An Interview with A History of the 4th Wisconsin Author Michael J. Martin
Michael J. Martin's A History of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and Cavalry in the Civil War is a deeply researched and vividly written study of an unheralded Federal combat regiment. Few of the thousands of regiments raised to fight the American Civil War experienced the remarkably diverse experiences of this little-known organization. Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie, LLC recently discussed the 4th Wisconsin's career with Michael.
: How did you become interested in the 4th Wisconsin?
MJM: I grew up in Wisconsin and have always been interested in the state's history, especially that which pertains to the Civil War. In 1998, I acquired a 5th Model Burnside carbine once owned by William S. Jackson, a trooper in the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry. In my effort to learn about Jackson and his regiment, I quickly discovered it had not received anything like the coverage of other Wisconsin regiments like the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin-which served in the Iron Brigade-and the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, whose mascot was the bald eagle known as "Old Abe."
: And so you started to research the regiment...
MJM: Yes. When I learned that the 4th was the only regiment from Wisconsin to serve as both infantry and cavalry and it was the last of the state's units to muster out of Federal service in the summer of 1866, it was clear to me that the 4th Wisconsin's story needed to be told.
: Civil War enthusiasts are quite familiar with regiments such as 1st Texas and the 20th Maine. However, a reference to the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and Cavalry will leave many people scratching their heads. Why do you think that the 4th Wisconsin has been overlooked until now?
MJM: Well, first let me say that the regiment hasn't been totally forgotten. A great, great grandson of the 4th Wisconsin's George Hughes has put together a superb website that is devoted to all the Badgers who served in the 4th. The shortage of published literature on the 4th Wisconsin is primarily because the regiment's theater of service was the Trans-Mississippi. In stark contrast to the Eastern Theater, the war in the Trans-Mississippi, especially the Baton Rouge, Clinton, Amite, and Comite River region, has to date received very little press or notoriety of any kind.
: How did the Wisconsin newspapers cover the regiment?
MJM: The Milwaukee Sentinel and other local papers covered the experiences of the 4th, but sometimes not as much as other Wisconsin regiments. For example, the 4th Wisconsin was at Port Hudson when it fell on July 9, 1863, only a few days after Gettysburg. While the Milwaukee Sentinel covered Port Hudson, the depth and breadth of those articles pales in comparison to coverage of Gettysburg and its participants, such as Wisconsin's Iron Brigade regiments. Fortunately, several members of the 4th Wisconsin were prolific letter writers for their hometown papers. Though somewhat difficult to locate, this correspondence coupled with the Badgers' diaries made writing this history an extremely interesting and rewarding experience.
: Did the men in the regiment come from similar backgrounds?
MJM: No, not at all. The 4th Wisconsin Infantry was comprised of volunteers from the central and southeastern part of the state. They included individuals with a variety of backgrounds and experiences-everything from lumberjacks, sail-makers, and businessmen, to dairy farmers, lawyers, teachers, and a chaplain. This regiment was a conglomerate of Western pioneers and professionals, which the Milwaukee Sentinel proudly deemed "the most hardy in the Union." After the war, many of the men had respectable careers in a wide variety of fields.
: Let's discuss the regiment's service during the war. The 4th Wisconsin spent most of its time in Louisiana, correct?
MJM: Yes, although their military career was quite diverse. After less than a year guarding railroads in Maryland, the regiment sailed to Ship Island, Mississippi, as part of General Benjamin Butler's expedition to New Orleans. The Badgers were among the first Federal soldiers to enter the Crescent City, but their stay was short. The regiment steamed upriver and joined the garrison at Louisiana's capital at Baton Rouge. Among other battles, they participated in the fighting at Baton Rouge and Clinton, and took part in General Nathanial Banks' Teche Campaign.
: The 4th Wisconsin also played a large role in the assaults on Port Hudson...
MJM: Yes, it did. During the siege of Port Hudson the men made two costly assaults on the Confederate bastion. Nearly two out of three men in the regiment were killed, wounded, or captured in the June assault-the highest proportion of men lost by any regiment in the entire 19th Corps. During this attack, several 4th Wisconsin soldiers entered the heavily defended Priest Cap but were overwhelmed by Confederates in the 49th Alabama and 1st Mississippi Infantry. The fine overall performance of the Badgers throughout the siege of Port Hudson prompted General Banks' assistant adjutant general, Richard Irwin, to praise the 4th Wisconsin as a "shining monument to the virtue of steady, conscientious work and strict discipline applied to good material."
: At what point did the regiment make its transition from infantry to cavalry?
MJM: The Badgers fought in the April 1862 battle of Bisland and as Banks' army neared Alexandria, the 4th Wisconsin was authorized to acquire horses. The Union desperately needed these mounted troopers. As you can imagine, the men welcomed the change from marching on foot to riding on horseback. Their letters home and diary entries convey their excitement. It wasn't until September of 1863 that the 4th Wisconsin officially became a cavalry regiment.
: Did their role as a regiment change under their new title?
MJM: Following the 4th Wisconsin's re-designation as cavalry, the regiment was assigned the lonely and arduous task of patrolling and picketing the main roads leading into and out of Baton Rouge. Their primary foe was Confederate cavalry and guerrillas. Instead of standup fights with infantry, which the men had become accustomed to waging, small patrols of Wisconsin cavalrymen were frequently subjected to ambushes from an often unseen or hit-and-run enemy. In a few instances the enemy was accoutered in Federal uniforms.
