Friday, November 30, 2012

Old Mickey Sullivan returns for a story or two...

Sgt. James Patrick Sullivan made an appearance at Freedom Hall in the Civil War Museum at Kenosha, Wis., a few days back and it was the same old “Mickey, of Company K”—sharp of tongue, a glint in his eye, and full of Irish blarney.

It was good to see the old veteran of the Sixth Wisconsin and listen as he talked about attending the 1883 reunion of the Iron Brigade Association at La Crosse.

Mickey was to give a talk, he explained, and was trying to catch a few words on paper. He is the first enlisted man asked to formally address the annual gathering, and he admitted looking back to his soldier days triggered a flood of memories.

Sullivan laughed in telling how his new company—the Lemonweir Minute Men—drilled at the Mauston Park in Juneau County before the call to go to Camp Randall at Madison in 1861. School children, fathers, mothers sisters, friends and girls that had not yet been left behind stood watching, he recalled with a smile, and “if they judge by the loudness of the tones of command and our ability to charge the school house or church, they must have felt the rebellion would soon be a thing of the past.”

A couple of darker memories gave Mickey pause. It was at Gettysburg, in the bloody railroad cut, that he was shot in the shoulder and taken to the town on the back of a cavalry horse ordered up by Gen. James Wadsworth himself. At the Court House, he said, he found doctors “busy cutting up and patching up the biggest part of the Sixth Regiment, A good number of the Company K boys were in the same fix I was, and some a great deal worse.”

And there were other memories as well—of “Old Boo” the famous pet jackass of Company K, and a drill session with two new recruits, one German and one Irish, and, of course, Sullivan had to pull from an old chest his faded blue coat and the misshapen famous Black Hat of the Iron Brigade. The old coat was a little tight around the middle and the hat had seen better days, he admitted as he put them on, and then pulled himself up erect soldier fashion to begin his poem:

            There are hats in the closest, old, ugly to view,
             Of very slight value they may be to you.
             But the wreath of the Astors should not buy them to-day,
              With letters of honor, old Company K.

            At the end, Sullivan saluted the way the old boys,did in 1861, and then he was gone.
            His return was a funded by a grant given to the Civil War Museum from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The 40-minute performance featured actor T. Stacy Hicks as Mickey Sullivan. The script was written by Playwright Jim Farris from Sullivan’s Civil War writings as found  in An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan, Sergt, Company K, 6th Wisconsin Volunteers, by William J.K. Beaudot and Lance J. Herdegen.           


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Was it a lock of hair of President Lincoln?

While I was working at the Institute for Civil War Studies at Carroll College, a visitor came to show me a small rectangle of glass with a lock of hair inside and tied with a red ribbon. On a card on the opposite side was the note: "A lock of Lincoln's Hair." The relic had been found in an old trunk left at a Milwaukee hotel the family had operated long ago. It was discovered after the fellow living there, Charles King, the famous author, died and trunk was left. A quick comparison showed the handwriting on the note was similar to that of Charles King. He was the son of General Rufus King of the Iron Brigade and served as his father's "aide" early in the war. He was one of four cadets appointed to the U.S. Military Academy by President Lincoln. (Another of the four was William Upham of the Second Wisconsin after he was severely wounded at First Bull Run.) I asked the visitor for just a few hairs from the lock, but was turned down with a smile. For the record, the hair was dark brown and very coarse. Was it the real hair of Abraham Lincoln? I like to think so, but we will never know for sure.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Black Hats meet Old Abe, the War Eagle.

As the Seventh Wisconsin was at Camp Randall at Madison preparing to leave for Washington and the warfront, companies of the Eighth Wisconsin were arriving. The one from Eau Claire in north central Wisconsin caught the attention of the Western boys. It included the "proud form" of a live bald eagle perched on a painted shield and carried by a bearer. The eagle liked to spread its wings to retain its equilibrium while being carried, presenting a martial tableau. "It was the center of attraction during the day," said a Seventh Wisconsin man. "The [Eau Claire] boys say they were going to take him with them and are not going to return until he shapoos his head in the Gulf of Mexico." Of course, the bird became famous as "Old Abe, the War Eagle" and was carried into skirmish and battle over the coming years. The Seventh Wisconsin was soon a part of the storied Iron Brigade.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

He too wanted to vote for Lincoln

One unexpected development in the presidential election of 1864 was that 71 percent of the vote in the Army of the Potomac went to Abraham Lincoln and not its old commander George McClellan. In a strange turn of events that war year, Wisconsin and Michigan men of the Iron Brigade were allowed to vote while those from Indiana could not. The Indiana legislature had voted against soldiers from their state being allowed to vote in the field. "We all agreed that what the Rebels liked was just what we had no right to like, and if it was going to do them so much good to elect McClellan, we just wouldn't do it," one Badger wrote home. In the end the old Iron Brigade regiments voted 749 for Lincoln and 147 for Little Mac. In the 6th Wisconsin, the very satisified  Sgt. Frank Wallar wrote in his diary the vote of his Company I was "unanimous for Abe. I am going to have two canteens of whiskey tonight." During the day-long balloting a lone Confederate deserter stepped into the Michigan picket line to announced that he too wanted to vote for Lincoln. It is not recorded whether he was given that opportunity.