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John Cronk Letter | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Soldier John Cronk's Letter Describes Training Camp

Wisconsin in the Civil War: Camp Randall

John Cronk Letter | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Artillery at Camp Randall, WHI 4225.

Artillery at Camp Randall, 1861.

Madison, Wisconsin. Soldiers at Camp Randall man a cannon on wheels while other men on foot and on horseback follow. View the original source document: WHI 4225

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: One class period

The letter that John Cronk of Company A in the 16th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment wrote to Charles Palmer provides us vivid details of the physical layout and living conditions of Camp Randall. The original letter is stored in the Archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society.


Students will:

  • Examine primary source documents
  • Analyze the role Wisconsin played in the Civil War
  • Understand the benefits and drawbacks of working with primary sources, including the editing of historical documents


When news that Ft. Sumter had surrendered to South Carolina reached Wisconsin on April 14, 1861 emotionally charged citizens rallied around the Union flag and called for an end to the secessionist movement. President Lincoln called for 75,000 men to stop the insurrection, and Wisconsin Governor Alexander Randall immediately began asking for volunteers to organize into companies and report for duty. The response was immediate and plentiful, with more volunteers coming forward than could initially be used. Despite Governor Randall's lobbying, the U.S. War Department would accept no more than a single regiment of 10 companies from Wisconsin with 78 men in each. Sensing the urgency and predicting a longer war, Governor Randall set up a training ground for troops in Madison.

The training ground was located on the land used by the State Agricultural Society for fairgrounds. It consisted of 53 1/2 acres and extended from University Avenue to Monroe Street. More than 70,000 men traveled from around the state to train there. While at camp they spent their time drilling, composing letters, reading, singing songs, complaining about the food, and trying to remain healthy. All the while they were trying to escape the boredom of waiting to see some "real" action in the South. Some soldiers took the opportunity to visit the many Madison taverns. The citizens of Madison had mixed feelings about the training camp and its occupants. Although at first citizens welcomed recruits with home-baked goodies, and admired them as they performed drills, the ruckus and damage caused by some of the rowdy, drunk soldiers strained the pleasant relationship.

The corporal commander of the 2nd Wisconsin regiment named this Civil War training camp to honor Governor Randall and reciprocate the favor for his appointment. After the Civil War, the land was used once again as fairgrounds. Later, when the state fair moved to Milwaukee and the land was in danger of being subdivided and sold, the state purchased the land, and the University of Wisconsin used it as a park and athletic facilities. During World War I the camp was reopened briefly to accommodate troops for drilling. In 1912 a ceremonial arch was built on Randall Street commemorating the camp's existence. Currently, the University of Wisconsin – Madison maintains the ceremonial park, on which the university recreation center now stands. Standing on the west side of the training grounds, the stadium, home to the Rose Bowl – champion Badgers, is appropriately called Camp Randall.

Resource Materials


  1. Analyzing the Document

    Distribute both a copy of the actual letter and the typed transcription to students at the same time if you have limited time for this activity. Students should read the letter and answer the guided questions. Discuss students' responses afterwards and relay additional information from the Background section.

    If time allows, use this document and the analysis activity to introduce your students to the concept of transcription and historical editing. Introduce students to the concept that transcription is similar to translation with the following idea: "...for no editor can take a document and convert it into another form without somehow changing it.... For instance, should the first word of a sentence be capitalized?... Should you supply missing punctuation at the end of sentences?..." (Stevens, 21). Distribute a copy of the actual letter to students and have them transcribe the letter. Provide students with the following hints for reading "old" handwritten letters:

    • Read it once to get a general feeling for what the author's saying.
    • If you can't make out a word, look at the context (other words surrounding it).
    • If you still can't figure out a word, write the word as close as you can approximate, underline it, then immediately after it put a question mark in brackets.
    • After reading the letter several times, if you still are unsure about a certain word, consult with your neighbor.
  2. Working with Maps
    1. Based on the description in Cronk's letter, have students sketch a quick, rough map of Camp Randall. Then have them examine the map of Camp Randall drawn by the Assistant Quartermaster N.B. Van Slyke. Ask students to consider what adjustments they should now make to their maps. What questions still remain? Are there any conflicts between these two sources? If so, have students find additional resources for clarification. After discussing these questions with students, ask them to incorporate new information and redraw their maps to scale. Then have students examine a present-day map of Camp Randall. This document can be printed out and then copied onto a transparency to help students see the changes that have occurred.

