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100 years of honoring vets' service and sacrifice
A 1913 photo shows the crowd that gathered at the statues dedication. (Green County Historical Society photo)
For seven miserable months -from September 1864 to April 1865 -t he Green County men of Company H, 38th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment endured daily Confederate sniper fire and artillery bombardment while mired in the cold, muddy trenches surrounding Petersburg, Virginia. As the April sun dried rutted roads, the massive Army of the Potomac, of which Company H was a small part, was poised at last to end the war. Every soldier knew that the fall of Petersburg would mean the loss of Richmond, the Confederate capitol, and with it, the long-awaited conclusion to four years of relentless bloodletting.

This Memorial Day marks the 100th anniversary of the dedications of two Monroe monuments that honor the service and sacrifice of Green County's Civil War soldiers and sailors. The first is a stout pink granite marker erected in the circle in Greenwood Cemetery to honor the unknown Union dead of the Civil War, funded by Mrs. Jane Lysaght. On May 30, 1913, it served as the centerpiece for the morning's Memorial Day commemoration, much as it has each Memorial Day since. That same afternoon saw the dedication of another new monument on the northwest corner of the Courthouse Square, one now so familiar to Green County residents that it often goes unnoticed. The story of this imposing granite and bronze monument is intimately woven in the fabric of Green County history and the last major assault of the Civil War.

In the pre-dawn gray of April 2, 1865, a Union cannon launched a signal flare sending thousands of soldiers into combat along miles of front. The 38th Wisconsin led their division into a flaming sheet of musket and cannon fire from Battery 25, one of many Confederate forts protecting Petersburg. Led by a young Monroe man, 18-year old Captain Benjamin Frees, the Green County men tore through cheveau-de-frise and abatis, sharpened wooden spikes built to slow an attack, and scaled the steep earthen walls. The rising sun lit Company H as it engaged Rebel cannoneers in furious hand-to-hand fighting. A few brutal minutes later , the U.S. colors fluttered atop Battery 25 as Union victors turned the captured artillery pieces on fleeing Rebel defenders. The fort cost the regiment dearly; of the 300 men who went into battle, 84 were killed or wounded. Union and Confederate dead were scattered across the torn landscape of Battery 25, among them a corporal from Clarno, William R. Hawkins, who, like his captain, was age 18. With the success of the Union assaults, Richmond fell the next day, and a week later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, ending the war.

Following the Civil War, Americans sought to remember the war while nonetheless moving on with their lives. In the 1880s, Green County soldiers formed five Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) posts, supported by its female auxiliaries, the Woman's Relief Corps. These fraternal organizations provided services for veterans and the widows and orphans of the dead, while keeping alive and honoring the memory of the war. As veterans passed from middle to old age, many remembered their service as the defining moment of their lives. The reasons for which they fought remained strong, bound powerfully by the shared suffering and trauma they endured. This brotherly love and commitment to one another increased as they reflected on their fallen as well as their now-aging comrades.

As the 20th Century dawned, Benjamin M. Frees, the youthful captain who led Company H on its final assault at Battery 25, represented well this aging population of veterans. Frees moved to Illinois following the war, and by the turn of the century was said to have owned 65 lumberyards in the Midwest. With financial success and increasing age he found the climate of Southern California more to his liking, and moved to Riverside in 1910. Now 64 and no doubt reflecting on both his considerable fortune and his long-lost comrades, Frees offered the staggering sum of $10,000 (roughly $250,000 in 2013) for the construction of a soldiers' and sailors' monument in Monroe. In a November 12, 1911 letter to fellow captain and leading Monroe citizen Nathaniel B. Treat, he asked only that the O.F. Pinney GAR Post take charge of the process and that the monument be located on the Courthouse Square. The leading citizens quickly moved on Frees' generous offer, and contracts were let and payment structures put into place.

The committee chose as a model an existing Wisconsin monument in Kellyfield Cemetery at Chickamauga, and Montello granite formed the pedestal. The Luchsinger Monument Works completed the work, and, at Frees' request, memorialized Corporal Hawkins, the first man killed under the captain's command. The standing-infantryman-with-flag motif like that on the Square is common to many monuments across the nation, yet Monroe's statue is notably different. Rather than granite, the Luchsinger Works cast the soldier effigy in bronze, and the sculptor shaped the face and head from a wartime photograph of Hawkins. That nearly 50-year-old photograph came from Captain Frees, who had held it through a busy half-century of productive business and life, revealing the deep and long-lived tragedy that all wars produce.

As this Memorial Day comes, those who participate in the parade to the cemetery are tracing the 100-year-old footsteps of the surviving members of Company H, who in 1913 came as old men to remember their comrades. As one listens to the current Memorial Day service at Greenwood Cemetery, one participates in a ceremony laid out very much like that of a century ago, when the Woman's Relief Corps monument to the unknown Civil War dead was new.

When passing the imposing and remarkable Soldiers' Monument on the Courthouse Square, pause for a moment and conjure a mental picture of a solemn gathering of several hundred men and women, joining to dedicate a new monument and remember the sacrifice that it represented. With tens of thousands of combat veterans in our midst, and holding the memory of those lost in recent wars, that message is as important now as it was 100 years ago.

- Former Monroe resident Tom Howe lives in Madison. He is a retired Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher at Monona Grove High School. His mother, Alice (Dinsdale) Howe, wrote for The Monroe Evening Times, as The Monroe Times was previously named, in the 1930s and 1940s. When the sports editor was called into service in World War II, Mrs. Howe became sports editor in 1943. Following the war, she left that position to return home, where she wrote and mailed a Green County newsletter to every county resident serving in the military across the globe. She continued that work for more than a decade, and then at age 47, became a teacher. She taught at East School and then Northside School from 1960 to 1981.