Angry farmers turn a Wisconsin town into a battlefield when they riot against conscription.
BY ADAM J. KAWA
A crowd gathered around the steps of the Ozaukee County courthouse in Port Washington, Wisconsin, on November 10, 1862. For the first time ever, Wisconsin men were going to be drafted into the army, and not even the cold rain that was falling that day could keep people away from this historic and potentially life-changing event. But as county draft commissioner William A. Pors drew the first name, the thump of a cannon resounded through the streets. Pors turned. Marching toward him was a mob of angry citizens wielding clubs and bricks and carrying banners scrawled with the words “No Draft!” Thinking the demonstration was merely a protest, Pors went back to drawing names. He had made a grave miscalculation, and if he lived to tell what happened next, he would be fortunate indeed.
Only one year earlier, few in Wisconsin would have believed conscription would ever be necessary for the Union army. As in most Northern states, the men of Wisconsin, brimming with patriotism, had rushed to enlist in 1861. So many men volunteered nationwide in the war’s first months that, in early 1862, Edwin Stanton, the new secretary of war, slowed the Federal drive for recruits, believing that the swelled army ranks would be sufficient to put down the Southern “rebellion.” But by summer, the war showed no signs of coming to a speedy conclusion, so, in July, President Abraham Lincoln called for 300,000 three-year volunteers. Again Wisconsin responded, supplying enough men to create 14 new regiments.
However, a few weeks later, on August 4, Lincoln and his administration tried to mine the Northern states for an additional 300,000 troops, this time to serve nine-month terms. If the number of volunteers any state raised fell short of the Federally assigned quota, that state would have to conduct its own draft–and soon. The states had only until August 15 to recruit volunteers. For its part, Wisconsin faced a quota of 11,904 enlistees. Governor Edward Salomon was uneasy. His state was rapidly running short of willing men, and the quota seemed out of reach.
Salomon immediately petitioned the War Department for a postponement. Wisconsin was a state of farmers, he explained, and if the draft were delayed until after the autumn harvest, many of them would join the army willingly. The War Department responded by extending the deadline–to August 22, one week later. Only a handful of Wisconsin men volunteered for these nine-month stints, but several counties managed to meet their quotas and avoid the draft. The additional week, however, was not nearly enough time to fill this latest statewide quota.
A half-dozen counties lagged far behind the others in enlistments, and the farthest behind was Ozaukee County. These six counties were mostly rural, and their populations included a high proportion of Catholic immigrants. According to 1860 census figures, 15,000 people lived in Ozaukee County, just north of Milwaukee on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and most of them were German. Like many other European immigrants, they were farmers who had come to the United States to find a better life in what they believed was the land of freedom; they had no intention of fighting someone else’s war. They said the Lincoln administration was “tainted by abolitionism, nativism, and the godlessness of German anti-church liberals.” Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, only further angered them. The Milwaukee See-Bote, the newspaper of Wisconsin’s German Catholics, expressed horror that immigrants would be “used as fodder for cannons” in an abolitionists’ war.
The Federal deadline had come and gone, and Wisconsin had still not met the War Department’s quota. So, even though Salomon knew it would be extremely unpopular, he prepared to conduct a draft. The governor ordered each county’s sheriff to compile a list of all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 with no special restrictions. All of these men would be eligible for military service. Each sheriff was to post his completed roll publicly and send a copy to the state government in Madison.
Ozaukee County’s immigrant farmers were incensed by what they perceived as the unfairness of these enrollment lists. Many members of the Republican Party–the governor’s party–were conspicuously absent from the rolls, the farmers claimed. Several German farmers responded to Salomon’s draft plans by declaring themselves “aliens” and thus ineligible for armed service. As plans for conscription progressed, threats of mob action arose not just in Port Washington, but also in Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and West Bend. A letter from a Port Washington citizen that appeared in the Wisconsin Daily Patriot explained the growing tension: “What has caused all this trouble is not a desire to shirk responsibilities, but it is the belief, which is common, that the government officials have exempted about one half the men of the county, who should be liable for military service, and the consequence is that nearly 4/5ths of those returned on the enrollment lists are to be drafted. This was peculiarly hard on the few, while the many escaped.”
