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Monday, July 1, 2013

Civil War Wisconsin

Kenosha museum commemorates the Badger State’s role

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During the Civil War, America bled as red as it ever did, and this nation was forever changed and haunted. This week is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s turning point, according to Doug Dammann, curator at the Civil War Museum in Kenosha.

The museum’s exhibit, “The Campaigns of ’63: Gettysburg & Vicksburg” (through March 30, 2014), commemorates and documents these bloody and crucial battles. Until then, the war’s horrible throes had largely favored the South. Despite being heavily outnumbered, “the Southerners thought they’d win easily because they considered The Union Army a bunch of city boys who didn’t know how to ride and shoot,” Dammann says.

But on July 1-3, 1863, in a rural Pennsylvania terrain with a railroad track, Union soldiers held off an advancing Confederate siege threatening to penetrate further North toward Washington, D.C., itself. Cut and zoom into another hellfire. The next day, July 4, Gen. Ulysses Grant’s army faced heavily defended Vicksburg, Miss. After being foiled several times, he came up with an ingenious strategy for victory.

There are good historical reasons for Wisconsinites to care about these battles—and to visit the Civil War Museum, open since 2008. This state provided about 92,000 citizens to the Union cause. “We often think of the war being largely fought in the South, that it had little to do with the upper Midwest, which actually provided 750,000 troops,” Dammann explains.

The “Iron Brigade”—comprised mainly of three Wisconsin regiments—helped turn the tide at Gettysburg. Nicknamed for their iron disposition, the brigade repulsed the first Confederate offensive, capturing much of the rebel brigade and their general. The Sixth Wisconsin regiment led a famous charge on an unfinished railroad near the town, and took hundreds of prisoners. The exhibit includes a miniature diorama of that clash along the railroad, providing a bird’s eye view of the battle’s convolutions.

Glory had a severe price. The Iron Brigade proportionately suffered the most casualties of any brigade in the Civil War, 61% at Gettysburg.

The morning after the end of the Battle of Gettysburg—Independence Day—Grant made a critical move. His army, situated across the Mississippi River in Louisiana, had failed since 1862 to take Vicksburg. It seemed impenetrable, with weapon and supply lines along the bluffs overlooking the river. The siege alternately provided intense stress and boredom, and Grant struggled with drinking and remaining sober for his troops.

The army and the navy finally collaborated in a nighttime passage with a dozen vessels in the face of relentless rebel fire. “It was as if hell itself were loose,” an Iowan remembered. Using armored navy boats for protection, infantry in riverboats landed south of the city, disarmed the nearby state capital of Jackson and took Vicksburg from the east, Dammann says.

A primary mission of the museum is to clarify the war roles of Upper Midwesterners, such as Peter Rook, a house painter from Kenosha. “Rook had just been promoted to lieutenant before Gettysburg,” Dammann recounts. “His wife had died right before he enlisted and he’d entrusted his infant daughter to his wife’s parents. Lt. Rooks died on July 1.” At Vicksburg, infantryman Charlie Evans of Galena, Ill. “volunteered to command one of the riverboats, which he’d never done before. A Confederate shell blew the pilothouse to bits. Evans fell to the deck but miraculously escaped unharmed.”

Identifying with historic Heartlanders provides meaningful gratification. Yet how many imaginations can penetrate the abstraction of monumental “casualties” to truly understand this war’s smoke-filled suffering and human cost?  This exhibit’s documentation and evocation may open eyes.

Look into an open surgeon’s kit—with knife, scalpel and other instruments lying in red velvet slots. Owned by a Wisconsin Union surgeon who survived the war, it seems chillingly crude by contemporary medical standards, suggesting the gaping mouth of a snaggle-toothed carnivore. 

The museum—located on Lake Michigan at 5400 W. First Ave.—also offers permanent life-size dioramas, high-tech exhibit features and in-person interactive events, including a Ulysses S. Grant reenactor on Saturday, July 6, starting at 1 p.m. Admission is $7, with discounts for Kenosha and Town of Somers residents, and free for youth aged 15 and under, with an adult. For further information, visit kenosha.org/civilwar/index.html.

Kevin Lynch is former staff arts reporter for The Capital Times in Madison and has written for Down Beat, The Village Voice, New Art Examiner, American Record Guide and currently blogs for nodepression.com. He is working on a novel on Herman Melville.