Milwaukee’s Most Unique Civil War Monument: A Memorial to German Abolitionists, Soldiers (and Socialists?)

Turners 1866

Milwaukee Turners, 1866.

The Milwaukee Turner’s gymnasts must have gone crazy during Civil War battles. In a war where soldiers were required to march in tightly dressed formations, these Germans spent their pre-war years in rigorous high flying, gymnastics training. Were they able to use their athletic abilities in battle? Perhaps. At least that is a thought that crossed my mind as I sat in the packed lecture room last night at Milwaukee’s historic Turner Hall.  Professors Paul and Mari Jo Buhle were the presenters and they discussed “The Legacy of the 1848er’s & Progressive German Immigrants from the Civil War to the 1890s.”

These 1848er’s were German exiles from the failed 1848 German Revolution and became leaders in the Milwaukee Abolition movement and then Socialist causes in the decades following the war. The energy of last evening’s audience during the question and answer period provided some idea how a late 19th century Socialist meeting could have felt. For example, the crowd hissed, moaned and stomped the old creaky wooden floor when an audience member mentioned current Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker and his impact on public education today. I enjoyed the opportunity to sit in a politically charged environment that was prompted by a discussion of history.

turners large

Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Civil War Memorial (2014).

Mrs. Buhle discussed the role that Mathilde Anneke had on Abolitionism before the war but also her influence along with Meta Berger on progressive issues like public education, civic parks and women’s suffrage towards the 20th century. Mr. Buhle spoke in part to the Turners’ brave showing in the Civil War and how the relatively high number of deaths by those participants hampered Milwaukee’s Leftist – Socialist movement in later years.

Perhaps the best part of the evening was a tour of Turner Hall given by a former colleague and retired German instructor. He showed me an unique memorial that the Turners built to their twenty comrades who died in the Civil War. I have walked by this monument numerous times in my life and am ashamed to say it had passed without my knowledge. This memorial is written in German but you can see in the close up photo below that there are clear battle designations in English.  The design of this war memorial is unlike any I have seen with an image of what appears to be two women, perhaps one is Lady Liberty, ushering a civilian-clothed Turner male into armed service. My colleague translated the words to me and they speak to the bravery and memory that will live on forever of those you served and died (I will obtain a written translation). Today in class I used the date of Alex. Metzel’s death (20 July 1863) on the memorial to talk about the wounded at left behind at Gettysburg and the challenges that town faced with the thousands of wounded after Lee’s retreat.

This personal tour provided me many ideas and research opportunities for students and I to tackle in the future classes.  This monument’s design is dramatically different compared to Milwaukee’s other war memorials and this will be an excellent point of analysis. In addition, Fritz Annike, Matilda’s husband, commanded the 34th Wisconsin Regiment during the Civil War which has a very interesting history that includes James Lonergan; Marquette High’s first confirmed war veteran.

If you have any information on the Turners’ Civil War Memorial or their experience in the war, please pass it on!

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