Wisconsin Civil War History

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Wisconsin Civil War History


Wisconsin was admitted into the Union as the 30th state on May 29, 1848.

Wisconsin is a U.S. state located in the Midwestern United States and, in particular, in the Great Lakes region. It is bordered by Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, Illinois to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, Michigan to the northeast, and Lake Superior to the north.

European contact caused displacement and disruption as eastern Native American tribes emigrated into Wisconsin during the 1600s. During those years the Iroquois invaded neighboring nations in Michigan and Ontario, driving the Sauk, Meskwaki (Fox), Potawatomi, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Ottawa, and other tribes into present-day Wisconsin. The ensuing competition for food and furs prompted almost a century of intertribal warfare among these nations and the already-present Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Sioux, and Ojibwe.

European microbes probably reached Wisconsin's Indians prior to the arrival of French explorers in the early 1600s. In the fifty years following Hernando de Soto's invasion of the lower Mississippi in 1539-1540, disease wiped out 90 percent of Indian villages in the middle Mississippi Valley - villages with whom Wisconsin's Oneota culture had traded for centuries. Some archaeologists therefore think it likely that epidemics of measles or smallpox may have swept through native communities here decades before the French explorers stepped ashore at Red Banks. When the French arrived and began living in Indian villages, diseases again annihilated the American Indians.  "Maladies wrought among them more devastation than even war did," wrote contemporary French visitor Bacqueville de la Potherie, "and exhalations from the rotting corpses caused great mortality."

The first European to visit what became Wisconsin was probably the French explorer Jean Nicolet. He canoed west from Georgian Bay through the Great Lakes in 1634, and it is traditionally assumed that he came ashore near Green Bay at Red Banks. Pierre Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers visited Green Bay again in 1654–1666 and Chequamegon Bay in 1659–1660, where they traded for fur with local American Indians. In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet became the first to record a journey on the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway all the way to the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien. Frenchmen like Nicholas Perrot continued to ply the fur trade across Wisconsin through the 17th and 18th centuries, but the French made no permanent settlements in Wisconsin before Great Britain won control of the region following the French and Indian War in 1763. Even so, French traders continued to work in the region after the war, and some, beginning with Charles de Langlade in 1764, now settled in Wisconsin permanently rather than returning to British-controlled Canada.

Wisconsin Civil War Map
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Map of the Wisconsin Territory, 1836-1848

(About) Wisconsin was successively part of the original Northwest Territory (1788-1800), Indiana Territory (1800-1809), Illinois Territory (1809-1818), and Michigan Territory (1818-1836) before it became a territory in its own right (1836-1848).

Wisconsin became a territorial possession of the United States in 1783 after the American Revolutionary War. However, the British remained in de facto control until after the War of 1812, which finally established an American presence in the area. Under American control, the economy of the territory shifted from fur trading to lead mining. The prospect of easy mineral wealth drew immigrants from throughout the U.S. and Europe to the lead deposits located at Mineral Point, Wisconsin, Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and nearby areas. Some miners found shelter in the holes they had dug and earned the nickname "badgers," leading to Wisconsin's identity as the "Badger State." The sudden influx of white miners prompted tension with the local Native American population. The Winnebago War of 1827 and the Black Hawk War of 1832 led to the forced removal of American Indians from most parts of the state. Following these conflicts, Wisconsin Territory was organized in 1836, and continued settlement led to statehood in 1848.

The Territory of Wisconsin was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from 1836 to 1848, when an eastern portion of the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of Wisconsin. The new territory initially included all of the present-day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, as well as parts of North and South Dakota. Belmont was initially chosen as the capital of the territory, but this was changed in October 1836 to the current capital of Madison.

