PART 2 Beyond the Battle:
The Flags of the Iron Brigade, 1863-1918
By Richard H. Zeitlin
STATE officials, politicians, military figures, and charitable workers recognized the importance of the Iron Brigade's Civil War flags, as well as those of other state units, well before the conflict ended in 1865. Some people believed that the battle flags symbolized the Union cause: artifacts to be forever associated with the sacrifices required to maintain national unity. After the war, politicians used the banners to advertise themselves during electoral campaigns. Legislators passed acts ostensibly to preserve them. Veterans rallied behind their tattered folds. Museums were created to house them. The flags became relics, emblematic of state and national pride.
The Civil War battle flags played an important part in the maintenance of state cultural and political traditions, particularly during the lifetime of the generation that had experienced the Civil War.
Even today, 120 years after those momentous events, the flags evoke an emotional response from those who view them. Between 1863 and 1918, the flags participated in a variety of significant events. Before 1865, the flags were used to encourage charitable donations for sick and wounded soldiers as well as to promote enlistments into the army. Between 1866 and 1870, Wisconsin's Radical Republican politicians used the flags to dramatize the Reconstruction issue, to blame the South as well as the Democratic party for starting the war, and to organize state veterans into their political camp. The flags become associated with the ebb and flow of what became known nationally as "Waving the Bloody Shirt" politics by stimulating wartime memories. They were featured at mass gatherings and rallies during the nation's Centennial celebration in 1876. The Civil War flags helped attract thousands of Wisconsin veterans into the ranks of regimental associations and into military fraternities such as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), especially after 1880. Once organized, the veterans successfully lobbied Congress for the adoption of pension legislation on behalf of Union soldiers which cost the federal treasury hundreds of millions of dollars after 1890. It is little wonder that citizens of Wisconsin took an interest in the status of state Civil War flags. Selected flags of Wisconsin Iron Brigade regiments first began appearing at public events in 1863 when the United States Sanitary Commission, a national relief agency, used them as part of a fund-raising fair in Chicago. Sanitary Commission volunteers contributed to the war effort by caring for sick and wounded soldiers. As the war dragged on, caring for the injured became an even larger responsibility and one which required considerable sums of money.
The Wisconsin regiments of the Iron Brigade in front of the Milwaukee courthouse, 1861.
Sanitary Commission's most important mechanism for raising war relief funds, the "sanitary fair" Hoge and Livermore originated the idea of the sanitary fair, which functioned by offering donated produce for sale as well as the wares of manufacturers and salesmen. As an attracting feature, exhibits of historical artifacts and war trophies-or curiosities-went on view. Hoge and Livermore organized the nation's first sanitary fair. Popularly named the "Woman's Fair" or the "Pioneer Fair," the Northwestern Sanitary Fair opened in Chicago on October 28, 1863. After paying fifty cents admission, visitors could view a selection of war trophies on display at the Cook County Court House. Mrs. E. H. Carr of Madison brought the battle flags of six Wisconsin units, including the Iron Brigade's Second and Sixth Wisconsin regiments, which were displayed on the east wall of the courthouse. Thousands visited the displays, and the fair netted $86,000 in two weeks.
"More attractive than aught else," reported an observer, "were the battle torn flags. . . .
A heartfelt and tearful interest clustered around
them: and though rent in shreds, discolored, soiled, and blood stained, they lent a lustre
to the walls. . . . "Noble witnesses of the valor of Wisconsin's brave
sons" is how a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter described the state's regimental banners.
The Chicago sanitary fair touched off a series of fairs throughout the country. Three other fairs took place in the Old Northwest, and Iron Brigade battle flags were present at all of them. The first of these took place at Quincy, Illinois. Among the historical attractions were ten "old flags" from various Wisconsin regiments. State Quartermaster General Nathaniel F. Lund included a regimental banner from the Iron Brigade's Sixth Wisconsin and the national colors of the Seventh Wisconsin in the group he sent to Quincy in October, 1864. Lund advised fair organizers of the importance of the artifacts, observing, "these colors are kept by the State of Wisconsin as sacredly as a trust committed to her by her sons who have suffered for the life of the nation." Six months later, the flags were again dispatched to Illinois.
This time nearly all of the colors of the Iron Brigade, forty-three flags of additional Wisconsin regiments, ten captured Confederate flags, and assorted prizes of war appeared at the second or Great Northwest Sanitary Fair which opened in Chicago in May, 1865.
|Torn and tattered, the national color of the Second Wisconsin was posed by a photographer at one of the 1863 sanitary fairs held in Illinois.
|After its return to Wisconsin in 1863, the 1861 issue national color of the Sixth Wisconsin was sent to at least four sanitary fairs to assist in fund raising for the Sanitary Conimission.
General James M. Lynch reminded Chicago fair organizers that Wisconsin's battle flags "have a value to the people of this state which cannot be estimated," and he urged that the "utmost care" be taken to prevent damaging the "relic" flags." The Great Fair was immensely successful. General William T. Sherman visited the fair, as did thousands of soldiers and other citizens. The fair netted $270,000 in four weeks. As soon as the Great Northwest Sanitary Fair ended, the flags and other war trophies were taken to Milwaukee, to be displayed at the Soldiers Home Fair. In the rush to ship the trophies to Milwaukee, however, a Confederate flag captured by Wisconsin troops at Vicksburg was lost. Quartermaster General Lynch expressed "deep grief" over the loss, explaining to fair authorities that "the trophies possess a peculiar value, which cannot be estimated in money.. . State officials never recovered the lost banner.
A closeup of some soldiers on Main Street durin the 1865 Soldiers Home Fair Parade in Milwaukee.
THE Soldiers Home Fair was the largest charitable
effort undertaken by Wisconsin's citizens during the Civil War era. Mrs. Lydia
Hewitt and Mrs. Henrietta Colt of Milwaukee helped provide leadership and direction
for the event. State legislators appropriated $5,000 towards the purchase of the federal
military hospital in Milwaukee and for transforming the West Water Street building
into an asylum for disabled veterans. Proceeds of the Soldiers Home Fair provided funds
for the construction of a new soldiers' home in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. (The
Soldiers Home Fair opened on June 28, 1865, in a specially constructed building located on
the corner of Huron Street and West
Broadway. The war had been over for just two months. "A long night of gloom had passed away," observed an Iron Brigade veteran who
attended the carnival-like event. "No pencil can adequately describe the joy. . . .)
Fair organizers netted $100,183.88. Additional
contributions raised the amount by nearly $10,000. The fifty-five Wisconsin battle flags
were returned to Madison in July, after the Soldiers Home Fair ended its two-week run. The
battle flags had demonstrated their widespread appeal, not only to veterans and their
supporters but to the general public as well. While sanitary fair volunteers had used Iron
Brigade and other unit flags to stimulate attendance, recruiters had been using them to
fill the army's depleted ranks by encouraging enlistments prior to the war's end. In
January, 1864, for example, Brigadier General Edward S. Bragg of Fond du Lac, who had
risen from a captaincy to command of the Iron Brigade, led the furloughed veterans of the
Sixth Wisconsin through the streets of Milwaukee to a reception city officials arranged in
their honor. Bragg and Brigadier General Lucius Fairchild of Madison, who was still
recovering from the loss of his left arm at Gettysburg and was now Secretary of State
under the administration of Governor James T. Lewis, harangued Milwaukeeans who flocked to
the Chamber of Commerce building to witness the event, challenging young men to volunteer
for war service. Fairchild brought one of the flags of the Sixth Infantry with him from
Madison. "Continuous cheers" greeted the veterans and their flag, reported Frank
A. Flower, a historian and political ally of Fairchild present at the occasion.
Lucius Fairchild appreciated the emotional power of the battle flags. His own association
with the Iron Brigade's Second Wisconsin Infantry had left the one-armed, aspiring
politician with a keen interest in the public appearances made by Iron Brigade flags.
Fairchild stood under the flags of the Second Wisconsin in Madison in June of 1864, for
instance, when the command returned home to muster out. Fairchild had the regiment's old
banners displayed in the park surrounding the state capitol while he reminded the
veterans of their duty to become virtuous citizens by taking an interest in political
affairs. It had also been Fairchild who assembled the flags and other artifacts to be
exhibited at the Chicago Sanitary Fair and the Soldiers Home Fair, where those of the
Iron Brigade were so conspicuously represented .
