“You should know that I died for liberty and truth,” Why Wisconsin Volunteers Fought in the Civil War

Written on:May 5, 2011
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BY Tom Rowland

Within days of President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers, Governor Alexander Randall enjoined Wisconsin citizens to make “ common cause against a common enemy,” and announced that opportunities for enlistment would be “immediately offered to all existing military companies.”[1] In towns and cities all across the state patriotic throngs jammed meeting halls to listen to stirring speeches and urgent appeals to join the cause of squashing rebellion and treason. Thousands of young Wisconsin men would respond to the call to enlist in the service of their country. And they would so for a wide array of reasons.

During the spring and summer months of 1861, the intoxicating allure of excitement and adventure drew many Wisconsin boys into the army. Mechanics, laborers, farmers and university students alike were enticed by the irresistible appeal of going down South. Like most Americans in the middle of the 19th century, they were all products of a very parochial environment. Few had traveled around much of the state itself, let alone beyond its borders.[2]

War fever seems to have struck hard at the University of Wisconsin and the few colleges within the state. Martin C. Short, a freshman at Brockway College (Ripon) was one who could not resist the siren call. From Madison, Harvey Reid wrote home that the capital was seized by “military excitement” and that the infection had “penetrated the University walls.” He added that he was but one of seven who had taken the opportunity of enlisting in the University Guards.[3] Similarly, Stanley Lathrop, a freshman at Beloit College, wrote his disapproving father back in Milwaukee that many in the student body, from freshmen to seniors had joined him in enlisting in the army.[4]

Throughout rural Wisconsin, many young men were certain that the war would whisk them away from a life of drudgery and boredom. George Kurth of the 18th Wisconsin Volunteers was happy to leave Columbus behind. Although his parents wanted him to stay on the farm, he felt lonely there and “wanted to see more of the world.”[5] Chauncey Cooke, a volunteer private in the 25th Wisconsin, revealed his sense of wonder and awe during his inaugural train trip from La Crosse to Madison. While frightened that the engine was going to jump the track at any moment, he recalled the girls swarming the platforms of small towns en route, asking the boys “for their pictures and to kiss the best looking ones.” A diminutive and, apparently fortunate Frenchman, secured most of the kisses, as he was held by the legs out of the window. Cooke remembered it as great fun.[6]

Part of the adventure included the satisfaction that their enlistment met with the approbation of their own families and communities at large. Lathrop’s letter to his father, pointing out the numbers of collegians who had joined the service, represented a valiant effort to secure his father’s approval. A volunteer in the 2nd Wisconsin waxed warmly about the reception the regiment received as it made its way from Madison to Washington. “The memory of that city (Cleveland) and its people,” Nathaniel Rollins recalled, “will be a green spot in the desolation of war that will cheer and encourage the soldiers to the end.”[7] Many volunteers warmed to the reception of the people back home, observing as did Sidney Mead of the 2nd Wisconsin, that the “citizens of each city were hospitable, warm, friendly and very encouraging. James Leonard of Manitowoc claimed that in “knowing we have the sympathy of all in the North…it would be almost impossible for the greatest coward to be anything but a brave man.” And cousins of Samuel Cotter Kirkpatrick told him “it is a pleasure to know we have so brave a kinsman,” while Morris Waldo’s brother “was glad to hear” of his decision to enlist.”[8]

The anticipation of engaging the enemy in battle energized some of the volunteers of 1861. Frank Putney, a private in the 12th Wisconsin, informed his father that he was not “wholly free from war fever,” but the idea of remaining in camp for any protracted period “has some what dampened my ardour.” Despite the fact that his regiment was slated for a peripheral theater of war, Peter Sherman Moore of the 25th Wisconsin celebrated the news that the boys were going to Minnesota to fight Indians and that all of them were consumed with enthusiasm.[9]

