Wood National Cemetery

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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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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