We can’t talk to any Civil War soldiers about their experiences during that war (without the help of a medium), but, thanks to a new exhibit at Kenosha’s Civil War Museum, we can get firsthand accounts from some of them.
Even better, the men are talking about their time right here in Kenosha at Camp Harvey. The land was located where Green Ridge Cemetery stands now, at 6604 Seventh Ave., and extended east to the lakefront.
The museum’s latest exhibit — “Hold Your Horses” — focuses on the months, from November 1861 to March 1862, that soldiers in the First Wisconsin Cavalry unit trained here.
“This exhibit has a huge connection to Kenosha,” said Doug Dammann, education coordinator for the Kenosha Public Museums. “Most people don’t know about this. While 75 percent of the Civil War soldiers in Wisconsin trained at Camp Randall in Madison, we also had a large training camp right here.”
It’s fitting that the exhibit was created entirely in-house by museum staff members and volunteers, who researched and gathered materials for several months.
“The men came here via train in November of 1861, and you can imagine the conditions as they lived in tents over the winter,” Dammann said.
Civil War era ‘dorms’
The exhibit features a typical Camp Harvey Sibley tent — with a conical shape and one center pole — that looks roomy enough for a camping trip. That is, until you consider that each tent housed at least a dozen men, sleeping in extremely close quarters.
“Some of the men dug into the ground to put in wooden floors for protection from snow,” Dammann said. “And some even built wooden bunk beds.” Which is not unlike college students today adding bunks into dorm rooms to gain floor space, though, unlike those 1860s tents, a dorm room has central heat.
Over the months that the First Wisconsin unit was here, some 800 to 1,000 soldiers populated Camp Harvey.
The exhibit features panels along the walls pertaining to different aspects of life in the Kenosha tent city.
The concerns of the men — whose typical age was 23 — are not all that different from what we worry about today.
In a letter dated Sept. 27, 1861, Jeremiah Swart writes home and asks for — what else? — money! Parents of college students may recognize how he opens by giving his parents news of his life and a smattering of gossip before pleading for a few dollars.
There’s also a Voice of the People letter written to the Kenosha Telegraph newspaper from a soldier, detailing how the men need blankets, clothing and other supplies and asking local citizens to help. Spoiler alert: They did.
Other complaints from the soldiers detail the lack of enough horses (just 100 for 800 men) and uniforms and how the pay is always late, sometimes months late.
Though local residents did gather supplies for the shivering soldiers living in the tent city, Charles Goodwrich in a Jan. 12, 1862, letter, wrote how “not all soldiers are thieves and rowdies ... if 30 or 40 of the worst ones were drummed out of camp, we should be a respectable body of men. As it is, we are all distrusted and despised by all citizens living anywhere near here.”
Goodwrich also writes of his dislike for Edward Daniels, the regiment’s colonel, saying he “is destitute of the least spark of honesty” and relating how, when the colonel spoke to the men, they whispered among themselves, “who believes what that old liar says?” Luckily for the despised officer, Twitter had yet to be invented.
One of the coolest parts of the exhibit is the section on bugle calls.
A bugler had to learn hundreds of signals to alert the soldiers on when to wake up, eat, do drills and take care of the horses. Think of it as a primitive — and more musical — form of text messaging.
Visitors can push a button to hear different sounds, from the familiar “Reveille” to more obscure bugle calls.
Also, make sure to take your turn at lifting the yoke and buckets, made to feel like you’re carrying six gallons of water.
“The conditions here were rough,” Dammann said, “but the soldiers did have the lake, which helped in getting enough water for their horses. They also had to feed the horses three times a day and groom them. Taking care of their horse was the No. 1 priority for a cavalry soldier.”
After shouldering all that water, make sure to rest a spell on the saddle, also part of the exhibit.
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