Civil War

Wilkie James and the measure of greatness

Wilkie James headstone

Garth “Wilkie” James, a brother of the famed novelist Henry James, is buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery. Carl A. Swanson photo

The five children of Henry James Sr. include some of America’s greatest thinkers.

Henry’s oldest son, the philosopher and educator William James, is considered the father of American psychology and his second son (and namesake) Henry James Jr. wrote 22 novels, hundreds of short stories, and many volumes of biographies, travel writing, art criticism, and memoirs. A third son, Robert, a promising artist and writer, was plagued by alcoholism throughout his adult life. Sister Alice taught history but suffered from psychological and physical illness much of her life. Alice’s sharply observed and insightful diaries, published after her death, are still widely read and admired.

Then there is the fourth son, Garth Wilkinson “Wilkie” James. Born in New York City in 1845, Wilkie was an undistinguished student, experienced many failures and died young and penniless.

Of all the James family siblings, guess who ended up in Milwaukee.

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Safe haven for deserters

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The Water Street store of Ludington, Birchard and Co., where trigger-happy Army officers were not welcome. Illustration from James S. Buck’s Pioneer History of Milwaukee.

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.

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The horseman in Lake Park

Erastus B. Wolcott statue

Erastus B. Wolcott statue, Lake Park, Milwaukee. Photo by Carl A. Swanson

This statue in Lake Park honors a man who once walked into a guy′s house, pulled a knife, and sliced the homeowner wide open as he lay sprawled on his own kitchen table. When he left, he took one of the man′s kidneys away with him.

There is more to the story … (more…)

A Confederate grave in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Calvary Cemetery Civil War grave of Joseph Shefhey.

The peaked headstone of Joseph Sheehy denotes a Confederate Civil War veteran, the only one amid a sea of rounded headstones belonging to Union veterans in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery. Photo by Carl Swanson

Update: In summer, 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration in Washington, D.C. determined the grave marker incorrectly identified the soldier as Confederate. The marker was subsequently reground with a Union-style rounded top. Additionally, it was learned the stone misspells the soldier’s name. This post has been edited to reflect the correct spelling throughout.

A distinctive headstone in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery marks the last resting place of a Confederate Civil War soldier — the only one in row upon row of Union veterans of that conflict. But was Joseph Sheehy mistakenly buried as a rebel?

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The surprising history of Milwaukee’s Soldiers’ Home

In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Soldiers Home was a popular place for Milwaukee residents to spend a summer afternoon. Postcard image, Carl Swanson collection

In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Soldiers’ Home was a popular place for Milwaukee residents to spend a Sunday afternoon. Postcard, Carl Swanson collection

Soldiers’ Home, or to use its formal name, the Northwestern Branch of National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, is a collection of 25 historic buildings on the grounds of what is today the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center at 5000 West National Ave., in Milwaukee.

The grounds are expansive, well-maintained, and peaceful but visitors are few and far between. That’s a dramatic change from the home’s early years, when a day at Soldiers’ Home was a popular outing for Milwaukee residents. As this 1900s postcard (above) shows, outdoor concerts were especially well-attended (the soldiers had a highly regarded brass band). (more…)

Downtown sculpture is an overlooked masterpiece

"Victorious Charge" is the name of the sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue near the Central Library. It memorializes the courage and sacrifice of Wisconsin soldiers in the Civil War. Photo by John Swanson

“Victorious Charge” is the name of the 1898 sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue near the Central Library. It memorializes the courage and sacrifice of Wisconsin soldiers in the Civil War. Photo by John Swanson

Milwaukeeans love to despise the city’s public art. From David Middlebrook’s deliberately lopsided Tip in Gordon Park to Gerald P. Sawyer’s Bronze Fonz on the downtown Riverwalk, just about every sculpture in town has its share of detractors.

Even in Milwaukee a piece of public art can occasionally resonate with nearly everyone. For example, the sculpture in the above photo was immediately embraced by art critics and the public alike at its unveiling in 1898. According to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War it is the state’s most important Civil War monument of the 19th century and among the finest-ever monuments dedicated to the memory of the Civil War soldier. And if you live in Milwaukee you almost certainly have passed it many times, perhaps without really noticing it.  (more…)

Decoration Day

May 30 was once set aside as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War, such as U.S. Navy Boatswain's Mate Michael McCormick, who was born in Ireland in 1833 and died on May 19, 1865 at the age of 32. He is buried in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. Photo by Carl Swanson

May 30 was once set aside as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War, such as U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, who was born in Ireland in 1833 and died on May 19, 1865 at the age of 32. He is buried in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. Photo by Carl Swanson

In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s organization for Union Civil War veterans, called for May 30th to be observed annually as a day to remember the 620,000 Americans killed in the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, the May 30th holiday gradually became known as Memorial Day. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving four holidays, including Memorial Day to specified Mondays to create three-day weekends.

On this Decoration Day, take a moment to remember U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, who served aboard the U.S.S. Signal, a 190-ton stern-wheel paddle steamer of the type derisively called a “tinclad” for the half-inch steel armor protecting its main deck, sufficient to stop a rifle bullet but offering no protection against cannon shells. Under the plating, the ships were entirely made of wood, Tinclads were cheap, expendable, and, in the words of one naval historian, “complete fire traps.”

The U.S.S. Signal was a “tinclad” paddlewheel steamer built in 1862. Disabled by Confederate artillery fire on the Red River in Louisiana on May 4, 1864, the ship was burned by its crew to prevent its capture. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

The U.S.S. Signal was a “tinclad” paddlewheel steamer built in 1862 and destroyed in battle on May 4, 1864. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

On May 4, 1864, the Signal, was proceeding downstream on the Red River in Louisiana when it was fired upon by Confederate cavalry. A running battle ensued for the next four miles until the Signal encountered sister ship U.S.S. Covington and the John Warner, an Army transport ship. Trapped near Dunn’s Bayou near Alexandria, Louisiana, the gunboats exchanged point-blank cannon fire with Confederate field artillery on both banks. At one point in the uneven fight, the Signal was hit 38 times in four minutes.

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When Lincoln came to town

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A week after delivering a speech at the Wisconsin Agricultural Society fair in Milwaukee in September 1859, a beardless Abraham Lincoln posed for this portrait by Chicago photographer S.M. Fassett. Lincoln was elected president the following year (Library of Congress photo LC-USZ62-7727).

Before Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, and before the bloody and prolonged war that kept it the United States, the citizens of Milwaukee had an opportunity to hear Abraham Lincoln speak and see for themselves the up-and-coming Illinois politician.

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