By the mid-1840s, the population of Wisconsin Territory had exceeded 150,000, more than twice the number of people required for Wisconsin to become a state. In 1846, the territorial legislature voted to apply for statehood. That fall, 124 delegates debated the state constitution. The document produced by this convention was considered extremely progressive for its time. It banned commercial banking, granted married women the right to own property, and left the question of African American suffrage to a popular vote. Most Wisconsinites considered the first constitution to be too radical, however, and repealed it in an April 1847 referendum. In December 1847, a second constitutional convention was convened. This convention resulted in a new, more moderate state constitution that Wisconsinites approved in a March 1848 referendum, enabling Wisconsin to become the 30th state on May 29, 1848.

Between 1836 and 1850, Wisconsin's population increased from a mere 11,000 to over 305,000. Some of these settlers came from the eastern United States, while others came from Europe. The first immigrants tended to settle in the southern parts of Wisconsin. Economic and social changes in Europe, coupled with natural disasters such as the potato blight in Ireland, increased Europeans' discontent and desire to emigrate. Though each person came to the United States for different reasons, all immigrants sought a better life in Wisconsin. By 1850, one-third of the state's population was foreign-born. Of the more than 100,000 foreign-born Wisconsinites in 1850, only 48,000 could claim English as their native language. Nearly one-half of these English speakers were Irish. Of the non-English speaking immigrants, the Germans were by far the most numerous. Norwegians constituted the second largest group, followed closely by Canadians of primarily French descent.

Improving transportation routes and the opening of government lands encouraged the mass migrations westward. Immigrants arrived by ship, by steamboat, by railroad, on horseback, and in wagons. Milwaukee became a favorite landing place for lake passengers because of its expanding business opportunities and public lands office.


Politics in early Wisconsin were defined by the greater national debate over slavery. A free state from its foundation, Wisconsin became a center of northern abolitionism. As immigrants and U.S. citizens from the eastern parts of the country began to relocate and settle in western territories, they brought with them the political and social issues that pervaded American society. As the population of the Wisconsin Territory increased, so did the opposition to the institution of slavery. In 1842, a territorial Anti-Slavery Society formed, and so did a branch of the Liberty Party, which was an anti-slavery political party. In 1846, these two groups merged into the Wisconsin Liberty Party Association. The American Freeman newspaper, based in Waukesha, played an important role in the abolitionist movement in the area. Its editor, Sherman Booth, gained national attention after he was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He was accused of helping a runaway slave escape to Canada. In 1855, his arrest prompted the Wisconsin Supreme Court to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act by stating that it was unconstitutional on the basis of the state's rights. The Republican Party, founded on March 20, 1854, by anti-slavery expansion activists in Ripon, Wisconsin, grew to dominate state politics in the aftermath of these events.

Slave States Map
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Map of Wisconsin, Slave and Free States

Wisconsin Civil War History
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Iron Brigade, aka Black Hat Brigade


The American Civil War (1861-1865) had a profound effect on nearly all aspects of life in Wisconsin. All residents, regardless of whether they became a part of the Union effort, felt the repercussions of war. After the financial shock of early 1861 resulting from the secession of the Southern states, the Civil War brought economic prosperity to Wisconsin. The war helped to consolidate transportation and industrial activity by increasing the volume of eastward-moving trade, especially when the closing of the lower Mississippi River restricted access to New Orleans. Railroads were overwhelmed with business, sending transportation costs through the roof. With the departure of men in uniform, farmers faced labor shortages that increased wages for hired hands. Fortunately for farmers, though, crop prices also multiplied as the demand for wheat, Wisconsin's principal crop at the time, skyrocketed. Consequently, the increased demand for agricultural products led to a boom in the mechanization of farming, an industry centered in southeastern Wisconsin.

