With the blast of a canon, a trail of smoke will rise and gently float past the graves of some of Milwaukee's most famous citizens whose final resting place is Calvary Cemetery. But this Memorial Day salute and related ceremonies will honor not the famous meat packing and beer tycoons, but the farmers, factory laborers and accountants who were a part of what is often called our nation's greatest tragedy, the Civil War.
The service is organized by the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, a patriotic and educational group whose 45 members help perpetuate the memories of soldiers. When hosting public events, some of the members wear replica civil war uniforms, but the group is different than the well-known and numerous outfits in which members re-enact battles and encampments.
"We dress funny to get attention, not to fight," laughs Kent Peterson, who is the local senior vice commander and holds several offices in the state chapter, an impressive title about which Peterson says, "that means I get to do the newsletter." Under the humor, though, lies a serious dedication to wanting to educate people.
"This is not something you join and sit back and read the newsletters ... it's a 'doing' organization," he says.
A few weeks ago the group helped clean up a settlers cemetery in Wauwatosa. Last weekend they manned a booth during an Armed Forces event at the airport. They're working to find support for the preservation of an historic Civil War monument nearly the Central Library on West Wisconsin Avenue, and members make numerous presentations at local schools.
When Peterson visits schools, he dresses up to help set the mood, then tries get the kids to imagine the life of soldier. Peterson has found that talking about food that soldiers ate is one way to help the kids relate.
A main staple was hard tack -- biscuits made with very little water so they could be stored in warehouses for months, until needed. Unfortunately, the small holes in hard tack made nice homes for bugs who always found their way into the crates. Out in the field, a hungry soldier would take the bug-infested biscuit, break it into a few pieces, and drop them into his kettle of boiling coffee. The hot bath would shock the bugs out of their hiding places and they'd float to the top of the coffee. A soldier would simply skim off the top, fish out the now-softer tack and ... enjoy. The kids love that sort of detail.
The national Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War was founded in 1881 and today has about 6,000 members. It's divided into 26 state departments and local chapters or "camps." The Department of Wisconsin, which includes both Wisconsin and Minnesota , has seven camps. The Milwaukee-area camp is known as the C.K. Pier (pronounced "pyre") Badger Camp #1 -- a mouthful of a name that reflects its roots in two separate camps from Milwaukee and Waukesha that merged a hundred years ago, in 1901.
Most of the members are descendants of Civil War veterans whose grandfathers, great- or great-great grandfathers were veterans, although others may join as associate members. There is also a women's auxiliary group.
There are two members of the Wisconsin department, though, who are actual sons of Civil War veterans -- one lives in Kaukauna, Wis., and one in Milwaukee. The local man is in his '90s, his father having been quite a bit older than his mother when he was born. He still occasionally attends the camp's events, according to Peterson.
Peterson, who lives with his family in Cudahy and works as a Web master, joined in 1994 after his grandmother, the family genealogist, died. He decided to pick up where she left off and discovered that his great-great grandfather -- a Swiss-born emigre who settled in Brookfield -- was a member of the 28th Wisconsin Regiment. Peterson is compiling a history of that unit.
"It isn't a famous one ... they weren't in any big, famous battles," he says. "But that's why I don't want it lost to history."
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War C.K. Pier Badger Camp #1 is celebrating its centennial this year in a number of ways that keep its own history alive. The group's November meeting will be held in the downtown library's Loos Hall, the original location of its meetings, and members will follow the old meeting procedures as prescribed in its original handbook.
The group is also assisting the Milwaukee County Historical Society (at 3rd and Kilbourn) in putting together its first-ever Civil War exhibition, which opens June 24. Members of the camp will be guest presenters during a series of monthly lectures at the society.
The public is invited to join in the Memorial Day salute at Calvary Cemetery (55th and Bluemound Rd). It begins at 10 a.m. with a mass, followed by a procession and memorial service for all U.S. veterans. Civil War-era music will be played on period instruments. Cushings Battery will give a salute with a replica Civil War canon, the Fifth Wisconsin re-enactment group will be on hand to fire a musket salute and the American Legion will present a modern rifle salute. The attendees will then be given small flags with which to decorate a soldier's grave, helping perpetuate their memory.
Thanks to Patrick Dean for the photos.