By Teresa Nguyen
RCHS History Teller
Above photo by Lee Ann Hare. To see more photos of this event, visit Photography by laPHOTO on Facebook.
Leaving the comforts of my warm car and coffee, I click my remote alarm and the beep echoes down the small-town road. My shoes sink slightly with each step into the soggy grounds of Goodrich Park. Fickle spring weather brings a heavy, gray sky mixed with the sun’s teasing, dancing rays. Damp, cool air chills my body and thoughts as I wander through a makeshift Civil War camp.
My mind ponders what it must have been like to live through the bloodiest war in our nation’s history … to battle one’s brothers and rampant diseases at the same time.
A lady’s drab colored 1860’s style dress drags over the dew drops clinging to the grass as she enters a tent, tending to bits of food on a table in a darkened corner. A small, dusty lantern sits nearby.
A woman in a modern, floral dress walks the grounds, mingling with the guests and watches proudly from a distance as the park transforms into an era gone by. In a brief interview, Kari Klebba, Executive Director of the Milton Historical Society, graciously shares her thoughts on the event.
Kari Klebba on Civil War Living History Days:
“On the historical level, this is truly an era that continues to define us as Americans in our American experience. It’s very far-reaching.
“Being such a distant time from now, this is a really great way to reach across these generations and really impact people on a personal level. It gets them to see history, not just read about it in a sterile textbook; from hands on construction of a log cabin, to getting to meet Andrew Pratt, to hearing President Lincoln’s thoughts on his election. These are the things that make a difference and really make history something special.”
Hardships on Display
Civil War Days in Milton, Wisconsin isn’t loud, aside from a sporadic cannon blast. No blaring rock bands beat into your ear drums, no showy lights or people selling trinkets in your face. No. Here, a quiet calm settles over the park and the visitors. I begin to tune out the occasional car rolling by on adjacent streets. The sweet songs of birds blend with soft sounds of a chord on nylon strings and I am drawn to the gentle voice of a man singing old folk tunes from another tent.
Gary Alexander on learning Civil War songs:
“My wife and I went to a Civil War dance and after that my wife made era appropriate clothes. We continued to attend the dances and later joined the Historical Timekeepers group. A friend of ours gave us a tent and we started doing this. Being a singer and musician, I thought I should contribute in my own way. Around that time, I happened to win a book of Civil War songs in an auction!
“There were several thousand songs written and published about the war. I do songs that have a story, so that I can help educate the listeners about the war. It’s our history and it’s interesting to take a look back. The songs would often express feelings and thoughts that people wouldn’t speak.
“When the Civil War came, sheet music sales went crazy and sales of pianos went up. It gave people a connection. Unlike today when people get the daily news on TV, they got their information in other ways. We go back to that period when we listen to songs and it’s an important lesson and insight into the culture of the times.”
Muffled voices travel on the humid air, but I can’t make out the conversation. Suddenly, my nostrils fill with the smell of a small campfire and, once again, I am reminded of the absence of modern conveniences. I think of the hardship endured by northern soldiers who trudged in heavy boots from bloody battle to bloody battle fighting for the preservation of our country’s union, fighting for the rights of African Americans to be free, to be treated with human dignity.
Terrors of the day, nightmares of the dark. The ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Not yet 100 years old, we were still a young nation, yet we had reached a boiling point in our history once again, this time pitting brother against brother, fighting for ideals and rights each side sought to preserve. Clinging so dearly to opposing philosophies, opposing principles of who we were as Americans, what we were as a nation, it seemed picking up arms and going to war was their only option.
The Value of Freedom
At the core of our debate; the right to own another human being. The right to make him or her a slave.
Tatyana Covington on Portraying a Runaway Slave:
“I portray a character named Abigail, a runaway slave. The reason why I decided to come here was that there was no one at the time who could properly portray the true emotions of a runaway slave. I feel that being an African American, I connect very well with my history. I know that Milton, being the small town that it is, it’s hard for people to really hear these kinds of things. So, it was really important for me to tell her story.
“Abigail had been through a lot. She’d lived all her life a slave in St. Louis, Missouri and had belonged to two slave owners who mistreated and abused her like an animal. To portray her many emotions … it actually takes a toll on me. Even though she went through so much, there are others who have endured at least as much, and we need to hear their stories, too. We all need to be heard.”
