The Cream City in the Civil War
July 3 in Milwaukee draws legions of patriots to the bluffs and shorefront of Lake Michigan for the city’s yearly fireworks show. As people drive, stroll, bike and rollerblade their way through the East Side to the lakefront, they’re crossing land that was once occupied by one of Milwaukee’s three civil war camps.Camp Sigel was bordered by Lafayette Place and Prospect Avenue and located just north of Brady Street where present-day Oakland and Farwell avenues run.
Because the telegraph line substantially improved Milwaukee’s communication with the East, the city heard about the firing at Fort Sumter only a day after it occurred. A meeting was immediately called in the Chamber of Commerce Building and a committee on resolutions presented a report that supported Lincoln and condemned the Confederacy. Though Lincoln lost Milwaukee by 901 votes when he ran for president in 1860, Democratic Mayor James Brown supported U.S. retaliation against the attack. Drummer boys were stationed at downtown street corners accompanied by marching fifers to inspire young men to volunteer for three months to fill Wisconsin’s initial quota of one regiment. Wisconsin issued gray trousers, jackets and caps until the state realized its soldiers would be at a significant disadvantage wearing the same color as the opposing force.
Enthusiasm for the war slackened off quickly, and by the winter of 1861, volunteers were paid bounties to enlist. Over the course of the war, the namesake of the camp, Gen. Franz Sigel, developed a reputation as an inept general, and the name was changed to Camp Reno in honor of Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno, who was killed in the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland.
In response to Lincoln’s call for 300,000 more men, including five additional infantry regiments from Wisconsin, the state held its first draft in the fall of 1862. In Port Washington, a mob threw the draft commissioner down the courthouse steps, armed a four-pound cannon with the only cannon ball in town and hunkered down to take on the U.S. Army. A draft rebellion in West Bend required six companies of infantry to restore order. The next year, the federal government took charge and ordered 30% of males between the ages of 20 and 45 into uniform.
During a speech held on the bluffs along Lake Michigan on the Fourth of July in 1863, Sen. James Doolittle received a telegraph message announcing that the battle at Gettysburg resulted in “the total rout of the Confederates.” Convinced the hated war would soon be over, Milwaukeeans packed the streets and saloons in celebration. However, a year passed, the fighting continued and it was getting harder and harder to avoid the draft. When Robert E. Lee finally surrendered in April of 1865, Wisconsin lost 3,602 soldiers in combat, along with 7,627 dead from disease and accidents. Many of these men had been mustered in and equipped for service at Camp Sigel/ Reno on Milwaukee’s East Side.
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Illustration by Kate Engbring