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)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A Wisconsin officer refuses to give slaves back to their owners (2), 1862A Wisconsin officer refuses to give slaves back to their owners (2), 1862
Link to article: A 14-year-old Wisconsin boy fights in the Civil WarA 14-year-old Wisconsin boy fights in the Civil War
Link to article: An interview with a Black soldier among Wisconsin troops in the Civil War.An interview with a Black soldier among Wisconsin troops in the Civil War.
Link to article: A Wisconsin officer refuses to give slaves back to their owners (1), 1862A Wisconsin officer refuses to give slaves back to their owners (1), 1862
Link to article: A teenage nurse at the front, 1863-1864A teenage nurse at the front, 1863-1864
Link to article: More than 200 Wis. newspaper stories about the warMore than 200 Wis. newspaper stories about the war
Link to article: Leonard Farwell, seeing Lincoln killed, saves Vice President JohnsonLeonard Farwell, seeing Lincoln killed, saves Vice President Johnson
Link to article: The Iron Brigade recalled by a veteran, 20 years after the warThe Iron Brigade recalled by a veteran, 20 years after the war
Link to article: The Civil War diary of a private from Sheboygan CountyThe Civil War diary of a private from Sheboygan County
Link to article: A Wisconsin logger saves the Union fleet in 1864A Wisconsin logger saves the Union fleet in 1864
Link to article: Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (1830-1893)Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (1830-1893)
Link to article: Memories by a Wisconsin commander of Black troops in the Civil War.Memories by a Wisconsin commander of Black troops in the Civil War.
Link to artifacts: A Tiffany punch bowl in honor of Bailey's heroicsA Tiffany punch bowl in honor of Bailey's heroics
Link to artifacts: A feather from war eagle Old AbeA feather from war eagle Old Abe
Link to artifacts: An iron collar removed from a fugitive slave by Wisconsin soldiers in 1862An iron collar removed from a fugitive slave by Wisconsin soldiers in 1862
Link to book: Roster of Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers, vol. IRoster of Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers, vol. I
Link to book: A Wisconsin soldier recounts the Battle of Gettysburg for his family.A Wisconsin soldier recounts the Battle of Gettysburg for his family.
Link to book: A guide to the battles and engagements fought by Wisconsin troops.A guide to the battles and engagements fought by Wisconsin troops.
Link to book: The history and traditions of the Chippewa ValleyThe history and traditions of the Chippewa Valley
Link to book: The roster of Wisconsin's only unit of black Civil War soldiersThe roster of Wisconsin's only unit of black Civil War soldiers
Link to book: The only Wisconsin unit of Black soldiers in the Civil WarThe only Wisconsin unit of Black soldiers in the Civil War
Link to book: Names of ex-soldiers and sailors residing in Wisconsin, 1895Names of ex-soldiers and sailors residing in Wisconsin, 1895
Link to book: Names of ex-soldiers and sailors residing in Wisconsin, 1905Names of ex-soldiers and sailors residing in Wisconsin, 1905
Link to book: Roster of Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers, vol. IIRoster of Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers, vol. II
Link to book: Alphabetical index to all Wisconsin Civil War soldiersAlphabetical index to all Wisconsin Civil War soldiers
Link to book: Official List of Wisconsin Soldiers Killed in the Civil WarOfficial List of Wisconsin Soldiers Killed in the Civil War
Link to book: Names of ex-soldiers and sailors residing in Wisconsin, 1885Names of ex-soldiers and sailors residing in Wisconsin, 1885
Link to book: An 1875 history of the Chippewa ValleyAn 1875 history of the Chippewa Valley
Link to images: A photo of former slave Peter ThomasA photo of former slave Peter Thomas
Link to images: More than 100 photographs and other pictures from the Civil WarMore than 100 photographs and other pictures from the Civil War
Link to images: An 1887 portrait of General and Governor Lucius FairchildAn 1887 portrait of General and Governor Lucius Fairchild
Link to manuscript: Letters by relatives of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1861-1919Letters by relatives of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1861-1919
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin soldier recounts the removal of a slave's iron collarA Wisconsin soldier recounts the removal of a slave's iron collar
Link to manuscript: Gettysburg day-by-day (June 30-July 6, 1863)Gettysburg day-by-day (June 30-July 6, 1863)
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin soldier writes a prison poem on envelopes, 1863A Wisconsin soldier writes a prison poem on envelopes, 1863
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin soldier writes home from the war, 1863A Wisconsin soldier writes home from the war, 1863
Link to manuscript: A Rock Co. soldier writes home, 1862-1865A Rock Co. soldier writes home, 1862-1865
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin soldier describes being a prisoner of war, 1863-1865A Wisconsin soldier describes being a prisoner of war, 1863-1865
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