Everyone in Wisconsin did not support the war. Some were Democrats who honestly thought state's rights should prevail, or that the nation had been taken over by Republican extremists. Others, especially German Catholics, did not support the Lincoln administration which, to them, represented abolitionism, Yankee nativism, and Protestant godlessness. The draft that Lincoln instituted in 1862 was especially intolerable to them, since many Germans had left their homeland to escape compulsory military service. On November 10, 1862, roughly 300 rioters attacked the draft office in Port Washington and vandalized the homes of Union supporters, until troops arrived to quell the disturbance. In Milwaukee that week, a mob of protesters shut down the draft proceedings, and in West Bend, the draft commissioner was beaten bloody and chased from the scene by opponents of the Civil War draft. But as the war continued and thousands of Wisconsin families lost fathers or sons, public opinion overwhelmingly backed Lincoln's efforts to preserve the union.


Wisconsin's economy had diversified during the early years of statehood. While lead mining diminished, agriculture became a principal occupation in the southern half of the state. Railroads were built across the state to help transport grains to market, and industries like J.I. Case & Company in Racine were founded to build agricultural equipment. By the 1840s, southwest Wisconsin mines were producing more than half of the nation’s lead. Wisconsin was dubbed the "Badger State" because of the lead miners who first settled there in the 1820s and 1830s. Without shelter in the winter, they had to "live like badgers" in tunnels burrowed into hillsides. Lead mining in southwest Wisconsin began to decline after 1848, and 1849 when the combination of less easily accessible lead ore and the California Gold Rush made miners leave the area. The lead mining industry in mining communities such as Mineral Point managed to survive into the 1860s, but the industry was never as prosperous as it was before the decline. Agriculture was not viable in the densely forested northern and central parts of Wisconsin. Settlers came to this region for logging. Wisconsin briefly became one of the nation's leading producers of wheat during the 1860s. From 1840 to 1880, Wisconsin was considered "America's breadbasket" because one-sixth of the wheat grown in the nation came from Wisconsin.

Founded in 1861, the Allis Company (eventually Allis-Chalmers) constructed industrial machinery for manufacturers and would come to transform the flour-milling industry in the 1880s. Edward P. Allis purchased Milwaukee's Reliance Works in 1860 and began producing steam engines and other mill equipment just at the time that many sawmills and flour mills were converting to steam power. Allis also installed a mill for the production of iron pipe to fill large orders for water systems in Milwaukee and Chicago, and worked with millwright George Hinckley to develop a high-speed saw for large sawmills. During the Civil War, Wisconsin mobilized troops and resources to support and supply the Union war effort.

Civil War

According to the 1860 U.S. census, Wisconsin has a total population of 775,881. Included in the total were 1171 blacks, which constituted less than two-tenths of one percent of the state's population.

During the course of the American Civil War, Wisconsin recruited 91,379 men for the Union Army, including 272 African Americans. Wisconsin provided 53 infantry regiments, 4 cavalry regiments, 13 light artillery batteries and 1 regiment of heavy artillery, and 1 company of Berdan’s sharpshooters. Although no Civil War battles were fought in the state, Wisconsin’s troops served mainly in the Western Theater. Some units, however, served in Eastern armies, including three regiments within the famed Iron Brigade. Approximately 1 in 9 Wisconsinites served in the army, and, in turn, half the eligible voters served. Wisconsin was the only state to organize reserves that were ready for combat, leading Northern generals to prefer having some regiments from the state under their command if possible.

A number of Wisconsin regiments distinguished themselves, including three that served in the famed Iron Brigade— the 2nd Wisconsin, 6th Wisconsin, and 7th Wisconsin. Noted for their hard fighting and dashing appearance, and among the only troops in the Army of the Potomac to wear Hardee hats and long frock coats, the brigade suffered heavy losses at Antietam and Gettysburg. When the conflict ended, the Iron Brigade had suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any brigade in the war.

