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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Wood National Cemetery dates to 1871 when it was established as a final resting place for veterans who died while living at the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Northwestern Branch was established to care for disabled Union veterans of the Civil War, and the first designed and built specifically for the purpose of housing and caring for veterans. Located in the northwestern portion of the Home’s campus, the cemetery contains more than 30,000 graves, including members of the first Union unit of African American soldiers and several recipients of the Medal of Honor.
The Civil War left thousands of volunteer soldiers with injuries and disabilities. Some required long-term care that was often more than families could provide. In 1865, the U.S. Congress passed legislation creating homes for disabled volunteer soldiers to provide medical care and all the basic necessities of life: shelter, meals, clothing, and employment. The first National Home, located at the site of a former resort near Augusta, Maine, opened in 1866. The Northwestern Branch opened in 1867. While not the first to open, the branch is significant as the first designed and built by the oversight board of the National Home system.
Efforts by a Milwaukee-based soldiers’ aid society and a member of the oversight board influenced the placement of the National Home Branch in the Wisconsin city. The Wisconsin Soldiers’ Aid Society, a women-led organization associated with the Chicago Branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, assisted veterans by providing meals and temporary housing in downtown Milwaukee. The Aid Society raised enough money by 1865 to buy land and fund construction planning of a state soldiers’ home. Milwaukee resident George Walker, vice president of the National Home Oversight Board, convinced the society to turn over their resources to the U.S. government for the establishment of a national home.
Construction of the branch’s facilities began in 1867. The National Home board selected Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix to design the campus’ first buildings. Mix used a variety of architectural styles, including Gothic Revival for the branch’s Main Building (1869) and a blend of Italianate and Queen Anne for the Governor’s Quarters (1868). Civil War veteran and chaplain Thomas Budd Van Horne designed the branch’s landscape. Scenic park space, gardens, and curving pathways took advantage of the site’s varied topography and created a therapeutic respite for the home’s residents. Portions of the grounds were kept wooded, and other areas open for agricultural use. The landscape attracted Milwaukee’s residents and the branch became a place for the community to enjoy strolls and picnics.
Initially, interments in the cemetery were soldiers who died while living at the Northwestern Branch. As the role of the branch evolved from a residential facility to a Veterans Affairs medical center, interment requirements broadened to include veterans of all American wars. The cemetery also grew from its initial 41-acres, adding an additional nine acres on the campus’ southeast corner that contains the graves of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Another notable change over time is the cemetery’s name. The name was changed to Wood Cemetery in 1937 in honor of General George Wood, a member of the Soldiers’ Home Board of Managers.
The most prominent monument on the cemetery’s grounds is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Located at the northeast corner of the cemetery, just south of Interstate 94, the rusticated granite monument rises 65 feet. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument Association of the Northwestern Branch selected the Milwaukee firm Joseph Shaver Granite and Marble to construct the memorial, which was dedicated in 1903. The monument features a stepped base topped by a pedestal and three-part shaft crowned by a statue of a Union soldier standing at parade rest. Cannon ball pyramids decorate the four corners of the base. The four elevations of the pedestal feature engraved designs of an anchor, crossed swords, and crossed cannons. The pedestal also contains inscriptions noting the erection date, sponsor of the monument, and a simple dedication: “In Memory of Comrades Buried in this Home Cemetery.”
Several memorial plaques and tablets are located in the cemetery, including eight plaques with stanzas from the poem “The Bivouac of the Dead.” These cast-iron plaques, set on stone mounts, are scattered throughout the cemetery grounds.
A small octagonal building, originally designed as a cemetery reception house and office, stands east of the monuments. Built in 1900, the unique, one-story building is of rusticated concrete block topped by a tent-like green metal roof with ball finial. Seven sides of the building each have a large window; the north side contains the door.
Section 8 of the cemetery contains many graves of employees of the National Home. Burials in this section, denoted with private cemetery markers, include the National Home’s sixth Governor, General Kilbourn Knox, and several doctors who worked at the Northwestern Branch.
Today the Northwestern Branch Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers is the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a care facility and VA regional office that continues to provide care for U.S. veterans. In 1973, the management of the cemetery was transferred from the Zablocki VA Medical Center to the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Upon this transfer, the cemetery was officially designated a national cemetery.