In his Pioneer History of Milwaukee, early settler James S. Buck notes the fledgling city became a safe-haven for U.S. Army deserters in the 1830s.
In those years, Buck wrote, the existence of hell as a punishment for the wicked in the hereafter was much debated among theologians but an earthly hell, “certainly as far as the common soldiers were concerned,” was a reality. It was in Portage, Wis., and it was called Fort Winnebago.
The fort, built in 1828 by three companies of the Army’s First Infantry, served as a base of operations during the Black Hawk War. The fort was initially under the command of David E. Twiggs.
Twiggs, Buck wrote, “was notorious for acts of cruelty, tyranny, and oppression to those who were unfortunate enough to be under his command.” Even settlers in the vicinity of the fort were not safe, for Twiggs and his officers were “merciless tyrants” and there was no appeal from their judgments in that remote region.
Not surprisingly, soldiers deserted frequently. They found shelter and sympathy in Milwaukee, where Twiggs’ cruel reputation was well known. Army fugitives – and the occasional squads of soldiers seeking to arrest them – were commonplace sights in early Milwaukee.
“Many a race for liberty has been witnessed on these streets,” Buck wrote. “Among those who had sought refuge in Milwaukee, where he had a brother living, was a man by the name of Mason, a smart, intelligent young fellow, who was unfortunate enough to be discovered, while seated upon a horse at the foot of Wisconsin Street, by some officers from Fort Winnebago, who were stopping at the old Milwaukee House, and ordered to surrender. Well knowing his fate, if taken, he leaped from the horse and made a rush for the old corner store of Ludington, Birchard & Co. which he succeeded in reaching, the officers being in hot pursuit.”
As Mason entered the door of the Water Street business, one of the pursuing officers wildly fired two pistol shots into the store.
“Now the sudden appearance of Mason into the store as if thrown from a catapult, with the officers in pursuit, let alone the report of the pistol and the whistling of the bullets, caused no little excitement inside as well as out, particularly among the different members of the firm, two of whom happened to be present, one of whom, Nelson Ludington, (seated on a countertop) instantly executed a backhanded somersault,” Buck wrote. “No prairie dog could have done it quicker or more natural. It only wanted the yelp to make it perfect. Had the bullet been aimed at him it would have been at least five minutes too late, so quick were his movements.”
Mason ran through the store, out the back door, and up the riverbank to present-day Kilbourn Avenue where he swam across and made good his escape.
As the pursuing officers entered the store, the other member of the firm present, 27-year-old Harrison Ludington, “seized the would-be murderer by the throat, and giving him what might be called a ‘slathering calamity’ right between the eyes that made him see a whole constellation of stars, laid him over the counter, where he held him with one hand while he wrenched the pistol from him with the other, carried it to the door and discharged the contents of the four remaining barrels into the ground, thus rendering the weapon harmless for further mischief.”
A crowd gathered and several urged the immediate lynching of the officers. Others were in favor of simply throwing them in the nearby Milwaukee River. After a few tense minutes, during which the officers were informed, “in language more expressive than elegant, that this was not Fort Winnebago, and that if shooting and torturing soldiers was a common pastime there, it would not be tolerated in Milwaukee,” the officers were released unharmed.
“This, as far as I know, was the last attempt ever made to arrest deserters in Milwaukee, although it was well known that quite a number made their home here for several years. It was a business that did not pay,” Buck wrote.
Harrison Ludington, the shopkeeper who delivered that famous ‘slathering calamity’ of a punch, would go on to serve two terms as a Milwaukee alderman, three terms as mayor of the city, and, in 1876, he became the 13th governor of Wisconsin.
In an 1875 editorial, the Wisconsin State Journal described Ludington as “a bluff, outspoken man who scorns concealment, trickery and demagogueism. Of all men in the state, he is one of the most conspicuous for open square dealing and frank expression of opinion.”
Ludington died in 1891 at the age of 78. He is buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.
Fort Winnebago was abandoned in 1845, and most of its buildings burned in an 1856 fire. A surviving building has been restored and is open to the public on a seasonal basis. The fort’s notorious commander, David Twiggs, went on to serve as a Confederate general in the Civil War.
Sources: “Pioneer History of Milwaukee: Volume 3, Milwaukee Under the Charter, from 1847 to 1853, Inclusive” By James S. Buck, printed in Milwaukee in 1884 by Symes, Swain & Co. and Wisconsin State Journal Aug. 30, 1875 edition.