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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Seeing the Present as History

150 years ago this week, on Dec. 20, 1860, elected officials in South Carolina declared that they were seceding from the United States. Other southern states soon followed, and less then four months later the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Here in Wisconsin, residents from all walks of life volunteered to put down the rebellion (as they called it). Lyman C. Draper, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, acted quickly to collect and share their stories.

"It is due to our Wisconsin Volunteers," he wrote, "who are devoting their time and energies, and risking their lives, in defense of the Constitution, Laws and Flag of their Country, that the Historical Society of their State should make ample provision for a full history of their services." Toward that end, he distributed a flyer asking soldiers to document their experiences.

After pledging to collect the state's newspapers, Draper said "… we earnestly desire to preserve all other material within our reach relating to the career and services of our Wisconsin Volunteers. It is the wish of the Society that you give your approval and aid to this effort, 1st. By keeping a Diary for the Society of such interesting events as you may deem proper of record and preservation... 2d. … write out and send the Society isolated sketches of any particular event and service of which you may be cognizant. 3d. Preserve… a plat or drawing, however rude if may be, of any skirmish ground or battle field, on which our Wisconsin troops may play a worthy part. 4th. Preserve… any relics taken from our Rebel foes… [and finally] 5th. When the war is over, the Union preserved, and peace once more restored to our country, will not our Wisconsin troops take pride and pleasure in depositing with our Historical Society their Company and Regimental Flags, under which they have marched to battle and to victory?"

Draper concluded, "Wisconsin is now making for herself a strange and eventful history. Her sons are making unspeakable sacrifices in maintaining the honor and sacredness of the Union bequeathed us by our fathers, and are freely yielding up their lives, and pouring out their blood upon the battle-field in the good cause in which they are engaged. The Truth and Justice of History demand that a Society like ours should perpetuate these services and sacrifices for the enlightenment and encouragement of our children and children's children…"

Draper's foresight (and the professionalism of his successors) brought in dozens of soldiers' diaries, thousands of letters from the front, the official state archives on the war, and much more – nearly 900 collections of unpublished records in all.

The very best of these are being scanned and indexed this winter. By the time the Civil War Sesquicentennial begins in April, more than 10,000 pages of eyewitness accounts by Wisconsin Civil War soldiers and officers should be available for free here at

We like to think that would make Lyman C. Draper happy.

:: Posted in Curiosities on December 19, 2010

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