The History of the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry
The Hard-Fighting 3rd Wisconsin Lost Nearly 60% of its Members in Two Hours at Antietam
The guns had scarcely ceased to echo across Charleston Harbor when President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 Union volunteers. On April 15, 1861, one day after the fall of Fort Sumter, Wisconsin Governor Alexander W. Randall received a telegram from the U.S. War Department informing him that his state was to provide one infantry regiment of 780 men. But Randall shrewdly foreseeing that there would be a much greater need for men, set about securing the enlistment of all state militia companies.
The boys from the Badger State were quick to respond. Eight days after receiving his orders from the War Department, Randall could proudly offer not one, but four regiments for the nation's defense. Of the 36 companies, 10 would become the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.
In June 1861, the new companies converged on the central Wisconsin city of Fond du Lac. The lads were an eager, hardy bunch between the ages of 18 and 25. Ranging from bankers to lumberjacks, they were men from all trades and professions. Sergeant Major Edwin E. Bryant observed,
"The regiment could find in its ranks men adapted to any service from running or repairing a locomotive to butchering an ox."
Placed in command of the 3rd Wisconsin was Colonel Charles S. Hamilton. A Fond du Lac businessman, Hamilton was an 1843 graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War. Hamilton's contributions notwithstanding, the officer most responsible for turning the unarmed volunteers into soldiers was 28 year old Lt. Col. Thomas H. Ruger.
Ruger (shown left) a lanky, dark-haired lawyer from Janesville, had graduated third in the West Point class of 1854. After a brief stint in the prestigious Corps of Engineers, Ruger resigned his commission and returned home to study law. In teaching his men the ways of the soldier, Ruger believed in leading by example. He was a temperate man who neither smoked nor swore.
"We reguarded him as a strict disciplinarian,"one of his men recalled, "but he was a just man, humane; and in few regiments of the service were punishments less frequent."
Ruger's task was no doubt made easier by the fact that five of his company commanders had seen service in the Mexican War. There was even concern in the capital city of Madison that too much experience was being squandered on this one regiment.
Mustered in for three years' service, the 978 officers and men of the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry boarded a steam train 24 cars long and set out on a great adventure on July 12, 1861. Sergeant Julian W. Hinkley of Company E recalled:
"All were in the best of spirits. It seemed to us as though we were setting out on a grand pleasure excursion. No thought of death or disaster appeared to cross the mind of anyone."
The regiment fired its first shots in anger on October 16, 1861, in a skirmish at Bolivar Heights, VA. There, Companies A, C and H pushed back a force under Confederate colonel Turner Ashby with a loss of four men killed and seven wounded.
Banks' command was reorganized in March 1862. Hamilton's brigade, consisting of the 27th Indiana, 2nd Massachusetts, 29th Pennsylvania and 3rd Wisconsin, formed the 3rd Brigade of Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. "Pap" Williams' 1st Division, V Corps. Hamilton was promoted to divisional command in the III Corps, and Col. George H. Gordon (shown right) of the 2nd Massachusetts was placed in charge of Hamilton's former brigade.
The 3rd Brigade took part in Banks' Shenandoah Valley campaign in the spring of 1862. Conducted against a Confederate force of 17,000 men led by Maj. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the campaign culminated May 25 at the Battle of Winchester, where Jackson's grayclads surged out of a thick morning mist in a crushing attack that drove Banks' Federals clear across the Potomac River.
At the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, the Wisconsin men really showed their mettle. Banks, seeking revenge against his old valley nemesis, nashly threw his 8,000 men against Jackson's much larger force. Initially successful, the bluecoats were soon hurled back by vicious Rebel counterattacks. Reguarding the conduct of the Badgers, Gordon reported:
"I know of no other regiment in Banks' entire corps [that] stood so unflinchingly before numbers and fire so overwhelming."
After Cedar Mountain, Banks' corps was redesignated the XII Corps, Army of the Potomac. On September 17, the Federal Army collided with Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia along the rolling banks of Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, MD.
On that autumn morning, Gordon's brigade moved into place near the cornfield of farmer D.R. Miller. The Badgers watched and waited as Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill's resolute Confederates moved steadily toward them through head-high corn. On command, the 3rd Wisconsin opened deadly fire by file that halted the Rebel advance.
The struggle intensified, with each side giving as good as it had. Men fell by the score. In Company C, Private Albion Thurlow stood in the firing line beside his brother Isaac. When Isaac was struck in the temple by a bullet, Albion helped him to the rear. Albion soon returned with tears streaming down his gunpowder-streaked face, telling his comrades that his brother was dead.
After nearly two hours of carnage, the Confederates were forced back across the terrible cornfield, and Gordon's decimated brigade, out of ammunition, was relieved by fresh troops. The battle produced frightful casualties in the 3rd Wisconsin. Ruger reported that of 340 men taken into action, 35 were killed and 163 wounded. None was reported missing.
Like Ruger's fight in the cornfield, the Battle of Antietam ended in a draw. Some 23,000 Americans fell that day. Badly mauled, each side held its ground the next day. During the lull, the 3rd Wisconsin managed to rearm themselves by tossing away their old smoothbores and picking up new pattern Springfields they found lying on the battlefield.
