Marquette High’s Civil War Soldier

Today we feature a guest blog from MU Alum Chris Lese on a Marquette University High School alum who fought in the Civil War.
Did alumni from Milwaukee’s Marquette University High School fight in the Civil War? That question presented itself as I focused on the gold “1857” printed across a student’s Marquette High hoody in my Civil War course. That year suggests there could be at least one graduating class by the start of war in 1861. Jesuit priests Simon P. Lalumiere and Cornelius O’Brien opened St. Aloysius Academy, one of Marquette High’s predecessors, at Michigan Avenue and Second Street in September of 1857. Its enrollment consisted of approximately fifty students between the ages of 6 and 25. These Jesuit leaders hoped the new academy would “prove, under the blessing of heaven to be the root and foundation of a flourishing college.”

Image: 1858 St. Aloysius Academy advertisement, Milwaukee Sentinel.

James Lonergan was one of the Academy’s first students. Born in 1837, Lonergan’s family left Tipparary County, Ireland three years later and settled in Utica, New York. By 1855 the Lonergan family settled in the Town of Addison in western Washington County, Wisconsin. James attended Addison public schools before he moved on to St. Aloysius for its inaugural year as a twenty-year-old “devout Catholic.” Following his time at the Academy, Lonergan was a teacher in Milwaukee through the early years of the Civil War.

By December 1862, the zest that initially spurred thousands to volunteer for the Union had waned and President Lincoln provided conscription benchmarks to each state. Most of the 4,537 Wisconsin men drafted were used to replenish old regiments. The exception was the 34th Wisconsin Volunteers, which was made up of “nine month men,” commanded by Fritz Anneke, the famous Forty-Eighter, and Lonergan as First Lieutenant of Company F.

washburnLonergan and his fellow officers were challenged daily by these conscripted men while at Camp Washburn, which was bounded by Vliet and Kilbourn Avenues and 27th and 35th Streets. He could not have imagined while at the camp, he was 2 blocks north of where Marquette High, the successor to St. Aloysius, was constructed in 1922. Many of the soldiers focused more on procuring a substitute than drill and desertion was a major problem. The officers “are urging the removal of the regiment out of state… as the regiment would soon be composed of officers and no privates the way things are now going,” wrote one soldier. January 31, 1863, the officers’ wishes were fulfilled. However, still fearful that soldiers would desert near Milwaukee’s rail depot, the regiment marched 8-10 miles to board a train at a more secure location, under guard of the 27th Wisconsin Regiment. Not to be deterred, at least 21 soldiers jumped off the train in route to Chicago and another 100 disappeared when the group arrived there at midnight!

The regiment’s rebellious behavior did not subside when it reached Kentucky in early February for garrison and fatigue duty. One newspaper noted, “the regiments, with the solitary exception of the 34th, are of high order. Whatever [the 34th] may lack of battalion or Company drill, or on dress parade, the officers make up in holding court martial proceedings.” One hopes this “want of discipline” did not follow Lonergan and five other Companies on their short garrison assignment in Memphis. Despite the many challenges, Lonergan appears to have managed his command well. When the regiment returned to Milwaukee in September, he mustered out of the war “with credit.”

Photo: James Lonergan stands eighth from the left (1883).

By 1873 James settled in White Bear Lake, Minnesota with his wife Sarah and nine children, where he was a successful railroad executive. Although stricken with paralysis later in life, Lonergan served on numerous civic boards and as an officer in his Grand Army of the Republic post (the GAR was the largest organization of  Union Civil War veterans). He died in 1906 and is buried there in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

James Lonergan’s story has been an exciting addition to how I teach the Civil War in and out of the classroom. His story offers an opportunity to illustrate the complexities of soldier motivation via the 34th Wisconsin. The census records, plat map, muster rolls, newspapers accounts and biographical sketches used to glean this information provide great instruction material to teach students how history is written. Finally, Marquette High students who travel on this year’s Civil War Summer Adventure through Kentucky and Tennessee, will walk in Lonergan’s footsteps as a soldier and hopefully gain a better understanding of what this alumnus experienced during the war.

Chris Lese graduated from Marquette University High School in 1992 and (with a history degree) from Marquette University in 1997. After running his own architectural design firm for several years, he taught for a year at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha and, for the last five years, at Marquette University High School, where this semester he’s offering his popular course on the Civil War.

Works Consulted

1855 and 1860 Wisconsin State Census,” Familysearch database.

Cook, Judy, ed. A Quiet Corner of the War: The Civil War Letters of Gilbert and Esther Claflin, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, 1862-1863. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.

Easton, Augustus B. History of the Saint Croix Valley. Chicago, H.C. Cooper, Jr. and Co: 1909.

Garraghang, Gilbert. “Marquette University in the Making.” Illinois Catholic Historical Review 11 (1919): 413.

“How Men Were Drafted in the Civil War Days,” Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin, June 9, 1917.

“Our Troops in Western Kentucky, 1863.” Newspaper Clipping. Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.

Quiner, E.B. Military History of Wisconsin. Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866. Web.

Stearns, John William, ed. The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin. Milwaukee: The Evening Wisconsin, Co., 1893.


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