At first glance, this appears to be a simple wooden crate with writing on the side. As soon as it’s rotated onto its side and opened, however, it goes from being a simple crate to an easily transportable Civil War field desk used by a general.
Cadwallader Colden Washburn was born in Livermore, Maine, in 1818. During his early adulthood, he moved to the Midwest and moved between Illinois and Iowa, until finally settling in Mineral Point, Wis., in 1852. Washburn worked as a schoolmaster, surveyor, lawyer and U.S. congressman before settling in La Crosse in 1861.
In February 1861, Washburn served as a delegate to the Washington Peace Conference in a final attempt to prevent the Civil War. The conference served as a good-faith attempt to reunite the United States and resolve differences between the two sides through compromise. The South already had planned to secede from the Union and was preparing a new government, and ultimately a decision about slavery could not be made that would satisfy both sides.
A few months later, in April 1861, the Civil War started after a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Washburn accepted an appointment as colonel of the 2nd Cavalry and led it to Arkansas in spring 1862. He was promoted to brigadier general in June 1862, and was put in command of the entire 2nd Cavalry Brigade.
Less than a year later, in March 1863, Washburn was commissioned a major general with command over all the Union cavalry in West Tennessee.
After the war, Washburn left the military and returned to Congress from 1867 until 1870. In 1866 he co-founded the first flour mill in Minneapolis, the Washburn-Crosby Co. Today that flour mill is known as General Mills.
Washburn also served as the 11th governor of Wisconsin from 1872 to 1874. He died in Eureka Springs, Ark., in 1882, while recuperating from an illness. This former governor and Civil War general is buried in La Crosse’s Oak Grove Cemetery.
In 1885, more than three years after his death, the Washburn estate erected the obelisk beside his grave. The 55-ton monument is engraved on all four sides of its base with a description of Washburn’s accomplishments. He made significant contributions as a public servant to his home of La Crosse, to the state of Wisconsin and to the United States, through his military service, political career and generous philanthropy.
The black text on the front of the field desk reads “Maj. Genl. C.C. Washburn U.S. Vols.” and dates from after his promotion in 1863 to major general. It would have aided Washburn in organizing the paperwork required of a major general. This desk would have likely been used by the general for the writing of correspondence and reports.
Washburn’s obelisk commemorates his life story and ensures he will not be forgotten. This field desk does the exact same thing without weighing more than 100,000 pounds. It is a part of the story of Cadwallader Washburn’s life and La Crosse’s involvement in the Civil War.
This artifact can be viewed in our online collections which is accessible through the historical society’s website.