Men found mischief in the Civil War ranks

posted July 16, 2018 7:50 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Tom Emery, Carlinville, Ill. (Macoupin County)

Wisconsin supplied plenty of the fine fighting men to the Civil War effort. But as with men from other states, misbehavior was all too common in the ranks.

Alcohol was often a culprit. During training in Madison in 1861, nine members of the 2nd Wisconsin found a saloon around 2 a.m. one morning, but the saloon owner, who operated an adjacent brewery, refused to open for the soldiers. The belligerent troops then pushed through a window and made off with several bottles of booze.

Enraged, the saloon owner fired a shotgun to scatter the troops, who returned the fire with revolvers and tossed handfuls of stones through the windows. A disgusted comrade wrote that “nearly a wheel-barrow load of stones ... were thrown into the house” and that “blood was found upon the sidewalk leading toward the camp.” One man was “found near the brewery, dead drunk, lying upon the ground.”

Elsewhere in Madison, the same writer reported that “some handsome shade trees” in front of one residence “were cut down or mutilated.” Soldiers were reportedly the cause, though “without any satisfactory evidence.”

The writer lamented that “the great mass” of the troops were “sterling men, who feel as keenly as anyone, how much the regiment is disgraced by the few insubordinates.” He concluded that “these wild fellows who disturb the peace of the city are but few in numbers, and ought not, by their unseemly acts ... be permitted to involve the whole regiment in disgrace.”

Around the same time, a soldier at Camp Scott in Milwaukee wrote that “every pleasant evening witnesses some scene of sport,” featuring “two or three mock court-martials” and the burning of Jefferson Davis in effigy. The hijinks included pantomime skits and burlesque shows. One man laughingly wrote that a “tall and well-proportioned ostrich goes flapping his wings around the camp” and a “huge snake winds here and there among the crowd.”

Once in the South, some men paid the price with the locals. Henry Barnes of the 28th Wisconsin wrote of a comrade who bought four eggs from a woman in Alabama, who added four biscuits for free.

Barnes wrote that the man “cooked an egg and commenced eating his biscuits. He fell back, struggled a few minutes, and died. The doctor examined the biscuits and found there was enough poison in each one to kill 20 men.”

As in training back home, camp life was excruciatingly dull, but men found ways to pass the time. Whiskey and other liquors flowed freely, and playing cards was a favorite pastime, though men would often toss their cards away before entering battle, fearful that the vice would be found on their person if they were killed. Cockfighting was also popular. In some instances, Wisconsin soldiers bet on challenges between two African Americans, who head-butted each other until one gave up.

Everyday speech in camps was peppered with profanity, much to the chagrin of some. In one case, the 6th Wisconsin tried a rule that any ill or wounded man would be thrown out of the hospital for using foul language.

Sometimes, men paid the price for the misdeeds of others. After stealing the uniforms of the 24th Wisconsin regiment, the 36th Illinois proceeded to forage heartily through the Tennessee countryside, then let the Wisconsinites take the rap.

Of course, women were often on the soldiers’ minds, and not always with good intentions. Some men, however, were unimpressed with the opportunity. One Northerner described the women of northern Mississippi as “sharp nosed, tobacco chewing, snuff rubbing, flax headed, hatchet faced, yellow eyed, sallow skinned, cotton dressed, flat breasted, bareheaded, long waisted, hump shouldered, stoop necked, big footed, straddle toed, sharp shinned, thin lipped, pale faced, lantern jawed, silly looking damsels.”

Others, though, begged to differ. Some Northern men and Southern women formed attachments, which amused a private of the 12th Wisconsin. “Now who says the war was a failure,” he wrote, “when it ended by making lovers of enemies?”

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He can be reached at 217-710-8392 or

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