Frank Haskell was born on July 13, 1828, in Vermont. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1854 and settled in Madison, entering the law firm of Orton, Atwood & Orton.
He participated fully in Madison society, serving as president of the Madison Institute (a debating society) and reading the Declaration of Independence at the annual July 4th celebration on the Capitol lawn. He was also an officer in the Governor’s Guard, a military unit organized in 1858 to begin training local men for the coming war.
He demonstrated his bravery during a fire that struck a row of buildings a block from the Square on June 8, 1857. Then a lawyer with the firm Atwood & Haskell, he saw that the cornice of Bruen’s Block, just across a narrow alley from the fire, had caught. He climbed to the roof of Bruen’s Block – four stories up - with several pails of water, balanced on the eaves, leaned over, and put out the fire, saving Bruen’s Block.
He enlisted as first lieutenant in Company I of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry upon the outbreak of the war. He fought at Orange Court House, Stephensburg, Rappahannock Station, Sulphur Springs, and Gainesville. In April 1862 he was named aide-de-camp to General John Gibbon when he took command of what soon became known as the Iron Brigade, fighting under him at South Mountain, Antietam, Second Bull Run, and Fredericksburg.
He visited Madison in January 1863 a month after that battle. The Wisconsin Daily Patriot commented that “the public believes Haskell should be colonel of a Wisconsin regiment.”
He returned to the Iron Brigade and fought at Chancellorsville and then Gettysburg. When Pickett’s charge broke through the Union line on Cemetery Ridge on the third day of that battle, Haskell, the only mounted officer on the field, rallied the retreating Union troops and threw back the Confederate assault despite himself being wounded. After the war Gibbon wrote: “Haskell did more than any one man to repulse Pickett’s assault at Gettysburg and he did the part of a general there.”
Haskell was promoted to colonel of the 36th Wisconsin on February 9, 1864 and began training his men at Camp Randall on March 23. On May 10 the regiment left Madison and a week later was in the Union reserve at the battle of Spottsylvania Court House. On June 3 he led his men forward at Cold Harbor, three-fourths of a mile across an open field under heavy artillery fire. The assault was the bloodiest fifteen minutes of the war, costing the Union forces thousands of lives. Leading his men, Haskell was struck in the head by a bullet and instantly killed.
His body was returned to Portage, his brother’s residence, where he was buried.
Haskell wrote his brother a letter about Gettysburg soon after the battle. It was printed as a book fifteen years after the war. The Battle of Gettysburg – A Soldier’s First-Hand Account is now recognized as a classic of war literature.