in Wisconsin History
The Iron Brigade, Old Abe and Military Affairs
Between 1860 and 1861, eleven Southern states defied the authority of the U.S. government and seceded from the Union, asserting a doctrine of states' rights. Ironically though, for several years before the war, Wisconsin had been the most thoroughgoing champion of states' rights. Unlike the Southern states, however, Wisconsin had used the doctrine in opposition to, rather than in support of, slavery. States' rights had been the basis of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to nullify the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act after the controversy surrounding the fugitive slave Joshua Glover (see "Abolitionism and Other Social Reforms").
When war broke out in April of 1861, Wisconsin quickly rallied to support the Union cause. Wisconsin's Republican governor, Alexander Randall, supplied not one regiment as the government requested but several, and he demanded that they be put to use. Each regiment was accompanied by a state agent who looked after the health and needs of the soldiers. Early in the war, volunteers were plentiful, as men joined for a variety of reasons. While some fought to end slavery, many more believed they were called upon to preserve the Union. Most, though, had more personal reasons than any national aims, including getting away from home, advancing within army ranks, or making political use of a military record.
Wisconsin soldiers fought in every major battle of the Civil War. By the end of the war, 91,000 men had served in fifty-six regiments. Recruits were trained in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Racine, and Madison. Camp Randall, Wisconsin's major training facility in Madison, also housed Confederate prisoners.
The Iron Brigade was Wisconsin's most famous war unit. They fought in the Army of the Potomac, suffering unusually high casualties at Gainesville, Antietam (the Civil War's bloodiest battle), and Gettysburg. Many of Wisconsin's regiments were composed primarily of single ethnic groups. For example, the 9th, 26th, 27th, and 45th were mainly Germans, while Norwegians filled the ranks of the 15th regiment. The 8th Wisconsin became known as the "Eagle Regiment" because of a pet bald eagle, named Old Abe, that they carried into battle on a perch with an American flag. Old Abe, according to legend, had been captured by an American Indian on the Flambeau River. Until Old Abe's death in 1881, he enjoyed a wide celebrity at soldiers' reunions and fairs.
Wisconsin soldiers distinguished themselves in a number of battles and skirmishes throughout the war. Under Cadwallader C. Washburn, the 2nd Wisconsin cavalry fought valiantly in many western battles including Vicksburg. In 1864, Colonel Joseph Bailey, with the help of lumberjacks from the 23rd and 24th regiments, managed to save a fleet of Union gunboats and transports stranded 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. Unfortunately, many of the Wisconsin men who fought against the South did not return. Nearly 12,000 died, and thousands more were wounded. Wisconsin soldiers also spent time in many of the more infamous Southern military prisons, including Libby and Andersonville.
[Source: 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)]