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Fischer, Joan (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 51, Number 3 (Summer 2005)

Hayes, Paul G.
Hallowed ground,   pp. 29-36


Page 32

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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