I recently had an opportunity to spend some time in Cornwall, England’s most south-westerly county. The dramatic scenery is everywhere punctuated by the physical remains of the industry for which the Cornish established an international reputation– mining. Cornish tin and copper mines allowed many of the locals to develop skills that became particularly useful in the 19th century, when, like Ireland, Cornwall witnessed large-scale emigration. I decided to explore how that emigration might have manifested itself during the American Civil War, with a particular look at south-west Wisconsin, a region to which the Cornish flocked. Specifically I have taken as a mini-case study the town of Mineral Point, where many a “Cousin Jack” made their home.
A downturn in the mining industry during the middle of the 19th century was one of the push factors which caused high migration from Cornwall. It was natural that these Cornish emigrants would seek out opportunities where their expertise would improve their prospects, and in the 1830s such opportunities existed in the lead-mining region of Wisconsin. The bulk of Cornish immigrants there were concentrated in Iowa County, Wisconsin, where during the 1840s they “poured in in large numbers.” By 1850 there was as many as 4,500 Cornish in places like Dodgeville, Linden and Mineral Point, with some estimates placing 7,000 Cornish throughout the state, more than 25% of all the British in Wisconsin. Not all of them had come to mine; many hoped to take the opportunity to improve their lot by working the land on farms of their own. (1)
How many of these Cornish-Americans in Iowa County elected to volunteer for service during the American Civil War? In 1898 Louis Albert Copeland opined that “there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether the Cornish furnished their proper proportion; it seems certain, however, that they did not furnish more than their share.” Thomas Allen, who Captained Company I of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, felt there were around 30 Cornishmen under his command, with another 20 to be found in Company E of the 11th Wisconsin Infantry. Both companies had their origins in Mineral Point. There is little doubt that many other Cornishmen served in companies associated with the other settlements in the area. Among them were men from Dodgeville, who fought in the “Dodgeville Guards,” Company C of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry, and the “Dodgeville Rangers,” Company C of the 31st Wisconsin Infantry. It also included those from Linden who marched to war in the ranks of Company E of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry. In an effort to gain an insight into both the English and Cornish influence on such units, I elected to examine in more detail the Mineral Point volunteers across three companies in the 2nd, 11th and 30th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments. (2)
The majority of men who volunteered for Union service from Mineral Point during the American Civil War served in one of three companies. The town’s militia company, the appropriately named “Miners’ Guards”, became Company I of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry. They in turn formed part of the famed Iron Brigade, fighting in some of the most celebrated actions in the war. The “Farmers’ Guards” served as Company E of the 11th Wisconsin Infantry, which saw its most intensive service during the Vicksburg Campaign. Those in Company E of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry would find themselves even further west, serving in places like the Dakota Territory during the conflict. Analysis of the rosters of these three companies reveals 121 men who had their residence recorded as Mineral Point. Using the 1860 Census for Iowa County, it was possible to determine the nativity of 85 of these men. The results confirm the strong English presence in these units, with 21% of those for whom nativity could be established having been born in England. This compares to 18% born in Germany and Ireland combined, 23% born in Wisconsin, and 22% born in other U.S. states. (3)
However, nativity data tells us only part of the story. We can expect that many of those born in the United States, particularly in Wisconsin, were also of English stock. To further explore this, I widened the 1860 Census search criteria. As well as the English-born, I included those American-born who lived with an English-born family member (e.g. parents or older sibling) and those who bore a surname where another who shared it in the county had English nativity. Following these criteria, 41 of the 121 men, almost 34% of the entire sample, could be shown to be part of the English diaspora. (4)
Taking the information further, a minimum of 20 of these individuals can be confirmed as Cornish, either through analysis of historical documents or the fact that they bear distinctly Cornish surnames.* There is little doubt that many of the others, perhaps even the majority, were also of Cornish stock. With respect to their occupations, a lare number did have a demonstrable association with the mining industry. The table below indicates where 1860 Census analysis revealed that an individual (or one of their family) were connected with either mining or farming. (5)