The threats of violence personally embarrassed Salomon. The governor was an immigrant himself; he had fled from his native Prussia in 1848, the same year Wisconsin entered the Union. Salomon refused to be intimidated by his former countrymen, and after tallying the eligibility rolls from across the state, he set quotas for the individual counties on October 21. If the number of new volunteers failed to meet these quotas, a draft lottery to fill the deficiency would begin on November 10. In it, a draft commissioner appointed for each county would draw names from a box and continue until his county’s quota was filled.
Wisconsin’s Democrats immediately started to use Salomon’s unpopular decision against the Republicans in the upcoming elections. The Democrats had a grudge against Salomon, who had defected to the Republican Party after years as a Democrat. The snubbed Democrats accused the governor of postponing the draft so his party mates would have a better showing in the November elections. In many counties, Democrats were swept into office. Charles A. Eldredge was particularly successful. Once a dark-horse Democratic candidate for Congress, Eldredge ran on an anti-draft, anti-taxation platform. Playing on the fears of the electorate, he won his election by 200 votes.
By voting in favor of the Democrats, Ozaukee County’s farmers seemed to think they had avoided the draft. But their newly elected representatives could not prevent it, and finally, draft day arrived. Angered by what they felt was fraud at the state’s highest levels, the immigrants were determined to take matters into their own hands. At 9:00 a.m. on November 10, Pors, a local attorney appointed by Salomon to administer the draft in Ozaukee County, arrived at the courthouse in Port Washington with his assistants. A small group of citizens gradually gathered to witness the proceedings.
After setting up his equipment, Pors was beginning the draft when a cannon blast reverberated in the distance. Startled, the commissioner halted the lottery and looked through the sheets of rain. Voices in the distance grew louder as a group of angry farmers some 200 strong marched toward the courthouse. The banners reading “No Draft!” made the reasons for their demonstration clear, and the clubs and bricks they carried made it clear they meant it. But Pors continued; if these people wanted to protest, he thought, they had that right. Pors drew a few more names until rocks, bricks, and shouts of “No more draft!” fell on him along with the rain. The mob rushed the courthouse steps. Before Pors or any of his assistants could escape, the rioters overwhelmed them. Pors was beaten mercilessly, then thrown down the steps and into the street. The mob’s ringleaders snatched the enrollment records and, despite the rain, set them ablaze. Other rioters, meanwhile, charged to the top of the courthouse and tore down the American flag.
Pors struggled to his feet and staggered to the post office, where he locked himself in the cellar and waited for a chance to escape. Meanwhile, the mob headed to his house, one newspaper later reported, “and attacked and demolished the doors and windows, destroyed the fence, shrubbery, gates and everything in reach out of doors. They then entered the house and literally destroyed everything within it.” According to another account, “the furniture was smashed up and dumped into the street. Jellies, jams, and preserves were poured over the Brussels carpet, and ladies’ apparel [was] torn into shreds.”
While the crowd was destroying his home, Pors boarded a carriage driven by a friend and fled south to Milwaukee, where he wired news of the riot to state authorities in Madison. The furious farmers barely noticed he was gone; targeting other prominent Republicans, they had moved on. The town physician, Dr. H. Stillman, who was also a draft clerk, “had his fence broken down, shrubbery ripped from his property, and had every door and window demolished,” one newspaper reported. The mob stole about $200 to $300 worth of medicine from his office while “every looking glass, picture, bed, chair, sofa, clothing, indeed everything [was] just turned into rubbish.” The doctor and his family, however, were not hurt; fearing the persistent threats of mob action, they had fled before the draft began.
With two houses destroyed, the mob fed on its own fury, and the violence spread. The rioters drifted to the warehouse of a Mr. B. Blake, who had earlier denounced opposition to the draft. The crowd, which had grown to more than 1,000 people, shattered every window in Blake’s building, broke in, and dumped several thousand bushels of wheat that were stored inside into the streets. Next, the enraged farmers headed to Julius Tomlinson’s stone mill, one of Port Washington’s main businesses. In addition to breaking all the windows, the mob gutted the office, destroyed books and papers, and stole $60 from the safe. Tomlinson’s only apparent crime was his membership in the Republican Party and his employment of other Republicans. The rioters also damaged nearby Wolf’s tannery, threatening to hang every Republican worker, and gutted the Freemason’s hall because most of the county’s Masons had managed to have their names removed from the draft rolls.
