In an age when armies can move at just short of the speed of sound or at least the speed of an Oshkosh, it’s hard to believe that a war fought pretty much in just the southeastern U.S. could drag on for 4 long years. So let’s follow my great great grandfather’s unit, the 28th Wisconsin Infantry, to see what went wrong, and occasionally right.

Let’s set the scene: By the Civil War’s beginning in 1861 the Union states had a rudimentary rail system mostly east and north of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The confederacy had an even more rudimentary rail “system”, hobbled further by oddball gauges that forced the transfer of whole trainloads from train to train. There is no TV or even radio, electronic communication being limited to telegraph lines that pretty much followed the railroad lines. It was the heyday of newspapers, but delivery was irregular even during peacetime and even more so during war.

The militaries were no models of efficiency either, being poorly organized local militias and worse. “Command and control” was so lacking that militias from the same town even went to war with each other… Milwaukee would have been the site of a Civil War battle but for the loss of a ship carrying a Milwaukee Irish-American militia traveling to Chicago to obtain weaponry to repulse attempts to muster them into the union army. Provisions were uneven and inadequate, for better or worse “military discipline” was also lacking, allowing a whole cadre of “camp followers” to provide for the troops every need… It was not uncommon for troops to buy supplies when needed, and sell military property when needed also. This all went on in a general fog of drunkenness and disease, in fact disease claimed far more lives than the enemy, including my great great grandfather William Slyter near Memphis in July of 1863.

William enlisted in company F of the 28th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the late summer of 1862, and the 28th was sent for 9 weeks training in nearby Camp Washburn in Milwaukee in the fall. In the midst of that training they saw perhaps their greatest combat success, putting down a draft rebellion in suburban Port Washington and arresting over a hundred resistors without a fight. On the 20th of December they set off to Columbus in northwest Kentucky by rail, at least as far as the rails went.

The 28th Wisconsin helped fortified the union fortifications in Columbus a bit, then moved on to southeast Arkansas for the next two long years. Extended encampments were made at Helena, Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Little Rock again, with occasional forays of less than a hundred miles to screw up the confederate’s logistics by destroying a bridge and such. Just as well, as river boat transport was irregular and unreliable and travel by “road” even more so, with 10 miles being a good day. Having traveled 700 miles in less than a month to reach southeastern Arkansas, over the next two years the soldiers of the 28th Wisconsin only traveled a thousand miles or so, most of those miles merely moving between encampments rather than in pursuit of any vestiges of the confederate “army”.

In February of 1865 the Union army finally found something for the 28th Wisconsin to do, taking a mere two weeks to move them by boat 800 miles to join in the siege of Mobile. Having subdued what confederate remnants remained at Mobile, the 28th Wisconsin spent May 1865 occupying McIntosh, a mere 50 miles or so upriver. The war winding down, the 28th Wisconsin spent a mere week moving on to the Brownsville, Texas area for garrison duty until they were finally mustered out of their misery on August 23rd, 1865. The unit was formally disbanded in Madison, Wisconsin a month later on September 23rd.

Granted, the Union was stuck fighting an enemy on their own turf, which seldom goes well… Note the decades long battles the U.S. fought in southeast Asia and now the middle east with marginal victories if any. The missing communications and logistics infrastructure of the Civil War era, especially in the south, made victory even more elusive. The 28th Wisconsin Volunteers gave three years of their lives, and in many cases their lives, to the generals and politicians who pretty much blindly pursued and occasionally fought a war on remote enemy turf against an even more ineptly lead confederacy.

When it was all over after three years the 28th Wisconsin Volunteers returned home, minus the fifth of them that died in service, largely due to disease and accident rather than the rare combat. Despite the drudgery and suffering of their mission (or more correctly, lack of mission), desertions were rare. But nearly a fifth were discharged, frequently for really chronic alcoholism… Mere alcoholism seemed to be the norm, ‘cept for the odd “dry” soldiers.

As noted previously, my great great grandfather never made it home, succumbing to disease near Memphis in July of 1863. So thick is the fog of war that there are graves for William Slyter in both the Memphis Veteran’s Cemetery and the town cemetery in Whitehall, Wisconsin. We may in fact have lost two William Slyters in this war, the 1860 census showing both a William T. Slyter and his son William F. Slyter and their families farming on adjoining plots near Milwaukee in 1860… Handwritten “t”s and “f”s are hard to tell apart. Regardless, I find no mention of the elder William after the Civil War, and the younger William’s wife and orphan children lost the farm and re-emerged in Whitehall, Wisconsin. She remarried only to lose that husband to lightning strike, homesteaded Missouri River floodplain in South Dakota, then remarried again in Whitehall only to have her heirs cheated out of their inheritance when she passed… Is it any wonder that much of the family spent the century after the Civil War as drunkards?

Was it worth it? War is at best a murderous and mutilating comedy of errors, sometimes balanced by a greater good such as eliminating the horror of slavery.  At least a 620,000 troops died in the Civil War, and historians have been revising that tally upward towards a million, and throwing in the permanently disabled troops certainly pushes the casualty count over a million. But the Civil War resulted in the release of around four million slaves, many of whom lost their own lives fighting for their freedom.

My family paid too high a price, but overall, the price was worth it…

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