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Archive for April, 2014

The Archivist Chronicles: Civil War History Mystery

Bullet Hole Mystery

Each of the thousands of objects in our collection has a story behind them. Ideally, our staff records that story at the time the item is donated—but sometimes we have to uncover the story ourselves, even after more than 100 years have passed. These “history mysteries” are a challenging but fun aspect of museum work.

Several years ago, our archives staff discovered a handwritten Civil War poem titled “For Country.” It was written by an unnamed mother in Milwaukee praying for the safety of her son, identified only as a 1st Lieutenant in the Heavy Artillery, who was going off to war. The poetry was beautiful, but what caught our attention the most were three odd holes down the center of the paper. Who was the mother? Who was the soldier? And what had caused those holes?

One staff member remembered a set of five business card sized photos—cartes de visite—with similar holes in them. Could they be related? One of the photographs, showing a middle aged woman, was labeled on the back as “My Mother, Mrs. Charles H. Larkin, Milwaukee.” Could that be the mother who wrote the poem? A search of the roster of the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery, referenced in the poem, revealed a 1st Lieutenant Courtland P. Larkin from Milwaukee, who was later promoted to Major of the 38th Wisconsin Infantry. This evidence suggested the identities of the mother and the soldier, but we still wanted to know what had caused the holes.

Staff located a regimental history of the 38th Wisconsin Infantry, written in 1866, which included short biographical sketches of the officers. Larkin’s included the following account: “He took part with the battalion in the battle on the Norfolk railroad, June 17th, 1864, and was severely wounded by a musket ball which entered his left side, between the ribs and hip, and lodged internally, where it still remains.” We then realized that if we folded the poem, the three holes aligned into one and if we placed the cartes de visite next to it, their holes also aligned.

Clearly, Courtland Larkin received the poem and photos from his mother when he joined the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery in September 1863. He carried them with him throughout his service and had them in his coat pocket on June 17, 1864, when a Confederate musket ball pierced them before lodging in his hip. Larkin, who survived the serious wound, died in 1920 and is buried in Forest Home cemetery in Milwaukee.

Our expert staff, together with the rich historical resources available at WVM, were able to bring the story of Courtland Larkin back to life through the poem and photos he carried 150 years ago. Thousands of other stories are also preserved through the objects that are donated each year. Visit the museum or search our online catalog to discover them.


Spencer Bronson: Witness to Murder

On April 14, 1865, during a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth slipped into the theater box and shot President Abraham Lincoln at point blank range before fleeing. Lincoln died on April 15th, becoming the first American president to be assassinated. Booth was eventually captured and killed by the Union army.

You are likely familiar with the Lincoln assassination story, which was well documented thanks to eyewitness accounts. One of those written accounts came from a Wisconsin veteran named Spencer Bronson, who served in the 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War and personally witnessed the tragic killing.

Bronson was an avid writer (and a newspaper editor later in life) who regularly corresponded with his family in Columbia County, Wisconsin where he grew up. He was the sole survivor of three Bronson brothers who served in the war.

On April 14th, Spencer Bronson attended the infamous performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. In a letter to his family written on April 16th, Bronson described the scene after the initial pistol shot rang through the theater, interrupting the performance:

“(The murderer) who I am sure is J. Wilkes Booth, who I have seen before…. drew a dagger, and with his white face towards the crowd, he repeated in Latin, ‘So be it ever to tyrants.”


“I was present and saw this scene enacted, such an act that has no parallel since the days of Roman greatness when Caesar was struck down.”

Lincoln, still alive, was taken across the street and tended by doctors, who were unable to save him. He died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. Aware of the day’s historical significance, Bronson ended his letter, “Thus far the murderer has not been caught.”

You can see a photo of Bronson and other Civil War history for yourself at The Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Search our Civil War database here.

The Iron Brigade & the Black Hat

“There are them damned black hatted fellows again!”

iron-brigade-black-hatThis cry, and others like it, were made by disheartened Confederate troops on the first day of fighting at the battle of Gettysburg. Under the impression that they faced untrained militia, the Rebel troops quickly recognized the distinctive black Model 1858 “Hardee” hat worn by the famed “Iron Brigade of the West” and realized they were in for a fight. Composed entirely of Western troops from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, the Iron Brigade had earned its reputation in battles like Second Bull Run and Antietam, and they lived up to it at Gettysburg, suffering incredible casualties while repelling numerous Confederate attacks.

While many photographs, letters, and diaries from Iron Brigade soldiers survive in archives and museums today, only one of the iconic Black Hats that saw battle at Gettysburg remains, and it can be found in the collections of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Sergeant Philander B. Wright, Color Sergeant, Company C, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, wore this hat as he led the charge of the Iron Brigade on the morning of July 1, 1863 outside the town of Gettysburg, PA.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

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