Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chris Wehner: Chronicler of the 11th Wisconsin Infantry


Several months ago, Chris Wehner contacted me and asked me to review his book, The 11th Wisconsin in the Civil War: A Regimental History that was published in 2008. Although this is not a book review site, I was intrigued by the history of the unit and accepted his offer of a copy of the book from McFarland and Company. Initially serving in Missouri, the regiment then campaigned in Arkansas and fought at the battle of Bayou Cache in July 1862. The 11th Wisconsin marched and fought in the Vicksburg campaign, and then were stationed near Fort Esperanza, Texas, after the surrender of Vicksburg. The unit’s last combat duty occurred at Fort Blakely, Alabama. Earlier in the year, I read Chris’ book and found it to be well organized, readable, and informative. My first book was a regimental history, and I’ve long had a soft spot for that genre with its focus on common soldiers and their organizations. Chris (pictured at right) readily agreed to participate in the following question and answer session. Enjoy!

Johansson: The 11th Wisconsin is not a well-known regiment. Why did you decide to write a history of that particular unit?

Wehner: My grandpa would take me on his lap and read to me. It was always history books; World War II, Korea, and then sometimes the Civil War. He would take out an old diary and read to me some of the passages. He always embellished the stories, of course, as the diary was very bland. I was a little boy and didn't know or care; I loved a good story. The diary was by William Henry Oettiker, a member of the 11th Wisconsin and an ancestor on my mother's side. For my Senior Paper as a history student in college I transcribed and edited the diary, then promptly put it away and forgot about it. Years later I pulled out the manuscript and decided to see if there was anything out there about the regiment. There wasn't anything, so I did some digging and found a treasure trove of primary documents hidden under dust in archives including letters and diaries from the soldiers of the regiment. It just evolved from there and before I knew it I was collecting a lot of research and that led to the natural process of putting it into a narrative.


Johansson: Did any other regimental history (or histories) provide a model for your study of the 11th Wisconsin? If so, how did they help you craft the unit history?

Wehner: I read a lot and certainly was influenced by other historians and in particular regimental historians of the time period. A big influence was my ancestor Col. Charles H. Weygant who wrote an important history of his famed unit, History of the One Hundred Twenty-Fourth Regiment, New York State Volunteers. That book I read many times as a teenager. I like to tell stories of the average foot soldier and so I was always drawn to historical narratives that focused on those small aspects of life. John D. Billings’ Hard Tack and Coffee was of course a big influence for me. A.F. Sperry's History of the 33d Iowa Infantry Volunteer Regiment edited by Gregory J. W. Urwin and Cathy Kunzinger Urwin to me is one of the best regimental histories. William J. K. Beaudot's The 24th Wisconsin Infantry in the Civil War was something I was reading while writing my book -- and many others. I have a mini library in my home as I am sure most historians do. I was greatly influenced by social historiography and studies such as Bell Irvin Wiley's The Life of Billy Yank, Reid Mitchell's The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home, and James I. Robertson's Soldiers Blue and Gray. But really James M. McPherson's short study For Cause & Comrades: Why Men fought in the Civil War, was really influential. I wanted to avoid just writing about a regiment in the Civil War, yawn. I wanted to write a study about them as men and soldiers.

Johansson: Every regiment had some interesting or even unique characteristics. How would you characterize the 11th?

Wehner: These were primarily farmers from south central Wisconsin. There was a segment from Madison. Most soldiers were obviously from farms during the Civil War; it was a nation or farmers. But the 11th Wisconsin was decidedly made up of farmers (72%) and that dominated the themes of their letters and their thoughts. When they described a new place in the South, they did so first by judging the quality of the farms (and farmland) and then its people to that of Wisconsin. They were patriotic and competent soldiers, but they had a sense of humor and there were a few who stand out.

Johansson: The 11th Wisconsin saw battle action in a wide geographical area. Did they have any unusual or unique combat experiences?

Wehner: They saw some hard fighting during Grant's Vicksburg Campaign where they endured their greatest percentage of casualties during the war. But what probably stands out the most for both its uniqueness and absurdity was their late afternoon assault on April 9th, 1865 at Fort Blakely, Alabama. It was the last significant land assault of the war (I believe). Obviously it took place on the same day Lee surrendered. It was also I think a needless assault. The general in charge (Canby) was trying to save face for some embarrassing outcomes before and during this campaign. Grant was going to fire him for how slowly he organized and moved the months prior to the campaign, and then he allowed Spanish Fort to be evacuated by the Confederates from under his nose. It was obvious the Confederates were on the retreat, were outnumbered, and were going to surrender... eventually. The assault cost quite a few lives and was needless. Also, the attack involved the largest single gathering (Hawkins U.S.C.T. 1st Div) of African American soldiers seen during the war in an assault. Some 5,000 black soldiers led the charge, really, and did the hardest fighting that day. After the fight there was (and is) some controversy concerning the surrendering of Confederate soldiers and some atrocities that probably took place. I will say to a man, all the letters I read from the white Union soldiers praised their black counterparts on their performance at Blakely.

