More History Geekery: The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Why am I geeking out about a Civil War battle, you ask? (I know you’re wondering, admit it….)

Pvt. Edwin Atkinson

Pvt. Edwin Atkinson, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry

This is my great-great-grandfather, Edwin Atkinson, age 22, on the day of his mustering into Company D, 2nd Wisconsin (part of the famous Iron Brigade), in December 1862, in Madison, Wis.. Six months later, he was critically wounded during the first day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Born in Yorkshire, England, he was the youngest of eight children. The family moved to the United States around 1843, and were farming near Albany, Wisconsin, when the war broke out.

Thanks to the experts at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, we learned a few solid facts about Pvt. Atkinson:

He married Julia Griffin of Albany, Wis., soon after arriving home; they had three daughters and 18 grandchildren. He died March 26, 1918, in Kamiah, Idaho.

That’s everything we know. Here’s what I’m dying to find out:

Why did the Atkinson family emigrate — with eight young children — to America in the early 1840s? Were they compelled by economic or political conditions in Yorkshire? Maybe they were losing their land and unwilling to become urban factory workers? Were they encouraged by family or friends who had already emigrated? How much did it cost to pack up and move a family of ten across an ocean? What was the crossing like?

How much schooling did Edwin and his siblings receive? Did his parents educate their children at home, or send them down the road to a schoolhouse? Was Edwin satisfied with being a farmer, or did he have other dreams?

At 6′ 1″, Edwin was significantly taller than the average male height of 5′ 7″. Was everyone in his family that tall? (That genetic trait continues on today…) Was he naturally dark-complected, or was he just permanently tan from hours in the farm fields? How did a tall, gangly farm boy adjust to a soldier’s life? What kind of training did he get?

2nd Wisconsin Infantry battle flag

Edwin enlisted in the Union Army on December 17, 1862 — two days after the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, which leads me to believe his joining up was more of a “goddammit, let’s get this shitty war over” kind of decision rather than a die-hard abolitionist thing. But did the issue of slavery affect his decision at all? Had he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or pamphlets by Frederick Douglass? How much did the residents of a small Midwestern farming community know of political and economic conditions in the South?

The 2nd Wisconsin Infantry had a 77% casualty rate at Gettysburg, the third-highest total throughout the war. How many of his friends and family members were lost during the battle? Was he even aware of the losses while he recovered from his injuries?

Considering the length of time before he was transferred to the Invalid Corps, his leg wound must have been gruesome. How long did he lay injured on the battlefield before he was found? Where was he transported for treatment? Did he have surgery? Did the wound get infected?

The war records don’t have specifics about his wound, but as he served in the First Battalion of the Invalid Corps for those with “comparatively slight” injuries, he apparently was spared an amputation.

What were his duties? Various sources say First Battalion soldiers were required to be able to handle a musket, and “served as guards of government property, railroads and bridges, as well as over prisoners of war and draftees.”

How difficult was it adjusting to post-war life back on the farm? How did the small community adjust to losing so many young men? Were Edwin and Julia Griffin sweethearts before the war, or did they meet after he returned home? If they were “attached,” did they correspond during the war?

Did the “Chronic Diarrhoea” afflict him the rest of his life?

And, perhaps most importantly…. Did he keep that wickedly awesome goatee???


Someone make this into a book, please. Thanks.

5 thoughts on “More History Geekery: The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

  1. merriank says:

    Love your questions. Love Edwin’s cheekbones. Anecdotally Yorkshire people have an olive complexion. According to my old school principal who was from Yorkshire there were a lot of Roman legionary settlers in that region of Britain.

  2. Darlynne says:

    Kelly, this is great. I love that you’re searching, that you’ve found so much. Let’s hope that awesome goatee stayed.

  3. This is completely fascinating. So cool that you’ve learned even this much about your ancestor. I will say that Edwin was luckier than my g-g-grandfather, who did lose his leg in the Civil War. He was issued a wooden one and guess what? We still have it:-)

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