Wisconsin began dismantling its military apparatus after the Confederacy surrendered in April, 1865. Returning soldiers deposited thousands of muskets, numerous artillery pieces with related equipment, tents, camp gear, ammunition, and other accouterments with officials in Madison. No armory building existed. The amount of war material overwhelmed the storage capacity of the state, and arms and equipment "are scattered all about the Capitol building and park," reported the state quartermaster general. Some people expressed concern over public safety because of the haphazardly stored war supplies. Wisconsin officials naturally sought to acquire the banners of the returning regiments. Efforts were made to collect, catalog, and protect them. During the war, state lawmakers had required regimental officers to turn over their war-torn banners before receiving new sets of replacement colors. This process, largely accomplished in 1864, left the state in possession of forty-nine national, thirty-nine regimental, and sixteen smaller flags and guidons. The quartermaster general's office took charge of the "honorable rags," repairing some of the damage occasioned by battles and field use. "They have been put in the best possible condition that could be devised for their preservation," reported Quartermaster General Lund in October, 1864. He went on to mention the fact that hundreds of citizens had visited his office to see the flags, "the noblest record that can exist, of the bravery of her [Wisconsin's] sons."
After the millions of men in the Union Army had finally mustered out, certain regimental flags were to have been sent to Washington for federal safekeeping. Governor James T. Lewis, however, requested permission from the War Department authorizing Wisconsin to keep all the flags of its own regiments.Lund explained, ". . . the possession of these colors is very desirable in order to complete the collection of flags borne during the war by Wisconsin regiments ." Washington agreed, and the state quartermaster general's office catalogued the regimental colors along with a record of the engagements in which each unit had participated. Lund then had the flags "thoroughly repaired" and stored in a ,'mixed pile" in the basement of the capitol.
Lund and Lynch had acquired title to 195 state battle flags. Repairs had been carried out. Public exhibitions had demonstrated the interest that some citizens had for the banners. Visitors to the quartermaster general's office, many of whom were ex-soldiers, reinforced the belief that the flags had unique significance. "Proper exhibition," Adjutant General Gaylord therefore concluded, "is a duty which we owe ... to the gratification of the living and the memory of the dead." Lynch echoed Gaylord's sentiments concerning the desirability of some form of display.
More important than military supplies and battle
flags, the end of the war had reintroduced over 70,000 veterans into the social, economic,
and political life of Wisconsin. [Wisconsin was credited with providing 91,379
soldiers during 1861-1865. Of that number, 12,301 died from all causes; 5,782 men
re-enlisted and were, therefore, counted twice. Thus, 73,296
Wisconsinites survived the war (a mortality rate of approximately 14 per cent).] The total number of votes cast by Wisconsinites in 1864, a presidential year, amounted to 149,342. If they chose to exercise their franchise, veterans represented a sizable portion of Wisconsin's electorate. The ex-soldiers faced important adjustment problems when they returned home.
The procession of the soldiers during the 1865 parade.
Women participating in the Soldiers Home Fair Parade.
The number of wounded men has never even been
officially counted. As with wounds, sickness contracted in the South continued to kill or
incapacitate, limbless, blind, injured, diseased, and otherwise handicapped soliders
returned to a society where social service agencies hardly existed. The widows and orphans
of soldiers were especially hard-pressed. Jobs, trades, and farms had been taken over by
others during the war, leaving the task of reentering the economy to the veterans' own
resources. Considering the size of the veteran population, the war experiences, they had
shared, and the readjustment challenges they faced, it is not surprising that politicians
eagerly sought to become the soldier's friend. Bounty equalizations, pensions for those
obviously disabled by wounds and disease, benefits for widows and dependents, creation of
a state-supported soldiers' orphans home, and preferential consideration for government
jobs became issues in which veterans took a keen interest. When Lucius Fairchild took
office as governor in January, 1866, the level of political activities associated with
veterans' affairs increased. Fairchild and his associates helped to organize Civil War
veterans, encouraging them to vote as a bloc, and especially to tie their futures to the
Republican party. Fairchild used the Civil War battle flags to further his career. They
became advertising devices in emotional anti-Southern, anti-Democratic political
activities-Bloody Shirt campaigns-through which Fairchild and his supporters attained and
kept themselves in office. A dynamic and impassioned speaker, the thirty-four-year-old
Fairchild became a regionally important politician, the first of Wisconsin's seven
soldier-governors, a national force within veterans' circles, and the state's first chief
executive to be elected to three terms. While railroad, lumber, and commercial interests
undoubtedly dominated Wisconsin politics in the thirty years following the war, some
citizens and a number of politicians preoccupied themselves with Civil War themes. Rather
than confront potentially divisive questions such as those engendered by immigration,
industrialization, monopolization, the concentration of wealth, urbanization, and labor
unrest, Fairchild and his supporters (and even some of his rivals) remained complacently
identified with issues stemming out of the Civil War. Sharp partisanship, of course,
remained a feature of postwar state politics, and such controversial matters as federal
subsidies for internal improvements, prohibition, inflationary paper money, as well as
regulating railroads and the mandatory use of English in public schools certainly affected
the battles for office between Republicans and Democrats. But the desire on the part of
leading members of both major political parties in Wisconsin (and throughout the North) to
please the approximately 2,500,000 Union veterans and potential voters had important
consequences at all levels of government. To be sure, the effective organizing of the
veterans did not occur overnight. Nearly twenty years passed before the ex-soldiers were
welded into a truly recognizable unified national pressure group. Organizing took place in
fits and starts, and initial successes during the period 1865-1869 were followed by a
decade of failures.
Early in 1866 Fairchild helped organize the Wisconsin chapter of the Soldiers' and Sailors' National Union League, an association formed by eastern veterans. Local Union League members included such Fairchild allies as Jeremiah M. Rusk, a farmer and businessman from Viroqua, ex-colonel of the Twenty-Fifth Wisconsin Infantry, state bank comptroller, and a political office seeker; Thomas S. Allen, secretary of state, editor of the Oshkosh Northwestern, and Iron Brigade officer in Fairchild's Second Wisconsin who had been wounded at Antietam; James A. Kellogg, last colonel of the Sixth Wisconsin, now a Wausau attorney; and James K. Proudfit of Madison, colonel of the Twelfth Wisconsin and now state adjutant general, who became Union League president. Cassius Fairchild, the governor's brother who had been wounded at Shiloh, became vice-president. Nearly all Union League members from Wisconsin, as elsewhere, were active Republicans.
The Union League lobbied for veterans' preference in jobs and aid for disabled soldiers. But the organization quickly affiliated itself with Radical Republicans in Congress and joined their efforts to thwart President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction program for the defeated Confederate states. Wisconsin's Union League members became, with few exceptions, a leadership cadre of Radical Republican veteran activists who helped to form and promote another military society with a broadly based western membership: the Grand Army of the Republic. Between February and May of 1866, Fairchild initiated contact with Illinois soldier politicians who had founded the GAR and who were associated with John A. Logan, excommander of the XV Corps, a leading congressional Radical, and soon to be National GAR Commander." James K. Proudfit became Wisconsin's commander as the Badger State organized the first GAR Department outside Illinois.
The GAR adopted the trappings of a fraternal benevolent society with a secret initiation ritual. In 1866 Fairchild helped recruit eastern veterans - who had been attracted to Soldiers' and Sailors' Union Leagues and similar organizations - to the GAR during a massive veterans' rally held in Pittsburgh to support congressional Republican Radicals. In july, 1866, Fairchild organized an elaborate ceremony in Madison to commemorate the end of the war and to show off the strength and popularity of the soldier element.
