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A History of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and Cavalry in the Civil War

A History of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and Cavalry in the Civil War
by Michael Martin

List Price: $34.95 
Hardcover: 480 pages
ISBN: 1932714189
Publisher: Savas Beatie
Publish Date: August, 2006

A review by Mark Hudziak

In the decades following the Civil War, veterans from both sides of the conflict compiled letters, personal reminiscences from themselves and their fellow soldiers, and other information about their wartime experiences. In an effort to establish their place in history, these soldiers used this information to write book length histories of the regiments they served in. Though the quality of these regimental histories varied, the better ones served as excellent primary sources as well as interesting stories in themselves as the participants described life in the army from enlistment to muster out. Unfortunately, a lot of regiments that deserved a published full length account of their service never received one while the participants were alive, leaving many stories untold.

Fortunately, some modern historians have picked up where the old soldiers left off. Michael J. Martin has written an excellent regimental history of one of those deserving regiments, the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry. Recruited primarily from ten counties in the state, the Fourth Wisconsin entered Federal service in July of 1861 and served in the Baltimore area until early 1862, when it was transferred to Louisiana. The regiment fought in several actions that year, including the Battle of Baton Rouge in August. In 1863, the Fourth saw much more action, the most significant as participants in the Port Hudson Campaign in May and June. The regiment suffered over 200 casualties in the campaign. In August, the regiment was converted into a cavalry unit and renamed the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry. For most of the rest of the war, the regiment kept busy in numerous raids and expeditions in Louisiana and Mississippi. In April 1865, the Fourth Cavalry was sent to Mobile Bay in Alabama, and participated in an expedition that took them from Mobile Bay to the Georgia border, and then west through Alabama all the way to Vicksburg, Mississippi. By the time this expedition was through in June, the war was over. However, the Fourth was ordered to Texas as part of a large Federal force organized to keep a possible threat from Mexico at bay. The regiment was finally mustered out on May 28, 1866.

Martin very thoroughly researched his subject and put together an impressive collection of primary and secondary sources. The product of this research is a highly detailed study presented in a very readable style. Besides excerpts from letters to friends, relatives, and diary entries, Martin also utilizes soldiers’ letters to hometown newspapers to provide eyewitness accounts of events as well as insights into the minds of the men doing the fighting.

The author devotes two chapters to the Port Hudson Campaign, where the regiment did its hardest fighting and suffered its heaviest losses. The May 27th assault on the garrison at Port Hudson cost the regiment 69 casualties. Fighting at nearby Clinton, Louisiana on June 3rd (where the regiment was mounted and referred to as the 4th Wisconsin Mounted Infantry) cost eleven more men. Another assault on Port Hudson on June 14th resulted in 136 casualties. The Fourth was second only to the Eighth New Hampshire Infantry in total casualties suffered by Federal units at Port Hudson. Not surprisingly, the Fourth and Eighth fought together in the same brigade. Martin gives plenty of detail of the Fourth’s role in the campaign but also writes about the cost in human terms, an example of which is his inclusion of a letter from a company commander to the widow of a soldier killed in action.

After Port Hudson, the regiment was permanently changed from infantry to cavalry. Though the regiment did not participate in any fighting on the scale experienced at Port Hudson, it saw plenty of action scouting, raiding, skirmishing, and patrolling, and Martin documents these engagements in great detail giving the reader a good picture of the life of a cavalryman.

The final chapter features some interesting biographical sketches of some of the regiment’s veterans after the war. The book also contains seven appendices including a detailed complete roster of the regiment. The extensive endnotes provide additional explanations of points in the text plus full documentation of sources. There are also several maps and photographic images of members the regiment.

The author has obvious admiration for his subject, but he is not effusive in his praise; rather, he lets the actions of the men speak for themselves by telling their story in an interesting, straightforward manner. This volume deserves a spot on library shelves alongside the better Civil War unit histories.

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