Johansson: You used a rather large number of primary accounts written by members of the 11th Wisconsin. What were your most useful sources?

Wehner: The letters and diaries of the soldiers was always the focus of my narrative. Newspapers were also huge and none more so than E.B. Quiner's incredible collection. He faithfully collected, cut, gathered and organized every newspaper article pertaining to each Wisconsin regiment and kept them in massive journals. Simply the most incredible document I ever stumbled on. It's all online now and is a great resource. The newspaper clippings also include soldier's correspondences and letters (my main focus and reason for using them) that were reproduced by newspapers. It's a treasure trove of primary documents. The Wisconsin Historical Society's archive has a very nice digital archive that wasn't all online when I started, but it was getting there. I had to take several trips from my home in Colorado to Madison, Wisconsin, and visit the archive.

One cool experience I had. I was given the Daily Returns for the 11th Wisconsin. These are fairly big ledgers I guess is the best way to explain them. Anyway, every day the officer of the day or whoever, would document numerous things: those present for duty, where the regiment was camped, how long, where they had traveled, how far, etc. Well, when I opened it for the first time I could smell the camp fire. Here was this piece of history that hadn't been touched in over 130 years, and I was experiencing the morning campfire. It's one of those experiences as a historian I will never forget. To me, you're not a historian unless you are working with these primary documents and holding them in your hands and experiencing them, not just reading them.

Johansson: While reading primary accounts, sometimes a historian becomes particularly intrigued by an individual. Were there soldiers in the 11th Wisconsin that you wished you had known personally?

Wehner: All of them. In the final chapter I chronicle a little of what happened to the soldiers after the war, and to write it was very difficult. I'm not too proud to admit I shed a couple tears as I finished. It was the end of a journey where I got to know these men and experienced their journey as much as a historian can. The main character of the regiment for me was Samuel Kirkpatrick. His letters that survived (over 100) were the main influence for why I wrote the book. They contained pages of not just the weather and where the regiment was like you find in so many diaries. He was recording for his brothers and sisters back home his journey and he faithfully -- and in great detail -- described everything from the farms and houses, to the food and people he encountered. He was taking them on the journey as well; when you read the letters you can visualize the terrain and the environment. He wanted his family back home to experience it as well.

Johansson: What advice do you have for readers that would like to write a Civil War unit history?

Wehner: Be passionate about the men and women (I found a neat narrative between two brothers and their sister) and their experiences as much as the military campaigns and their role as a fighting force. I did not ignore that and faithfully described their involvements. The war parts are fun and easy to write. Get to know the men (the characters of the story) and tell their narrative concurrently with the actions of the whole regiment is what makes a really powerful regimental study in my opinion.

I have a site dedicated to the regiment:

Along with my online digital archive:

Friday, April 18, 2014

150 Years Ago: The Engagement at Poison Spring


Today is the sesquicentennial of the engagement at Poison Spring that was a disaster for the 1,170 man Union force. A startling 17.4% (204) of the force was killed in action at the battle with more than half being members of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. By contrast, total reported Confederate casualties were 115.

By mid-April 1864, Major General Frederick Steele’s men were desperate for food “having been on half-rations for three weeks” according to Gregory J. W. Urwin (p. 109). A forage train, accompanied by an escort, was sent west of Camden, Arkansas, to collect supplies. Near Poison Spring, a Confederate force numbering 3,621 men attacked the wagon train and the escort. Comprised of Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Choctaw soldiers, the Confederates launched three assaults before their superior numbers broke the Union line. The 29th Texas Cavalry particularly targeted the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. These two regiments had gone toe to toe at the battle of Honey Springs in July 1863 with the 1st Kansas Colored inflicting significant casualties on the Texans there. According to Gregory Urwin, though, “The Choctaw brigade, which had shown little stomach for combat that day, outdid all other Confederate units in the post-battle butchery” at Poison Spring (p. 125). A number of atrocities occurred after the battle with the 1st Kansas Colored losing 117 killed; this ranks as one of the highest losses by a Union infantry regiment during the war. Additionally, 65 soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored were wounded during (and after) the battle. Also hard hit was the 18th Iowa Infantry with 59 killed and 21 wounded men.

Quotes are from “Poison Spring and Jenkins’ Ferry: Racial Atrocities during the Camden Expedition” in “’All Cut to Pieces and Gone to Hell’: The Civil War, Race Relations, and the Battle of Poison Spring edited by Mark K. Christ.

Next posting: an author interview with historian Chris Wehner!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Stand of the 32nd Iowa Infantry


Today is the anniversary of the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, but it is also the 150th anniversary of the battle of Pleasant Hill. Fought just a few miles away from the Mansfield battlefield, Pleasant Hill was one of the largest, possibly even the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi during the Civil War. Like Mansfield, accounts of Pleasant Hill usually take a Confederate perspective, but there are some compelling stories on the Union side such as the story of the stubborn stand of the 32nd Iowa Infantry.