Battle flags and veterans were prominently featured. On July 4, contingents of veterans from each Wisconsin regiment were assembled at the state capitol, and they selected a color-guard to carry the unit's banners. The flags would be formally presented to the state by the men who bore them during the war. Fairchild invited military figures and guests from across the nation. Officials of local units of government as well as Wisconsin congressmen and senators attended the Madison gathering. Some 20,000 people flocked to Wisconsin's capital city on the appointed day, clogging local roads while tripling the population of the City. Rain showers let up and the Fourth of July dawned clear, cool, and beautiful. Madisonians draped flags from their homes while church bells pealed and cannon salutes sounded. It was "a day that will ever be remembered in the history of Madison," noted a Wisconsin State Journal reporter. The parade moved down State Street to Gilman, then southward along Pinckney and east on Wilson Street before returning to the Capitol Park. Bands from Madison,Oregon, and Beaver Dam blared while citizens and guests fell in behind the detachment of veterans carrying the regimental colors, led by the flags of the "glorious Iron Brigade" "There was one feature in the procession which riveted the attention of all," noted a reporter. "It was the ... battle flags ... some torn until only a few shreds were left .... Judge William P. Lyon, ex-colonel of the Thirteenth Infantry, delivered the formal speech presenting the flags to the state. "These banners are the ... symbols of our national unity, the material representations of the institutions of freedom. . . " the judge explained. "Hence do these banners become to us the symbols and emblems and mementoes of all the labors and sacrifices ... of the people ...." Governor Fairchild accepted the flags in the name of the state and delivered a ringing speech in which he promised the veterans that their flags would be installed at the capitol "as monuments of glory" for as "long as this government shall stand . . . . Fairchild went on to say that "a grateful people are not unmindful of the debt" owed the veterans, and "that a generous country will never count her whole duty done until both you and yours are raised above all danger of want." The one-armed soldiers' friend devoted much of his remaining life to achieving that goal. After the ceremony, the flags were taken to the capitol and "placed in different offices and in the rooms of the State Historical Society" in such a manner that they could be "seen but not handled . Fairchild had become friendly with Lyman C. Draper, superintendent of the historical society, and the governor secured space in the Executive Department rooms in the capitol to house the society's collections . In August, Fairchild joined Senator Timothy 0. Howe; one-legged Milwaukee soldier politician, Congressman Halbert E. Paine; Jerry Rusk; and ex-governor Edward Salomon for a series of pro-Radical meetings denouncing Democrats and President Johnson.
In Madison shortly thereafter, Wisconsin Radical Republicans hung captured Confederate flags upside down "in token of subjugation" while the governor harangued a crowd in the Assembly chambers. Prior to the fall election, Governor Fairchild allowed a group of Wisconsin battle flags to appear at a veterans' political gathering in Burlington. Fairchild requested that Jacob S. Crane, organizer of the rally and a former officer of the Forty-Third Wisconsin, "send a careful man" to Madison to pick up the flags: "They are too sacred to be entrusted to a common carrier." To preserve the Union victory, won at such enormous cost, Wisconsin's Radical politicians continually urged veterans and other citizens to vote Republican. Healthy Republican majorities vindicated the Bloody Shirt campaign technique in 1866, although Democrats still retained a number of seats in the Wisconsin Senate. In fact, throughout the period 1860-1890 the Republican party could not take its victories for granted, either on the state or national levels. Democrats remained electorally competitive, largely because of their strong base among some ethnic groups and among Southerners. In 1867, for example, Fairchild was narrowly re-elected by a majority of only 4,564 votes out of a total of over 140,000 cast. The slim margin shocked the governor and convinced some rival Republican factions to try to drop the Bloody Shirt technique as well as its most vociferous local practitioner at the next opportunity. The meager victory threw Fairchild, on the other hand, into a frenzy of political activity during 1868. He played the veteran card to its maximum extent, earning a national reputation for himself in the process. In May, 1868, Fairchild convened the meeting of the Wisconsin Soldiers' and Sailors' Association in Milwaukee. He secured from the soldiers their endorsement for the Republican party in the coming election and had himself selected to lead the state delegation to the National Soldiers' and Sailors' Convention scheduled to gather in Chicago at the same time that the Republican National Convention would be nominating a presidential candidate. Fairchild, Proudfit, Rusk, and Judge W. H. Sessions, an ex-captain of the Twenty-First Wisconsin, carried a group of Wisconsin battle flags, including those of the Iron Brigade's Second Regiment, to Chicago. At the national soldiers' gathering, Fairchild was chosen as the presiding officer.
Wisconsin's governor, in association with GAR
Commander John Logan, convinced the assembled veterans to declare their "active
support" of the Republican party as "the only political organization which ...
is true to the principles of loyalty, liberty, and equality before the law." With the
Republican party thus endorsed as the official veterans' party, conventioneers selected
Ulysses S. Grant as the ex-soldiers' candidate for president.
The veterans then held a parade, with Fairchild and the Wisconsin delegation following the tattered Civil War flags as they marched to the Crosby Opera House where the Republican convention was in full swing. Thousands of Chicago residents cheered the parading exsoldiers and their flags. Fairchild informed the conventioneers of the veterans' preference.
GAR Commander and Congressman Logan nominated Grant, whom the delegates unanimously chose as the Republican candidate for president. Fairchild then formed Wisconsin Soldiers' Grant and Colfax Clubs. The governor toured Wisconsin rallying ex-soldiers and other citizens in support of Grant and his running-mate Schuyler Colfax. The Radicals missed no opportunity to equate the Democrats with civil war and treason. "Every rebel, every Copperhead, every draft sneak, every dirty traitor," noted Governor Fairchild, would be voting for Democrats, as would members of the Ku Klux Klan. The dividing line between the parties, explained the soldiers' friend at a veterans' gathering in Madison, "was drawn just about where it was during the war - between the loyal blue and the traitor gray." Grant carried Wisconsin overwhelmingly. Fairchild then sought an unprecedented third term as governor, turning for support to the veterans as well as those interested in federal subsidies for internal improvements. Fairchild received the support of soldier organizers like Jerry Rusk and S. W. Martin, editor of The Soldier's Record, a Madison newspaper geared to veterans. GAR meetings began to be held at the state capitol, and Governor Fairchild brought Iron Brigade flags to local GAR gatherings to stimulate attendance. Among veterans, Fairchild's theme remained focused on Civil War animosities. The Democrats, in Fairchild's view, had "encouraged rebellion," supported the South, and, therefore, had "blood on their heads." The governor won reelection by a healthy majority." Fairchild began his final term as governor by requesting that Wisconsin legislators authorize an expenditure to construct glass cases for the Civil War battle flags. He asked that the quartermaster-general provide the cases "in order to preserve the valued relics.
Lyman Draper supported Fairchild's plea for "Wisconsin's Star Spangled Banners." Legislators acted positively on the matter in March, 1870, passing an "Act relating to the preservation of the colors and flags of our late regiments.
The Milwaukee firm of Fisher and Reynolds
constructed the cases, and the banners went on display in the State Historical
Society's rooms in the capitol later that year. A unique feature of the arrangement
involved the fact that the historical society did not gain title to the Civil War
banners. Rather, the flags remained under the control of the quartermaster
general's office, an executive department. In Superintendent Draper's words, the flags had
been "deposited with" the historical society. Fairchild and his allies had scant
interest in leaving the battle flags permanently in a museum. The arrangement with the
historical society was not intended to interfere with the business of politics. In
September, for example, Fairchild, Paine, Proudfit, Rusk (by then state GAR commander),
Judge Lyon, Senator Matthew H. Carpenter, and Governor Paul Austin of Minnesota attended
the Wisconsin Soldiers' and Sailors' Reunion at the state fair in Milwaukee. Three
thousand veterans attended the gathering at the "Rink," a fair building.
Detachments of veterans paraded behind their regimental banners while onlookers cheered
and politiclans spoke. Members of several GAR posts attended the meeting. The central
ornament above the speaker's podium was an Iron Brigade flag, and the entire state
collection of flags "graced the sides and gallery of the auditorium. Fairchild
also permitted certain regimental banners to attend local reunions, such as those of
Company K of the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry, organized by an ally of the governor.