The Iron Brigade earned its designation, "1st Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps", and it demonstrated a prominent role in the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. It repulsed the first Confederate offensive through Herbst's Woods, capturing Brig. Gen. James J. Archer and the majority of his brigade. The 6th Wisconsin (along with 100 men of the brigade guard) are remembered for their famous charge on an unfinished railroad cut north and west of Gettysburg, where they captured the flag of the 2nd Mississippi and took two hundred Confederate prisoners. The Iron Brigade, proportionately, suffered the most casualties of any brigade in the Civil War. For example, 61% (1,153 out of 1,885) were casualties at Gettysburg. Similarly, the 2nd Wisconsin, which suffered 77% casualties at Gettysburg, suffered the most throughout the war; it was second only to the 24th Michigan (also an Iron Brigade regiment) in total casualties at Gettysburg. The latter regiment lost 397 out of 496 soldiers, an 80% casualty rate.

The 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery, however, saw limited action and the unit suffered only 4 battle deaths during the war. The 8th Wisconsin, known as the Eagle Regiment, was often accompanied into battle by its mascot, Old Abe, a bald eagle. 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.

Wisconsin soldiers distinguished themselves in a number of battles and skirmishes throughout the war. Reverend George W. Densmore, chaplain for the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, was mortally wounded by Texas cavalry as he exited his tent during the Skirmish of L'Anguille Ferry, Arkansas. At the Battle of Resaca, having "seized a musket" and fought for four hours in the "hottest of the fight," Reverend John M. Springer, 3rd Wisconsin, fell mortally wounded. 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.

Wisconsin suffered 3,794 killed in action or mortally wounded, 8,022 died of disease, and 400 were killed in accidents. Fatalities were 12,216 men or 13.4 percent of total enlistments. See also Ten Bloodiest and Costliest Battles of the American Civil War.

Wisconsin Secession Map
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Wisconsin and Southern States Secede Map

Already a major agricultural center during the war, Wisconsin had flour milling and timber industries that grew substantially during Reconstruction.

On March 5, 1869, Wisconsin ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The state next ratified the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution on February 7, 1867, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. Native Americans, however, were excluded from the amendment. Subsequently, on February 24, 1865, the state ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist within the United States."


Throughout its history, Wisconsin has attracted people from diverse backgrounds. Unlike many of the older states to the east and south, Wisconsin was not a place where white Protestant and English-speaking people developed a social, political, and economic dominance. The tensions and conflicts that occurred were primarily centered along religious and linguistic lines, rather than race, as various ethnic groups settled in the state. However, in the twentieth century, as more African Americans came to Wisconsin seeking jobs in urban areas, race became the overriding factor that determined the circumstances under which they were allowed to settle and become a part of Wisconsin society.

According to 1860 census, Wisconsinites of African descent numbered only 1171. Although some African Americans had settled in Wisconsin prior to statehood, their numbers remained small over the decades, less than 3000 in 1910.

African Americans in Wisconsin had been struggling for their civil rights for more than a century before the movement began to attract headlines in the 1960s. In 1866, for example, Milwaukee's Ezekiel Gillespie successfully sued for the right to vote, and in the 1930s, William Kelley of the Milwaukee Urban League began to fight for the rights of black teachers to work in the public schools. These early efforts were especially difficult because African Americans made up only a very small percentage of the state's residents before the middle of the 20th century.

On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th amendment granting national suffrage to women. From 1846 to 1919, different groups of women's rights supporters had focused much of their energy on winning the vote, though each pursued different strategies. Although Wisconsin had not been completely unenlightened in its approach to women's legal rights (the rejected 1846 constitution would have given married women property rights), neither had it been on the forefront of the cause. Just seven years before the 19th amendment passed, a statewide referendum on suffrage had met with a resounding two-to-one defeat, so it was in some ways unusual that Wisconsin was the first to ratify federal woman suffrage. Five years later, Native American became U.S citizens with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.


Since the 1850s, agricultural reformers had urged farmers to diversify their plantings and to restore depleted soil through crop rotation and fertilization. The Civil War stimulated Wisconsin's wheat production for a time but it also encouraged experimentation and specialization with other farm products. Many farmers turned to feed crops like corn, oats, and hay to feed the thousands of cows producing milk, cheese, and butter for Wisconsin's growing dairy industry. In 1890, Wisconsin ranked first, second, and third nationally in the production of rye, barley, and oats.

