Wednesday, November 6, 2013

More Civil War Stories

(This is a continuation of my previous post, which was about a bus tour - "Bringing The Civil War Home To Wisconsin" - which I was a part of.  During the tour as the bus was traveling from one place to another, I gave some personal Civil War stories from my family that are included in this post.)

When we reached Kenosha on the second day of our tour, our motor coach drove to the renovated lakeside area of the city.  After lunch, we went to the Civil War Museum located on 1st Avenue next to Kenosha Harbor.  This is a new and magnificent facility that focuses on the Civil War and how it related to the six Midwest states of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  We were given guided tours through the museum’s main floor display that is called “The Fiery Trial”.   The exhibits and displays, some of which are interactive with audio and video technology, take you on a journey starting in a Midwest village when the war began.  The displays then continue through the steps taken to becoming a soldier in the various state units and going off to war.  Camp life at the war front, battles and skirmishes, hospital care and convalescence and other wartime experiences are graphically depicted in life size dioramas, which concludes with the soldiers return to their Midwest homes after the war ended.
            The display also includes several interactive displays that draw people into the experience.  One of these displays was a full size railroad car that was partially filled with soldiers going off to the war.  When you sat next to one of the lifelike robots, it would turn to you and tell you the real story of a soldier heading off to war.  Moving on to another seat, you could hear another story told.  At another part of the display, a steamboat heading home from the war had the same kind of display.  As you walked around the boat and neared an individual standing there, the robot would relay another tale of actual Civil War experiences.
            The upstairs of the museum houses a rotating display, which at this time tells about the role of Midwestern troops in the Battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg.  The museum is also a research center and includes a library with over 2,200 books on the Civil War.  Numerous collections of Civil War era letters are archived at the research center and 85 rolls of microfilm of Civil War documents and papers are available for research and study.  Near the first floor main entrance a Veterans Memorial Gallery honors all veterans in American conflicts.  The displays in this gallery depict artifacts, drawings and photographs from each war and conflict where Midwesterners served. 
The museum also has a theater area where we were treated to a wonderful portrayal of a remarkable Wisconsin woman involved in the Civil War.  Cordelia Harvey was the wife of Louis P. Harvey, who was elected Governor of Wisconsin in November of 1861.  They both became very involved in helping the troops from their state going off to war.  In the spring of 1862, they raised supplies for those Wisconsin troops and headed south to the front to help deliver the relief supplies.  While visiting at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee after the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, Governor Harvey was drowned in an accident during a nighttime transfer of steamboats.
After a period of mourning, Mrs. Harvey championed her husband’s cause by working as a medical inspector at the front, raising funds and delivering medical and hospital supplies and visiting the wounded.  Her relentless efforts to help the soldiers in so many ways led to them calling her “The Wisconsin Angel”.  Eventually she went to Washington D.C. and met with President Lincoln on two occasions to petition for military hospitals in Wisconsin for care away from the front for wounded soldiers.  The President relented to her pleas and Cordelia Harvey would eventually open three Veteran’s Hospitals in Wisconsin and established a Soldiers Orphans’ Home in Madison.  Mary Kabakik, a Kenosha actress who was the first person historical interpreter (more information at of Mrs. Harvey, presented an emotional and inspiring portrayal for our group.  After her wonderful performance, Mary talked to us about her research into the Cordelia Harvey role that she delivered so flawlessly and of her emotional commitment to the role.  For me, Mary Kabakik’s performance and discussion were the highlight of our Civil War trip.
As the bus headed north to Milwaukee, I shared with the tour group another story of a Civil War soldier from Wisconsin, this time someone from my own family.
George Melvin had first come to Wisconsin in 1854.  He and his wife Mary Ann and four small children settled in Bad Ax County along the West Fork of the Kickapoo River, where they carved a homestead out of the wilderness.  George was a patriotic man as evidenced by the names of his children; Zachary Taylor – named after the famous American general and 12th president of the United States, John Perley – named after a famous preacher of the time, Winfield Scott – famous American general in charge of Union forces when the Civil War began, George Washington – named for the father of our country, and born on May 9, 1861 (less than a month after the bombardment of Ft Sumter to start the Civil War) – Abraham Lincoln Melvin.
Probably due to his patriotic fervor to save the Union, George enlisted for military service on November 18, 1861 at the age of 36.  He left his wife and six children – Zachary was the oldest at 13, and enlisted in the army in the village of Ontario.  Eventually he became a member of Company D, 18th Infantry Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteers.  After being haphazardly organized and trained at Camp Trowbridge in Milwaukee, the 18th Regiment saw its first action in Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.  As part of the 18th, Melvin and his fellow soldiers continued fighting at the Battle of Corinth in Mississippi and crossed the state of Tennessee in pursuit of the Rebel army.  On December 3, 1863, Confederate forces captured George Melvin near Memphis.  Today, official government records list this date as his death, but it wasn’t. Eventually he ended up in Andersonville Prison in Georgia in March of 1864.
In letters written home to his wife, George told of how he was assigned to the hospital unit at the infamous Confederate prison.  His main job was to dig graves for those who died at the prison.  Since the prison was little more than a death camp, George’s job was never ending.  According to family stories, George wrote that he was fed well and in good health, but he feared that one of the graves that he dug might soon be his own.  However, he managed and George somehow survived at Andersonville. 
