Badgers in War Time

by Reuben Gold Thwaites

The men of Wisconsin who had fought and conquered the hard conditions of frontier life, developing a raw wilderness into a wealthy and progressive commonwealth, were of the sort to make the best of soldiers when called upon to take up arms in behalf of the nation.

From the earliest days of the War of Secession until its close, Wisconsin troops were ever upon the firing line, and participated in some of the noblest victories of the long and painful struggle. General Sherman, in his "Memoirs," paid them this rare tribute: "We estimated a Wisconsin regiment equal to an ordinary brigade." It is impracticable in one brief chapter to do more than mention a few of the most brilliant achievements of the Badger troops.

In April, 1862, the Fourteenth, Sixteenth, and Eighteenth Wisconsin infantry regiments, although new in the service, won imperishable laurels upon the bloody field of Shiloh. The men of the Fourteenth were especially prominent in the fray. Arriving on the ground at midnight of the first day, they passed the rest of the night in a pelting rain, standing ankle-deep in mud; and throughout all the next day fought as though they were hardened veterans.

A Kentucky regiment was ordered to charge a Confederate battery, but fell back in confusion; whereupon General Grant asked if the Fourteenth Wisconsin could do the work. Its colonel cried, "We will try!" and then followed one of the most gallant charges of the entire war. Thrice driven back, the Wisconsin men finally captured the battery; confusion ensued in the Confederate ranks, and very soon the battle of Shiloh was a Union victory.

In the Peninsular campaign of the same year, the Fifth Regiment made a bayonet charge which routed and scattered the Confederates, and turned the scales in favor of the North. In an address to the regiment two days later, General McClellan declared: "Through you we won the day, and Williamsburg shall be inscribed on your banner. Your country owes you its grateful thanks." His report to the War Department describes this charge as "brilliant in the extreme."

Some of the highest honors of the war were awarded to the gallant Iron Brigade, composed of the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin, the Nineteenth Indiana, and the Twenty-fourth Michigan. At Gainesville, in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, also in 1862, this brigade practically won the fight, the brunt of the Confederate assault being met by the Second Wisconsin, which that day lost sixty per cent of its rank and file; the brigade itself suffered a loss of nine hundred men.

The Third opened the battle at Cedar Mountain, and very soon after that was at Antietam, where it lost two-thirds of the men it took into action. The Fifth also was prominent near by, and the Iron Brigade, behind a rail fence, conducted a fight which was one of the chief events of the engagement.

At the battle of Corinth, several Wisconsin regiments and four of her batteries won some of the brightest honors. In the various official reports of the action, such comments as the following are frequent: "This regiment (the Fourteenth) was the one to rely upon in every emergency;" a fearless dash by the Seventeenth regiment, one general described as "the most glorious charge of the campaign"; there was an allusion to the Eighteenth's "most effectual service"; in referring to the Sixth battery, mention is made in the reports, of "its noble work."

At Chaplin Hills, in Kentucky, a few days later, the First Wisconsin drove back the enemy several times, and captured a stand of Confederate colors. The Tenth was seven hours under fire, and lost fifty-four per cent of its number. General Rousseau highly praised both regiments, saying, "These brave men are entitled to the gratitude of the country." The Fifteenth captured heavy stores of ammunition and many prisoners; the Twenty-fifth repulsed, with withering fire, a superior force of the enemy, who had suddenly assaulted them while lying in a cornfield; and the Fifth battery three times turned back a Confederate charge, "saving the division," as General McCook reported, "from a disgraceful defeat."

At Prairie Grove, in Arkansas, at Fredericksburg, and at Stone River, still later in the campaign of 1862, Wisconsin soldiers exhibited what General Sherman described as "splendid conduct, bravery, and efficiency."

Men of Wisconsin were also prominent in the Army of the Potomac, during the famous "mud campaign" of the early months of 1863. At the crossing of the Rappahannock, theirs was the dangerous duty to protect the makers of the pontoon bridges. In the course of this service, the Iron Brigade made a splendid dash across the river, charged up the opposite heights, and at the point of the bayonet routed the Confederates who were intrenched in rifle pits.

