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The Abolitionist Regiment

The Wisconsin 22nd: The Abolitionist Regiment

“Soldiering has become a second nature to us. We know now what to do and we do it.”

Letter from J.F.W. Cole, 22nd Regiment, November 4, 1963

Mustered into service in September of 1862, the 22nd Wisconsin Regiment was quickly nicknamed the Abolitionist Regiment during its service in Kentucky. While other Union regiments also offered escaping slaves safety, the 22nd stood out because of its refusal to return the slaves, despite orders to do so.

One fugitive slave who stayed with the regiment was George. When George was not returned upon his owner’s request, the Union’s General Gilmore contacted Utley and demanded that George and three other fugitives be sent to headquarters immediately. Utley sent a note to the General stating that he would not do so, citing an Article of War forbidding the military to help return slaves.

The 22nd went to great measures to protect the Regiment’s fugitives such as George, Adam (fugitive slave from Judge Robertson of Kentucky), Marshal, Robert and others. When ordered not to take contraband with them on a boat at Louisville, the Regiment smuggled many of the fugitives on board, even disguising them as soldiers: “Robert, who is so white that his negro blood can hardly be detected… marched in with the gun and accouterments as a soldier” (letter from Harvey Reid, 22nd Regiment, February 2, 1863).

Much of what is known about the 22nd’s battles, attitudes and abolitionist activities is through letters written by the Regiment’s soldiers. Letter writing was not only the main mode of communication between soldiers and their loved ones, but also a form of entertainment for the soldiers between battles. These letters document the 22nd’s experience with:

Everyday life:

“We have good times here on picket once a week and the rest of the time we go hunting and fishing or make rings to pass away the time” - letter from James Cole, 22nd Regiment, November 4, 1863


“...fortunately for the 22nd night closed the battle and rebels fell back soon after we became the front line. I think there were 6 of the 22nd wounded that evening." - letter from James Cole, June 5, 1864

Army Deserters:

“Some have left on every night of our march and several before we left Danville, making over 20 in all. Contemptible cowards!” - letter from James Cole, June 5, 1864

The Regiment, although made up of men from all over southeastern Wisconsin, was heavy with men from Racine County. “I am so fortunate as to get into Tent Number 2… all but one [of the 15 men in the tent are] Union Grove boys.”

(letter from Harvey Reid, September 28, 1862)

Read the original letters written by James Cole of the 22nd Regiment below.

The Abolitionist Regiment