Fischer, Joan (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 51, Number 3 (Summer 2005)
Hayes, Paul G.
Hallowed ground, pp. 29-36
0 alleria wives or minor children, and 88 percent had served as privates in the army. Elizabeth Corbett, who was a small girl when her father became chief finan- cial officer of the National Soldiers Home in 1891, drew a pretty picture of life at the home. The family moved into one of the homes on the grounds where she and her brother grew up, using its library and theater and roaming at will. In 1941, Corbett, by then a successful novelist, published Out at the Soldiers' Home, a memoir that put flesh and names on real people who occupied the National Soldiers Home. The veterans could voluntarily check into the home and they could voluntar- ily leave it, but while they were there they observed a military-like regimen. They were organized into companies, stood weekly inspections, wore uni- forms, arose at six to a bugle call, ate communally in a huge dining room in the main building, worked according to their abilities, and needed a pass to leave the grounds. And while any of them could bathe as frequently as they wished, all were required to take a bath a week. One par- ticularly "hard case" checked in, Miss Corbett reported, and promptly checked out again when he learned of the bathing rule. "I ain't had a bath since I fell in the river at the Battle of Shiloh, and I'll be God damned if I'm goin' to begin now," he said. Growing up, Corbett made friends among the old veterans and enjoyed them. The grounds, rich with flowering fruit trees, veteran-tended flowerbeds, and groomed lawns, provided an idyllic environment. The veterans were painters, garden- ers, and kitchen workers, tended horses, and drove wagons. One who pre- ferred solitude managed the rowboats on Lake Wheeler that could be rented by the visiting picnickers for half an hour at a time. The boats were named "Grant," "McPherson," "Hancock"-all Civil War generals. Charley the Boatman slept on a couch in the boathouse among oars and oarlocks. He collected tinfoil in his spare time, rolling it into cannonball sizes. The Fourth of July and Decoration Day, both patriotic holidays, brought scores of civilian picnickers out in car- riages and buggies from Milwaukee. The sidewalks were lined on both edges with American flags. On Decoration Day flags on the buildings flew at half-mast. Squads of veterans marched to the cemetery to pay homage to the dead and fired muskets in salute. On the Fourth of This is an end view of Building 6, a hospital and convalescent ward, built in 1879 and designed by Milwaukee architect Henry Koch, himself a Civil War veteran, who also designed Milwaukee's City Hall and Turner Hall. The third hospital on the grounds, it held elderly veterans for years, providing them with sun parlors filled with rocking chairs, easy chairs, writing desks, flower stands, canaries, goldfish, and early gramophones and radios. It held federal offices until July 2004, when it was vacated. 32 SUMMER 2005 WISCONSIN ACADEMY REVIEW
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