: The Wisconsin men also participated in some raiding...
MJM: Yes. In addition to guarding Baton Rouge, the Badgers participated in several cavalry raids, the most notable being Major General Davidson's 300-mile thrust to West Pascagoula, Mississippi.
: In addition to fighting the enemy, they were also faced with other obstacles such as the Louisiana heat and disease...
MJM: Yes, at least 261 4th Wisconsin soldiers died from disease, which is not surprising given the fact that most of the men hailed from rural communities in a state where overwhelming heat, humidity, and diseases such as malaria and Yellow Fever were the exception rather than the norm.
: In their letters home, many of the men describe the difficult conditions they lived with. Does any one of these letters stick out in your mind?
MJM: I think a letter Company C's Lieutenant Gustavus Wintermeyer wrote in June 1862 best exemplifies the effect of disease and Louisiana's bayou environment on the regiment. He describes the sickness the men experienced while floating on a Mississippi boat. Thirteen companies were crammed onto a boat which should have only held five at a time. These companies had nothing but contaminated water to drink and dried meat to eat. It was horrendous. According to Wintermeyer, those men who weren't sick when they boarded were ill by the time they landed.
: I enjoyed reading the lengthy section detailing the 4th Wisconsin Badgers who volunteered to serve as "Earl's Scouts." Can you describe for our readers how the scouts formed and what they accomplished?
MJM: Of course. After escaping from captivity at Port Hudson and also a Confederate prison in Georgia, Lieutenant Isaac N. Earl formed and led a contingent of mounted men, most of whom were members of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry, known as "Earl's Scouts" or "Canby's Scouts." In the fall of 1864 and early 1865, these Badgers worked directly for Major General Canby, infiltrating and scouting behind enemy lines. Perhaps their greatest exploit was the capture of a Rebel wagon train containing all the standards and guidons captured from General Nathanial Banks' command during his disastrous Red River Expedition. Earl personally returned these articles to a grateful Canby in November 1864.
: Unlike most Civil War regiments, the 4th Wisconsin's term of service did not end with the war...
MJM: No. To the disappointment of many of the men, especially those who had served the longest, after the war the 4th Wisconsin became part of Major General Wesley Merritt's command in western Texas. The Army broke the regiment up by company and posted at various forts and villages along the Rio Grande River. The Badgers patrolled the river and occasionally skirmished with Indians and Emperor Maximilian's contra guerrillas. The Badgers finally mustered out of Federal service on May 28, 1866.
: It is clear from all the personal accounts-the diaries, letters, and reminiscences-that you relied heavily on primary sources. Were these previously untapped?
MJM: Most of them have never been published. The Wisconsin Historical Society was extremely helpful. This fine institution houses many primary accounts of Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Civil War, and also some compilations put together by soldiers after the war, including a ten-volume microfilm collection by E. B. Quiner titled "Correspondence of Wisconsin Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865." I also spent a good deal of time at the Milwaukee Public Library searching reel after reel of microfilm for letters written by 4th Wisconsin soldiers that appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel.
: I've also heard the Wisconsin Veterans Museum has some great information on the Civil War.
MJM: Yes, in addition to some excellent written material, the museum is home to the original standards and guidons from all the state's regiments that fought in the Civil War, including two national, one state, and one cavalry standard from the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and Cavalry. The museum kindly provided the images of the regiment's flags that are included in the book. While I was researching the regiment, the museum's curator, Bill Brewster, also allowed me into their climate controlled room to personally view the flags that the 4th Wisconsin carried throughout their service in the Civil War. It was an amazing experience.
: I can imagine. Did you also travel to Louisiana, where the regiment spent the majority of their service?
MJM: Yes, during my stay in Baton Rouge, author William Spedale kindly took me on a tour of where the battle of Baton Rouge took place. Spedale, whose books include The Battle of Baton Rouge and Where Bugles Called and Rifles Gleamed, Port Hudson Yesterday-Today, has probably forgotten more about the history of the Civil War in Baton Rouge than most people ever learned! I also enjoyed a visit to the Port Hudson State Historical Site in Zachary, Louisiana, where Ranger Mike Fraering took me on a tour that focused on where the 4th Wisconsin was posted, camped, and fought. I also spent time driving the Port Hudson-Clinton Road and exploring the Clinton area, where I covered the battlefield upon which Colonel Grierson and the 4th Wisconsin fought in the spring of 1863. To spend time traipsing the battlefields and roads where the 4th Wisconsin traveled made writing a history of the regiment even more meaningful.
: What do you hope readers will come away with after reading about this infantry and cavalry regiment?
MJM: I wrote this regimental history to help bring deserved exposure to an otherwise unheralded and relatively unknown group of Wisconsin soldiers. Being the last of the state's regiments to return following the Civil War, these Badgers received few, if any, accolades upon their arrival in Madison in June 1866. I hope this account of their faithful service and contribution both during and after the Civil War will give these Wisconsin volunteers the respect and admiration they earned long ago.
: I believe it will, Michael. Thank you for your time.
MJM: You're welcome. Thanks for your questions.
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