Shortly after Antietam, Ruger replaced Gordon as commander of the 3rd Brigade and was promoted to brigadier general soon after. Captain William Hawley of Company H replaced Ruger as commander of the 3rd Wisconsin. Another change in command placed Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum (shown right) in charge of the XII Corps.
Known because of their disctinctive corps badges as the Red Star Division, Williams' 1st Division took part in the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 1-3, 1863. The 3rd Wisconsin lost 21 men killed and 80 wounded.
The regiment also had a hand in the war's largest cavalry battle, near Brandy Station, VA, on June 9, 1863. Hawley's boys and their pards in the 2nd Massachusetts were the only regiments chosen from the XII Corps to join a select force of 3,000 infantrymen that accompanied Brig. Gen. John Buford's 7,000 horsemen in an attack against the flamboyant Southern cavalier Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. In the fighting that swirled around St. James Church, Captain George W. Stevenson of Company B led a successful flanking attack against a strong Rebel line posted behind a stone wall.
After seeing limited action at the Battle of Gettysburg, the 3rd was dispatched to New York City to help put down the bloody draft riots there. Then, in mid-September, the XI and XII Corps were sent westward as reinforcements for Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans' besieged army in Chattanooga, TN.
With that, the Badgers took their leave of the Army of the Potomac, never to return. In expressing sentiments of the regiment, Hinkley noted:
"Had we been consulted in the matter, we would doubtless have voted to stay where we were and help finish Lee's army."
In December, the War Department called for the re-enlistment of the original three-year volunteer regiments. With an overwhelming urge to see it through, all 27 officers and 240 out of 314 men in the 3rd Wisconsin re-enlisted. Their sense of patriotism had been heightened by the $400 bounty and 30-day furlough offered to all who chose to serve another hitch. On Christmas Day 1863, Hawley's boys started for their homes and loved ones in Wisconsin.
The regiment returned to the front in February 1864. Two months later, the XI and XII Corps merged to form the new XX Corps, Army of the Cumberland. Ruger's six regiments now became the 2nd Brigade of Pap William's 1st Division. The men were delighted to learn that their old, star-shaped corps badge would be adopted by the XX Corps.
When Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman began his Spring campaign for Atlanta, the addition of 300 recruits had swelled the ranks of the 3rd Wisconsin to nearly 600. Sherman's first battle occurred May 13-15, near Resaca, GA. Hawley's men also took part in the battles of New Hope Church, Kulp's Farm, Peachtree Creek and the siege of Atlanta. By the time the city fell on September 2, 1864, the Badgers had lost 47 killed, 138 wounded and 1 missing.
The XX Corps spent the next two months camped around Atlanta. During this time, the 3rd received 200 more recruits from home. Conspicuous among them were a dozen or so full-blooded Chippewa Indians, their bright new uniforms marking their first appearance in white mens' clothes.
Singing "John Brown's Body", with muskets carried at right shoulder shift, the 467 men of the 3rd Wisconsin marched out of Atlanta on the dull, cloudy morning of November 25, 1864. Many veterans recalled that their last rearward glance toward the city witnessed a dense column of smoke spiraling above the burning city.
On December 12, 1864, the 3rd Wisconsin, veterans of cavalry combat at Brandy Station, had a go at the Confederate navy at Argyle Island on the Savannah River near the Atlantic coast. While Union artillery dueled with a small Rebel fleet, men from Company F leaped into the frigid, neck-deep water and clambered aboard the gunboat Resolute, capturing her crew of 20 men "breakfast and all".
Sherman's bold March to the Sea ended on December 21, when he took possession of Savannah. Sherman rested there about a month before stting out on another march, this time northward through the Carolinas. Bryant recalled the ragged condition of the Wisconsinites at that time:
"Some were nearly barefoot; some had one leg to their trousers; some had tied on patches with strings; and some, with an invention born of old mother necessity, had stuck the patches on with pitch."
After toiling through ceaseless rains and the muck of the South Carolina lowlands, the XX Corps reached the Charleston and Augusta Railroad near Grahamsville on February 7, 1865. The Badgers sufered their last battlefield casualties at Averysboro, NC, on March 16, 1865. A month later, following Lee's example at Appomattox, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the remnant of his Army of Tennessee to Sherman near Durham Station, NC.
On May 24, 1865, Sherman's tatterdemalion army, 65,000 men strong, proudly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., for the Grand Review. Pap William's division made quite an impression on the throngs of spectators that day. A reporter from the New York Herald noted:
"I saw soldiers who had traveled and fought in cold, heat and storm for four years or more follow down he sidewalk as they had followed the militia musters when they were boys, admiring the men who wore 'Red Stars'."
Sent to Louisville, KY, the 3rd Wisconsin was mustered out on July 18, 1865. Six days later the regiment was back in Madison. Of the original 978 "Boys of '61", only 194 stood in the last formation. The soldiers from the Badger State had marched and fought in nearly every Confederate state east of the Mississippi River. The graves of their fallen comrades lay scattered from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to the swamplands of the Carolinas. Furled one last time, their stained and tattered battleflags were carefully deposited in the state capitol, and the men of the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry broke ranks forever.
Written by Nels Monson. Published in the September 1997 issue of America's Civil War. Used by permission from the author.