Throughout Fairchild's tenure as governor, Bloody Shirt campaign oratory proved to be an
effective vote-getter, though it was never the only technique in that capable soldier's
political repertoire. By the 1870's, however, Civil War issues appeared to be somewhat
less immediate than they had been during the hectic 1865-1869 period. With Grant in the
White House, Reconstruction seemed fairly settled, save for the rise of the Klu Klux Klan
in the South. The initial interest shown by Union veterans in joining various
soldiers' clubs and organizations like the GAR slackened as the "boys," who were
still young men, devoted their efforts to raising families and earning a living. In fact,
some veterans believed (correctly) that the GAR was not an independent soldiers'
fraternity at all, but rather an instrument of the Republican party which had
accomplished relatively little in securing jobs for non-officers, in pressuring for
generous bounty equalizations, or in liberalizing the existing invalid pension law of
1862. In addition, the GAR was hampered by a "graded" system of membership,
whereby rank distinctions existed among the initiates. Other problems which emerged to
plague the GAR in Wisconsin and across the North included poor administration, lack of
membership records, inadequate dues collection, and general demoralization. As State
Commander Proudfit reported, the condition of the order was characterized by "a
chapter of irregularities and blunders that has no parallel short of Shakespeare's comedy
of errors." The voting populace had begun to show apathy towards Civil War enmities
in Wisconsin as the new decade dawned. Fairchild sought a foreign appointment after the
Republicans selected ex-Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn of La Crosse as the party's
gubernatorial candidate. A Washburn rally, billed as a soldiers' reunion, took place
in La Crosse during early June, 1871. Fairchild sent twenty-two Wisconsin Civil War
battle flags, including a stand from each Iron Brigade regiment. But only 300
veterans showed up. The flags drew attention because of their "honorable scars,
received where bullets flew with remarkable celerity and alarming frequency," but the
Not only did the rally not attract many veterans, but local Democrats even made speeches proclaiming their hope that ex-Confederate soldiers might "again enjoy the rights of citizenship." Iron Brigade veteran Alfred E. Haven, associate editor of the La Crosse Evening Democrat, lambasted the Bloody Shirt politicians and the battle flags which accompanied them. Haven explained that the Union cause had been "made unholy by political blood suckers" who dragged "from its grave the stinking carcass of a fratricidal struggle and used its bones to stir up strife." He urged that the flags be returned to the "places from whence they came." "Peace in its fullest sense," concluded the Iron Brigade veteran, "cannot come while we delight in bringing in view scenes of the late war. It needs no display of tattered flags. . . ." Washburn carried the state, although his administration was later hampered by the nationwide economic depression of 1873, unenviable association with the scandals of the Grant era, and passage of an unpopular liquor-control measure. The battle flags made an appearance at the Society of the Army of the Tennessee Convention held in Madison in July, 1872; but four years would pass before they would again appear in public as a group. During that time, Fairchild departed for a diplomatic post in Europe, while the GAR, like veterans' organizations across most parts of the nation, experienced a rapidly declining membership -
dropping to a mere 253 in Wisconsin during 1875.
The William A. Barstow GAR Post 88, Kendall, Wisconsin, about 1885.
In 1873, the Democrats overwhelmingly captured the Wisconsin governorship and the Assembly. In 1874, they became the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1876, Democrats also achieved majority in the U.S. Senate after winning the popular - but not the electoral - vote for the presidency. During the administration of Governor William R. Taylor of Dane County, the Democratically controlled Wisconsin legislature passed an act amending the 1870 battle flag preservation law.
The act of March, 1875, required that Wisconsin's
Civil War flags "shall not be removed" from their cases, "except as such
removal may be required for their safety and better preservation." The new law thus
removed the Civil War flags from the political arena, as Democrats locked the artifacts of
the Bloody Shirt into glass cases. Democrats naturally recognized the potential of an
ex-soldier voting bloc and they strove to offset the initial Republican advantage in
appealing to the veteran element. When the "incarceration law" took the
battle flags from the hands of Republican GAR men and Bloody Shirt politicians, the
resurgent Democrats made an effort to court the veterans in order to enlarge their own
party's following. Democratic veteran leaders espoused an end to war-generated bitterness
between North and South. They emphasized the social aspect of military fraternal
gatherings by sentimentally recollecting the comradeship shared by all Union soldiers
regardless of their political affiliation.
There existed no shortage of popular Democratic veteran leaders in Wisconsin, moreover. Democratic veteran organizers included such men as ex-Brigadier General Harrison C. Hobart of Chilton, who had been speaker of the Assembly prior to the war. Hobart ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1860 and lost to Lucius Fairchild in 1865. Hobart became successful in Milwaukee political affairs during the 1870's, and he joined the Soldiers' and Sailors' National Union League as well as the GAR. George W. Peck had served with the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry before he became a La Crosse newspaper editor and local politician. Peck was appointed chief clerk of the State Assembly in 1874. He later settled in Milwaukee after establishing a humorous newspaper, Peck's Sun. His style made him an entertaining speaker, much sought after among his fellow GAR members. Gabriel Bouck was a lawyer, banker, and merchant from Oshkosh who had been a prominent Democrat politician before 1861 when he organized a company of the Iron Brigade's Second Infantry. Promoted to command of the Eighteenth Regiment in 1862, Bouck used his abilities to convince his men to vote against the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln during 1864, the only Wisconsin unit to do so. Bouck became speaker of the Assembly in 1875 and served on the GAR's national council of administration. According to his Republican rivals, "as a stump speaker Col. Bouck has no superior. . ."
Ex-Brigadier General John B. Callis of Lancaster organized Company F of the Iron Brigade's Seventh Wisconsin infantry regiment. Wounded at Second Bull Run and again very seriously at Gettysburg, the physically handicapped, North Carolina-born Callis was elected to the legislature during the 1874 Democratic sweep. He, too, was a GAR member.
Gilbert M. Woodward of La Crosse had served with the Iron Brigade's Second Wisconsin before being wounded at Gettysburg. He was a prominent lawyer, local district attorney, and mayor. He had helped organize the La Crosse GAR post and was the principal ally of the state's foremost Democratic veteran politician, ex-Brigadier General Edward S. Bragg of Fond du Lac.
After being wounded at Antietam, Bragg had risen to command of the Iron Brigade. President Andrew Johnson appointed him postmaster at Fond du Lac in 1866. Bragg served as state senator between 1868 and 1872 before voters sent him to Congress for three consecutive terms beginning in 1876.
Democratic control of the Wisconsin Assembly and statehouse lasted two years until Harrison Ludington, the Republican mayor of Milwaukee, helped defeat Governor Taylor and the Democrats by the narrowest of margins. Shortly after Ludington took office in 1876, legislators amended the act which prohibited state Civil War flags from leaving their cases. The 1876 legislation authorized two uses for the battle flags: they could now attend festivities associated with the nation's Centennial, and more importantly, "upon application of the officers commanding," they could be "used at reunions of. . . regiments, batteries, or detachments ... or [by] any military or regimental organization.
The 1876 law freed the battle flags from their cases and democratized their use. For the next decade, the flags traveled about the state to reunions and celebrations. Leaders of the moribund GAR focused on the social programs, fraternal parades, and "camp fires" which became popular gatherings. The battle flags helped attract veterans and other citizens to these events (and, incidentally, helped the GAR survive long enough to achieve a reorganization and a luxurious regeneration during the 1880's). Battle flags appeared at Centennial celebrations in Madison, La Crosse, Sheboygan, Oconomowoc, Sturgeon Bay, Menasha, Oconto, and Kewaskum. In addition to the historic banners, Centennial celebrators borrowed surplus Civil War tents, muskets, and the surplus cannons parked around the capitol Centennial festivities were ostensibly nonpartisan events, but local politicians such as George Beyer, an insurance agent from Oconto and an ex-officer in the Thirty-Ninth Wisconsin Infantry, viewed the gatherings differently. Beyer noted in a letter to Republican party boss Elisha W. Keyes of Madison that he hoped the cannons and muskets sent by the governor would be helpful "next fall" because "whoever will be in hearing of it will hear it belch forth a good sound Republican victory.
Flags-including several from the Iron Brigade -
attended veterans' reunions at Menomonie in 1877 and at Durand in 1878. In 1879 they
were present at the reunion of the Association of Soldiers and Veterans of Dunn, Pepin,
Pierce, and Buffalo counties held in Menomonie. In May, 1879, the flags of the Second,
Eighth, and Thirty-First Infantry were taken to a Memorial Day gathering in Prairie du
Chien. The fact that at least one of the Iron Brigade flags was "not in condition to
be used" did not phase reunion organizers.
As Militus Knight, a veteran of the Thirtieth Wisconsin and clerk of Pepin County, explained to Governor William E. Smith, "there are a good many men here that were in that Brigade [Iron Brigade], and they are more than anxious to see the flag." Knight advised the governor to cover the tattered flag with cotton and promised that it would not be unfurled at the reunion in recognition of its deteriorated condition.
Indeed, the tempo of Civil War veterans and other military gatherings in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, increased dramatically as the decade of the 1870's drew to a close. In Hartford, Connecticut, for example, when state battle flags were transferred to newly constructed cases in the capitol from their depository at the local armory in September, 1879, approximately 100,000 citizens showed up to watch and cheer as the flags moved by. A New York Times story called it "the greatest popular demonstration ever witnessed in the State." A reunion sponsored by the Chicago Union Veterans Club likewise drew crowds of over 100,000 when it gathered in Aurora, Illinois, in the late summer of 1879.
