Presenting Our Past

Letters from a Union Soldier: The Henry W. Mason Collection

Within MCHS’s famous vaults, dozens of  letters from Union soldiers of the Civil War are housed and kept safe. This week, the Milwaukee County Historical Society will host not one, but two, veteran-related events. To help celebrate these events, MKE Memoirs shares Civil War photographs from our collection and letters from Corporal Henry W. Mason, a Milwaukee native who served with Company B, 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

AA letter from Henry W. Mason to his sister

A letter from Henry W. Mason to his sister

“I hope the Rebellion will soon be finished and the State will again be united and slavery and oppression be done away with” – Henry W. Mason

Henry W. Mason, along with his brother Oliver were proud to sign up for the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War in 1862. Oliver became a clerk stationed in Helena, Arkansas and dictated top-secret Union documents for high-ranking official. Henry however, became part of the 24th Wisconsin Infantry and spent most of the war marching and fighting in Tennessee and Georgia.

Union Soldiers on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee

Union Soldiers on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee

A Glimpse at a Homelike Scene in the Midst of Fighting

A Glimpse at a Homelike Scene in the Midst of Fighting

In Henry’s two years of correspondence during the war; his letters to his sister, father, mother and brother put the war in a personal, intelligent perspective. His letters are filled with stories of hardship of a soldier, “we are on one third rations; which is first about nothing at all. . .” “It is impossible to tell when we shall be paid off. We may not receive any for two or three months yet” but also the spirit of a young man who worries about his family. Henry expressed much concern over his parents being able to keep up all the work required on the house with him and Oliver gone. The two boys went in, half of each monthly salary (eight from their sixteen dollars), to pay for a working girl to help their mother. Henry’s relationship with his sister Fannie was a particularly strong one. He wrote her most frequently during his time away, confessing his fears and heckling her to send reading material and for more letters. When Fannie is engaged in August of 1864, Henry wrote his mother “just because she has a lover now, doesn’t absolve her from writing to me!”

His letters are also filled with inquires for local news papers to keep up what was going on in Milwaukee and boasts about the great speakers he heard. Henry was a man of great faith. This came presumably from his father who wrote him to keep his spirits up, “We receive all your letters with Joy and thanksgiving to Allmitey God for his preserving care in your Behlfe prais God my sole that you still live and that you live on trust in the Mitty God to bring your through this torable War.” He believed strongly that God wanted him fighting in the war and would keep him safe so he could carry out a mission to end oppression and slavery.

Noble Women of the United States Sanitary Commission Softening the Horros of War

Noble Women of the United States Sanitary Commission Softening the Horros of War

He was a kind man, often lending his little money to younger soldiers for stamps and writing, how “sorry I am for the southern folk, homes ruined and all the little they have, we take to make up our rations.” Unfortunately, Henry was wounded in December of 1864. Despite losing his leg, Henry had high hopes for the future, “My leg is getting along finely, it does not pain me much in fact hardly at all. When it gets healed up I shall try and get transferred to Madison and then I shall go to some manufacturer where they make legs for the government and get me a spring leg,” he wrote to Oliver on December 15th.

A few days later, however, he took ill with a fever and died from an infection to the wound. Nurse Lida Coughlin with the U.S. General Hospital wrote his family, “It is with feelings, with profound sympathy that I now address to you and am deeply sensible of the sad, painful duty devolving upon me to inform you of the death of your son, Henry W. Mason. And I pray God may enable you and he remaining members of your family to bear this deep affliction with Christian fortitude—remembering your loss is your son’s eternal gain. . . he expressed hope in Christ and a perfect willingness to die.” She sent along with this letter a lock of his hair and an unfinished letter to Oliver near his bedside, “knowing it will provide comfort to the brother he loved.”

Confederate Prisoners of War

Confederate Prisoners of War

Henry’s death affected his brother deeply and led to Oliver taking particular care of hospitalized soldiers where he was stationed, including one Harry Bright who wrote Oliver after his hospital stay, “a slight token of my regard for you; and of my gratitude for all the kindness shown me during my severe illness; and believe me I shure always have you in kind remembrance and never forget all you did for me almost a stranger.” Oliver was honorably discharged from the Army after the war in November of 1866.

Soldiers Returning Home to Milwaukee

Soldiers Returning Home to Milwaukee

Join MCHS this week in our celebration of Milwaukee County veterans. The Eternal Bivouac: Union Veternas at Forest Home Cemetery lecture, presented by Margaret Berres and Tom Ludka, starts at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, March 20th.  A grand opening event for our new exhibit, Forum: A Veteran Print Project, will be held on Friday evening, March 22nd at 5:00. Parking will be available in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel parking lot ONLY on Friday evening – refreshments and snacks will also be available.


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