The “Turner” of the Turner Brigade is not a who but a what. It refers to the members of the German Turner Society in St. Louis at the time of the Civil War. Turners taught gymnastics and physical culture to the German-American youth.
The “Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis”, published in 1899, states:
“Among those who fled to this country, upon the failure of the great reform movement in Germany, in 1848, were many men who had attended the celebrated gymnastic school, or Turnschule, of [Frederick Ludwig] Jahn. Some of those got together, and on May 12, 1850, formed a gymnastic society, or turnverein, to which they gave the name of ‘Bestrebung,’ or Endeavor, which was afterward changed to the St. Louis Turnverein. When the Civil War broke out there were over five hundred enrolled members upon the list, but so many of these volunteered for service in the Federal Army that the work of the Turnhalle was almost brought to a standstill. The same ardent desire to free the slaves animated the Germans at that time throughout the country; for the most part political refugees themselves, they were pledged to liberty everywhere. As a result, entire companies of volunteers, and almost entire regiments, were made up almost exclusively of Turners; thus the Seventeenth Missouri was frequently referred to as the Western Turners’ Regiment.”
Click here to view an expandable version of this lithograph in the collection of the Missouri History Museum.