The Civil War in Wisconsin

The Civil War in Wisconsin

The "Wide Awakes" in particular were well drilled and served as political police in escorting party speakers and in preserving order at public meetings. Party emulation made every political rally the occasion for carefully arranged parades through banner-bedecked streets, torchlight processions, elaborate floats and transparencies, blaring bands, and fireworks. In 1860, the New York Herald estimated that there were over 400,000 drilled and uniformed Wide Awakes, nationwide.

The Wide Awakes adopted the image of a large eyeball as their standard banner. In a fashion which preceeded Hitler's youth party, typical Wide Awakes chapters adopted mission statements similar to this one from a Chicago Chapter:
  • 1st. To act as a political police.
  • 2nd. To do escort duty to all prominent Republican speakers who visit our place to address our citizens.
  • 3rd. To attend all public meetings in a body and see that order is kept and that the speaker and meeting is not disturbed.
  • 4th. To attend the polls and see that justice is done to every legal voter.
  • 5th. To conduct themselves in such a manner as to induce all Republicans to join them.
  • 6th. To be a body joined together in large numbers to work for the good of the Republican Ticket.
  • An August 25, 1860, rally involved around 7000 participants. A general melee broke out involving several hundred men. After the rally, the Wide Awakes returned through Payson, Illinois where they encountered a hundred Democrats. Shots were fired at the men, The Wide Awakes' flag was pierced by shots, and several men were injured.

    The Wide Awakes represented the South's greatest fear, an oppressive force bent on marching down to their lands, liberating the slaves and pushing aside their way of life. Their outfits and equipment only further incited this fear with beliefs that "they parade at midnight, carry rails to break open our doors, torches to fire our dwellings, and beneath their long black capes the knife to cut our throats". To the South, the Wide Awakes were only a taste of what was to come if Lincoln were to be elected. The North would not compromise, and would, if need be, force themselves upon the great South. "One -half million of men uniformed and drilled, and the purpose of their organization to sweep the country in which I live with fire and sword." This mindset was not appeased any by the wide acceptance of the Wide Awakes in the North. On October 25, 1858, Senator Seward of New York stated to an excited crowd, "a revolution has begun" and alluded to Wide Awakes as "forces with which to recover back again all the fieldsand to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the constitution and freedom forever." To the South, the Wide Awakes and, thus the North, would only be content when the South was fully dominated.

    In early 1861, the Wide Awakes chapter of St. Louis became involved in paramilitary operations at the outbreak of the Civil War. The Republican Wide Awakes, the Democratic "Douglas Invincibles", and other parade groups volunteered en masse for the Union army.

    Aided by Francis Preston Blair, Jr. and army Captain Nathaniel Lyon, the St. Louis Wide Awakes smuggled armaments into the city and trained secretly in a warehouse. The purpose was to prepare them for defense of the federal St. Louis Arsenal, which Confederate supporters wanted to seize. Lyon employed his political connections through Blair to obtain an appointment as commanding officer over the arsenal and, having received his promotion, promptly moved the St. Louis Wide Awakes into the arsenal under cover of night.

    Lyon's Wide Awakes, newly mustered into the Federal army, were used on May 10, 1861 to arrest a division of the Missouri State Militia near St. Louis in what would become known as the Camp Jackson Affair. As the captured militia men were marched toward the arsenal later that day a riot erupted in which scores of civilians were shot or killed.

    The state of Wisconsin raised 91,379 soldiers for the Union Army (The National Archives index lists 127,559 men). Most of the Wisconsin troops served in the Western Theater, although several regiments served in Eastern armies, including three regiments within the famed Iron Brigade. The Wisconsin troops were organized into 53 infantry regiments, 4 cavalry regiments, a company of Berdan's sharpshooters, 13 light artillery batteries and 1 unit of heavy artillery.

    Three thousand, seven hundred and nintey four men were killed in action or mortally wounded, 8,022 died of disease, and 400 were killed in accidents. The total mortality was 12,216 men, about 13.4 percent of total enlistments.