An Artifact is Worth a Thousand Words

11/16/2017 - Anna Hegland

History, Interactive
Civil War Museum - Kenosha, Wisconsin
Civil War Museum - Kenosha, Wisconsin
Civil War Museum - Kenosha, Wisconsin
Civil War Museum - Kenosha, Wisconsin
Civil War Museum - Kenosha, Wisconsin
Civil War Museum - Kenosha, Wisconsin

Many of my friends from college and grad school live in big cities, and they frequently ask me “why should we come to Kenosha to visit, when you could come here. There’s so much more to do near me!” I always tell them that Kenosha will surprise them. There may physically be more stuff in a bigger city, but much of it isn’t terribly affordable or it’s a bit of a hike to get there. My group of friends and I love to get together and see a museum exhibit or go to a play and they are always convinced that these are things we can’t do in Kenosha. I love proving them wrong. When I bring them through the museums, I always have fun sharing special facts or stories about some of the items in the collections; because I’ve led tours for the Civil War Museum, I have plenty to talk about.

One of my favorite stories in the museum is about a woman named Jennie Hodgers, who immigrated from Ireland and lived in northern Illinois for most of her life. Jennie enlisted in the Union Army early on in the war effort, after one of President Lincoln’s calls for volunteer soldiers. She cut her hair, traded her dress for a uniform, and fought in the 95th Illinois Infantry in the Vicksburg Campaign — all under the name Albert Cashier. While serving as Albert, Jennie was known for being a brave, scrappy soldier. At one point, she was even captured by Confederate soldiers, before escaping and managing to rejoin her own regiment!

After the war, Jennie continued to live and work as Albert — this was, after all, a time when women worked primarily in the home and had very little independence or autonomy. As Albert, she was able to get a job and support herself, vote, and collect the veteran’s pension she had earned.

In 1911, when Jennie was in her seventies, she was involved in a car accident, suffered a broken leg, and was taken to the hospital. During her time there, the doctors discovered she was a woman, and she was transferred to a state hospital where she was to wear dresses and live as a woman. Jennie unfortunately never made a full recovery from the accident, and when she died, the story of her service in the war spread. This led to questions on all sides: women weren’t yet allowed to serve in the military, so what should be done in Jennie’s case? Albert, after all, had fought for the United States, been a prisoner of war, and was honorably discharged! While I’ve never heard who made the final decision, I do know that Jennie’s fellow soldiers in the 95th Infantry served as her pallbearers, and she was buried in her old uniform at a funeral with full military honors. The headstone reads “Albert Cashier.”

When I lead school tours, I tend to ask the students if they would be “fooled” by a woman signing up to fight in the war, since the period clothing on display up to this point in the museum consists of big hoop skirts and unwieldy dresses. They usually say “no way” — and then I show them the picture of Jennie in uniform, which is on a placard in the “Tenting Tonight” exhibition space.

One of the other artifacts I like to point out to people is the old 34-star flag that’s tucked around a corner in the train station gallery. While most people gravitate towards the telegraph station or sit in the train car to hear the passengers’ stories, I like to look at the tattered, stained flag that now sits behind a piece of glass. That flag was sewn by a group of local women and carried into battle by the Park City Grays - the volunteer infantry company from Kenosha.

Near the flag there are two soldiers in uniform; I like to ask tour groups which side of the Civil War they think each soldier fought for (one is dressed in gray, one in blue). Usually they all say Union and Confederate, for the blue and gray uniforms respectively... which is wrong. Think back to the volunteer company which carried the old flag: the Park City Grays. Both those soldiers fought in the Union war effort. However a gray uniform could understandably lead to some confusion on the battle field, even if you are carrying a US flag. One of the stories I heard from another guide was that at one of the Park City company’s first times seeing action, they charged up a hill, were fired upon by Confederate troops, turned around to run to safety, and were then fired upon by Union soldiers reacting to the sight of gray uniformed troops running towards them.

Despite all this, the flag actually made it through the Civil War in one piece. It flew at Reuther High School for many years, in honor of the local company’s service, and this is the wear and tear we see today.

There are tons of other stories and artifacts you can find at the museum (including an ice cream scoop that looks almost like part of a medieval torture device) - I recommend getting a group together and taking a guided tour, though the normal self-guided tour gives you the time to poke around and read the placards. It’s also worth visiting the upstairs temporary exhibition space, which changes a few times a year and shows off more of the items from the museum’s collection. If you’ve never visited the museums, now is your chance. If you’ve been before, it’s time to go again! Go see if you can find Jennie’s picture and the 34-star flag… and then find a new story or item and share it with someone else. I can’t wait to hear about what you find.

Learn more about all our museums and historic sites in the Kenosha Area here - you'll see what I mean when I say that there is plenty to do in my hometown!

Anna Hegland

Community Blogger

Kenosha Native with a love for baseball, ice cream, and the arts. Studied in Iowa, Italy, and England - returned to her hometown. Works for the Kenosha Public Museum and drinks too many chai lattes.