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:

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