Over the past couple years, Barb Rouse had been doing some digging in the Onalaska City Cemetery. But she isn’t using a shovel to turn up dirt; she’s digging up the names and stories of Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery.
Rouse shared the information she unearthed at the Sept. 19 Onalaska Area Historical Society meeting at Onalaska Library.
“When the fundraising started for improvements to the cemetery, I decided to research the Civil War veterans buried there,” Rouse said. “I asked where the Civil War section was and I learned the graves are scattered throughout the cemetery.”
Currently a member of OAHS, Rouse started researching the Onalaska Civil War vets in March 2016. Although foot surgery stalled her research that summer, she did take a trip to Gettysburg and then resumed her search and research that fall.
An avid Civil War aficionada, Rouse has read a number of Civil War books including Grant’s personal memoirs, fitting the reading in between the time she spends at the library researching the stories of the local veterans.
Rouse’s interest in those who fought in the War Between the States stems from her husband’s great-grandfathers on both his father’s and mother’s side. One of those ancestors served under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and then with Gen. William T. Sherman in his march to the sea in Georgia. He survived his deployment.
The great-grandfather on her husband’s mother’s side fought in the battle of Antietam. The Maryland battle is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Rouse has tracked down 58 Civil War veterans graves in her search at the Onalaska cemetery. The men were immigrants from Holland, Germany, England, Wales, Canada and the eastern states. In less than a decade of their arrival in Wisconsin, the newcomers were traveling to other parts of the country as troops in the Union Army.
“Wisconsin had been a state for only 12 years before the war started,” said Rouse. “Many of the immigrants had been in the country for only seven or eight years before the war.”
In her presentation, Rouse focused on the lives of seven veterans—Richard Bailey, Freeborn Welch, James Tutton, James Miller and the three Johns – John Blankey, John Dalton and John Mahoney.
At the war’s end, Dalton returned home where he served as the mayor of Onalaska for three years and worked in the mercantile trade. He moved to Blair for a while, but moved back to Onalaska in his later years. He was the last of the three Johns to die at age 92 years.
“After the war, James Tutton was the youngest of the group when he died,” Rouse said.
She traced John Blankey’s life from when he came to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania at age 10. In the war, Blankey was imprisoned at Andersonville, surviving the deplorable conditions of that Georgian prison.
Rouse hopes her research will entice descendants of the Civil War veterans to learn more about their ancestors and to share any knowledge they might have of the veterans. Four descendants of the vets did attend her presentation.
A great-grandson of Freeborn Welch, William G. Welch, attended as did family members from Hezekiah Ricker, John Keppel and Levi Staats.
William Welch’s ancestor came to the area in 1851 when he was 19 years old and had a significant impact on the development of Onalaska.
“He built Onalaska from the ground, laying out the first wagon track and many other roads in the area,” Rouse said.
Despite her exhaustive efforts, there are still some mysteries about the Civil War veterans she hasn’t been able to solve. Along with delving into greater detail about the lives of the veterans she has already located, Rouse continues to seek out more gravesites of Civil War vets.
Although, those she is researching have gone to their final rest, Rouse has found her research is a persistent task.
“I didn’t have enough sense to stop walking through that cemetery,” Rouse said. “This is never done.”