Belgian immigrants during the Civil War
Northeast Wisconsin saw a huge influx of immgrants from Belgium in the mid 1800's. It began in 1852 when two Belgian families decided to make the move to America. They were unhappy with the monarchy and sought what is now known as the "American dream". Belgians then flooded Brown, Door and Kewaunee counties. They settled towns named after cities in the Old Country, such as Brussels, Namur and Rosiere. To this day those three counties still hold a significant amount of people with Belgian roots.
It wasn't long before the new immigrants were forced into major issue the United States was facing, the Civil War. War rosters were first filled by volunteers. When newspapers made more reports of casualties, the number of volunteers fell, forcing states like Wisconsin to start a draft. Belgians thought they were safe because they didn't consider themselves citizens, but the government stretched definitions to fit most men. In order for immigrants to get land, they had to sign a "Declaration of Intent" which said they intended to become American citizens at some point. This made them eligible for the draft.
Each town's assessor was assigned to gather a list of men, age 18-45, healthy enough to fight. Belgian families felt they were unfairly targeted by those in charge of drafts. In Door County, 40 of the 63 men drafted were Belgian. There were options for men to skip the draft, but not many, especially Belgian men, were successful. Doctors were flooded by potential soldiers claiming disabilities, which would allow them to stay home. Among the ailments claimed, there were hernias, lameness, poor sight or hearing, varicose veins and ulcers. In September 1862, Dr. H. Pearce verified disability 246 of the 454 men that sought a way out. Of those, 21 were Belgian. Shortly after, the first Civil War draft in Wisconsin was in November 1862. Finances surely came into play when it came to paying out of the draft as ov 1863. Those who were desperate and able would pay $300 to get out of the war. A total of 862 men paid this, with a mere 18 of them being Belgian. The last option was for the draftee to find a substitute. This came into effect in 1864. It was difficult to find someone willing to go to war, but a substitute could have been a full-blooded Native American, a minor, or a non-citizen.
After it seemed to many Belgian people that the draft was fixed, emotions began to run high. One of the biggest issues was the language barrier. Few Belgian immigrants spoke English, therefore could not understand why they were being drafted into a war they had no intent of being a part of. Anger soon overcame these men. They would form marches with clubs, pitchforks and guns. They wanted to see fair enrollment processes. In one of the most explosive demonstrations, colonists formed and marched into the city of Green Bay. They stood outside Senator Howe's home and demanded action. How addressed the crowd from his home. But because of the language barrier, the immigrants could not understand, Howe felt threatened and fled the city. Not feeling satisfied, the mob continued to march around the town until they found a fellow Belgian, O.J. Brice. Brice was able to calm the crowd in their native French. He explained that the drafing process would be filled with justice and fairness. The group was satified with his explanation in their own language. They then dissembled and returned home without damage or arrests.