Aside from analysing rosters, another way in which we can reveal the story of Cornish emigrants in the American Civil War is through the pension files. One of the Cornish of Dodgeville in Iowa County was John Ryall, who was enumerated as a farmer in the 1860 Census. He had married Mary Webb in Poundstock, North Cornwall on 22nd June 1851. They had two children, Sarah Jane (b. 1854) and Lewis (b. 1859). During the Civil War, John served in Company C of the 31st Wisconsin Infantry. On the 23rd November 1863 he was admitted to the General Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he died of chronic diarrhoea on 17th December. The dependents’ file based on John’s service reveals some insight into the Cornish community of which the Ryalls were a part. Interestingly many of Mary’s Webb siblings– and her parents– also made the move to Wisconsin. When Mary needed to provide witnesses who were present at her marriage in England, she was able to call on her brother John and also John Simmons, another Cornish farmer who had made the move from around Poundstock. When Mary remarried in 1864, she chose to do so within the Cornish community. Her new husband was Richard “Uncle Dick” Rogers, who ultimately ran the Dodgeville Hotel. Uncle Dick’s first wife, Amy Potter, had also been from Cornwall, but had passed away in 1863. The hotelier made enough of his life in America to warrant a short biography in the history of the county, which revealed that he had initially come to the United States in 1845, starting off as a miner in Mineral Point before moving into the backwoods to burn lime. He spent a short period in California in 1852 before returning to lime burning, eventually starting his hotel in 1867. (6)
The dependent pension files also allow us to examine the impact of the war on Cornish parents, like William Tregea and Letitia Couch. William was a miner in St. Neot when he married Letitia (from Bodmin) in St. Neot Parish Church, Cornwall on 6th March 1830. The couple emigrated first to Pennsylvania but were in Mineral Point by the late 1830s. Their Wisconsin-born son John was still a teenager when the war came. A miner like his father, he became a soldier in the Miners’ Guard, Company I of the soon to be famed 2nd Wisconsin Infantry. Another of the regiment was his older brother Leonard. John fell in the heavy fighting at the Brawner Farm that marked the beginning of the Battle of Second Bull Run on 28th August 1862. That night his brother-in-law, Thomas Maloney, went out on the field to look for his body, but in the darkness ran into a body of Confederate troops and was captured. As with the Ryalls, the file of the Tregea family demonstrates the close bonds that existing among the Cornish community. John Ivey, a constable and William Lanyon, a blacksmith both gave statements on their behalf. As with Tregea, both Ivey and Lanyon are Cornish surnames. William Lanyon had come to America from Cornwall in 1840 along with his wife Mary Ann Bennett, and would eventually become a successful businessman. When the Tregea’s needed to find someone who had been present at their marriage, they, like the Ryalls, could call on a former neighbour from the old country. Nicholas Coad who farmed land in nearby Linden, had been present at the ceremony in St. Neot more than three decades previously, and gave a statement to say so on the family’s behalf. (7)
Another of Mineral Point’s Cornish soldiers was Richard Chesterfield. Richard’s parents John and Eliza were married in Newlyn, near Penzance in south-west Cornwall in August 1841. Richard was born there before the family made the trip across the Atlantic. He also initially enlisted in Company I of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, but was transferred to the Navy for gunboat service in Western Waters on 17th February 1862. Serving aboard the USS Mound City, Richard kept his parents constantly up to speed with events. One of his letters was written soon after he had joined his boat, and is reproduced below. In the correspondence, Richard describes his uniform by referencing the Royal Navy uniforms his parents would have been familiar with in Cornwall:
March the 17th 1862
Dear father and mother i take my pen in hand to wright you these few lines to let you know that I am in good helth at present and hope to find you the same. I sent you one letter to let you know where I was too but I have received no ansure altho I am expecting one every day. I am on the Moun[d] City as I told you before. We mad[e] sail down the missippi last week and we are now opisit Birds Point. The rebels are strongly fortyfied her we have been bombarding them four days. The first day we was firing I got deaf and I can scarsly hear anything now. I expect we will be tow [two] weeks taking this place or praps more. We are waiting for a land force to come along before we give them the grand stroke…We are going to rattle away at them again tomorrow. I don’t know how long before we will get them wipt out we ar[e] taking some place all the time, our troops has got New Madrid down below this place and they can’t run away, they can’t get out on either side. Some of out oficers has been out looking around and they say the rebels are sinking there boats to blocade the river but our pilot says it is no use for the channel is tow [too] deep. There is about 17teen thousand rebels here we threw some shell into there camp and it took tents over and every thing els before it they screamed and runed like devels.
We have dismounted four or five of there guns lots of our shell goes right into there fort we are about three miles from there forts I am first shot and shell man on the bow gun it is a sixty eight pounder. First shot and shell man gets the shot and shell for the gun. The bow of our boat is three feet thick and is coated with iron on the outside a inch thick, no ball will go through it. Our uniform is blue shirt, blue pants with flaps in front like the old Country pants. Our caps are blue and round with no peaks. I supose you have seen them on board the man of war in the old Country, it is [a] regular man of war uniform.
We have salt gunk and hard crackers to eat and I tell you what it is I would rather be home on one meal a day then here. When a fellow is sick he is left to lay on the deck like a dog. He is treated worse then you would treat one of our dogs. I hope that i[t] will be over this Summer I am sick and tired of it. I don’t want you to show this letter to anyone els nor say anything about it but let them inlist and learn a leson that will last them there life time and a lesson which all ought to have. So you can pray for peace with all your might. Tell this [to] Sam and Jim and Mary Jane and ask them if they would like to be man of wars men.
