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This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home

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  • Posted September 2, 2013

    We are confronted with hundreds, nay thousands, of Civil War boo

    We are confronted with hundreds, nay thousands, of Civil War books. We are offered the fruits of historical research by professionals both renowned and unknown. How are we to choose the next one to read? Specifically, what is new and unique about “This Wicked Rebellion” that should make it our next selection? Unlike the waves of analysis, interpretation and reflection, it is the story of the war in the words of the men who volunteered, marched away, trained, fought, were wounded and cared for the wounded and even died for their country. This book is not the memoir of an officer who incorporated his story with the stories of others. This is a sampling of letters written by Wisconsin’s warriors to loved ones and newspapers.

    We are very fortunate that the Wisconsin Historical Society has preserved a huge collection of these letters. Editor John Zimm has sifted through them to bring us a representative collection of accounts of the life, hardships and impressions of Wisconsin Civil War soldiers.

    The soldiers’ war began as they left home and went to in the camps in Wisconsin:

    “A husband, a stalwart man, was taking the last leave of his wife;-a hasty kiss was exchanged-a warm grasp of the hand, and the soldier, as he was about turning away, stooped to kiss his child, a little girl of three summers. The child put her arms about the father’s neck, clasped them tightly, and sobbed most piteously. She would not let him go, and he was forced to unclasp her hands with his own strong arms and hand her back to her weeping mother, while the bid tears rolled down his manly cheeks.”

    As the armies moved south not all was shot and chaos:

    “This is a great country to stay in. We can live here…with all the sovereign independence characteristic of the genuine Badger, we amuse ourselves by eating blackberries and hoecake, swimming in the canal, shooting across the river at the rebel pickets, reading secession papers and the Bible .“

    Battles did come and we readers are privy to reports from where Wisconsin’s banners faced the foe: Bull Run, Shiloh, Winchester, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Spotsylvania and Atlanta. From Vicksburg we read:

    “I went through the town to look at the buildings that had been injured. The lower part of the town has been all knocked down by our gunboats, but the residences have been left standing, although very much injured. There is not a house in the town but that has been bored through and through.”

    For many of these men it was their first encounter with slavery and their response varied from man to man. As one correspondent observed: “little is to be said in camp about the emancipation proclamation, but I think it ‘is generally approved’” while another reported “I am getting tired of this horrible war. I did not think when I enlisted, that I was going to fight to free…, as that is against my principles, and it goes very hard with me.” Several commented on the light complexions of some slaves, including one “as white as the whitest child in Janesville.” It seems that some objected less to the institution of slavery than that it entrapped some largely while victims.

    War brought pain and despair:

    “I am melancholy to-day and have been so for several days-ever since Charley died I have felt as though I had not a friend left.”

    From a prison camp:

    “It almost seems that Uncle Abe, had forgotten us; or did not care much for us anyhow. It is now more than four months since we have endured this galling captivity, and we see not, that anything is being done to alleviate it.”

    What did they think of it all, these soldiers who had borne the battle? One poured out his heart to his parents:

    “What a terrible thing is war. When I look over this fine country, once the abode of peace, and see the havoc made by the armies-fences and building burned, every corn crib emptied, families in need of bread, and more especially when I looked over to yonder trenches and think of the fathers, husbands and brothers lying there, and of the many, many bleeding hearts broken by their fall, I cry out-“How long, O Lord, how long.’ When will peace, a peace satisfactory to us, overshadow our country…”

    I have just given you a few examples of the words penned by Wisconsin’s soldiers and preserved for us in “This Wicked Rebellion.” Read it yourself to uncover the other gems too numerous to mention. Whether or not you have a particular interest in Wisconsin, these observations, emotions and letters are certainly typical of those written to other states for they, and we, all share a common humanity. This is a fairly short book that could be read quickly but it should not be. It is a book to be savored, letter by letter and word by word, as we try to understand those men who closed our great national schism.

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