When General Sherman’s Union forces drew near the prison in the spring of 1865, the Confederacy moved many of the surviving prisoners at Andersonville to other sites, including Camp Salisbury in North Carolina.  At that camp, between five and eleven thousand Union prisoners died of disease or starvation and were buried in a series of trenches there.  No records were kept of the mass burials.  Although there is no official record of where George Melvin was buried, it was believed by his family that he died on the march away from Andersonville or that he may be in one of those mass graves at Camp Salisbury in North Carolina.  He never came back to the Kickapoo Valley.
At the Salem Cemetery in rural Vernon County, near where many of George Melvin’s children and grandchildren lived, and next to the gravestone for his wife Mary (who passed in 1899), there is a simple tombstone and a Civil War veteran’s memorial medallion which holds an American flag for a fallen Union soldier, lying forever far away from his home.
The third day of the excursion was spent at Wade House, a Wisconsin Historical Society site located hallway between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan at the small hamlet of Greenbush.  Each fall, Wade House hosts a Civil War reenactment and our tour spent the day there for the occasion.  It was the largest gathering of Civil War re- enactors in the state and provided an interesting look back as the two sides met at the Battle of Chickamauga, a battle fought in northern Georgia in September of 1863.
When we first arrived, our tour group was transported to a command center near the battlefield where we heard from General Grant and President Lincoln.  They talked about their views of the war in September of 1863.  Portrayers Frank Beaman (Grant) and Fritz Klein (Lincoln) provided wonderful first-person information on the state of the war for our group.  Later that morning, many in the tour group visited the two army camps located near the battleground and heard nurses tell of medical practices in the battlefield hospital set up nearby.  A skirmish broke out as the Confederate artillery opened fire on a hill position commanded by Union forces.  A cannon from a Wisconsin artillery unit was perilously close to capture, but was saved by a rousing cavalry battle that repelled the Rebel advance.
Later that afternoon, the battle began in earnest with a twenty-minute artillery duel between the Union and Rebel artillery pieces.  A dozen cannon blasted away at each other as cavalry units on both sides tried to flank the lines.  Suddenly a large army of Confederate infantry emerged from the woods and attacked the fortified hill position.  The cannon from the Wisconsin artillery unit was captured and all members of the ordinance crew were killed.  Soon the Rebs amassed and the infantry let loose a deadly fuselage of fire against the Union troops.  Charge after charge by the Rebels was repulsed, but eventually the Confederacy carried the day and drove the Boys in Blue from the field.  The Southern army had won the battle and stopped the Union campaign from moving into Georgia.
On the bus ride back to Madison that afternoon, I told the group another Civil War story taken from my family.
Phillip Steinmetz was 20 years old and lived in Union County, Pennsylvania when the Civil War began.  He was a student at Lewisburg Academy at the time, preparing to become a Lutheran minister as his grandfather and great-grandfather had before him.  He attended one more year of college, and then enlisted in Company E of the 142nd Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers on August 20, 1862.
            On December 13th of that year, Phillip’s regiment was involved in the ill-fated attack on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia.  During the afternoon portion of the attack, Phillip was shot in the arm as he handed a rifle to a comrade (who was killed at the same time in the fusillade of gunfire).  The mini-ball shattered the bones in Phillip’s forearm and when taken to the hospital tent, army surgeons prepared to amputate his arm.  But Phillip begged them to save his arm and they did not do the surgery, possibly because of the many more serious wounds that the doctors had to deal with during the battle.  Eventually after Phillip stayed several months in the hospital, the arm healed, but he only had partial control of his hand (his fingers remained curled for the rest of his life).  He was discharged from the 142nd on March 9, 1863 and returned to his home in Union County.
            Before the war was over, Philip moved with his family to Seneca County, Ohio where he and his brothers worked in the shipyards and war warehouses.  After the war, Phillip became a farmer and married Dorothea Krause, a Seneca County girl, and they immediately began raising a family.  In 1875, Phillip, and two of Dorothea’s brothers set out to the West to look for new farms and homes.  Dorothea and their five children would come later when land was found.  The men first looked at farmland in southern Indiana, but found it much too Southern (as in CSA Southern) for their tastes.  They moved on toward Wisconsin, where they heard that cheap and good land was abundant.  As they were driving the wagons west, Phillip’s arm that was wounded in the war began to swell due to the constant vibrations and stress of driving the team.  Stopping in the Chicago area, a doctor there prescribed that the arm should be amputated at the elbow.  Phillip again refused so the doctor cut open the arm to reduce the swelling and drained some of the liquid.  After resuming the trip towards Wisconsin, the wounded arm continued to fester.  Phillip saw a doctor in Waukesha County, who opened up his arm and removed several large bone splinters that had worked themselves loose from the original war wound.  After several weeks of rehabilitation, Phillip and the Krause’s drove their wagons across Wisconsin to Bad Ax County where they staked out claims on over three hundred acres located on Morning Star Ridge on the eastern side of the county.  That fall, Dorothea and the children arrived by train at Union Center, the nearest railroad depot to the farms, where Phillip and her brothers met them.  The family was soon settled into their new home on Morning Star Ridge.  In Wisconsin, six more boys were added to the Steinmetz family and the ten brothers and sister Mary all grew up in the La Farge area of Vernon County.
            Phillip became a charter member of the Grand Army of The Republic (GAR) Post #154 in nearby Star (Seelyburg) when it was founded.  Phillip attended the GAR veteran’s reunions, which were held annually in La Farge, with pride for the rest of his life.  He passed away in 1908.  On his grave in the Bear Creek Cemetery located outside of La Farge, an American flag held in a GAR veteran’s bronze medallion marks the spot where a veteran of the Civil War rests.