While home for the holidays in Wisconsin, I always try to do something historic like visit a museum, explore a city, or go to a brewery. This year, with the World War I centennial and the newly released documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, I decided to go to Madison to the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum to see their temporary exhibit, Beyond The Trenches: Stories from the Front. But while in Wisconsin’s capitol city, I was able to explore the state’s Civil War history as well.
The Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum is a must for every history buff’s visit to Madison. It is a state-run organization through the Wisconsin Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and while small, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum provides a detailed overview of Wisconsin’s involvement in all major American wars. I have memories of visiting the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in fourth grade on a field trip and while I have much more of an appreciation for the museum now than I did then, there was one thing that I never forgot: Old Abe.
When walking into the Veterans Museum, the first era covered when visitors enter the exhibit space is the Civil War and it takes up a decent amount of the first room. When entering, Old Abe immediately draws the eye for the famous mascot of the 8th Wisconsin is perched in its own case right in the center of the room. Unfortunately, it is not really Old Abe for after he died in 1881, his stuffed remains were placed on display in the Wisconsin State Capitol and later destroyed by a fire in 1904. Nonetheless, Old Abe’s story is central to Wisconsin’s Civil War history and is an interesting one as well. Did you know that Old Abe had his own two-bedroom “apartment” with a custom made bathtub and a caretaker in the basement of the capitol?
Just behind Old Abe, a diorama catches the eye depicting the Iron Brigade another story central to Wisconsin’s Civil War history. Does anyone recognize where? It is the 6th Wisconsin at Antietam. Wisconsin men were present at one of the deadliest days of the Civil War. One of the men depicted in the exhibit was Major Rufus Dawes who was living in Juneau County, Wisconsin during the war and organized a volunteer company at its start. Dawes remembered:
As our line appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens. But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced….
While the Wisconsin regiments at Antietam are a major part of the exhibit, many aspects of the Civil War are discussed and artifacts displayed. Starting the formation of several regiments including the La Crosse Light Guard (Company B, 2nd Wisconsin) and their arrival for training at Camp Randall nearby, the 2nd Wisconsin wearing grey at the Battle of First Manassas in July, 1861, as well as Wisconsin soldiers in the medical field, navy, artillery, prisoners of war, and more.
When entering the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, the building itself is small, but the Civil War is one of the largest exhibits followed by World War II. Yet, all of wars with Wisconsin involvement are exhibited from the Spanish American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and even soldiers who are currently serving overseas. For the Civil War buff and history enthusiast, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is a great place for an introduction to Wisconsin and Madison’s Civil War history.
For those interested, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9:00am-4:30pm, and Sunday from 12:00pm-4:00pm. Admission is free.