Even before the Civil War began, some in Houston County were organizing for combat. In February of 1861, while many were still pursuing a peaceful solution, Caledonia’s Col. Sam McPhail, a Mexican War veteran, sought to form a regiment. Having lived in the South, he “appreciated the temper of the fire-eaters and knew that if resisted, they would fight.”
Fifteen days after hostilities began, the first war meeting in Houston County was probably the one at Houston on April 28, 1861. On May 18, a war meeting was held in Wilmington. There was a September meeting in Union Township.
At Houston, resolutions were passed affirming the Union could not be dissolved, and $255 in currency plus $25 in gold along with 70 bushels of wheat were pledged to help raise a military company.
The war came just three years after Minnesota statehood. No section of the nation was as united in opposition to secession and disunion as was the northwest, where the economy depended greatly on the free use of the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana.
An 1882 Houston County history said, “the facility with which men changed the implements of the mechanic and of husbandry for the instruments of death, was indeed remarkable. The response here will bear favorable comparison with other communities similarly situated.”
Minnesota had been the first state to offer men to fight for the Union. Within a few weeks, 1,009 men had mustered for service at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling. However, most of the volunteers from Houston County had enlisted at La Crosse in the Second Wisconsin Infantry.
When McPhail offered the new company from Houston County to the new regiment, politics led St. Paul to reject the offer for a unit led by ardent Democrat W. G. McSpadden, even though he was a Mexican War veteran. The excuse given was the company was too small.
So McSpadden and about 14 other county volunteers ended up in Prairie du Chien, Wis., where they signed up with a recruiter from the 8th Missouri Infantry.
Houston County, easily accessible by boat, was fertile territory for military recruiters from other states. The young state of Minnesota had a relatively small population at the beginning of the war, but in the 1850s, Minnesota had been the fastest-growing territory/state with an incredible population growth of 2,790%! Many county men were recent arrivals from other states and went back to former home areas to enlist. Some went to the nearest enlistment location.
Volunteers from Wilmington and Winnebago Townships went to Iowa and joined infantry and cavalry units. Twenty county men traveled to Jo Daviess County, Ill., to enlist. Leander Carpenter of Sheldon joined a Michigan unit. Cyrus Ballou of Money Creek signed with New York, and Lyon Burt enlisted with a Nebraska regiment. Almost 50 men went to La Crosse to join the artillery. Another 50 served in a Wisconsin Cavalry.
According to area military researcher David Klinski, the “exodus” continued throughout the four-year war. Hostilities began in the spring, but many county men “enlisted as soon as the crops were in at the end of August, first of September of 1861. Some waited until winter froze the river, and the men simply walked over the ice into Bad Axe (soon to be called Vernon) and La Crosse Counties.”
Many volunteered with enthusiasm, but not all. There were already eight companies of militia in the state to support federal troops on the western frontier. But accustomed to mostly social gatherings, only three companies answered the call to actual combat.
For many who volunteered, it was patriotism. New England transplants thought disunion might tell the rest of the world that common men could not govern themselves. Klinski wrote, the European immigrants “had just left countries controlled by a handful of elite… families, very much like the southern aristocracy. To see the very same thing exist in the South that you had left Europe to get away from… was enough to make a man take up arms.
“For many, it was an opportunity to get away from the farm and see the country… the excitement of the war was contagious.” But few expected what lay ahead.
(to be continued)