News of the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 was announced from the pulpits of small-town churches and elsewhere on a peaceful Sunday morning in Wisconsin. “The effect…can hardly be told upon those who had persistently insisted…that no American would ever open fire upon an American flag,” one man remembered. A hired hand working on a farm in Juneau County said the mood of the citizenry changed almost at once: “War, war, war, was the theme of every fireside and gathering. The people felt that the secessionists had forfeited all their rights under the constitution by treasonably making war against our government.”
The hot words and excitement of morning gave way by afternoon to what one man called “a palsied numbness.” Sunday schools were “not well attended by the older boys that day,” he said. “They were out on the corners listening, thinking, and talking…. There was very little loud expression, and no boasting or cheers. The saloons were not patronized by even those who habitually frequented such resorts. There was a most ominous quietness among those who gathered on the streets… This semi-silence was more expressive than can be described.”
Wisconsin joined the Union just a dozen years before and the new state on the far-off frontier was allotted only one regiment of infantry in President Abraham Lincoln’s first call for volunteers. The 90-day 1st Wisconsin Regiment of Active Militia was quickly raised for the various militia companies, outfitted in militia grey uniforms, and sent to the war front in Washington.
Gov. Alexander Randall, however, was quick to realize more regiments would be needed and immediately ordered a second and a third regiment to be organized. Only few in the population were born to the state, but he had sons of New England and Pennsylvania and Ohio and New York—even Virginia and Tennessee and Kentucky—at hand to fill the ranks of state companies. There were as well young, tough fellows from Germany, Ireland, Norway, and other places across the ocean. In some of the backwoods companies being recruited could be found one or two free blacks and runaways and representatives of the Ojibwa, Oneida, Potawatomi, and other tribes—all to carry a musket with the rest.
War meetings stirred by drumbeats and screeching fifes were held in cities and backwoods towns and rural crossroads to form military organizations to put down the rebellion. Hampered by distance and a scattered population, patriotic and ambitious men seeking to gather the 77 enlistees needed to form a volunteer “company” moved into nearby communities to seek new recruits while bands played “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia.” Hundreds of young men immediately stepped forward. “Parents tried to keep the youths back,” one volunteer said, “but the enthusiasm in young America was too great, and they went forward with a determination paternal demonstration and threats could not prevent.”
In Madison, Governor Randall expressed impatience with the Lincoln Administration for not moving quickly enough. He saw a longer conflict and told a joint session of the Wisconsin Legislature: “This war began where Charleston is, and it should end where Charleston was. These gathering armies are the instruments of His vengeance, to execute his judgments; they are His flails wherewith on God’s great Southern threshing floor, He will pound rebellion for its sins.”
A fourth Wisconsin regiment was organized and then a fifth, and finally a call for companies for a sixth regiment. A few of those who stepped forward were bored or wanted to be considered brave or sought advancement; some saw the coming war as a fight against the evil of slavery; others felt they were called to protect the protect the sacred Union created by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. It was one thing for the president to proclaim an insurrection and call out the state militias, however, and quite another to have the 75-thousand soldiers in hand.
The militia system in Wisconsin was typical of most Northern states on the eve of the Civil War. It was supported with an annual allotment of arms, equipment and stores provided by an 1808 Act of Congress. Under the Wisconsin Militia Act of 1858, “able bodied while male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years” were subject to military duty in time of war or insurrection. Active units at the time were organized into companies of 40 members. Exempted from state service were “ministers and preachers of the Gospel, licensed physicians and surgeons,” firemen and members of hook and ladder companies, various officers of the court and legislature, and “officers and attendants of the state lunatic asylum, public hospitals, and the state and county prisons.”
Four days after Lincoln’s call, the governor urged ladies of the state to provide “blankets and quilts made for the use and benefit of the soldiers, until purchases can be made.” There was a great need, he added, “clothing, shoes, knapsacks, rubber spreads, haversacks, drawers, cap covers, woolen shirts and socks” One bill for $18.74 was presented for an ice cream social which the governor had provided for a group of Madison ladies who made 1,500 shirts.
The ten companies of the First Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry were ordered to rendezvous at Camp Scott in Milwaukee. By May 1860, the Wisconsin 1st–sworn in for 90-days of service—was organized and outfitted and then sent by rail to Washington. Five would-be volunteers were turned aside for physical reasons, including one gallant patriot who admitted he was 60 and still wanted to go.
As new companies arrived at Madison, the womenfolk—grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, and sweethearts—baked pies and packed packages of food and prepared socks and other items that might be needed by a soldier. One volunteer wrote to a Madison newspaper: “The Ladies everywhere—God Bless them!”
The mustering place at Madison was a wonder. About a mile and one-half from the city itself and surrounded by a plank board fence, the land was under the operation of the Wisconsin Agricultural Society until the 30-some acres was offered and accepted as a training camp. It was renamed “Camp Randall” in honor of the governor. An army of workers—hampered by a wet and rainy spring—set to cleaning the grounds, leveling a parade ground, as well as cleaning, laying flooring and installing windows and wooden beds in the animal sheds along the southern and eastern walls of the enclosure. A large shed was remodeled to provide a mess hall and a nearby building turned into a kitchen where workmen and incoming soldiers were fed at a cost of 37-cents per day per man.
