emigrating to the United States. Several of these Forty-Eighters went on to become Civil War soldiers, the great majority in the Union Army, and American politicians.[2] Besides serving as physical education, social, political and cultural organizations for German immigrants, Turners were also active in the American public education and the labor movements.[3][4][5] Eventually the German Turner movement became involved in the process leading to German unification.

History in the United StatesEdit

Postage stamp commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the American Turners

The Turnvereine made a contribution to the integration of German-Americans into their new home. The organizations continue to exist in areas of heavy German immigration, such as Iowa, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, Syracuse, NY, Kentucky, New York City, and Los Angeles.

Together with Carl Schurz, the American Turners helped support the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States. They provided the bodyguard at his inauguration on March 4, 1861, and at his funeral in April 1865. In the Camp Jackson Affair, a large force of German volunteers helped prevent Confederate forces from seizing the government arsenal in St. Louis just prior to the beginning of the war.[6]

Like other German-American groups, many of its members were sympathetic to the Kaiser’s German Empire, and the American Turners experienced suspicion during World War I. The German language was banned in schools and universities, and German language journals and newspapers were shut down. However, the Turner societies continued to function.[3]

In 1948, the U.S. Post Office issued a 3-cent commemorative stamp marking the 100th anniversary of the movement in the United States.

Cultural assimilation and the two World Wars with Germany took a gradual toll on membership, with some halls closing and others becoming regular dance halls, bars or bowling alleys.[5] Fifty-four Turner societies still existed around the U.S. as of 2011. The current headquarters of the American Turners is in Louisville, Kentucky.[7]

The Sacramento, California Turnverein, founded in 1854, claims to be the oldest still in existence in the United States.[8] The Turnverein Vorwaerts of Fort Wayne, Indiana, owned the Hugh McCulloch House from 1906 until 1966.[9]:2 It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.[10]


Vintage photos of the Milwaukee TurnvereinEdit

Other Wisconsin Turners in 1915Edit

Jahn Monument in Berlin with memorial plaques from American TurnvereineEdit

Turner HallsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Claire E. Nolte. "The German Turnverein". Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  2. ^ Gruen, Mardee. "Milwaukee Turners, local Jews go back 141 years." Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle April 29, 1994; p. 6, col. 1
  3. ^ a b Annette R. Hofmann (August 3, 1998). "150 years of Turnerism in the United States". Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Max Kade Center.
  4. ^ John B. Jentz. "Turnvereins". Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  5. ^ a b Mary Lou LeCompte. "TURNVEREIN MOVEMENT". Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  6. ^ Scott Williams. "THE ROLE OF GERMAN IMMIGRANTS IN CIVIL WAR - MISSOURI". The Missouri Civil War Museum. Archived from the original on March 3, 2012. Retrieved January 10, 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  7. ^ "Welcome to American Turners". American Turners. Archived from the original on April 6, 2011. Retrieved January 9, 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  8. ^ "Homepage of the Sacramento Turnverein". Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  9. ^ "Indiana State Historic Architectural and Archaeological Research Database (SHAARD)" (Searchable database). Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. Retrieved July 1, 2015. Note: This includes Karen Anderson (November 1979). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Hugh McCulloch House" (PDF). Retrieved July 1, 2015. and Accompanying photographs.
  10. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.

Further readingEdit

  • Gertrud Pfister. "The Role of German Turners in American Physical Education," International Journal of the History of Sport 26 (no. 13, 2009) 1893-925

External linksEdit