Wisconsins Involvement in the Civil War | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wisconsin's Involvement in the Civil War

Wisconsins Involvement in the Civil War | Wisconsin Historical Society

The Civil War touched virtually every Wisconsin family. Between 1861-1865, more than 91,000 young men left Wisconsin to fight in the South. And more than 12,000  never returned. Recent immigrants, Yankee blue-bloods, American Indians, and people of color fought side-by-side. Wisconsin women took men's places in the fields and factories, and fortunes were made and lost supplying wartime goods. Some Wisconsites opposed the war, others denounced the military draft. Soldier's became famous for their bravery and a bald eagle became a well-known mascot.

Wisconsin's Response to the Civil War

Between 1860-1861, after 11 Southern states seceded from the United States and when Confederate forces attacked the U.S. military base at Charleston, South Carolina (which ignited the American Civil War), Wisconsin residents quickly rallied to support the Union cause. President Abraham Lincoln called for army volunteers and Wisconsin's Republican governor, Alexander Randall, supplied not only one regiment as the federal government requested, but several. Each was accompanied by a state agent who looked after the health and needs of the soldiers.

Early in the war, volunteers were plentiful. While some fought to end slavery, others simply wanted to preserve America's experiment in democracy. Most, though, had personal reasons for joining, such as getting away from home, advancing a military career, or making political use of a Union service record.

In all, Wisconsin provided more than 91,000 soldiers to 56 regiments: 77,375 to the infantry, 8,877 to the cavalry, and 5,075 to the artillery. They fought in every major battle of the Civil War. New recruits were trained in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Racine, and Madison. Camp Randall, Wisconsin's major training facility in Madison, also housed Confederate prisoners of war.

The Iron Brigade

Wisconsin's most famous Civil War unit was the Iron Brigade. It was composed of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry regiments, the 19th Indiana Infantry, 24th Michigan Infantry, and Battery B of the 4th U.S. Light Artillery. Made up chiefly of Wisconsin men, it saw action at Bull Run, Virginia, Antietam, Maryland, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and other major battles.

The name "Iron Brigade" came from a remark made by Gen. George McClellan when he saw the brigade advancing under a murderous fire. He was told, "It is Gibbon's Wisconsin brigade." "They must be made of iron," McClellan replied, and the name stuck. The Iron Bridgade suffered unusually high casualties in battles at Gainesville, Virginia, Antietam, Maryland (the Civil War's bloodiest battle), and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Old Abe the War Eagle and Col. Joseph Bailey

Wisconsin regiments became known for their individual contributions. For example, some regiments were known for their ethnicity. The 9th, 26th, 27th, and 45th Wisconsin regiments were primarily Germans, while Norwegians filled the ranks of the 15th regiment. The 8th Wisconsin Infantry became known as the "Eagle Regiment" because of a pet bald eagle, named Old Abe, who they carried into battle on a perch with an American flag. He enjoyed a wide celebrity at soldiers' reunions and fairs until his death in 1881.

Wisconsin soldiers distinguished themselves in a number of famous engagements. Under Cadwallader C. Washburn, the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry fought valiantly in many western battles, including the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1864, Colonel Joseph Bailey, with the help of lumberjacks from the 23rd and 24th regiments, saved a fleet of Union gunboats and transports stranded by low water in the Red River of Louisiana. Using a technique for damming and deepening the river, these men used skills learned in Wisconsin's lumber camps to aid the Union cause.

Wisconsin Casualties

Unfortunately, many of the Wisconsin men who fought against the South did not return. More than 12,000 died: 3,802 were killed in action or died of wounds and 8,499 died from disease, exposure, and other causes. Wisconsin soldiers also spent time in many of the more infamous Southern military prisons, including Libby in Richmond, Virginia, and Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia.

Home Front Opposition

Back home in Wisconsin, many residents initially opposed the Civil War or denounced President Lincoln's suspension of basic civil rights. The military draft that Lincoln instituted in 1862 was greeted by riots in Port Washington, West Bend, and Milwaukee.

But as the war continued and thousands of Wisconsin families lost fathers or sons, public opinion overwhelmingly backed Lincoln's efforts to preserve the Union.

Wartime Prosperity

The Civil War helped consolidate transportation and industry by increasing eastward-moving trade, especially after the lower Mississippi River was closed by the Confederacy. Railroads were overwhelmed with business and shipping costs skyrocketed. With the departure of men in uniform, labor shortages increased the wages of hired hands. Fortunately for farmers, crop prices also rose as the Army's demand for wheat, Wisconsin's principal crop at the time, exploded. This increased demand for food accelerated demand for farm equipment, an industry centered in southeastern Wisconsin.

Women's Vital Role

Wisconsin women played a vital role in the success of the Civil War effort. Women were expected to support the soldiers medically, spiritually, and economically. Middle- and upper-class women, setting aside their many religious, ethnic, and political differences, organized to form aid societies throughout the state. The Woman's Soldiers Aid Society sent medical inspectors to improve hospital conditions at the front and contributed thousands of dollars' worth of supplies. They also hired nurses for army hospitals and distributed food to soldiers. A handful of Wisconsin women even masqueraded as men and enlisted to fight alongside their lovers and brothers.

Women also helped to keep their families afloat by working tirelessly in traditionally male roles. They fueled the agricultural production in Wisconsin that helped feed the Union Army, and female factory workers made everything from wagons to textiles. Between 1860 and 1870, the number of women involved in Wisconsin's industrial and commercial industries grew by over 500 percent.

Cordelia Harvey

Cordelia Harvey, widow of Governor Louis P. Harvey, organized charitable activities and arranged for the transfer of many wounded soldiers to Northern hospitals. After visiting hospitals throughout the South, Harvey determined that only the cooler northern climate would restore Northern soldiers to health. After repeated visits with War Secretary Edwin Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln, Harvey was authorized to establish a U.S. Army hospital in Madison in 1863. After the war she ran the facility as an orphanage for the children of soldiers killed in the line of duty.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 2 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Barker, Brett. Exploring Civil War Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2003); Gara, Larry. A Short History of Wisconsin. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962)]