Not only did reunions gain in popularity and attendance, but in Wisconsin, as in other states, numerous militia units also sprang up. "At no time since the war," reported Adjutant General Edwin E. Bryant in September, 1879, "has so much interest been manifested in military organizations as at present. Military drills and parades are becoming an important feature at fairs and other public gatherings." Surplus war material found new uses as the militia companies formed, while governors found additional patronage outlets in the appointment of local officers.
Unidentified GAR reunion, in the 1880's.
The stage was now set for the transformation of
veterans' groups from scattered soldier clubs and the nearly defunct GAR - whose
membership in Wisconsin during 1879 had dwindled to 135 - into a national lobby able
to influence elections and, therefore, legislation and the composition of
governmental agencies. The closely matched strength of the major political parties,
and especially the popular social aspect of the military gatherings, combined to bring
forth a new era in veterans' affairs. The battle flags played a role in these
developments, because, as one Wisconsin reunion organizer put it, the veterans "have
a desire to march under the old flags once more." Other factors contributed to the
revived interest in soldiers' organizations. One of these was increased leisure time, as
the boys of 1861-1865 approached their middle years and had established themselves
economically. The national penchant for joining groups revealed itself in 260 new secret
organizations, including numerous veterans' societies, which formed during
1880-1896. Older fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows also experienced rapid
growth. Nostalgic memories of the war experience, which included heady recollections of
comradeship, heroism, and sacrifice - as one veteran put it in 1880, "the most
precious memories of our lives"- no doubt encouraged soldiers' organization
membership, along with the growing popularity of Memorial Day as a holiday. Perhaps
most important, however, was a revival of interest in national Civil War pensions for
Union veterans, together with an appreciation of the need for a strong lobbying
organization to obtain them. The Arrears Act of January 25, 1879, for example,
established the precedent for substantially broadening existing pension legislation,
making available sizable chunks of "arrears" (ranging from $953.62 to
$1,121.5 1) for 138,195 ex-soldiers not previously qualified to receive payments. In other
words, a series of favorable circumstances operated to encourage and rejuvenate veterans'
organizations at this particular juncture. And, as in every age, whenever and wherever
crowds of voters gathered or organized, politicians were sure to be found.
Wisconsin veterans convincingly demonstrated their collective strength in June, 1880. Following a year of intense planning, veteran activists formed the Wisconsin Soldiers and Sailors Reunion Association. The GAR - after repudiating overt political involvement, graded membership, and its Radical Republican views - undertook a compilation of names and addresses of veterans residing in Wisconsin. C. K. Pier, a GAR member from Fond du Lac, undertook the census with the help of Griff J. Thomas, the state commander, who was also Fairchild's campaign manager and the postmaster at Berlin. The Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants Association of Milwaukee influenced the choice of location for the social reunion by securing space for a tent camp north of the city's waterworks along the lake front.
A bipartisan host of soldier-politicians helped veterans organize. Democrats Harrison Hobart, George Peck, Gabe Bouck, Edward Bragg, and William F. Vilas became active in the giant reunion effort, as did Republicans such as ex-Congressman Jerry Rusk, chairman of the House Committee on Invalid Pensions in 1876 and soon to be gubernatorial candidate; ex-Congressman Halbert Paine; ex-governor (and now University Regent) Cadwallader C. Washburn; Charles King, son of Rufus King, who had been the original commander of the Iron Brigade; and John Starkweather, ex-colonel of the First Wisconsin Infantry.
Veterans of the Ist Wisconsin Cavalry in Milwaukee, about 1880. Photo by E. D. Bangs.
Governor William E. Smith supported the veterans
by speaking on behalf of the reunion. The governor also authorized State Quartermaster
General Edwin Bryant to "thoroughly repair" the state battle flags which would
be prominently displayed during the gathering. In fact, the veterans were urged to attend
the five-day affair because the flags would be in attendance: "Let the storm tattered
flags riven by shot and shell on a hundred fields of battle, once more be unfolded to the
The Great Reunion took place June 7-12, 1880. Although the weather was disagreeably warm, muggy, and
frequently rainy, the gathering attracted huge crowds. Veterans, families, spectators, and hucksters doubled Milwaukee's population of 150,000.
Citizens who "came to see the old veterans" packed every hotel in the city as well as those in nearby Racine, Waukesha, and Oconomowoc. Food supplies ran short. As one reporter noted, "it was a difficult matter to get square meals or anything better than rye bread and beer." The tent camp for veterans at North Point sheltered between 20,000 and 30,000 veterans in rain-soaked, muddy conditions that probably recalled old campaigns. Each ex-soldier provided his own blanket, tin cup, plate, and eating utensils, as well as fifty cents per day. The veterans brought whatever parts of their old uniforms they still possessed - or could fit into - and were required to supply army-type slouch hats or fatigue caps. Milwaukee residents decorated their homes with flowers and banners.
On June 9, a giant parade of "the greatest
reunion of soldiers held anywhere since the war" took place. Former President Grant
and General Philip H. Sheridan were the guests of honor. They led the procession of
members of Wisconsin regiments, numbering about 25,000 men, while more than 100,000
It was "a great seething, surging mass of humanity," recorded the Milwaukee Sentinel: "The men who had forgotten for fifteen years that they were heroes ... have now been reminded of it again." As usual, the battle flags seemed to capture the emotional essence of the Civil War experience. The Sentinel's reporter observed: "Hats went off as the column swung by, and cheers went up that seemed to make the ground tremble. When the flags torn by shot and shell were borne by, a quiver went through the vast assemblage and a moment after, the wildest excitement prevailed."
On June 12, the veterans broke camp and the battle flags were returned to their glass cases in the "state historical rooms" at the capitol. The flags had thus served again to inspire veterans and other citizens. They had been repaired for the second time since returning from the war. Nor did they rest long in their cases. In September, selected banners were displayed at a reunion in Port Washington. In October, flags and cannon went to Chilton "for use of the Garfield and Arthur Club and the town generally." In June, 1881, "cannon, tents, and colors" traveled to Sturgeon Bay for a local reunion.
The most important effects of the Great Reunion of 1880, other than demonstrating the numerical strength and popular support that organized veterans could generate, was in the creation of regimental associations. The formal organization of these associations was planned in advance by reunion leaders. The regimental associations formed a local grapevine through which the ex-soldiers might be rallied or informed on issues which, like pensions, would be of particular interest to them. They could be marshalled for social gatherings, or for future organizing into the ranks of the Grand Army of the Republic. With good reason, one reunion organizer noted that the "boys have grown more thoughtful. Hence it is that ... reunions are becoming more general, and we look forward to them with deeper interest as the years wear away."
The case of the Iron Brigade illustrates the phenomenon. During the Great Reunion, Iron Brigade veterans formed the Iron Brigade Association, a "semi-civic society." Organizers included Iron Brigade members and such Fairchild allies as James Kellogg, Joseph H. Marston of Appleton, and Jerome A.Watrous, a newspaperman and professional writer from Fond du Lac who moved to Milwaukee in 1879 where he became associate editor and later editor-in chief of the Milwaukee Telegraph. Over the next several decades, Watrous acted as the secretary of the Iron Brigade Association as well as the "pen" of the state GAR, eventually becoming its commander. Representatives from the Iron Brigade's Nineteenth Indiana and Twenty-Fourth Michigan regiments were also present.
The ex-soldlers chose as president of their association General John Gibbon, a Regular Army officer who had commanded the Iron Brigade at Gainesville, South Mountain, and Antietam. Because Gibbon was stationed on the Pacific Coast and could therefore not be expected to attend reunions on a regular basis, the choice of first vice-president became crucial. (It was he who selected the date and site of the group's reunions.) Congressman Edward S. Bragg was elected to fill the important post, and each of the five regiments in the brigade provided a vice-president with less power than the senior vice-president.
Bragg chose to hold the first reunion of the Iron Brigade Association in Milwaukee during September, 1882. The brigade's battle flags were "nailed to the wall" of the Stanley and Camp Jewelry Store on Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway, headquarters of the reunion association, to "give a martial appearance." As one veteran said to a Sentinel reporter: "Twenty years ago I saw that old flag on South Mountain, and it was a sorry day for some of our boys.
The general meeting took place at City Hall, and some 250 of the Iron Brigade's approximately 700 survivors attended. Governor Rusk, Congressman Bragg, and General Gibbon addressed the assembled veterans. So did Lucius Fairchild, who had returned home after spending a decade in diplomatic posts in Europe. Fairchild became the association's second vice president. The speakers urged Iron Brigade members to support future reunions and to join the GAR.