    2. Have students write and produce a historical walking tour brochure of Camp Randall with photos, a map, and brief descriptions. This brochure should demonstrate students' knowledge of the history of Camp Randall in addition to an understanding of its present day use. The images found in this section and the information in Cronk's letter, Cooke's letters, and the newspaper articles can serve as background knowledge. In addition, the following resources will be of assistance to students:
      • Klement, Frank L. "Wisconsin in the Civil War". Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997, pp. 69, 111.
      • Current, Richard N. "The History of Wisconsin Volume II. The Civil War Era, 1848– 1873." Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976, pp. 343, 352, 357.
      • "Wisconsin State Journal" articles from 1862 to 1865
      • "Wisconsin Weekly Patriot" articles from 1862 to 1865


Several primary source documents with suggested activities that relate to Camp Randall include:

  • "Arrival of Secession Prisoners." Wisconsin State Journal, 4/21/1862.
  • Cooke, Chauncey H. Soldier Boy's Letters to His Father and Mother, 1862-1865. Mondovi: The Mondovi Herald, c. 1919.
  • Cronk, John. Civil War letter to Charles Palmer. Madison, 1862. In the manuscript collection. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Favill, John. Certificates indicating reasons for medical deferments. Dane County, 1862. In Civil War Draft Records. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Letters written by doctors and acquaintances to help men called obtain exemption. Dane County, 1862. In Medical Correspondence. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • "Matters at Camp Randall." Wisconsin Weekly Patriot, 4/26/1862.
  • Pomeroy, Marcus "Brick." "Abraham Lincoln." The La Crosse Daily Democrat, 8/15/1864.
  • Pomeroy, Marcus "Brick." "Look At It." The La Crosse Daily Democrat, 8/24/1864.
  • Salomon, Edward. Letters. Madison, 1862. In Volume 5- Series 33 of Governors Correspondence General 1838-1926. State Historical Society of Wisconsin
  • United States Office of the Provost Marshal General Board of Enrollment. Broadside listing the names of draft dodgers for the First District of Wisconsin. In the Historic Pamphlet Collection. State Historical Society Library.
  • Van Slyke, N.B. Detailed Drawing of Camp Randall, 1865. In Visual Archives WHi(X3)33886. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Vilas, Levi. Lists of men eligible for the 1862 militia draft. Dane County, 1862. In Civil War Draft Records. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • "Visits to Camp Randall Discontinued." Wisconsin State Journal, 4/29/1862.

Other sources include:

  • "Camp Randall in the Civil War." Wisconsin Electronic Reader. (1998).
  • "Camp Randall Sent 70,000 Soldiers to Fight for the North." Wisconsin Then and Now. (1972): 6-7.
  • Cooke, Chauncey H. "Letters of a Badger Boy in Blue: Life at Old Camp Randall." Wisconsin Magazine of History. 4 (1920): 75-77.
  • Current, Richard N. The History of Wisconsin Volume II. The Civil War Era, 1848- 1873. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976.
  • Heberling, James R. The Boys at Forest Hill. Madison: J.R. Beberling, 1992.
  • Historic Madison, Inc., Forest Hill Cemetery Committee. A Biographical Guide to Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin: The Ordinary and the Famous Women and Men Who Shaped Madison and the World. Madison: 1996.
  • Holzhueter, John. Madison during the Civil War Era: A Portfolio of Rare Photographs. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
  • Klement, Frank. "'Brick' Pomeroy: Copperhead and Curmudgeon," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 35 Winter 1961, 106-113, 156-157.
  • Klement, Frank L. Wisconsin in the Civil War. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997.
  • Larsen, Lawrence H. "Draft Riot in Wisconsin, 1862," Civil War History, 7 December 1961: 421-423.
  • Malone, Bobbie. Back to the Beginnings: The Early Days of Dane County. Madison: Litho Productions, 1998.
  • Mattern, Carolyn J. Soldiers When They Go: The Story of Camp Randall, 1861-1865. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1981.
  • Mollenhoff, David. Madison: A History of the Formative Years. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Nesbit, Robert. Wisconsin: A History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
  • Piersma, Matthew. "Confederate Prisoners Arrive at Camp Randall." The Bugle- Wisconsin Veterans Museum Foundation. 7:2, 1, 14.
  • Stevens, Michael E. and Steven B. Burg. Editing Historical Documents: A Handbook of Practice, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1997.
  • White, Richard Grant. Poetry of the Civil War. New York: The American News Company, 1866.



This lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Please adapt to fit your students needs.

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