As I meander farther through the camp, I see in the distance, off to one side, several excited children using all their strength to awkwardly carry beams of wood toward what looks like the beginnings of a small, simple structure, a miniature pioneer cabin. What a fantastic, educational, hands-on activity teaching them the construction process, the ways of a bygone era when people were exceptionally self-sufficient. At the very least, it is teaching the value of hard work.
As my eyes gaze beyond the children, I see a cluster of soldiers dressed in uniform gathering around a cannon in the Artillery Field. Nearby is the Milton House; a place where runaway slaves once took refuge and found new hope.
If you have never visited the Milton House, add it to your list. It was a bold thing to do in this small, white town in Wisconsin. Not everyone would have ushered in the runaways desperate for help, yearning to be free. Yet those of us born with fair skin take for granted our freedoms and privileges.
Most of us have no idea what it feels like to work our hands and feet to the bone, to be beaten, whipped and tortured. We can’t imagine the oppression of being confined or being denied an education. We cannot fathom the humiliations of being owned, sold and bought, traded like a sack of flour, disrespected, demeaned, disregarded and discarded. We have no idea what is feels like to witness a loved one hanging from a rope in a tree …
Yet incredibly, we still forget to be grateful, to give thanks for our freedom. A freedom which, for a slave, was worth risking everything to find.
Janiyah Moore on the Importance of Sharing Stories of the Slaves:
“I think it’s important to tell the stories of African Heritage because people talk about this as being ‘our history’ when it’s also white America’s history, because they brought us here. I feel that there’s a lot of guilt in modern day society, especially in Wisconsin. Milwaukee is the number one segregated city in the nation. For me, being born and raised in Milwaukee, and as an actress, I want to see myself as a representative of Milwaukee.
“The only way we’re going to be able to heal and grow as a country is to unify and cross bridges. We can’t be separated, yelling at each other from afar, ‘This is how we feel!’. We have to come together and unite and we have to do it through history because history is what happened yesterday. This is the pain we’re feeling still today.
“So, in order to do that, we need history to bridge, to heal, we need to talk about it, to acknowledge and understand it. And rather than allow emotions to bubble up from 100 years ago, there needs to be an understanding of what happened and an understanding of how we can move forward.”
Our Country’s Most Beloved
Mingling with the visitors in the middle of the park, a tall figure dressed in a stately black tailcoat carrying a top hat catches my eye. His bearded silhouette against the gray sky is breathtaking. Abraham Lincoln’s spirit seems to possess the impersonator whose likeness is quite astonishing. I have to remind myself that this is truly someone else.
As History Teller for RCHS, I am attending this event not only to experience and enjoy all there is to offer, but to gather a variety of stories for my blog. Lincoln immediately jumps to the top of the interview list growing in my mind. Nearby, a crowd begins filling the rows of chairs set up in front of a stage and Abe moves toward them. After the presentation, I most respectfully approach, still feeling like I am interrupting the plans of our most beloved president.
Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Randy Duncan, on Remembering the Civil War:
“We just finished listening to Andrew Pratt speak of his experiences as a fellow on the Underground Railroad and how he has emancipated himself. This area has been an important part of the Underground Railroad.
“For every story like that, there are hundreds of other people whose stories we don’t know. Also, I’m certain there are stories of almost as many people who have assisted those folks. To go further, we have to think of the people who wanted to escape but were unable to. Those stories are worthy of being remembered, as well. If history were slightly different, those people would be considered property right now … all of those worthy people!
“We can think of the contributions that they have made to our society because they have had the opportunity to do that. But, we should also think of all the opportunities that were lost during that time because those people did not have the opportunity to help themselves, or to help this country.
“There are mistakes that are made in history and they sometimes get righted, either suddenly or gradually, and it’s important to remember them as we make our own mistakes in our own lives and in our own history of this country. Mistakes can be made right, and they need to be evaluated and reevaluated.”
Preserving the Story
The true story of Andrew Pratt, a former slave who took refuge at the Underground Railroad stop in Milton, recently came to light through uncovered documents. Playwright Gwen Rice wrote a moving monologue and actor Reggie Kellum brilliantly brings Andrew Pratt to life on this very stage. How appropriate that this gloomy day somehow reflects those sorrows, our mistakes of the past.
Reggie’s presentation captivates the audience and moves my spirit. We have read the stories, we have seen the movies and watched documentaries, but nothing compares to seeing an African American actor express those experiences in real time. I am mesmerized by how he moves, the pain in his face, the anguish in his voice, the body language, his yearning and how he tells the tale of his harrowing journey toward freedom, finally finding refuge in the Milton House.