The veterans received commemorative Iron Brigade cigars, while Hattie A. Aubrey, the teen-aged daughter of Cullen "Doc" Aubrey, a newspaper boy attached to the Iron Brigade during the war, recited a poem an presented a handmade white silk guidon to the men. Father and daughter were elected honorary members of the Iron Brigade Association.
Iron Brigade Association
leaders, about 1885. From the left: Lucius
Fairchild, Edward Bragg, and John Gibbon. Photo by E. R. Curtis.
Bragg chose La Crosse for the next reunion. The Fond du Lac Democrat stressed the social, nonpolitical aspect of the event, promising good fellowship and "entertainment for all." He advertised the presence of the Civil War flags to encourage attendance. "The flags of the ... old brigade will be present," General Bragg noted. "It will do us all good to see those torn and tattered battle flags." The governor of Michigan, however, refused to allow the flags of the Twenty Fourth Michigan to appear at La Crosse because "the flags are so old and rotten that but a few handling would entirely destroy them."
Hattie M. Aubery Daughter of the Iron Brigade, in 1882 with the Tiffany flag
The reunion was well-attended despite the absence
of the Michigan flags. Bragg, Rogers, and Watrous made opening addresses to the veterans
assembled in Germania Hall. General John Callis of Lancaster sent a regretful letter
explaining that the crippling effects of multiple wounds prevented his own appearance. But
the Lancaster politician's comments were read to the veterans. Callis summarized the
Democratic position on the Civil War experience, on veterans' gatherings, and on what was
hoped for in the future.
He explained that the Union soldiers of 1861-1865, "regardless of . . . political opinions or party affinities," had been "actuated by ... patriotism and love of country: In short we had no political axes to grind. . . ." The war, its suffering and the bonds of comradeship it created could never be forgotten, but "now that the war is over. . . I for one can freely forgive" the "misguided" Confederates. Callis concluded with an appeal to end postwar bitterness: "No More Bloody Shirt ... of that I have had quite too much."
Reunion activities included other pleasantries. The veterans spent the morning of September 14 listening to poems, recitals by local glee clubs, and singing "The Battle Cry of Freedom - which made the walls tremble." As evidence of the new democratic spirit among the veterans, Bragg invited Mickey Sullivan, a private during the war, to present his humorous stories of life in the ranks of the Iron Brigade. Sullivan became the first enlisted man to formally participate in the reunion association's programs. His appearance set a notable precedent. Subsequent Iron Brigade reunions always featured non-officer presentations.
A parade of Iron Brigade veterans attracted "great throngs of citizens" along its route. The Wisconsin regimental battle flags accompanied the veterans in line while bands and local militia companies marched in support. The Milwaukee Sentinel called it an "imposing spectacle." Dancing and singing provided the evening's entertainment. Under Chinese lanterns and electric lights, Bragg did solo performances of "Tenting On the Old Camp Ground" and the "Red, White, and Blue." "Good feelings ruled supreme at this reunion,"concluded the editor of the La Crosse Republican and Leader.
Cracks in the facade of social fellowship of the Iron Brigade Association, and in the nonpolitical orientation of military fraternal organizations, began to appear in 1884. In January, Lucius Fairchild, who was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, and several other Iron Brigade members, invited the association to hold its reunion in Madison.
However, after a lengthy delay, Bragg declined their offer and instead chose Lancaster as the site of the meeting. Politics may well have influenced the Democratic senior vice-president's decision, since the 1884 presidential election promised to be yet another exceptionally close contest between the major political parties. Grover Cleveland, Democrat of New York, was an attractive candidate and, shortly thereafter, he became president by a bare majority.
In any case, Lancaster prepared to host the Iron Brigade reunion on August 28, the anniversary of the battle of Gainesville. Nearly 200 veterans attended the gathering. When Lucius Fairchild arrived in accompaniment with Watrous, Allen, and Rufus Dawes, cheering local citizens carried the ex-governor to a waiting carriage and took him to Hyde's Opera House for the meeting. Rain prevented a parade, but the veterans attentively listened to speeches. As usual, the battle flags were attached to the windows of the hall.
John Callis touched off the speechmaking. The ailing Lancaster Democrat greeted the veterans and sentimentally reminded them that the reunion meeting had "no political significance other than to teach the world ... that loyalty to this government and the union ... has been the shibboleth of our faith in, and love for one another." Gil Woodward then presented a humorous talk that poked fun at Fairchild's performance at Second Bull Run. Phil Cheek, Jr., a Baraboo attorney and an ex-private in the Sixth Wisconsin, made a humorous speech as the non-officer's presentation. He also harangued the assembled veterans, urging them to join the GAR.
Cheek, who "takes the cake for lively speech making," was state commander of the GAR, and he presided over the organization's phenomenal resurgence in Wisconsin. A "whirlwind cyclonic campaigner," Cheek became known as the GAR's "hustler in chief." During his first term as state commander, for example, membership rose 185 per cent to 5,979. By the end of 1884, when he stepped down, membership totaled 9,165. During Cheek's administration, GAR membership in Wisconsin rose at three times the national rate.
After the official meeting at Lancaster, Iron Brigade veterans attended a "camp fire"- an evening picnic replete with songs and stories. Afterward, Lucius Fairchild invited the association to hold its next reunion in Madison.
During early 1885, Fairchild made the
rounds of local veterans' reunions, such as those hosted by Company D of the Seventh
Wisconsin in Stoughton and another in Berlin shortly thereafter, urging members to attend
the gathering in Madison during September. Fairchild's presence at these local affairs was
always appreciated. As he explained to a family member: "I am now a 'buster' on
campfire speeches - as I have been since my return from Europe... and the boys go off
their heads in cheering."
Fairchild carefully organized the Madison reunion of the Iron Brigade Association. The governors of Michigan and Indiana agreed to be there, as did Congressman Robert M. La Follette. Railroad discounts helped encourage attendance. Some 350 Iron Brigade veterans showed up for the elaborate two-day reunion.
|The Assembly Chamber in the state capitol provided seating for the official meeting, while Camp Randall was the site of a "Bean Banquet." Iron Brigade member and State Adjutant General Chandler P. Chapman of Madison designed a special badge consisting of a "five armed iron Maltese Cross suspended by a blue ribbon" to give each Iron Brigade veteran attending the reunion.
The Iron Brigade Association Reunion in the state capitol in 1885. Photo byJ. M. Fowler.
About 1,000 veterans and spectators crammed the
packed Assembly Chamber as General Bragg introduced Jerry Rusk, "the
soldier-governor," who gave a welcoming speech. Rusk - who was to be Wisconsin's
second three-term governor-declared that he "loved all Union soldiers." The
"be-badged crowd" next called on General Fairchild to give an extemporaneous
speech, responding with "three cheers" at its conclusion. Fairchild noted that
other duties interfered with his position as second vice-president of the Iron Brigade
Association and requested that Gil Woodward replace him. Various GAR representatives urged
veterans to join their ranks. Tom Kerr, an "ardent Democrat" from Milwaukee who
rose from private to lieutenant colonel in the Sixth Wisconsin, while being wounded on
several occasions, gave the enlisted man's presentation. Two Iron Brigade flags
stood behind the speakers, while "around the chamber extending out over the
auditorium, are thirteen regimental flags, whose tattered appearance and half obliterated
inscriptions tell of many a hard fought battle. . . ."
Fairchild's decision to remove himself from the second vice-presidency was not commented upon in the press but it meant that the ex-governor was now at liberty to seek higher office within the Iron Brigade Association, in opposition to the Democrat, Edward Bragg. As Republican State Senator Levi E. Pond of Westfield, a GAR activist and Iron Brigade veteran, confidentially noted to Fairchild the following July: "Do you think that General Bragg ought to be continued in his present office in the Iron Brigade Association? I do not, for I am disgruntled with some of his speeches and acts in Congress. He seems to have greater loyalty to party than to the old soldiery."
The Iron Brigade Association Reunion in Oshkosh in 1886.
Fairchild did seek high office in the GAR. He
became state commander in 1886 and national commander in 1887, by which time GAR
membership totalled nearly 400,000. Fairchild strongly supported pension legislation,
and along with other GAR members, such as William T. Sherman, revived the Bloody Shirt
issue in opposition to Democratic President Cleveland. Fairchild, the GAR, and Bloody
Shirt activists helped influence the course of national veterans' politics during the
latter 1880's, particularly during the presidential election of 1888.
