Company G, 6th Wisconsin Volunteers

By Greg M. Romaneck 
Former member of the Second Wisconsin, now with 104th Illinois  


One way for living historians to broaden their understanding of the period
which they portray is to research the letters, diaries, and commentaries of the
people who actually lived through that age. Each compilation of letters or
additions to a diary allow the current student of history to catch a glimpse into
 the past. While it is important to realize that each person’s perspective on a
specific event, personality, or experience should not be generalized across
everyone there is great value in trying to understand what individuals of that
era thought and felt about the Civil War.

One such published source of knowledge is

Published in 1998 this volume includes all the letters that young Henry Matrausent home to his family during his time of 
service. Henry initially attempted to enlist in his home state of Michigan. However, since he was only sixteen years of 
age, and short at that, he was turned away. Eventually, after several failed attempts at enlistment in Wisconsin Henry 
was finally successful in securing a place in Company G, 6th Wisconsin Volunteers. This unit was to become an integral 
part of the immortal Iron Brigade of Army of Potomac fame. However, in July of 1861 when Henry first was mustered 
in those days of fame were far into the unseen future. Henry’s first impressions of being a soldier while training at Cam
Randall in Madison, Wisconsin were marked by pride as he attempted to describe his new uniform and style:

Our uniforms are grey. We have roundabout coats and loose pants. It is the best fighting rig imaginable.
We received orders today from Gen. Scott to proceed to Washington as soon as we can possibly get ready.
We expect to go inside of three weeks…Our knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, lint, tents and everything but
guns are here now. We have old U.S. muskets to drill with. Our gun will be the Enfield Rifle…
The ladies of Madison presented both regiments with a splendid banner each. The cost of each flag is estimated
to be100 dollars. (Matrau, p.7)
Henry’s initial experiences at Camp Randall were similar to the thousands of other Wisconsin volunteers who received
their baptism of training there. The drill schedule was trying as Henry pointed out in one letter home, “Tell the boys I
will write to them when I can get time. We have to get up at 5 o’clock, drill till breakfast, which is at 7, then
from 10 till 11, from 1 till 2, from 3 till 5; we don’t get to bed till 10 o’clock so you see I haven’t much time 
to write.”  (Matrau, p. 8)

Henry finished off this correspondence with a comment that may well have
bespoken the beginnings of homesickness, “Please write soon for anything
from home is acceptable.” (Matrau, p. 8)
As the boys from Wisconsin finally
were moved south they had the opportunity to march through the seemingly hostile
city of Baltimore. Without adequate weaponry the 6th Wisconsin lads were escorted
through that city by policemen. Henry was not troubled by this potentially embarrassing
circumstance. Indeed, he took pains to note to his parents how resilient he was feeling,
“I have seen some of the young city chaps who enlisted sick enough of the job.
They find that the life of a soldier isn’t all pleasure after all. I never felt tougher or 
more rugged in my life. I find that the climate is much warmer here than in Wisconsin 
or Michigan; still the heat doesn’t bother me a great deal.” (Matrau, p.11)
Early on in
Henry’s military experiences it became clear to him that the life of a soldier was not
one for everyone. While there remained a strong theme of strength and patriotism
throughout young Matrau’s letters he was a realist about what soldiering meant:
A soldier is not supposed to know anything outside his own camp.
When we are ordered to sling knapsacks & prepare for march we don’t know what it
is for or where we are going.
Tell the boys that if they want to be free & not be obliged
to come and go at the beck of an officer to stay at home & to leave sogering (sic) to
those that like it. A person in the army must mind
his own business & let other people’s alone or it will be apt to go pretty hard with him. (Matrau, p. 12)

