More Rebs In Madison, WI
“The Captured, the Sick, and the Dead: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Randall”
Book Review by Gary Van Kauwenbergh
In my humble opinion, Laurence Donald Desotell has written the definitive book on the soldiers buried in Confederate Rest in Madison, WI. Its title is “The Captured, the Sick, and the Dead: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Randall”, but the book covers far more than its title implies. This topic got a lot of coverage during the recent Confederate Rest controversy. This book adds both new content and in-depth analysis.
Desotell is a retired public high school history teacher now living in Sturgeon Bay, WI. He is an excellent researcher and author whose enjoyable writing style makes this a real page-turner. He methodically and succinctly describes wide topics, zooms down into details, and then analyzes the information.
He describes how the Confederate incursion into neutral Tennessee justified Union forces entering into that State. He outlines the battles for Fort Donelson, and the Mississippi Campaign down to the Island #10 area and fighting there along with its aftermath.
Most of the prisoners taken at Island #10 went elsewhere, but those incarcerated at Camp Randall predominately came from the 1st Alabama and 1st Alabama Consolidated (from Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi) Regiments. He writes about the backgrounds of those units, their captors, and their guards. The 8th and 15th Wisconsin Infantry were involved in capturing Island #10, and the 19th Wisconsin guarded them.
Desotell does a deep dive into the 1860 census to describe these people. He uses graphs and tables to show demographics like age, marital status and incomes. He makes a real effort to quantify how much slavery affected the lives of these soldiers. Some of his observations are:
*In the eleven seceding states, 1/3 of the families owned slaves.
*In Mississippi and South Carolina, slaves represented over half of the population.
*Five Alabama counties, in what was known as the ‘black belt’, were over 70% enslaved.
Once he sets the stage and brings together the cast of characters, Desotell recounts their capture and transport to Camp Randall. He then tracks individual soldier’s backgrounds like a genealogist using ancestry.com. This part of the book gets a little long and mind numbing, but it’s the basis for his analysis and conclusions, which I found was the most interesting part of the book
After relating past times, Desotell talks about the more recent history of Confederate Rest. He covers the Memorial Day ceremonies (even mentioning Company K of the Second Wisconsin Infantry Association in passing a couple of times), and interviews a Confederate reenactor. The interview is a recital of the Lost Cause narrative, which Desotell then debunks. He describes the recent controversy concerning the monuments there and then renders his own opinion.
But wait! There’s more! Desotell’s endnotes set the standard by which I’ll be judging my future book reading. Not only are they detailed and complete, but if you buy the Kindle version of the book, they contain links to the internet references. You can go to the original documents just by clicking on them. There is probably as much interesting reading in the endnotes links as what’s in the book itself.
You can hear an interview with the author on Civil War Talk Radio at http://impedimentsofwar.org/singleshow.php?show=1723
The Confederate Rest controversy died down after removal of the cenotaph in 2019, but it’s still active in 2022. See: https://isthmus.com/news/telldylan/confederate-unrest/