Wisconsin’s Civil War Draft

The 7th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, A Memory of Muskets, features the challenges faced by newly-arrived immigrants during the Civil War. Two plotlines show how German-born immigrants struggled in the 1860s and how a living history site like Old World Wisconsin can interpret those struggles a century and more later.

Larry H. at the Four Mile Inn, Old World Wisconsin, during a reenactment of the draft, sometime in the 1980s. Note the lottery wheel on the table.

One challenge that divided Wisconsin’s German-American community was the announcement of a draft in 1862. Many men of German birth or descent had already enlisted. Other German immigrants were vehemently opposed to compulsory military service—especially those who had left Europe to avoid just that.

This print shows a draft taking place in New York City. (Library of Congress)

Wisconsin was told to supply over 47,000 additional men to the Union Army. Governor Salomon, hoping to avoid conscription, protested that Wisconsin had already furnished five more regiments than previously required. He also predicted that if the draft could be postponed until after the autumn harvest, voluntary enlistments would rise (which proved true.) But in August, 1862, Salomon was ordered to begin the draft in counties where quotas had not been met.

A draft officer with a different style of lottery box. (Library of Congress)

Resistance to the draft was strongest in several counties along the Lake Michigan shore, where many German and Irish Catholics lived. Protests erupted in Sheboygan and West Bend. In Port Washington, a riot turned violent.

These ballots on display at the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum were used in Janesville, WI. Each eligible man wrote his name on a disc. Note the tool used to cut them.

The Wisconsin draft was largely unsuccessful. More than a third of the men drafted simply failed to report. Others purchased substitutes.

This draft drum was also used in Janesville.  (Wisconsin Veterans Museum)

And not all the opposition came from eastern Wisconsin. Sheila R., a Chloe reader who is an archivist at the Walnut Creek Historical Society (Walnut Creek, CA), kindly shared several letters she’s transcribed. They were written by David Seely of Elk Grove, Lafayette County, in the southwestern part of the state, to his children in California:

“Oh Ben and Emily what a Sad war this is. …There was a draft here last week of 160 men out of this county, 5 from this grove. There is a good deal of fus (sic) and I understand there is a Company of soldiers at Darlington to force the drafted men into the service as they are not willing go. A good many have run away. Some to Canada and the balance not heard from…” (Dec. 18, 1862)

“They have not been able to force the drafted men from this State into the ranks, we will be in a war here before long if things don’t Change for the better—if the north can’t whip the south the war ought to Cease and North and South compromise on some sort of terms…” (February 7, 1863)

“The people don’t pay any attention to the Draft—I don’t think 500 soldiers could take one drafted man out of this county— the people here are determined to stand up to their Rights and Resist Tyranny.” (February 15, 1863)

“All drafted men are getting their $300.00 to buy out from the service, and those that Cant Raise it will have to go poor Devils.” (November 23, 1863)

Clearly, this was an important issue during the war.

Reenactments can be a fun way to learn about not only battles and military tactics…

Old World Wisconsin.

…but social issues and homefront activities—like the draft—as well.

Mary K. and Bev B. showing the type of relief activities undertaken by civilians, Sanford House, Old World Wisconsin.

I hope A Memory of Muskets:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery can do the same thing.

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2 Responses to “Wisconsin’s Civil War Draft”

  1. Simply Megan Joy Says:

    This was so interesting to read! I never really thought about the war drafts in Wisconsin before. I’m glad I know a little bit more about it now!
    – Megan Joy

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