When the first group of volunteers arrived in early May, they found the buildings still leaked when it was rained and were drafty when the weather was cold. “Swimming out of the bunks, we care very little if it rains or not for we are used to it,” one new soldier said. To add to the misery of trying to sleep in the old barns, several of the new inhabitants took to cackling and honking and quacking after dark to mimic the animals once housed there. In the finally tally, however, Camp Randall would become the great mustering place for most Wisconsin’s regiments during 1861-1865
One recruit from a neighboring Minnesota found many of the men in his Fox Lake, Wisconsin, Company “rough vulgar blackguards” and denounced Madison as “miserably dull” with “no life, no gayety & scarcely amusement” and “scarcely a pretty woman here…” The plank board fence of Camp Randall was found to have several loose boards that allowed the new volunteers to run the guard (who was only armed with a shout, one said) and walk the mile into town.
The most notorious transgression came when a party of drunken soldiers attempted to get into Voigt’s Brewery long after the closing hour. When the owner refused to open his saloon, a local newspaper reported, a window was broken, and several bottles of liquor taken. “Mr. Voigt, from a window above [in the second-floor apartment where he and his family lived], fired a shot-gun over their heads with a view of driving them off, not intending to injury any one. Upon this they fired upon the house with revolvers and threw stones into the windows breaking glass, sash, and blinds. Mr. Voigt fired several times over their heads with a revolver and finally discharged his shot gun aiming at their legs as nearly as he could upon which they decamped.” It was subsequently reported that a soldier was found asleep near the brewery the next day, dead drunk.
The raising of companies for what would become the 6th Wisconsin required more effort, given remote locations. At Prescott on the Mississippi River a new organization called itself the “Prescott Guards” and south along the river a former soldier who left a troubled marriage in Switzerland raised the “Buffalo County Rifles” of which 70 of the company were German. In one early drill, in frustration, he shouted at his new company: “Vell, now you looks shust like one damn herd of goose.” Farther down the great river, another company became the “Prairie du Chien Volunteers” and quickly earned a reputation for chicken thievery. One company of Germans and another company of Irish were raised in Milwaukee. At Fond du Lac, a young lawyer left a courtroom, then closed his office to enlist.
It was the” Anderson Guards,” named for Robert Anderson, the Union commander of Fort Sumter, that brought in one of the regiment’s most remembered volunteers. Recruiters for the Guards left Hillsboro in Bad Ax County “full officered and partly recruited, halted for a night at Ontario, adding 29 more the muster roll and electing two new corporals. Another 25 were added at nearby Viroqua and two more sergeants were selected. All the while a “band of four pieces” tooted “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia” over and again, make “with the small flag in the lead wagon” one of the “most inspiring, enthusiastic, liberty loving processions ever witnessed in the county.”
One of the men who heard the band music would become a regimental legend. The lad walked out a field as the Guards neared the Mississippi River and asked to sign the roll. One of the officers questioned his age. “Twenty years,” the boy answered. “Pete Markle, Coon Slough.” The officer game him along look, and wrote on the roll “Pete Markle, Coon, age 17.”
He became famous as “Markle, the Straggler,” and one of his company commanders left a description: “Pete was careless of his clothes and of his personal appearance. His pants were baggy and slouchy; his coat too large and ill fitting; usually a sleeve partly torn out and seams rent, a button missing in one place and a buttonhole torn out in another. In his tailoring he would sew the seams overlapped, with white thread, and his buttons carefully sewed on upside down. His shoes were seldom blackened, even for a review.”
What Markle did possess was an independent spirit, unerring sense of direction, and an uncanny ability to sniff out food along a march. His comrades always left safe when he was on a sentry post. But on the march, Markle would “quietly and mysteriously, unbidden and unknown; even in disobedience of orders,” slip from ranks to “straggle” among nearby farms. He would always return with something “on his bayonet,” a friend said, and was quick to share with his messmates. One remembered that Markle “had the instinct of a hunter, keen as a hound, and could trial the regiment as a dog trails his master.” But the boy would just as mysteriously and unbidden appear to take his place in ranks when the shooting started.”
In 1864, Markle reenlisted for three more years. His renown as a straggler had spread now through his brigade, his wanderings overlooked by officers who knew he would take his place in the ranks when lead started flying. But for all his courage and resourcefulness, Markle ironically was sensitive to the harsh army trousers. He often chafed badly, and sores developed on his legs.
In the horror of the Wilderness in May 1864, Pete Markle fought well, but did not answered the evening roll. Initially unconcerned, his company commander, Earl Rogers, became gripped by foreboding when Markle failed to appear the next day. He began a nightmarish search for the missing youth among the tents and buildings used as field hospitals. Amid the screams, groans and reek of putrefaction, Rogers moved along row after row of stretches and pallets, calling out “Pete Markle of Coon Slough?” No answer. Finally, after several stops, there was a weak response, barely a whisper, “Aye, aye, sir.”
He found the boy on a cot. Chafing had opened a sore on Markle’s leg, infection developed, and the surgeons had amputated the leg at the hip. Roger shook the boy’s hand “and saw death stamped on his pallid features.” Markle died soon thereafter.
Rogers said later that he wished he could have stood by Markle’s grave with uncovered head, and said, “Long live the memory of Pete Markle, of Coon Slough, a boy hero, an unpolished, straggling diamond, whom we hope is in that happy land where troubles cease.”
In the final tally, Wisconsin would provide more than 91-thousand soldiers to the Union cause. About 11,000 would die while in uniform, most from the illnesses. Slightly under 4,000 died from combat wounds. Camp Randall and Madison provided the staging point for most of them as they entered service, and it is fitting that the name Camp Randall is still prominent today—a name that rings down through the decades and reminds how the young state answered the call to preserve the Union.
Lance Herdegen is the author of several works on the Iron Brigade, including The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter (Savas Beatie, 2012).