Carolyn and I recently participated in a bus tour around southern Wisconsin that focused on how the Civil War impacted the state. Sponsored by the Friends of the Wisconsin Historical Society and arranged by past-president Chuck Hatfield of La Farge, the tour was titled Bringing The Civil War Home To Wisconsin! The three-day excursion began in Madison then traveled to Beloit, Milton, Kenosha, and Milwaukee before ending at the Wade House grounds in Greenbush near Sheboygan. Although the tour never came close to the Kickapoo Valley, the area’s history was well represented on the trip.
At the first stop in our state’s capital, we were given a tour of Forest Hills Cemetery. This facility has an entire section of graves of men who died at nearby Camp Randall while training to go off to war. Many of the men from Vernon County who served for the Union trained at this large military camp in Madison. In another section of the cemetery is the “Confederate Rest” where over two hundred men who served the Confederacy are buried. They were some of the prisoners captured at the battle for Island #10 on the Mississippi River (an early Union victory for control of that river) and brought north to Camp Randall for a short while. This final resting place for the CSA prisoners is the only Confederate cemetery maintained in the northern states and the Stars & Bars flies over the graves located there on one day each year.
Later the tour group moved to the State Historical Society Museum on the UW campus. We were shown Civil War artifacts that are stored in the museum’s archives. Among the items that we were shown was the Civil War drum of Samuel Arms. Sam Arms was a 12-year-old slave in Georgia who was unofficially adopted by a Wisconsin infantry company and became their drummer boy throughout the rest of the war. After the war was concluded, he eventually settled in the Valley area of eastern Vernon County and raised a large family there. His family has donated the drum to the State Historical Society for display at the museum, which is located on the UW Campus.
Later, after lunch at the University Club, the tour group was enthralled to hear from General Ulysses S. Grant. Frank Beaman of Mineral Point, a member of the tour, has been doing first person portrayals of the Civil War general for some time. His spot-on presentation to us was as President Grant in his later years when he was writing his memoirs near the end of his life. The first-person account of the famous American leader as he told of his amazing journey in life was very illuminating for us all.
As our motor coach traveled south on I-94 that afternoon, I gave the first of my in-transit stories about men from Vernon County (then called Bad Ax County) and their role in the war. I told how in 1861, after the fall of Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, then Wisconsin Governor Alexander Randall made a call for Wisconsin men to enlist in the Union cause. In Bad Ax County, that call was answered with a rally on April 24, 1861 in Viroqua. Funds were immediately collected to organize a fife and drum corps to help rally the recruits and intensify patriotic desires to serve. Company I was formed by June with Bad Ax County men and that unit arrived in Madison at Camp Randall in July and were mustered into service. That company would eventually be made a part of the 6th Regiment, which was part of the famous Iron Brigade – one of the legendary units that fought in the war for the Union army.
Later, in December of 1861, Vernon County men formed Company C of the 18th Regiment, known locally as the “Bad Ax Tigers”. One of the leaders of that unit was Jeremiah Rusk, who had once been the county sheriff. Rusk demonstrated remarkable leadership skills with the unit and eventually became a general in the army. He participated in the siege and capture of Vicksburg and was with General Sherman on his “March to the Sea”. A fellow officer said of General Rusk, “He rode farther into hell than I would care to go, and he was the only man I have ever seen who would take such risks.” Later Rusk would continue his leadership skills developed in the war by serving Wisconsin as a U.S. Congressman and as Governor from 1882-89. He was the Secretary of Agriculture in the cabinet of President Benjamin Harrison from 1889-93.
Returning to the tour, we had supper that night at The Butterfly Club in rural Beloit. After the meal, Kevin and Patsy Alderson of La Farge talked to the group about their Civil War book, Letters Home To Sarah. They told the story of Guy Taylor, a Dane County bonus enlistee, who wrote amazing letters home to his wife, Sarah, telling about his observations of the war. After the war was concluded, the Taylor’s would move to a Town of Clinton farm in Vernon County and then into the village of Cashton. Kevin and Patsy’s story of how they happened to find the collection of Civil War letters, an amazing story in itself, was also shared with our group.
The following morning, the tour made a stop at the Milton House Museum in Milton, Wisconsin. The old roadside inn, built in an interesting hexagonal configuration, has been restored beautifully and includes an original 1850’s - era cabin that served as a summer kitchen for the inn. That cabin also secretly was an access to a tunnel that led into the basement of the inn, where runaway slaves attempting to become free were hidden. The Milton House is Wisconsin’s only officially recognized Underground Railroad site. Our guided tour of the handsomely restored crossroads inn was very interesting.
On the way out of the museum, I noticed a wall that listed the names of the many contributors to the museum. In one square were the names of Walter and Joan Steinmetz – long time residents of the city of Milton. Walter, the son of Bill and Almeda Steinmetz, grew up in the La Farge area and had passed away only two days prior to our visit to the Milton House.
As we drove east towards Kenosha later that morning, I shared another Civil War story from Vernon County. I told the story of Isaac Richard (Dick) Lawton, who had left his farm, located along the Kickapoo south of La Farge and had enlisted for service to the Union on February 5, 1865. Dick Lawton soon became very ill in the army and rheumatic seizures had rendered his legs useless. According to the Lawton family history, U.S. Army doctors contacted Melissa Lawton, Dick’s wife, for her consent to amputate both of her husband’s legs. Instead, she told the doctors to send her husband home – “We’ll care for him here”, was her reply. When her husband arrived home in late May of 1865, Melissa could do little for her invalid husband except provide him the comfort of home and family.
Later, some Winnebago Indians, who returned to the Kickapoo Valley and their former homes each year, came to the Lawton farm to set up their camp for the summer. They went to the house to visit their old friends and noticed Dick’s sorrowful condition. The Winnebago immediately set out to help Melissa with his care. “At once full of sympathy, they made valuable suggestions as to treatment, and offered some of their remedies gathered from Mother Nature and proven through many years of experience. Before long Dick took a turn for the better. The patient and loving ministrations of his wife, seconded by the virtues of the Indian remedies, paid off tremendously and in a surprisingly short time Dick was back on his feet.” The story is told in the family history of how the help from his Winnebago friends probably saved Dick Lawton’s life.