In some respects, Democratic politicians provided their Republican critics with the excuse they sought to reintroduce politics, however subtly, into local and national veterans' affairs. At the 1886 Iron Brigade Reunion Association meeting held in Oshkosh during late August, for example, Democrats monopolized the proceedings. Bragg selected the meeting date to partly conflict with the state GAR encampment in Lake Geneva. The fiery ex-Iron Brigade commander, who was running for Congress in the Second District, opened the well-attended meetings by eulogizing General George B. McClellan, the Democratic candidate in 1864. Gabe Bouck made a speech before introducing Milwaukee Democrat George W. Peck, who presented a series of humorous (and racist) stories. Only partly in jest, Gil Woodward, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, made a speech in which he called Phil Cheek, the state GAR adjutant, a liar.
Iron Brigade survivors marched behind their Civil War banners on September "The tattered war colors were cheered at different points along the march," reported the Oshkosh Northwestern. Photographers Cook Ely and 0. H. Mazer recorded the event. An evening ball demonstrated "that the old boys had not forgotten how to dance. " Lucius Fairchild and Bragg did not greet each other, for both were preparing for the contest they must have known lay ahead.
President Cleveland opened the next round in it
struggle which marked the re-entry of organized veterans into politics. In early 1887,
Cleveland signed a pension bill for Mexican War veterans while vetoing the Dependent
Pension Bill for Civil War soldiers. Mexican pension applicants, furthermore, did not have
to prove that they had not borne arms against the United States during 1861-1865, thus
paving the way for ex-Confederates to receive payments. GAR activists responded quickly.
Democrats like Bragg, Callis, and Gibbon supported the president's actions. Republicans,
on the other hand, used the veto to show that Cleveland and the Democrats were
"Rebels at heart.""Now who are those Mexican soldiers?" rhetorically
asked a Massachusetts GAR man in 1887: I think that you will agree ... that 4/5 of
the pensioners of the Mexican War were men that You and I fought against [in the Civil
War]; and the first man who received a pension under the Act was a rebel Brigadier
General. And I tell you, when we see those men who fought against us taking money out of
the treasury of the United States that we made it possible to put in there, it is time we
made an earnest demand for what we believe to be our rights."
Commander Fairchild requested that all of the nearly 400,000 GAR members and the nearly 1,000,000 other Union veterans still alive write to their Congressmen and express their opinions concerning the veto of the Dependent Pension Bill. As a nominally nonpartisan organization, the GAR took no official position on the matter - probably in recognition of its approximately 25 per cent Democratic membership.
Presidential vetoes of other Civil War pension bills further contributed to Cleveland's reputation as being unfriendly to Union veterans, as did his decision not to attend the 1887 national encampment of the Grand Army of' the Republic, his much-publicized fishing trip on Memorial Day, and his appointment of ex-Confederate officers to governmental positions, including the Supreme Court. Many veterans no doubt recalled that Cleveland had hired a substitute to serve in his stead during the war.
But the final act which unified many veterans against Grover Cleveland involved Civil War battle flags - Confederate ones. In June the president directed the secretary of war to return all captured Confederate banners in federal possession to the respective Southern states. When the order became public, GAR National Commander Lucius Fairchild was on a speaking tour of posts in the East. Appearing before the Alexander Hamilton Post of Harlem, New York, on June 15, on the occasion of the completion of a Memorial Hall to house that state's Civil War flags, the one-armed Fairchild delivered an angry and unforgettable speech denouncing President Cleveland's action: "May God palsy the hand that wrote the order! May God palsy the brain that conceived it! And may God palsy the tongue that dictated it! I appeal to the sentiment of the nation to prevent this sacrilege. -
The Iron Brigade Association Reunion in Milwaukee in 1887.
"I have never seen a body of men more excited
than were the old soldiers there," Fairchild told his wife. "Many ... stood with
their eyes full of tears. . . ." Fairchild's "three Palsies"
speech received tremendous national attention, drawing both criticism and praise. The
Wisconsin GAR supported Fairchild, as did other state GAR organizations, although the
national GAR commandery made no official response. President Cleveland immediately
rescinded the order, but the damage had already been done. As James
"Stumps" Tanner, a two-time New York GAR commander and member of the GAR's
pensions committee, pointed out, the president's mistake could be turned into political
capital by anti-Cleveland forces. He wrote to Fairchild in August: "As the years
placed themselves between us and the period of the war all were conscious that the
sentiment of those days was at least dormant if not dead and gone. But one day the
President was impelled to interfere with the battle flags ... and lo and behold there was
an upheaval and he saw that in the opinion of the country he had laid impious hands on the
Holy of Holies in our Patriotic Temple and he took the back track. Now, what is the
lesson? Certainly this: The man of proven patriotic endeavor and achievement has an
advantageous standing before the people at large. We are political fools if we do not take
advantage of this patriotic revival."
The stage was thus set for the Bloody Shirt revival which culminated in the presidential election of 1888. Cleveland and the Democrats were placed on the defensive, and the "soldier vote" was viewed as a potentially decisive factor in the campaign.
The Iron Brigade Association's reunion of September, 1887, was a preview of what lay ahead. The reunion took place at the Milwaukee armory building, with the battle flags in attendance. The veterans posed for "soldier photographer" H. H. Bennett of Kilbourn City, sang Army songs, and swapped stories. All seemed normal until Fairchild ally Henry B. Harshaw of Madison introduced a motion to elect association officers by ballot and proposed that John Gibbon not be re-elected president. "It was as if a bomb had suddenly been thrown into the room," noted a reporter. The gathering devolved into "the stormiest meeting the brigade association has ever had ...." Amid scenes of "great disorder and confusion," Iron Brigade veterans discussed the Harshaw motion. GAR Adjutant Phil Cheek and Governor Rusk's Quartermaster General, Earl Rogers, led a drive to replace Gibbon with Lucius Fairchild. Democrats Gil Woodward and Henry Sanford opposed the dump-Gibbon move. The anti-Gibbon forces, of course, were really attempting to unseat Bragg - the senior vice- president - since Gibbon was basically a figurehead. Bragg saw the move for what it was, "an excuse to throw General Bragg overboard.
There was a "hornet's nest in the neighborhood of the little general," reported the Fond du Lac Commonwealth as the free-for-all discussion continued." Finally, the veterans cast their votes and Gibbon was re-elected, along with Bragg. The latter, however, chose to step down as senior vice-president, since he did not want to "sow seeds of discord over points of view." W. W. Robinson of Chippewa Falls, a Fairchild ally, thereupon became first vice president. As Bragg explained to a Sentinel reporter, "It is all due to the G. A. R. men, on account of the stand I took on the dependent pension bill matter."
President Cleveland's re-election campaign was effectively opposed by Republican veteran organizers. In Wisconsin, both Governor Rusk and ex-Governor Fairchild vigorously campaigned for the election of Benjamin F. Harrison of Indiana, who had been a brigadier general in the war.
In the emotional campaign, Cleveland's hiring of a substitute to take his place during the Civil War was endlessly rehashed and condemned, as were his appointments of Confederate officers to federal positions, his supposedly pro-Southern "Cotton Lord" tariff policy, and his veto of the Dependent Pension Bill. Republican veterans barraged Cleveland with Bloody Shirt invective, connecting seemingly unrelated issue such as the tariff - to Civil War animosities.
A plurality of Wisconsinites and enough other American citizens, particularly those in key states, responded by voting for Harrison. The "soldier vote," and the votes of those men who looked favorably upon the ex-soldiers, was viewed at the time (and since) as providing the Republicans with their narrow margin of victory in the four-candidate race. Not unexpectedly, President Harrison signed a liberal pension bill for Union veterans shortly after taking office. In 1888, the Grand Army of the Republic stood at the pinnacle of its success.
When the GAR held its national encampment in Milwaukee in 1889, politicians watched in awe as nearly 10,000 Wisconsin veterans and numerous detachments from other states paraded sixteen abreast while a quarter of a million citizens cheered them. The most notable absences, however, were the state battle flags. Governor Rusk had retired them before he left office in 1889 to become secretary of agriculture in Harrison's cabinet. When the veterans requested special permission to take a group of Civil War banners to Gettysburg on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle in 1888, he refused, noting the irreplaceable nature of the artifacts. Rusk observed: "I look upon them as being too precious to risk their destruction. Rusk placed the battle flags in the custody of the state historical society "as trustee of the State. Thereafter, society director Reuben G. Thwaites did not permit Wisconsin's Civil War battle flags to appear at public events.