The 6th Wisconsin spent time encamped near Washington. While in camp Henry began to become more intimately
familiar with the impact that living outside in all weather truly means,
“It has been wet, disagreeable weather for the past week and the way the “sacred soil of Virginny” sticks to
the boots of the humble pedestrian is a caution to Davy Crockett. The other morning while going down to the
mess room I lost both shoes in the mud and had to call out a corps of Sappers and miners to get them out.
Perhaps you will feel inclined to disbelieve this story but I tell it merely to put emphasis on the assertion.” (Matrau, p.18)
Rain and mud would continue to be a bane in the life of Henry, and most other Civil War soldiers, for the remainder of his time in service.
In general, camp life was boring. Often it was so muddy that there was nothing to do
“but get our fire wood to keep our little fires going”. (Matrau, p.19)
Boredom in camp was typical. Yet there were occasional breaks in it, “Our large family get along quite peaceably together
and only an occasional fist fight serves to break the monotony of camp life.
There are only 20 soldiers in the guard house
and they are all soldiers…Some are in for disobeying officers, some for getting intoxicated, some for running the guard,
and some for stealing.” (Matrau, p.19).
While camp life was routine it did allow Henry some time to muse about the state of
man. At one point he observed to his parents, “It is strange what a predilection we have for injuring our brother man, but
we learn the art of killing far easier than we do a hard problem in arithmetic”. (Matrau, p.20)
A the months and years passed
Henry was to experience all the horrors of war.

As the 6th Wisconsin marched toward its first engagement at Second Bull Run it crossed the old battlefield of 1861.
While en route Henry observed, “On our march here we came in sight of the Bull Run battlefield. There is a good many dead
horses and once in a while the skeleton of a poor soldier who has laid his life down for the star spangled banner may be seen
scattered over the field.” (Matrau, p. 31)
Over three more years of stark fighting stood before Henry and the other men of his unit.
As Henry’s unit made its way through engagements such as Brawner's Farm, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg it became
ever clearer to Henry that soldiering was not quite what he had naively expected. While responding to his parents concerning the
possibility of his brother’s enlistment in early 1863 Henry is less then encouraging,

“Tell brother Morgan if he will take the advice of his luckless soldier brother he will steer clear of the army and stay at
home with mother for take my word for it, though I’ll own it ain’t romantic, a good soldier cares more
for a good meal than he does for all the glory he can put in a bushel basket” (Matrau, p. 41)
Still, in
that same letter Henry pointed out, “I am still as hearty as usual and take whatever comes in good part,
as every soldier should, for there is no use to a soldier to grumble or be discontented at what he can’t
help.” (Matrau, p. 40)
Like many veterans, Henry dedicated very little space to detailing what each
battle he was in was like. Henry’s letters do discuss elements of combat but that domain takes up far
less space than other matters. For example, Henry did serve at Gettysburg in a battle which essentially
destroyed the Iron Brigade. While he does dedicate some space to the tactics of that monumental
struggle the closest we come to understanding combat is when Henry comments, “We had an awful
hot time at Gettysburg but it does seem that I was the luckiest fellow in existence. There were men
falling in every direction around me & the best hearted fellow in our company was killed right close
 to me, so near that he nearly fell on me.” (Matrau, p. 61-62)

Whether it was an effort to shield his parents from the true nature of war, an unwillingness to recount what
he had seen, or other reasons Henry does not spend much time re-telling his martial experiences. As the months
and years flowed by Henry did achieve success in his career as a soldier. He was promoted to corporal,
sergeant, first sergeant, lieutenant, and finally in 1865 to captain of his company. However, throughout
Henry’s letters there is no effort at self-aggrandizement. He remained from his first correspondence to
his last a down to earth fellow. He realized that the war was hardening him. For example, in a lengthy
description of the execution of a soldier in the 19th Indiana just prior to Gettysburg Henry closes his
commentary by stating,

“We left the men digging his grave and resumed the march as if nothing had happened”. (Matrau, p.58)