Commercial fruit and vegetable cultivation, particularly of peas, began to dominate agricultural production in certain counties in the late nineteenth century. Nearly 30 percent of the state's potatoes, a basic food source for many farmers, came from Portage, Waushara, and Waupaca counties throughout the early twentieth century. Green peas, sweet corn, cucumbers, snap beans, lima beans, and beets all became important commercial crops in the 1880s and Wisconsin soon led the nation in the production of vegetables for processing. And after much trial and error, apples, cherries, and strawberries emerged as viable commercial crops in a few regions of the state.

Despite the state's lack of coal, Wisconsin developed a heavy industry dependent upon these resources as an adjunct to its extractive industries. Milwaukee built foundry, machinery, and metal-working businesses before the iron and steel industries were concentrated in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago. Production of iron on a large scale began when the Milwaukee Iron Company opened its doors in Bay View in 1870. The plant produced iron rails for railroads--a seemingly inexhaustible industry as railroads expanded westward-- that provided a base for an enlarged foundry and machinery industry in Milwaukee.

Manufacturing continues to dominate Wisconsin's economy, much of it concentrated in metropolitan Milwaukee, where the manufacture of heavy machinery, tools, and engines rivals the more traditional brewing and meatpacking industries. Other important manufactures are vehicles, metal products, medical instruments, farm implements and lumber. The pulp, paper, and paper-products industry in the Fox Valley is one of the largest in the nation. Wisconsin's fertile soils also provide agricultural products to a large food processing industry. In the north, Wisconsin ports still accommodate large, oceangoing ships, as well as shipyards and coal and ore docks that are among the largest in the nation.

See also

Sources: National Park Service; National Archives; Library of Congress; US Census Bureau; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; The Union Army (1908); Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889); Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908); Phisterer, Frederick. Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States (1883); Hardesty, Jesse. Killed and died of wounds in the Union army during the Civil War (1915): Wright-Eley Co.; The Badger State: A documentary history of Wisconsin (1979); Barone, Michael; Cohen, Richard E. (2005). The Almanac of American Politics, 2006. Washington, DC: National Journal. ISBN 0-89234-112-2; Current, Richard (2001). Wisconsin: A History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-07018-6; Gara, Larry (1962). A Short History of Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Holmes, Fred L. (1946). Wisconsin. 5 vols. Chicago; Nesbit, Robert C. (1989). Wisconsin: A History (Rev. ed.). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-10800-7; Pearce, Neil (1980). The Great Lakes States of America. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-05619-8; Quaife, Milo M. (1924). Wisconsin, Its History and Its People, 1634–1924. 4 vols.; Raney, William Francis (1940). Wisconsin: A Story of Progress. New York: Prentice-Hall; Robinson, Arthur H.; Culver, J. B., eds. (1974). The Atlas of Wisconsin; Sisson, Richard, ed. (2006). The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34886-2; Thompson, William Fletcher, eds. The History of Wisconsin, vol.2, 3, 4. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973-1998; Thwaites, Reuben Gold (1853-1913). Stories of the Badger State, New York : American Book Co., 1900; Van Ells, Mark D. (2009). Wisconsin [On-The-Road Histories]. Northampton MA: Interlink Books. ISBN 978-1-56656-673-5; Vogeler, I. (1986). Wisconsin: A Geography. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-86531-492-6; Mertens, J. H. (1986). The second battle: A story of our Belgian ancestors in the American Civil War, 1861-1865. United States: J.H. Mertens;  Hearn, Ethel Alice. Wisconsin Women in the War Wisconsin History Commission. 1911; Wisconsin Historical Society; Dyer, Frederick, Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, (Des Moines, 1908); Love, William DeLoss, Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion, (Chicago, 1866); Quiner, E.B., The Military History of Wisconsin, (Chicago, 1866).


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