At Chancellorsville, the Third Wisconsin, detailed to act as a barrier to the advance of the Confederates under Stonewall Jackson, was the last to leave the illfated field.

At Fredericksburg, not far away, the Fifth Wisconsin and the Sixth Maine led a desperate charge up Marye's Hill, where, in a sunken roadway, lay a large force of the enemy; this force, a few months before, had killed six thousand Union men who were vainly attempting to rout them. This second and final charge overcame all difficulties, and succeeded. As the Confederate commander handed to the colonel of the Wisconsin regiment his sword and silver spurs, he told the victor that he had supposed there were not enough troops in the Army of the Potomac to carry the position; it was, he declared, the most daring assault he had ever seen. Such, too, was the judgment of Greeley, who declared that "Braver men never smiled on death than those who climbed Marye's Hill on that fatal day." The correspondent of the London Times also wrote, "Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, nor at Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed."

In the campaign which resulted in the fall of Vicksburg, in 1863, numerous Wisconsin regiments participated, many of them with conspicuous gallantry. It was an officer of the Twenty-third who received, at the base of the works, the offer of the Confederates to surrender.

The part taken by Wisconsin troops at Gettysburg, was conspicuous. The Iron Brigade and a Wisconsin company of sharpshooters were, day by day, in the thickest of the fight, and gained a splendid record. At Chickamauga, several of our regiments fought under General Thomas, and lost heavily. They afterward participated in the struggle at Mission Ridge, which resulted in the Confederate army under Bragg being turned back into Central Georgia.

The Iron Brigade was in Grant's campaign against Richmond, serving gallantly in the battles of the Wilderness, in the "bloody angle" at Spottsylvania, at Fair Oaks, and in the numerous attacks before Petersburg.

Wisconsin contributed heavily to the army of Sherman, in his "march to the sea," and in the preliminary contests won distinction on many a bitterly contested field. Several of our regiments were in the assault on Mobile, the day when Lee was surrendering to Grant, in far-off Virginia. Others of the Badger troops, infantry and cavalry, served in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, fighting the Confederate guerillas, while our artillerymen were distributed throughout the several Union armies, and served gallantly until the last days of the war.

Wisconsin soldiers languished in most of the great Southern military prisons. A thrilling escape of Union men from Libby Prison, at Richmond, was made in February, 1864, by means of a secret tunnel. This was ingeniously excavated under the superintendence of a party of which Colonel H. C. Hobart of the Twenty-first Wisconsin was a leader.

Another notable event of the war, of which a Wisconsin man was the hero, occurred during the night of the 27th of October, 1864. The Confederate armored ram Albemarle, after having sunk several Union vessels, was anchored off Plymouth, North Carolina, a town which was being attacked by Federal troops and ships. Lieutenant W. B. Cushing of Delafield, Waukesha county, proceeded to the Albemarle in a small launch, under cover of the dark; and, in the midst of a sharp fire from the crew of the ram, placed a torpedo under her bow and blew her up. The daring young officer escaped to his ship, amid appalling difficulties, having won worldwide renown by his splendid feat.

The saving of the Union fleet in the Red River was an incident which attracted national attention to still another Wisconsin man. The expedition up the river, into the heart of the enemy's country, was a failure, and immediate retreat inevitable. But the water had lowered, and the fleet of gunboats found it impossible to descend the rapids at Alexandria. The enemy were swarming upon the banks, and the situation was so hazardous that it seemed as if the army would find it necessary to desert the vessels. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey of the Fourth Wisconsin infantry, serving as chief engineer on General Franklin's staff, proposed to dam the river, then suddenly make an opening, and allow the boats to emerge with the outrush of imprisoned water. The plan is a familiar one to Wisconsin lumbermen, in getting logs over shoals; but it was new to the other officers, and Bailey was laughed at as a visionary. However, the situation was so desperate that he was allowed to try his experiment. It succeeded admirably; the fleet, worth nearly two millions of dollars, was saved, and the expedition emerged from the trap in good order. Bailey was made a brigadier general, and the grateful naval officers presented him with a valuable sword and vase.