Organized in the fall of 1862, the 32nd Iowa had campaigned actively in Missouri and Arkansas before the Red River campaign, but had seen no heavy combat. On April 7, 1864, the men of the 32nd Iowa marched steadily from Grand Ecore, Louisiana, until they “encountered the headquarters train of Major-General Banks, entirely blocking the way and hindering our progress.” Colonel John Scott went on to wryly report “The wagons were overloaded, and were said to contain articles ranging in weight from paper collars to iron bedsteads.” The next day the regiment reached Pleasant Hill where the soldiers heard “the wildest stories of disaster and loss” about the battle at Mansfield. Colonel Scott perceptively observed, “These were the moral surroundings as my command was moved to the extreme front…” Attacked by elements of Walker’s Texas division, the regiment found itself isolated during the battle and facing in three directions. Eventually the regiment “was completely enveloped, without orders, and virtually in the hands of the enemy, had he dared to close in and overwhelm us with his masses now around us. This was my position until after sunset, by which time the enemy had left my front…” Regimental losses were reported as 35 killed, 115 wounded, and 60 missing, but many wounded were abandoned the next morning when the Union army retreated. Colonel Scott confessed, “I fear the number of fatal casualties will exceed the number stated, and that of those marked ‘missing’ many are killed and wounded.” He turned out to be correct for the regiment suffered 86 men killed at the battle which ranks as one of the highest losses for any Union infantry regiment during the war. If you would like to learn more about the 32nd Iowa check out Colonel John Scott’s Story Of The Thirty-Second Iowa Infantry Volunteers (1896) that is available on the Internet Archive.

Note: Quotes are from the Official Records, vol. 34, pt. 1, pages 365-367.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"by far the most desperate [engagement] I ever witnessed"


Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Mansfield that is also known as Sabine Cross-Roads. This contest marked the first of a series of battles fought during the Red River campaign that resulted in Confederate troops forcing their Union opponents to retreat.

An earlier posting highlighted some of the better books about the campaign, but an interesting feature of works about the campaign is that they are often written from a Confederate perspective. In that regard, the historiography of the campaign reminds me of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. I have contributed in a small way to this emphasis thanks to my history of the 28th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) that served in Walker’s Texas division during the Red River campaign. Mouton’s Louisiana soldiers, Polignac’s Texans, and Walker’s Texans have received most of the attention, but what about their Union opposition?

The Fourth Division of the 13th Army Corps bore the brunt of the Confederate assault at Mansfield and suffered most of the casualties. The Fourth Division regiments were not “green.” All of the units had seen service during the Vicksburg campaign, and the 48th Ohio first experienced combat at Shiloh. William J. Landram, the division commander, wrote the words that make up the title of this blog posting; he was a Mexican War veteran and, like his men, saw duty during the Vicksburg campaign. His division totaled 2,413 infantry at the start of the battle and had an effective strength of 1,474 the next day. Here are the losses of his regiments:

Col. Frank Emerson’s 1st Brigade:
77th Illinois: 6 killed, 29 wounded, 136 captured or missing: 171
67th Indiana: 4 killed, 20 wounded, 18 captured or missing: 42
19th Kentucky: 2 killed, 18 wounded, 231 captured or missing: 251
23rd Wisconsin: 7 killed, 16 wounded, 41 captured or missing: 64

Col. Joseph Vance’s 2nd Brigade:
130th Illinois: 2 killed, 23 wounded, 232 captured or missing: 257
48th Ohio: 5 wounded, 174 captured or missing: 179
83rd Ohio: 1 killed, 8 wounded, 22 captured or missing: 31
96th Ohio: 4 killed, 23 wounded, 30 captured or missing: 57

On April 12th, special field returns showed the severe impact of the battle on several of these regiments. The 19th Kentucky had 142 present for duty; the 48th Ohio totaled 98 present for duty; the 130th Illinois numbered only 68 men. Often I read of “shattered” regiments. The battle of Mansfield truly wrecked several regiments on each side.

NOTE: The Landram quote and the statistics are all from the Official Records, vol. 34, pt. 1, pages 259, 264, 266, 292, 295.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Old Marshall Cemetery


Earlier this week I returned from a Spring Break trip to Louisiana. On the way there, I stopped off at the Old Marshall (Texas) Cemetery to visit the final resting place of Horace Randal. In the spring of 1862, Randal raised and then commanded the 28th Texas Cavalry, a regiment raised in East Texas. Although the soldiers initially complained about their young commander and the discipline that he imposed, they eventually came to respect him. Randal was an 1854 graduate of the United States Military Academy and served for a few months in the Army of Northern Virginia before returning to Texas. In the fall of 1862, Randal started commanding a brigade in a division that became known as Walker’s Texas Division. Randal and his soldiers saw limited combat before the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864. In April 1864, though, his brigade fought at Mansfield, Pleasant Hill, and Jenkins’ Ferry. The thirty-one year old soldier fell mortally wounded at Jenkins’ Ferry, and he was buried at Tulip, Arkansas. Later, his body was exhumed and buried in Marshall, Texas. The photographs show both the old grave marker and a modern one. For more information about the 28th Texas Cavalry see my book, Peculiar Honor: A History of the 28th Texas Cavalry, 1862-1865