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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

Civil War Days of Milton

Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen

May, 2023

Cannon fire at Civil War Days at the Milton House - Photo by Lee Ann Hare

When one visits the Civil War Days event in Milton, organized by the Milton House Museum, the comforts of home and modern cars are left behind. Stepping onto the soft grounds of Goodrich Park during this event takes one through a kind of time-travel to a well-known and sad chapter of our American history.

The Civil War

Not yet 100 years old, we were still a young nation, but we had reached a boiling point in our history, pitting brother against brother, fighting for ideals and rights that 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 the men in charge felt that picking up arms and going to war was the only option left.

It was one of our bloodiest wars and 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.

Scott Paulson, Civil War Days reenactor

This weekend in Milton’s Goodrich Park, Scott Paulson acts as an undertaker during the Civil War. He has been a part of reenactments for 25 years. Mr. Paulson stands by the wooden coffin of a military leader and describes how marble became a popular tombstone material at that time.

He also tells the story of how too many soldiers simply died on the scattered battlefields, and their bodies were never retrieved or given a proper burial.

Experience a Kind of Time Travel

Civil War Days in Milton, Wisconsin isn’t loud, aside from a sporadic cannon blasts. There are no blaring rock bands beating your ear drums, no showy LED lights or people selling trinkets in your face. Here, a quiet calm settles over the park and the visitors. It is easy to tune out the occasional car rolling by on an adjacent street. The sweet songs of birds blend with the soft voices of the reenactors at the Civil War campground in the park. Several tents are set up with displays. People in character bustle about working on their duties in a fictional1860s lifestyle with the backdrop of war.

Transported back in time, one will ponder what it must have been like to live through one of the most terrible wars in our nation’s history, ripping our country's soul in two. What was it like to battle one’s brothers and rampant diseases at the same time? They endured terrors of the day and nightmares of the dark. For many, it became an ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

Muffled voices travel over the spring air mixing with the smell of campfires and, once again, the visitors are reminded of the absence of modern conveniences. At Civil War Days it’s natural to think of those history lessons, novels we’ve read or movies watched showing the hardship endured by the soldiers of both the North and South. Learning is happening.

Our Wisconsin Union soldiers 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, for all Americans to be treated with human dignity.

A lady’s plain-colored 1860’s style dress drags over the blades of grass as she enters a tent, where she continues stirring food in a pot on a fire. Another two women sit nearby, sewing quilt squares. A small, dusty lantern rests on a table and an observant visitor can catch a glimpse of a sleeping cot and a rug inside the tent. They were simple means from a simpler time.

The women take a few minutes to share stories…

Interview with Jenna Theissen and Karen Alexander, Civil War Reenactors

Socks and blankets were always needed by the soldiers. The ladies across the communities of America were constantly knitting and quilting. The blankets, socks and other items were distributed by the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the war. It was a civilian run, but federally recognized organization built on volunteers. The Sanitary Commission also helped with cleaning the hospital areas. They distributed millions of dollars of food, clothing and medical supplies throughout the four years of the war. It was an “army of women” who made it all possible. They were not just “pretty petunias”.

Jenna and Karen, reenactors at Civil War Days

Louisa May Alcott served with the 1862 Peninsula Campaign of George McClellen and worked on a Sanitary Commission steamboat hospital. She served for six weeks, until she got typhoid fever.

The organizations that supplied the soldiers and helped with the hospitals of the war lived on donations. They were the gears behind the war, mostly run by women behind the lines.

The park is transformed into an era gone by. Clusters of soldiers dressed in Union soldier uniforms gather near a cannon in the Artillery Field. The breeze picks up near the open field, bringing a chill to the air and to the bones as one contemplates the violent and massive loss of life in this war. It is nearly unfathomable.

The Milton House Museum and Goodrich

Across a road from the field sits the Milton House Museum; a place where runaway slaves once took refuge and found new hope. The original owner of the inn, Joseph Goodrich, was a strong abolitionist who had a moral devotion to assist southern slaves fleeing bondage and seeking freedom.