Heightened by the mob’s frequent stops at saloons, the violence continued through the day. Law-abiding citizens tried to get out of the rioters’ path, but many of them failed. Even when nightfall quieted the riot, no one was completely safe from danger.
The next morning, Salomon learned the disturbing news and realized that an armed force was needed in Port Washington to quell the riot. He ordered Colonel James M. Lewis of the 28th Wisconsin Infantry, which had mustered in at Milwaukee only four weeks earlier, to send a detachment of troops to the besieged town. He also dispatched W.D. McIdoe, the provost marshal general of the state, to Milwaukee that evening to join the six detached companies of the 28th, which had a total of 600 men.
About 9:00 p.m. on November 11, the propeller ship Kenosha brought the soldiers word that the mob had effectively taken over the town. The enraged farmers had three pieces of artillery, and one was planted on the pier and two were on a hill with a commanding view of Lake Michigan. They posed a serious threat to any troops who tried to land at the port. Lewis devised a plan of attack. The soldiers would land five miles south of Port Washington and then march into town before daybreak. Two companies would march in from the rear while the other four charged in from the front. McIdoe and the men from the 28th left Milwaukee at 3:30 a.m. on November 12 on two state-chartered ships, the Comet and the Sunbeam.
The six companies landed south of town without incident and split up. The two marching in from the rear advanced and soon met part of the unruly crowd. Taken by surprise, 50 rioters surrendered immediately while others retreated wildly to the other side of town. There, they ran head-on into another advancing line of soldiers. The armed men gradually surrounded the rioters. “They were found in cellars, bars, saloons, and in bed, and in every conceivable hiding place,” one soldier said. “One was even found four feet deep buried in hay, and he would not come out until he was persuaded by a bayonet.”
The arrival of the troops left the farmers dumbstruck; they had not expected an armed response. A story in the Manitowoc Herald reported that the alleged ringleader, a “Mr. Kemp,” had had a change of heart as soon as the soldiers arrived. “…Kemp, the ringleader, made boasts before the troops arrived in Port Washington that there were not enough soldiers in the state to take him,” the report stated. “When Col. Lewis, Marshall McIdoe, and a few others repaired to his house, however, and took him into custody, he was as tame as a chicken, and wrang his hands in agony of cowardice.” Soon, all the rioters were in custody, caught amid the ruin and destruction they had created.
According to one of the soldiers in the 28th Wisconsin, streets once trembling with angry words and threats soon began echoing with laughter and cheers. “We were greeted with shouts of joy and exultation from ladies at almost every house,” he recalled. “The scene was truly affecting. We could frequently hear them say, ‘Bless God! We can say our souls are our own.’ ‘We can breathe free again. God bless you!’ ‘You won’t go and leave us today, will you?’ A general feeling of gratitude and thankfulness and of security seemed at once to take the place of great personal fear.”
The soldiers celebrated their nearly bloodless victory by restoring the national flag to the top of the battered courthouse. They had captured more than 150 of the most conspicuous rioters. The next day, a provost court examined the cases of those arrested and declared 82 of the men guilty. They were taken to Camp Washburn in Milwaukee, but when subsequent arrests raised the number of those found guilty to 126, the prisoners were moved to Camp Randall, a larger facility in Madison.
A soldier stationed there described the conditions the prisoners faced. They were “closely confined in a single room, or board shanty, about 30 feet wide and 50 feet in length,” he wrote. “There was one stove in the room, but no bedding, not even straw to lie upon. The prisoners were not permitted to leave the shed under any pretense whatever.”
The Ozaukee rioters remained prisoners at Camp Randall for about a year before they were finally released. An event that started with the blast of a cannon was officially over, but it could not be forgotten. More than a half-dozen homes had been damaged, and Tomlinson’s mill, which had sustained thousands of dollars in damage, was closed for months. Dozens of citizens had been injured, and many more had feared for their lives. But there had been no loss of life, no usurpation of power, and no change in the government’s draft policy.
Shortly after the riot, Pors returned to Port Washington. This time, with armed troops by his side, he finished the draft. Twenty-five miles away, Milwaukee County’s draft commissioner wisely waited a week before conducting his lottery, long enough for Union soldiers to arrive. He had learned a lesson.
Adam Kawa of Kenosha, Wisconsin, researched the Port Washington riot while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.