Soldiers' Letters Illustrate Wisconsin's Military History
One family’s scrapbook became a powerful resource for Wisconsin’s involvement in the Civil War.
The family of Edwin B. Quiner, the secretary to the governor of Wisconsin in the beginning of the Civil War, subscribed to every Wisconsin newspaper he could in order to stay on top of what was going on in the state. Within the newspapers, he found letters written by soldiers to their families in Wisconsin that were published for all readers. Quiner asked his daughters to cut them out and put them into a multi-volume scrapbook.
The scrapbooks hold more than 11,000 letters by Wisconsin soldiers. Quiner used these as part of his 10-volume series Military History of Wisconsin (1866). In 2012, John Zimm edited and published the scrapbook collection, now titled This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home. The forward is written by Michael Edmonds, the deputy director of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s library archives.
Zimm spent hours sifting through PDF versions of the letters and he found them absolutely moving. Historians can research and interpret the war, but Zimm points out that the soldiers’ letters are revealing.
“Soldiers can write about things that we cannot,” said Zimm.
Zimm organized the letters by topic, which was more than just what they saw on the battlefield. Topics included soldiers’ recognition of how their women needed to be strong and independent, how sad they were when parting from their children, what they did in the trenches, and their thoughts on slavery.
“Just because people wanted slavery to end didn’t mean they wanted them to move in and be equal to them,” said Zimm.
While following one soldier’s letters, the reader can see the change of thought as the letters arrived; at first the soldier did not understand the hardships of the slaves, but as time went on, he saw the injustice. Zimm points out that the Civil War was the first time many Wisconsin soldiers had ever seen an African American.
John Zimm is the editor of the book, This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Zimm will give a presentation at Old World Wisconsin this Saturday afternoon at 2 pm, and will sign copies of the book from 3 to 5 pm.