Reggie Kellum on Portraying Andrew Pratt, who Took Refuge in Milton:
“Last year, we did a tour through the local grave site and I portrayed a young black character named Howard Brooks, who was a blacksmith who joined the Union Army’s 13th Regiment. During the project, I had to keep my emotions in tact because it’s a very significant piece. It was history that was new to me and impacted me. I realized the importance of needing to share it. I was one of those students in history class that would look down at my history book and not really pay attention, so I feel this really brings it alive.
“My first year of acting was in 2012. My mother asked me what kind of classes do you want to take? And I said, ‘I think I want to take an acting class, because, you know … I’m a goofball.’ And my mom was like, ‘Are you sure?’ Then, I met Miranda Hawk at Madison College. She shook my hand that day and said, ‘Welcome to the dark side.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but found out that once you start, you get pulled in. And from that point, I was pulled in. I had a hunger for acting and joined an improv group. I was so nervous the first time that I actually backed out of the performance! Then I finally did ‘Dog Sees God,’ my first play.
“Last year, Kari Klebba reached out to me and invited me to come back to Milton. I thought she wanted me to do Howard Brooks again. Then, she sent me information about Andrew Pratt. Finally, I received Gwen Rice’s script about a month before my presentation and had to memorize everything, while at the same time I was in another production!
“I really enjoy what I do so much.”
Traditions of a Small Town
My wandering and pondering turns into more questions as I approach the Milton City Mayor, Anissa Welch. How wonderful it must feel to host this annual, local event. So, why Milton? What lessons can we learn from the past?
Milton Mayor Anissa Welch:
“The City of Milton has a strong abolitionist history. We really are proud of it. Most people don’t realize what a radical community we were to promote the freedom of slaves and to risk our lives as a community to help others ensure their God-given right to freedom. And that was an important foundation of Ezra Goodrich and his belief system.
“Not only is this an important part of Milton’s history, it’s an important part of our nation’s history. It’s important we don’t forget where we come from, how far we have come, but also, we have a long way to go. I want our community and anybody who comes to visit it to enjoy our rich history and learn from it. We must learn from our mistakes that have been made, and to do better with our knowledge.
“I’m so proud of the four years we have been doing the Civil War Living History Days in the City of Milton. It’s a gift to our community and it’s really a gift to any of our visitors who come here. It’s an event we are able to offer for free because of the Wisconsin Humanities Council grant. It’s a plug for them and our partnership, this is important and it ensures that we never forget our history.”
A Nation Divided
The boom of the cannon is deafening as deep vibrations move through the ground under my feet. It fascinates and frightens simultaneously and I’m drawn into the military camp site at the Artillery Field. The soldiers are in Union blue, buttoned up and probably too warm from their exertions, even though the temperature remains cool. I can hardly imagine the adrenaline rush and raw fears our troops experienced facing both the dangers and the Confederate soldiers on those front lines.
Charles Holbrook on Civil War Reenacting:
“I portray a corporal in the Union Army with the 2nd Wisconsin Company K. I started doing this back in 2005 out east with the 3rd Maryland unit, when we lived in West Virginia. I did reenactments out on the national battlefields.
“I love history and love sharing it with people who want to know more about our history. We’ve learned that when people are there in person, when they can pick something up and hold it, they learn much better than reading it in a book.”
For a few seconds, the smoke of a campfire outside a soldier’s tent blends with the white blast emanating from the cannon. The breeze picks up near the open field, blowing my hair across my chilled face. By now, the smoky smell of charred wood is already settling into my sweater as I tread toward the tents.
Through the haze of the campfires, I see a familiar smile approaching. To my delight, it’s “Army Surgeon” Jim Dumke, who I see quite often as one of our volunteer tour guides at the Rock County Historical Society. He is dressed for the occasion and in full character.
Jim Dumke on Portraying a Union Surgeon:
“I’m assigned to the 2nd Wisconsin Regimental Field Hospital. My job is to take care of all the health needs of the troops who serve with me. Of course, we also do battlefield surgery, but that is only a small part of what we do. It’s intense after a battle, but not so intense afterwards. It does keep us busy from sunup to sundown.
“I love history, and I think it’s important for this reason: Whatever we are is the result of what came before us. It’s important for people to understand character and our history forms how we think about things, how we feel about being Americans. I think it’s important for future generations to learn what my parents taught me. I didn’t have the luxury of going to reenactments to see history unfold in person, but I learned from my folks a love of my country and patriotism. I hope that’s part of what I convey when people come through.