No account of Wisconsin's part in the War of Secession should, however brief, omit reference to a conspicuous participant, "Old Abe," the war eagle of the Eighth Regiment. He was captured by an Indian, on the Flambeau River, a branch of the Chippewa, and until the close of the long struggle was carried on a perch by his owners, the men of Company C. He was an eyewitness of thirty-six battles and skirmishes, and accompanied his regiment upon some of the longest marches of the war. Frequently he was hit by the enemy's bullets, but never was daunted, his habit in times of action being to pose upon his perch or a cannon, screaming lustily, and frequently holding in his bill the corner of a flag. No general in the great struggle achieved a wider celebrity than "Old Abe." Until his death, in 1881, he was exhibited in all parts of the country, at State and national soldiers' reunions, and at fairs held for their benefit. At the great Sanitary Fair in Chicago, in 1865, it is said that the sales of his photographs brought $16,000 to the soldiers' relief fund.

Upon the opening of the Spanish-American War, in April, 1898, Wisconsin's militia system was one of the best in the country, and its quota of 5390 volunteers was made up from these companies.

The First Regiment was sent to Camp Cuba Libre, at Jacksonville, Florida; the Second and Third to Camp Thomas, at Chickamauga; and the Fourth, at first to the State military camp at Camp Douglas, and later to Camp Shipp, Alabama. The First was the earliest raised, and the best equipped, but its colonel's commission was not so old as those held by the other regimental commanders from this State; therefore, when two Wisconsin regiments were to be sent in July to Puerto Rico, the Second and Third were selected, leaving the First reluctantly to spend its entire time in camp. After the war, it had been intended to detail the Fourth, not mustered in until late in the struggle, to join the American army of occupation in the West Indies; but, owing to the fact that a large percentage of the men were suffering from camp diseases, they were finally mustered out without leaving the country.

The Second and Third had an interesting experience in Puerto Rico. Arriving at the port of Guamico upon the 25th of July, they took a prominent part in the bloodless capture of the neighboring city of Ponce. This task completed, they were detailed, with the Sixteenth Pennsylvania, to form the advance guard of the army, which prepared at once to sweep the island from south to north. Our men were almost daily under fire, particularly in road clearing skirmishes under General Roy Stone.

Two days after the landing at Guamico, Lieutenant Perry Cochrane, of Eau Claire, an officer of the Third, was sent forward with seventeen other Eau Claire men, to open up the railway line leading to the little village of Yauco, lying about twenty miles westward of Ponce, and to capture that place. The track and the bridges had been wrecked by the fleeing enemy, so that Cochrane's party endured much peril and fatigue before they reached their destination; and Yauco was not disposed to succumb to this handful of men. Cochrane successfully held his own, however, until the following day, when reënforcements arrived.

A few days after the fall of Ponce, the Sheboygan company was acting as guard to a detachment repairing the San Juan road, several miles out of town. Hearing that a party of Spanish soldiers had taken a stand at Lares, eighteen miles away, a detail was sent with a flag of truce, to treat with them. The squad consisted of Lieutenant Bodemer, four privates, and a bugler. The Spaniards were not in a pleasant frame of mind, and but for their officers would have made short shrift of the visitors, despite the peaceful flag which they bore. Finally, the Spaniards agreed to receive a deputation of native Puerto Ricans, and talk the matter over with them. Our men withdrew, and sent natives in their stead; but the latter were treacherously assaulted, and only one of them escaped to tell the story.

Upon the 9th of August, there was a sharp fight at Coamo. Both of our regiments were actively employed in this encounter, and were of the troops which finally raised the American flag over the town walls.

The final engagement was fought two days later, at the mountain pass of Asomanta, near Aibonito, where 2500 Spanish troops were centered. The Second Wisconsin was the last American regiment in this fight, and lost two killed and three wounded. These were Wisconsin's only field losses during the war, although her deaths from camp diseases were about seventy.