Seeing men die in droves and experiencing the ongoing affects of combat changed Henry as it did so many
young men. While in the trenches at Petersburg Henry noted,“ We are still in our old position before Petersburg
and nothing is going on but the everlasting cannonading and mortar shelling, which keeps up a continual roar
both day and night. But we have become so accustomed to this sort o’ thing that we don’t mind it and sleep
as sound at night with shells bursting around and over us as we would at home out of range or hearing of
cannon or bomb shells.” (Matrau, p.86)
Henry’s life in the Army of the Potomac was hard beyond anything
most people of our era could understand. At the very end of the war Henry could reflect on his circumstances
and describe himself in the following manner,

 “I wish you could see me now, as I am writing under an old oak tree. You would think your son was a sorry
looking object. I have waded creeks, plunged into swamps & Morasses, (and) laid in the dirt until I look
more like a gopher than a human being.” (Matrau, p.115) Henry was not an ideological warrior. He rarely
made any mention of political or philosophical considerations in his letters. At one point Henry commented
to his parents regarding politics that, “Politics don’t trouble us here in the Army much. The most we think
about is whether the rebellion can be put down or not. I am satisfied that it can if the men that are needed
only come out promptly.” (Matrau, p. 96)

As a veteran who had been through some of the worst fighting ever seen by American soldiers in any conflict
Henry had experienced the worst that war can inflict upon its victims. Yet, throughout his letters he remains a
steadfast and well grounded young man. His loyalty to the Union cause was never dramatically articulated in
his letters. The barrier between those serving that cause and men remaining at home is striking. At one time,
in reference to substitutes and bounties, Henry declaims to his parents,

“Any young man who is drafted now and forgets his manhood so far as to hire a substitute isn’t worthy
of the name of man and ought to be put in petticoats immediately.” (Matrau, p. 97)

Henry, himself, did not think of himself as a hero for serving.
He was a common man with his own admitted weaknesses. In
January, 1865, during the Petersburg siege Henry concocted a
plan for securing a furlough. At a time when he was still very much
single Henry gave the following directions to his parents: Now when
you send back this enclosed envelop you can put a letter in it & the
money if you choose & write what you please, for I will use only the
envelop. I will write, or get somebody to write, a letter stating that my
wife Mary, Jane, Sally, or Polly are very sick and not expected to live,
& put it in the envelop & send it to the Army Head Quarters with the
application for furlough. I don’t like to resort to such means to get a
furlough but I have to do it or else see all the rest going & stay like a
gopher down here in Virginia till the spring campaign begins. (Matrau, p.102)

Henry never received this furlough. Whether his parents discouraged him from this
approach, or if he had second thoughts, is not clear from latter correspondence.
That Henry was tired and worn down by the long years of fighting appears self-evident.
Nothing buoyed his spirits more than the receipt of letters from home. When these letters
did not come frequently enough he did take time to chit his family,

“I have written two letters home & received none in return, & I begin to think
“the old folks at home” have nearly or quite forgotten their truant son down in the old Dominion. I have been looking
every day as the mail came in for a letter from home & you don’t know what a long physiognomy it puts on a solger
(sic) to hear all the names called & his own left out in the cold.” (Matrau, p. 63-64)

When the war finally ended Henry did return home. He had survived almost four years of service. He and his comrades in the
6th Wisconsin had fought through some of the fiercest engagements in the entire course of the Civil War. Henry went on to a long
life of marriage, fatherhood, and work as a station master in Nebraska before his death in 1917. However, his experiences as a
Union soldier must have marked him for the rest of his life. By reading about the soldierly pursuits of Henry Matrau we, as living
historians, gain a deeper and fuller knowledge of a representative person’s perspective of the time period we cherish. Henry Matrau
lived through and described the age we attempt to recapture for ourselves and the public. By grasping his experiences as encapsulated
in his letters we flesh out our own impressions and do honor to those whom we portray.

Matrau, Henry, Letters Home: Henry Matrau of the Iron Brigade. (1998),
Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE. ISBN 0-8032-8242-7 $9.00