How Milwaukeeans Found Home After the Civil War’s Horrors

In the wake of the Civil War, Milwaukee’s women banded together to create a haven for wounded veterans that endures to this day.

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There was no safety net for Union soldiers disabled in the Civil War. Whether their wounds were physical or psychological, veterans without strong families or loyal friends were basically on their own, plodding north in a ragtag army of the miserable and forgotten.

A group of Milwaukee women, all of them embedded in the city’s budding aristocracy, made the veterans’ cause their own. In 1864, they opened the Milwaukee Soldiers’ Home in rented quarters on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, dispensing food, shelter and kindness to all who entered.

 

 

When the war ended, the women set their sights even higher, resolving to build “a permanent home for our battle-scarred veterans for all time to come.” Their primary fundraiser was a “Great Fair” held in a huge temporary hall on Broadway and Clybourn in 1865. Starting with the parade pictured here on Broadway, the event was a 10-day extravaganza of music, food and drink, raffles, arts and crafts, war souvenir displays and even a menagerie of stuffed animals.

The Great Fair netted over $110,000 – nearly $2 million in today’s dollars – which became seed money for a National Soldiers’ Home that opened just west of the city in 1867; the women’s generosity persuaded federal authorities to locate one of their first three “asylums” in Milwaukee.

Now part of the VA Center, the Soldiers Home is a cherished local landmark that has recently undergone a top-to-bottom restoration. After years of neglect and decay, it once again houses veterans in need, continuing the work started by the women of Milwaukee in 1864.

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

1.Telegraph wires first linked Milwaukee to the outside world in 1848.

2. Alonzo Seaman’s furniture factory was a towering landmark in the Third Ward and a forerunner of Seaman Body Corp., whose massive North Side factory produced all the auto bodies for Nash Motors of Kenosha. Nash bought Seaman in 1936, and both became part of American Motors in 1954.

3. Livery stables played the role of parking garages in the pre-automobile Civil War era.

4. Facing south on Broadway, this photograph was probably taken from a balcony of the Newhall House, an elegant hotel on Broadway and Michigan that burned to the ground in 1883.


IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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