In 2012, guest curator Melinda Roberts set out to visit every one of the state’s 532 Wisconsin Historical Society “official” historical markers. Since then, she has photographed and researched more than 5,500 Wisconsin historical markers and sites, museums, lighthouses, and veterans memorials, all documented on her website, Wisconsin Historical Markers (now defunct). Read more about Roberts and her project in this profile from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The numbers are staggering – approximately 620,000 American soldiers dead between 1861 and 1865, killed in combat or by accident, starvation or disease. Per capita, Wisconsin sent more young men to the Civil War than any other state in the Union. Wisconsin’s sons, fathers, brothers, cousins, neighbors, and friends fought in every major Civil War battle – 91,000 soldiers in total. 3,802 died in combat or from wounds; 8,499 died of disease or other maladies. By the time the fighting ended, nearly every Wisconsin family was affected by loss.
Coming home was not always easy for the veteran soldier. Many suffered from what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a significant number spent their final days in insane asylums after spending previous years drifting through a meaningless life.
On May 30, 1868, by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first nationwide “Decoration Day” (later known as “Memorial Day”) was designated “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of Comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and those whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” By this time, however, two Wisconsin communities had already raised money to erect the first Civil War memorials in the state.
Paris Township Soldiers Monument (Kenosha County)
Erected Spring 1866
Wisconsin Registered Landmark No. 46
The Town of Paris in Kenosha County dedicated Wisconsin’s first Civil War memorial in the spring of 1866. Made of white granite and in the shape of a pillar, the names of 28 soldiers were inscribed on the four sides of the memorial base. The memorial went up quietly in the small community, and was placed at the Old Towne Hall at what is now the intersection of Highways 45 and 142. In 1935, names of World War I soldiers were added. In 2005 the monument was moved to its present location at the Town of Paris Safety Building on Burlington Road.
Lancaster Civil War Memorial (Grant County)
Erected July 4, 1867
Wisconsin Registered Landmark No. 47
In the southwest corner of Wisconsin, in Grant County, the city of Lancaster was also raising money to erect a Civil War memorial. In total, $6,486.37 was raised (more than $100,000 in today’s dollars) to erect one of Wisconsin’s most unique memorials, designed by S.D. Wright of Whitewater. Contemporary accounts describe it as “the Mecca of the friends of the Patriotic dead of Grant County.” Credit for “originating the enterprise and pressing it thro’, amid all discouragements” was given to George R. Laughton of Lancaster.
The memorial, placed on the grounds of the Grant County courthouse, is a 26-foot high Vermont marble shaft, upon which is mounted an eagle holding a laurel wreath in its beak. Elaborate engravings on all sides of the memorial honor the community’s Civil War soldiers. The shaft is surrounded by eight columns, into which are engraved the names of “all Grant County officers and soldiers who died during their term of service, amounting in all to about 750 names.”
Sheboygan County Civil War Memorial
Unveiled and dedicated October 17, 1889
Sheboygan County’s Civil War monument is made of Vermont granite and weighs 80 tons. The granite base is elaborately carved and decorated; at the top of the column, a Union soldier poses at “parade rest.” It took six flat train cars to deliver the disassembled statue to the city of Sheboygan. 20,000 people attended the dedication and unveiling, and to hear a speech from Senator Col. John C. Spooner of Wisconsin, who opined on the courage and sacrifices of the Civil War soldier and challenged the community to ensure “not one of them may die feeling . . . that he is forgotten and forlorn.”
“Winged Victory” (Kenosha County)
Presented to the City of Kenosha May 30, 1900 by Zalmon G. Simmons
Winged Victory is a 23-foot Civil War Nike figure standing atop a 60-foot Corinthian column of gray Vermont granite. The column is mounted on a 28-foot granite base, “the largest single piece of granite ever brought into Wisconsin.” The monument’s unveiling brought thousands of “Grand Army men and loyal citizens” from across Wisconsin and Illinois to Library Park in Kenosha. As soldiers paraded through the city to the applause and cheers of onlookers, the guns of Civil War steamer U.S.S. Michigan and other cutters in Kenosha Harbor fired salute after salute. The memorial was unveiled by Elizabeth Clarkson Simmons, granddaughter of local businessman and politician Zalmon G. Simmons. Newspapers reported the event as “the greatest day in the history of the city.”
Two Rivers Civil War Monument (Manitowoc County)
Erected June 9, 1900
Manitowoc County’s soldiers’ monument was unveiled on June 9, 1900 with “fitting ceremonies in the presence of an immense throng.” The monument was presented to the city of Two Rivers by the Joseph Rankin Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Ceremonies began with an elaborate parade to the monument’s location, where a chorus of 700 school children sang “Rally ‘Round the Flag.” After an opening prayer and presentation speech, Mae B. Hurst, daughter of William Hurst (a founding member and past commander of the Joseph Rankin Post) unveiled the flag as USRC Merrill fired a salute from the harbor.
The Two Rivers monument is Connecticut granite at its base; the 8-foot soldier atop is made of bronze. Members of the Joseph Rankin G.A.R. post solicited funds for the monument, and received “a hearty response” from the community. The monument is located at Two Rivers Central Park, next to a Wisconsin Historical Society marker that identifies Two Rivers as the birthplace of the ice cream sundae.
Memorial to Captain Victor Wolf
The massive monument in this illustration bears the name of Captain Victor Wolf, who had mustered out with a company of men from Eau Claire and returned there after the war, later to become Eau Claire’s first Chief of Police in 1872. After some research, it was discovered that the image is an example of an “Easel Monument Souvenir,” created in the late 1890s to raise funds for a national “Triangular Easel Monument” to be “temporarily constructed in October, 1898, at Bridgeport, Conn.” Buyers were told that, when sufficient funds were raised, all from the sale of these souvenirs, the monument would be placed in “which ever State in the Union the greatest percentage of Easel Monument Souvenir sales is made as compared with its Grand Army membership.” The statue was never erected and the funds never sufficiently accounted for. Over time, the project was reported as a scam, but that has never been confirmed.
The images in this online exhibit come from the following digital collections:
- Eau Claire Historical Photographs, Chippewa Valley Museum and L. E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.
- Grant County Historical Society
- Kenosha County History: Images and Texts, 1830s-1940s, Kenosha Public Library and Kenosha History Center. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
- Sheboygan County Historical Documents. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Two Rivers History, Lester Public Library. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Eau Claire Daily Free Press, October 23, 1889
- Evening Free Press (Eau Claire), May 31, 1900
- Marshfield Times, March 16, 1906
- Milwaukee Weekly Wisconsin, June 2, 1900
- Weekly Wisconsin, June 16, 1900
- Wisconsin Registered Landmark Nomination, Register Number 25, Wisconsin Historical Society
- Thomas J. McCrory, Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Veterans Museum Foundation, 2005)