Emerging Civil War welcomes back Bill Backus
One of the famous regiments that served in the Civil War was the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. As part of the famed Iron Brigade, the 2nd Wisconsin saw hard service with the Army of the Potomac from First Manassas to Antietam, and Gettysburg and beyond. Recruited from the Badger State, today historians and the public treat the 2nd as a typical Mid-Western regiment. However, since Wisconsin became a state only 13 years before the outbreak of the Civil War this begs the question of who enlisted and served in the 2nd Wisconsin. By examining muster records and cross checking them with the 1860 Federal census, historians can get a snapshot in the social-economic build of the regiment which can help explain the 2nd’s exceptional combat record.When a soldier enlisted, he filled out paperwork that included information such as where he lived as a civilian, when and where he was born, occupation, and marital status. The information provided in the muster records was then cross checked today with the individual’s information in the 1860 census. Since soldiers were enlisting from 1861 through 1864, to keep the ages consistent, the soldier’s age in 1860 was the one used for this study. While confirming most of the information in the muster records, the census also stated how much wealth the future soldier owned in addition to his total household’s wealth.
Approximately 1,300 soldiers served in the 11 companies that served with the 2nd Wisconsin at some point during the Civil War. The 2nd Wisconsin is unusual in that it had 11 companies serve at one time or another rather than the typical 10, stemming from the fact that the original Company K transferred to the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery after 1st Manassas, and was replaced by a second Company K in late 1861.
Ages of Civil War soldiers ranged from teens to middle age. However, the typical soldier was a young adult between the age of 18 and 25. The Raggedly Ass Second, the 2nd Wisconsin’s nickname within the Iron Brigade, was likewise a young organization with a staggering 968 soldiers (or nearly three quarters of the entire regiment) under the age of 24 in 1860. A whopping 479 soldiers (or 36% of the entire regiment) were 19 years old or younger in 1860, and 489 soldiers (37% of the regiment) were between the ages of 20-24. Only 186 members of the regiment (or 14%) were in their late 20s. Although older soldiers were present in the 2nd Wisconsin, they were a relatively small group with 130 men (10% of the regiment) in their 30s and a grand total of 39 soldiers (3% of the regiment) were either 40 or older.
While the regiment as a whole was a relatively young organization, some of the companies were even younger. In Company A, the Citizen Guard, 97 soldiers (an enormous 79% of its members) under the age of 25 in 1860. Likewise, Company H, the Randall Guards, was a youthful organization with 94 soldiers (78%) under the age of 25. Other companies were more evenly divided such as the 2nd Company K which had 28 members (26% of the company) 19 or younger, 55 soldiers (or just over half of the unit) in their 20s, and 17 soldiers (15%) in their 30s, and 9 (8%) either 40 years old or older.
While Wisconsin was a U.S. territory since 1783, American settlement did not begin to occur in large numbers until the 1830s. Finally, in 1848 Wisconsin officially became the 30th state in the Union. Achieving statehood only 13 years prior to the Civil War, it is not surprising that only 83 soldiers of the entire regiment (6%), were born in the Badger State. While a small number were genuine Badgers, 19% of the regiment were born in other parts of the Mid-West. The single largest place of birth for soldiers in the 2nd Wisconsin was New York State, where 374 soldiers (or 28% of the entire regiment) resided prior to moving out West. New England proved to be the birthplace for 12% of soldiers, while 6% were born the Mid-Atlantic. Surprisingly, 1% of soldiers were born in the Southern United States. While the 2nd Wisconsin was largely an “American” unit, nearly 1/3 of the men were born in a foreign country with the majority of the immigrants coming from a German speaking state. In some cases, individual companies could look completely different from the rest of the regiment, in regards to birth. For example, the 2nd Company K was a “German Company” with stunning 92% of its members born outside of the U.S.
Since most of the soldiers were young, it’s not surprising that most companies were made up of single soldiers. In most companies of the regiment, over 3/4 of its members were single. In Company F, the Belle City Rifles, about 92% of the entire company was single. Again, the 2nd Company K proved to be an exception to the rest of the regiment with only 41% of its members married. While not a large percentage, it proved to be the company with the highest marriage rate in the regiment.
With agriculture the backbone of the economy in 1860s Wisconsin, it’s not surprising that nearly 43% of soldiers serving with the 2nd Wisconsin were either farmers or farm laborers. However dominant farming was to the economy of 1860s Wisconsin, the state had a more diversified economy which is shown in work force which was represented in the soldiers of the 2nd. In the 1860 Census, 17% of the Badger soldiers were listed unskilled laborers, while 21% were listed as skilled workers. Surprisingly, 17% of the regiment were professionals (clerks, lawyers, newspaper editors) while the occupation status of 2% is still unknown.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, only 12 regiments lost more men killed or mortally wounded than the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry. With hundreds of regiments serving in the War, why did the 2nd prove to be such a deadly regiment to serve in? While the tactical situations that it was thrown in to at places such at Gettysburg and Antietam would decimate any unit that faced those same odds, perhaps the demographics of the regiment can help answer this question. With a membership that was overwhelmingly young and single, members of the regiment might have been more prone to engage in risky acts in combat that some of their older, married comrades would not take. Likewise with many of the members relatively new residents of the Badger State, perhaps their actions in battle were an attempt to prove their worth as citizens of a new state.