“When I do the presentation, I always have the kids come up and volunteer with me. I always use three; one to be the patient, one to put the patient to sleep and wake him up, and one to do the surgery. So, the other day, I was speaking to the one to wake up the patient and as I was talking with him, I felt a blow against my leg, looked down and my ‘surgeon’ was passed out on the floor! He lay there for a second, then his eyes opened and I helped him into a sitting position. His teacher came over and took him over to the EMT on site. He was fine. I don’t do a particularly bloody presentation. That was certainly a first!
“I also do tours at the Rock County Historical Society, both at the Lincoln-Tallman House and in the Frances Willard School, and I volunteer for various events as my skills fit. I enjoy the work. The Tallman House is beautiful. I love the fact that when I walk those floors, I’m walking where Abraham Lincoln walked.
“And I would have liked Mr. Tallman. He was anti-slavery, he worked in the Underground Railroad in New York, but I’m convinced he would have been involved here, as well. He supported raising troops for the Civil War and he used tobacco in all forms, as I do. He was a lawyer, and I also practiced law for 30 years. I think we had a few things in common, so I would have like him.”
The final toll of human life in the Civil War has been recently debated. For years it remained at 620,000, but some argue that number is grossly underestimated. The destruction was not only measured in fallen soldiers, but in disease, starvation, states and families torn apart and a nation’s culture ripped in two. Sadly, remnants of that deep divide still remain.
Continuing to Honor
At this time of remembrance, we sometimes leave parts of our history tucked away on the dusty shelves in our minds. After all, that was so long ago and we got through it, right? Life moved on. Yet we still hear the echoes of that era. We are still dealing with struggles between the races and a lack of respect for other citizens. We still debate what it means to be American, what it means to be free.
It is imperative that we reflect on the past and use those lessons as a reference book for today and dust off the shelves of the mind. We must retrieve this important data that can shape how we treat one another, how we raise our children, determine for whom we vote and mold the laws we create.
On Friday, June 1, the Rock County Historical Society will hold its first annual Civil War Re-Enactment Flag Lowering Ceremony. How appropriate and wonderful that this ceremony will be held on the campus next to the Lincoln-Tallman House. I spoke to Keighton Klos, our Operations Manager, on how this event came about.
“Volunteer Jim Dumke, and our RCHS Campus Caretaker, Dave Thompson, came up with the idea. Both had been down to President Lincoln’s Cemetery. There is a similar ceremony there. We started talking about it last year and then again, this year. We have never had a ‘kickoff’ for our tour season and we agreed that this would be a low effort/high impact event. Jim is part of the Wisconsin Company K reenactment group and they will come down and do the kind of flag lowering ceremony that would have been done at a garrison or a fort during the Civil War.
“It’s a free event on June 1st from 6 to 8 pm. The public is welcome. They can come and watch Company K get ready, then we’ll meet at the Lincoln-Tallman House. There will be gun salutes, we’ll hear Taps and they’ll lower the 33-star flag, which represents 1859 when Lincoln came here to stay over. We’ll invite people to mingle on the first floor of the house, there will be cookies and lemonade and a fiddler playing period music.
“There is still a large group of people who want the traditional historical event, a period appropriate experience. We haven’t had one of those in about four years. When Jim and Dave presented this, it seemed fitting. Certainly, the Civil War ties in with Lincoln and it’s a period of our history that is regaining popularity. Plus, I also have a personal interest in this era.
“I’m very excited about it! I’m hoping that, being a free event, we’ll have good attendance and that it gets people excited about taking tours in the Lincoln-Tallman House this year.”
United by Our History
Though it is just a short walk away, my modern car, with all its gadgets, bells and automation, seems a world away from the Civil War Living History Days event. As I drive the busy highway home, the smell of campfire smoke lingers on my sweater and stirs me toward the creative beginnings of this blog, at least until I can open my laptop. My education of the Civil War is not only refreshed but enhanced by this experience.
Consider joining me on June 1 at the Civil War Re-Enactment Flag Lowering Ceremony at the Lincoln-Tallman House and perhaps you, too, will find yourself inspired to feel especially grateful for our freedom. We can all stand to be reminded to respect our American brothers and sisters, even through our differences and debates, so that we never reach such an extreme boiling point as we did 157 years ago.
May we forever honor the fallen and keep alive our American history.