Wisconsin in the Civil War: The Home Front and the Battle Front, 1861-1865, by Frank L. Klement, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 816 State Street, Madison, WI 53706, 141 pages, $35 (includes shipping).
At the start of the Civil War, Wisconsin was only a dozen years removed from territorial status. But from its relatively small population of 775,000 in 1860, the fledgling state enlisted more than 80,000 men into more than fifty infantry regiments, four cavalry regiments, ten artillery batteries, and several other units. Wisconsin soldiers fought at Bull Run and Appomattox Court House and hundreds of places in between. By the war’s end, almost 11,000 of them had died.
The most famous Wisconsin troops were the black-hatted soldiers of the 2d, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin regiments, who, along with the 24th Michigan and 19th Indiana, formed the “Iron Brigade of the West.” The only all-Westerner brigade in the Army of the Potomac, the Iron Brigade won its place in American history by fighting to delay the Confederate advance on the first day at Gettysburg–and by suffering the highest percentage of battle casualties of all such units. The 2d Wisconsin, for its part, ranked first among Union regiments for casualties, losing 19.7 percent of its men in battle.
Though not as storied as their Iron Brigade counterparts, other Wisconsin fighting men were interesting in their own right. There were the unsung Indian and black troops who fought at Petersburg’s Crater. And there were the better-known Frank Haskell, who left an epic eyewitness account of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Cushing brothers, who proved themselves on land and on water as among the bravest of the brave.
Wisconsin in the Civil War, long out of print, was originally published in the 1962 Wisconsin Blue Book and a year later as a booklet. Critically hailed, the booklet was eagerly sought, but a fire destroyed the printing plates, and no second edition was published. Frank L. Klement, a Wisconsinite, a retired Marquette University professor, and the author of nine books on Civil War topics, completed this revision of his original work just before his death on July 29, 1994.
On a non-military front, Klement details how the war significantly changed Wisconsin’s frontier economy, affecting mining, banking, wheat production, lumbering, farming, and political organizations. He also explains how civilian opposition to the war increased in Wisconsin in part from negative reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, the threat of Federal conscription, and a lack of military victories.
One of the most interesting and vocal critics of the war was Marcus-Brick Pomeroy, editor of the La Crosse Democrat. Pomeroy earned a national following for his blistering editorials, one of which labeled Abraham Lincoln “a fool, a flat-boat tyrant, blockhead, and hell’s vice agent on earth.” He made name-calling an art, writes Klement. But he eventually lost much of his credibility, even among those who opposed Lincoln’s prosecution of the war.
Wisconsin witnessed the first real draft riot in the North, on November 10, 1862, about four months before the conscription act passed. Six companies of the 28th Wisconsin were sent from Milwaukee to Port Washington, on Lake Michigan, to put down the civil disturbance. More than 150 people were arrested. This sparked a series of violent protests in other immigrant settlements brimming with anti-draft sentiment.
All too brief in Wisconsin in the Civil War are the paragraphs on the wartime role of the state’s American Indians. Most traditional sources put 500 to 600 men from an Indian population of 9,000 in Wisconsin regiments. New studies indicate that number may be significantly higher. Klement is stronger when describing the role of black people in the new state and of 353 of them in various U.S. Colored Troops regiments.
Wisconsin women also were caught up in the conflict, attending war meetings, operating farms and stores left behind by the new volunteers, and aiding the war’s orphans, widows, and wounded soldiers. Cordelia Harvey, the widow of Governor Louis P. Harvey, was the best-known Wisconsin woman of the time. After her husband drowned while on a visit to wounded troops at Pittsburg Landing, she turned to soldier relief work, which led her to a surprisingly heated exchange with Lincoln over her request that several hospitals be established in Wisconsin. In the end, the president caved in and ordered three facilities for Madison, Milwaukee, and Prairie du Chien.
Wisconsin and the Civil War is a balanced and multi-faceted look at how one new state responded to the turmoil of 1861 through 1865. It is also significant work by a talented professional historian who spent a lifetime researching, writing, and thinking about the great national crisis and how it affected his home state.
Lance J. Herdegen