Pleas tho wright as soon as you can direct to
U.S. Gunboat Moun[d] City
Cairo, Ill. (8)
Three months after writing this letter Richard and the USS Mound City were part of the White River expedition in Arkansas. As the Mound City proceeded up the river she was engaged by shore batteries, and a shot penetrated the vessel’s steam drum. In one of the most horrifying naval incidents of the war, the escaping steam scalded most of the Mound City’s crew to death– including Richard Chesterfield.
Not long after Richard’s death his father John was no longer able to continue work, being “broken down by hard labor.” As a result John’s wife Eliza sought a dependent mother’s pension based on her son’s service. The file demonstrates that the realities of the Cornishmen’s working lives in Mineral Point were often more complex than the 1860 Census might suggest. The Chesterfields are recorded in Table 2 as having a farming association, but according to Eliza Chesterfield, her husband “had always been a miner until a short time previous when he moved onto eighty acres of land in the town of Willow Springs…and farmed a little…In 1862 he was mining a little and farming a little but not making much…probably not over ten dollars per month.“ This cross-over between mining and farming is further demonstrated in another affidavit in the file, that of Irishman John J. Ross. Recorded on the 1860 Census as a “Lumber Merchant”, he described himself as a “farmer and miner and speculator.” Also, just because someone was recorded on the census as a farmer did not mean they were not a miner– nor did it mean they were any good at farming. Alfred Dobson, an English born miner who had emigrated in 1845 and had known the Chesterfields since 1848, recalled that John Chesterfield was “a farmer on a small scale and prospecting miner…he prospected for lead ore some, worked on his land a little, and hauled wood to Mineral Point.”He continued: “he was not much of a farmer, his mining did not yield him much income and generally he was not at all prosperous.” John Chesterfield eventually gave up his farm and moved into Mineral Point, where he made whiskey and kept a “grocery or drinking saloon.” As with the other Cornish families seeking a pension, the Chesterfields were able to call on one who had known them in Cornwall for assistance. William Cornelius, a Cornish miner in Mineral Point, made the following statement:
“I came over from England in 1847 with John & Eliza Chesterfield I have lived near them ever since. I have lived in this city since 1847 continuously and John & Eliza Chesterfield have lived here too, except for a while on a farm in Lafayette County and a while on a farm in this County. I have known them intimately all these years.” (9)
Even this limited, partial look at the soldiers of Iowa County offers us an opportunity to gain some insight into the experiences of the Cornish community during the American Civil War. There is much more analysis that could be carried out. As ever, the pension files provide us an excellent opportunity to examine the social aspect of their lives, and the internal community links which these immigrants maintained. I hope to return to this fascinating group of English emigrants again in the not too distant future.
*Aside from Cornish surname analysis, this was confirmed through biographical data in the pension files, the History of Iowa County, and The Cornish in South-West Wisconsin. The names are: William H. Bennett, Thomas W. Bishop, Richard T. Chesterfield, Richard Gundry, George Harris, Thomas James, William Odgers, Thomas Pascoe, James B. Prideaux, Thomas Priestly, Paul Prisk, Samuel Prisk, Thomas W. Prisk, Henry Rule, John F. Tregea, Leonard Tregea, James Trevillian, William Trevillion, Mathew Trewhella and Josiah H. Tyack.
** None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Western Historical Company 1881:744, Schwartz 2006:172, Nesbit 1989:153; (2) Copeland 1898:332, 333, Western Historical Company 1881:555; (3) 1860 Census; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) WC76399, 1860 Census, 1870 Census, Western Historical Company 1881:746, 899; (7) WC1858, 1860 Census, Western Historical Company 1881:548, 865; (8) NC12546; (9) NC12546, 1860 Census;
Navy Widow’s Certificate 12546 of Richard Chesterfield, USS Mound City.
Widow’s Certificate 1858 of John Ryall, 31st Wisconsin Infantry.
Widow’s Certificate 76399 of John Tregea, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry.
1860 Federal Census.
1870 Federal Census.
Western Historical Company 1881. History of Iowa County, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Legislature. Rosters of the Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Vols 1 & 2.
Copeland, Louis Albert 1898. “The Cornish in South West Wisconsin”, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 301-334.
Nesbit, Robert C. 1989. Wisconsin: A History, Second Edition.
Schwartz, Sharron P. 2006. “Bridging “The Great Divide”: The Evolution and Impact of Cornish Translocalism in Britain and the USA” in Journal of American Ethnic History Vol. 25, No. 2/3, Immigration, Incorporation, Integration, and Transnationalism: Interdisciplinary and International Perspectives (Winter-Spring 2006), 169-189.