It is difficult, however, to distinguish between excitement and peer pressure as primary motives for enlistment and these factors as merely ancillary or secondary attractions. Rarely found in the letters of Wisconsin volunteers is the oft-celebrated reference to the pachyderm, as echoed in Ransom Chase’s desire to “see the elephant,” or at least, “to see some of its tracks.” In Chase’s case such exhilaration is clearly subordinate to frequent expressions of patriotism. Albert Morse of the 7th Wisconsin, too, might appear to have been swept up in the excitement of the hour when he dropped his scythe in the orchard upon an eager friend stopping by and asking him to enlist. Yet subsequent correspondence suggests that Morse had been giving the matter prior thought and that other matters influenced his decision to sign up.[10]

For a select few, matters of pure self-interest coaxed their enlistments and nurtured their post-war ambitions. A Scandinavian volunteer in the 15th Wisconsin claimed he was “compelled to go in order to get out of debt,” so that he could buy his wife a homestead she had long coveted. Clearly, there were some who sensed that the regular wages of a Union soldier should not be overlooked. Wisconsin was still plagued by the deleterious effects of the Panic of 1857. Banking and railroad interests remained volatile and agricultural goods were not commanding high prices on the market. Moreover the onset of war meant that Midwestern grain barges were likely to be interdicted by hostile forces along the southern reaches of the Mississippi river. Whereas David Coon of the 36th Wisconsin, a resident of rural Waushara County, insinuated that he was hard pressed financially, Thomas Priestley of the 11th Wisconsin put it as a matter of fact that, although the “wages were not as large” as he expected, he could still “save more money” than he ever could in his life, adding that the “pay is steady and sure – whither sick, lazy, or well all the same.” And Charles Waldo applauded the good inducements “for young men having no families to take care of and are dependent upon their daily or monthly wages for support.”[11] Whereas many of the early volunteers of 1861, young, unmarried, and incapable of earning an independent living, might have been enticed by the regular pay, many of those who enlisted the following year were established married men with families to support and did not see a soldier’s wage as a boon to their fortunes. Representative of that widely held opinion, Matthew Perry emphatically rejected the claim that “[the] soldier goes for money,” betting that anyone who served six months in the army “would change their mind on that subject.”[12]

Some of the more self-serving volunteers identified service as a vehicle by which they could improve their station in life or foster post-war careers. Alured Larke of the 2nd Wisconsin wrote his sister that he had accepted an offer to correspond for the Milwaukee Sentinel “for one thing…it gives one a position, [and] I stand a better chance of a commission.” Another volunteer, William Henry Church, groused to his sister that lying around the hospital recuperating from a wound was no way to get ahead, but that if he could rejoin his regiment he might “stand a chance of a promotion.” James S. Anderson of Manitowoc nursed a grudge that others had “belittled” him for remaining in the ranks so long and advised his parents that as soon as he was discharged he would “take up the study of law…and work my way up to a position in society.” Kelsey Adams was patently honest when he acknowledged that he was unlikely to find a position that would pay as well as the army. Convinced that “military life cannot improve a man mentally or morally…I am a little more interested in myself.”[13]

Despite such protestations of self-interest, many understood that they were embracing a sacrifice in enlisting in the army. Many complained, as did Jerry Flint, that they were falling behind those who had not volunteered in advancing their careers. As Flint put it, “[I]t makes one indignant to think of the able bodied men who stay at home taking advantage of these things while us poor wretches are here doing the work for them…” David Holton Wood, an early volunteer, was well aware of the attendant risks when contemplating whether or not to reenlist in early 1864. If he did sign up for another term he could pretty much dismiss the idea of ever enrolling in school as he “should be too old to attend.” He chose to reenlist, claiming that since “Uncle Sam” was beckoning, “I must heed him rather than my wishes or feelings.” Charles Curtis marked the beginning of his second year in service with the sober reflection that the year he hoped “to devote to study” had passed, but that he “was devoted to that most sacred of all things, my Country.”[14]

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