Courtesy the G.A.R. Hall Memorial Museum
Governor Jeremiah M. Rusk and his one-armed, one-legged staff in September, 1887. Back row, left to right: George W. Baker; F. L. Phillips; Ernst G. Timme,secretary of state; Governor Rusk; Henry B. Harshaw, state treasurer; Charles E. Estabrook, attorney general;J. B. ThaTer, superintendent of public instruction; and David Sommers. Middle row: Peter Delinar; Henrv Shetter; W. J. Jones;J. W. Curran; W. W. Jones; Benjamin Smith; and Henry P. Fischer. Front row: W. H. McFarland; Mark Smith; and Eugene Bowen.
The flags now took up residence in the historical
society's rooms in the newly completed south wing of the capitol building. The age of
protection and careful preservation had arrived, twenty-three years after the Civil War
ended. Repairs had been carried out over the years, but the flags were in delicate
condition by the 1880's. The parades, reunions, and exhibits that the flags participated
in had obviously contributed to their sorry condition.
Indeed, as far as can be determined by present day examination and from photographic evidence, it seems likely that veterans and others - anxious to have a memento - had "souvenirized" parts of certain banners by cutting pieces of fabric from their delicate folds.
There was, in fact, no longer any need to keep the state battle flags actively deployed. Indeed, their value would be enhanced by preserving them so they could be used for educational and other purposes. Although the battle flags had been retired, they would continue to serve as political and cultural symbols of unique significance.
Reuben Gold Thwaites, for example, supported Senator Pond - Fairchild's Iron Brigade Association ally and now President Harrison's appointee as pension agent at Milwaukee - when he initiated legislation to create a Civil War soldiers' memorial hall to house the state's Civil War artifacts, including the battle flags. Thwaites hoped that the State Historical Society of Wisconsin would become the memorial hall and be authorized to construct a new building near the University of Wisconsin campus. Presciently, he called the capitol "a regular fire trap." In 1895, after an initial failure, state legislators authorized the construction of a "fire-proof structure to protect and accommodate the collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin including the state historical museum and the records and relics of the late Civil War." - Section four of the act stated: ". . . all property of the State now held in trust by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and occupying any part of the State Capitol, shall be transferred to said new building.... The Governor is hereby authorized ... to place in said building ... such battle flags and trophies of the Civil War as are in possession of the State.
The State Historical Society building opened on
the University of Wisconsin campus in 1900. The historical society soon clashed with the
GAR over control of the battle flag collection. State GAR
Commander David G. James of Richland Center, veteran of Shiloh, survivor of
Andersonville prison, and soon to be state senator, became critical of the historical
society's battle flag display after visiting the new facility. Wandering about "in
vain for some time" in search of the flags, James required the assistance of a
custodian to locate the display. Then he discovered the flags in a hard-to-reach,
overheated room "that served as a light shaft" on the "top story of the
building." James informed his old comrades of the "distasteful" situation.
The GAR then urged legislators to order the flags back to the capitol. Dutifully, the
Legislature passed an "act to provide for a memorial hall at the Capitol" to
display war "mementoes" and "relics" while "providing for a
return of' the battle flags to the Capitol building" in April, 1901.
The proposed memorial hall would not only display artifacts, but also serve as state GAR headquarters. The battle flags would be placed in the rotunda of the capitol in glass cases. "All laws in contravention of this act," directed state lawmakers, "are repealed." Thus, the battle flags had helped endow two museums.
After two years of display in the capitol rotunda, the flags experienced another change of environment. On the evening of February 27, 1904, calamity struck the state capitol. A malfunctioning gas jet in the second-story cloakroom kindled a fire. Faulty water mains, injuries to Madison's fire chief, and other confusions prevented early quenching of the blaze. Thereafter, the fire could not be extinguished. Governor La Follette and 200 University students carried books and papers out of the flaming building. Next day, little remained of the "splendid building but the great dome and the ruined walls," reported the Wisconsin State journal. 17' The GAR Memorial Hall was completely gutted. But miraculously, the flags survived.
While the fire raged, Jacob Barr, a traveling salesman from Chicago, and Elmore Elver, a Madison hotel proprietor, had rushed into the flame-engulfed capitol. They broke open the flag cases in the rotunda and carried "the sacred relics" to the safety of nearby snowbanks. The flags traveled back to the historical society for safekeeping. Thwaites explained to a friend: "You, of course, by this time have heard all about our great fire at the Capitol. Everything is gone except the north wing. . . . The battle flags of the G. A. R. are now in our keeping here, where they will remain for many years more. . . . It is a very great change for our little town and there is consternation everywhere."
courtesy the G.A.R. Hall Memorial Museum
The Wisconsin GAR Encampment of 1914 in the assembly chambers of the state capitol.
The battle flags can be seen furled in the rear and to the left.
WISCONSIN'S battle flags remained at the
historical society for a decade while designers, architects, masons, and laborers built a
new and larger state capitol. By 1914, much of the work had been completed. In June, the
aging Boys in Blue of the Grand Army of the Republic held their annual encampment in the
Assembly Chamber, and Governor Francis E. McGovern ordered the battle flags back to the
capitol for the occasion. Thwaites willingly complied, having spent the preceding ten
years reingratiating himself and the historical society with the GAR through the medium of
the Wisconsin History Commission. Charles E. Estabrook, a GAR activist, headed the
commission, which published memoirs of various ex-soldiers, as well as statistical and
documentary works on Civil War-related topics.
The elderly veterans appreciated Governor McGovern's gesture of kindness "best of all." The old ex-soldiers stood guard beside the gauze-covered flags, which were posted along the east wall of the Assembly Chamber. "No patriotic address during our encampment could equal in eloquence the silent presence of those old war-time banners of ours - worn and faded, torn and bullet-riddled, yet beautiful," wrote Jerome Watrous. After the meeting, the battle flags were deposited in the governor's vault while work continued on the north wing of the capitol, where the new GAR memorial hall would be located.
Workers completed decorating the GAR Memorial Hall in March, 1917. Architect Lew Porter designed the hall for the GAR with its elaborate vaulted ceilings and frescoes naming the battles in which Wisconsin units had participated. Hosea W. Rood of Milton, a veteran of the Twelfth Wisconsin, schoolteacher, and state GAR patriotic instructor, became custodian of the facility, and he arranged the museum displays. Large glass-fronted cases were built to house the battle flag collection, and in December the flags were brought up from the governor's vault. On Flag Day,June 14, 1918, the GAR Memorial Hall was dedicated.
Iron Brigade veteran Jerome Watrous presented a dedication speech entitled "Looking Over Our Old Battle Flags." He reviewed the major developments which had occurred in the United States since 1865. Involvement in the Spanish-American War and now in the Great War in Europe, he explained, had underscored the importance of national unity achieved by the veterans of his generation. New generations had grown up since the Civil War, while tens of thousands of newly arrived immigrants had become citizens. What, asked Watrous, would remind these men and women of the supreme test of the Union and its staggering costs? As the old men of the GAR passed away, how would the boys of 1861-1865 be remembered? It was the battle flags that would remain immortal: "Those ... old, faded, torn emblems of our great, strong nation." The flags had come to represent the Civil War veterans' very experience. As Watrous concluded: "We had been woven into the colors."
EPILOGUE (c. 1985)
The Wisconsin Civil War battle flags remained
undisturbed in their glass cases on the fourth floor of the state capitol for nearly fifty
years. The GAR Memorial Hall Museum, meanwhile, passed into the control of the newly
created Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs in 1945. In 1964, museum curators from
the State Historical Society of Wisconsin cataloged the battle flag collection during a
general upgrading of the museum displays.
Thirteen years later, in 1977, a Smithsonian Institution consultant visited the GAR Museum to examine the battle flag collection, which by then was sadly in need of conservation. Subsequent conservation grant proposals to the National Endowment for the Arts failed, but in 1981 private donations from a wide range of individuals, schoolchildren, corporations, veterans' groups, and foundations as well as legislatively approved funds from the Veterans Trust Fund initiated the Wisconsin Civil War Battle Flag Conservation Project. The project is an ongoing one, and to date has conserved forty-eight historic flags, including those of the Iron Brigade. Today, for the first time since the mid-1880's, the public may view the proud remnants of banners designed, created, and borne in battle during the time of Abraham Lincoln.