Milton House Museum - Photo by SMR Photography

Underground Railroad activity took place at the Milton House during the two decades prior to the Civil War. The Milton House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998. It is the only tourable site in Wisconsin documented by the National Network to Freedom as having had Underground Railroad activity.

Photo by Lee Ann Haire - Tatiyana and Janiya Moore portray runaway slaves in the tunnel at Milton House Museum in a previous year

If you have never visited the Milton House, do add it to your list!

Helping runaway slaves was a bold thing to do in the mid-1800s in this small, white town in Wisconsin. Not everyone would have ushered in runaways desperate for help, yearning to be free. It was a dangerous mission.

Those of born with fair skin often take for granted their freedoms and privileges, the ease in which they go about daily life without fear of racism or discrimination.

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 imagine 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!

Through the haze of the soldiers’ campfires, a tall figure dressed in a long, stately, black tailcoat carrying a top hat can be seen quietly observing. His bearded silhouette against the gray sky is breathtaking. Abraham Lincoln’s spirit seems to possess the impersonator whose likeness is quite astonishing.

Randy Duncan portrays Abraham Lincoln, sharing Lincoln’s thoughts on what lessons we can learn from the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln portrayed by Randy Duncan

Interview with Randy Duncan as Abe Lincoln

I hope that one thing people will understand is that there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet. Our country’s challenges can be satisfied by the vote. Those of us who are dissatisfied, will have another chance later. If we are too dissatisfied, and choose other means, those will always come to nothing.

Thoughts on Runaway Slaves and their Quest for Freedom

There are hundreds of runaways 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 chance 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.

Thoughts on Democracy

Our democracy is the last best hope of earth! And, if this country were to fall, nobody in the future would build a country on the idea that everyone was created equal, because they would consider that to be a failed experiment. So, it’s not just for this country that we’re doing it.

Milton House Director, Keighton Klos

Interview with Milton House Director Keighton Klos

This is my third Civil War Days of Milton. We’ve had really gorgeous weather, which is great! It’s always on the third weekend in May, prior to Memorial weekend.

Fridays are reserved for the school tours. Saturday and Sunday are open to the public and free. It is a very family-friendly event! Our reenactors are so good with kids, they allow for photo opportunities and various interactions.

The schools started signing up a few months early, and the best place to catch that information is on our social media pages. (Visit Milton House Museum)

This past Friday was our biggest school day that we’ve had since pre-Covid. We had over 1,200 school children visit, a combination of public, parochial and homeschooled students. With chaperones that number was greater. That was awesome!

We had 24 stations they could go through from listening to President Abraham Lincoln, to dancing, to watching the cannons fire, etc.

Saturday night we had the Twilight Tours inside the Milton House Museum, and the reenactors stayed for that.

Sunday morning, we had a worship service, similar to what would have been used in camp. It’s a unique experience and then the day ended early, around 2 pm, as this is our last day of the event.

Next year we’re hoping to have some cavalry with actual horses! So that will be cool.

Gallery of Photos from Civil War Days 2023

Final Thoughts - Continuing to Honor

This is an era that continues to define us as Americans in our American experience. It’s very far reaching. Being such a distant time from today, the Civil War Days of Milton is an excellent opportunity to reach across the generations and really impact people on a personal level, to really learn the history. It helps us to literally see and experience some of the history, not just read about it in a sterile textbook.

As Memorial Day approaches, a time of remembrance, we sometimes leave parts of our history tucked away on the dusty shelves of our minds. After all, that was so long ago and we got through it, right? Life moved on.

Civil War Monument in Janesville - Photo by Teresa Nguyen

Yet we still hear the echoes of that era. We are still dealing with struggles between the races, we are still working to eliminate discrimination, to rid our society of bigotry and a lack of respect for other citizens or those seeking citizenship. We still debate what it means to be American and 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. We must remember this important history and let the lessons learned shape how we treat one another, how we raise our children, determine for whom we vote and mold the laws we create.

May we forever honor the fallen and keep alive our true American history, however distant, however uncomfortable. And may democracy always prevail!


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