Madison celebrates Memorial Day with Civil War history

MADISON, Wis. — The history of the Civil War runs deep in Madison — Camp Randall, which now hosts Big Ten football, used to be a Civil War camp.

And just a few blocks away, at the Civil War gravesites at Forest Hill Cemetery, the descendants of those soldiers remembered their ancestors’ cause in an annual Memorial Day ceremony.

“Memorial Day, from the Civil War point, it saved the nation to be the nation we are today,” said Tom Brodd of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Memorial Day arose as a Civil War-era commemoration to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, and Madison has a lengthy tradition of celebrating the occasion — dating back to 1906, according to organizers of the event.

Brodd said it is a broader celebration now.

“We’ve expanded now it covers all veterans from all wars, from the revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan, and everything in between,” he said. “So we hope to take that and expand it out to everybody to honor all the veterans who have passed away during their service.”

READ MORE: ‘He was remembered all along’: Family finds Civil War veteran’s gravesite

“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to think about the sacrifices that got us where we are today,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who attended the event. “But also keeping that in mind, think about how much farther we have to go. We want to be sure that those sacrifices were not in vain.”

The gathering also provided a history lesson on the legacy of Wisconsin during the Civil War. Forest Hill Cemetery is the home of the northern-most burial plot of confederate soldiers, according to organizers, and the 101st Army Division — the “screaming eagles” — trace their namesake back to a bald eagle that accompanied a Wisconsin regiment into battle.

“People paid money to have their photograph taken with ‘Old Abe,’ and as a souvenir, ‘Old Abe’ bit into a corner of that picture, and that was like a signature,” said SUVCW’s Alan Hembel.

Monday’s celebration also came the day after the rededication of the Col. Hans Christian Hegg statue on the Capitol square. It was torn down during the 2020 protests and returned to the Capitol grounds last fall. Hegg was the highest-ranking Wisconsinite to die during the Civil War.

A number of other Memorial Day events took place around the area, including a parade in Monona and a service in Fitchburg.

The Madison Municipal Building was also lit up in red, white and blue at dusk on Monday to mark the holiday.