Story of Civil War casualty, Ontario settler is well suited for Memorial Day

lydia lamb.tif

Lydia Lamb of Ontario, widow of Civil War casualty Anthony Lamb

By KAREN PARKER | County Line Editor

Bob Breidenstein of Ontario has been poking around in the closets lately, uncovering some fascinating stuff. Once a man retires and sells the cows, one never knows what he might find to occupy his time.

Lately Bob has turned his attention to local history, a good pursuit, as he has plenty of it. To enlighten future generations, he also thought it was a good time to start jotting down some of what he knows about his ancestors. He strolled in the County Line office last week with a manila envelope stuffed with information about his great-grandfather, Anthony Lamb. Readers know that I have a passion for local history; consequently, a lot of stuff ends up on my desk, but rarely is it as detailed as the material Bob brought me. He is what we call a completist.

Bob thought it might be a good time to share what he has accumulated, as Sunday, May 20, will mark 150 years since Anthony Lamb died of typhus while locked in a Confederate prison in Georgia. He was a long way from the Kickapoo Valley, and how he got there is a tale we will hear often as we commemorate these sesquicentennial years of the Civil War.

Lamb was a productive fellow. When he enlisted in November 1861, he had four young children, with a fifth born only days after he left for what one might call basic training in Milwaukee. It’s little wonder that Anthony Lamb’s progeny are still in the area.

Bob said he often wondered what would inspire a man of 38 to abandon his heavy domestic responsibilities and go off to a war that was far from the hills of Wisconsin. And, frankly, I do, too. It would be another two years before recruits dwindled from the ranks and a draft was instituted.

But Anthony had a streak of adventure. He had traveled from his home in England to America, and after marrying Lydia Ann Thomas in Pennsylvania, struck off to Wisconsin sometime in the 1850s. That would have made him a very early settler to what was then a frontier.

Then again, rhetoric ran high at the start of the Civil War, and Lamb might have been eager to grasp the adventure in what was expected to be a very short war. Wars always look good at the outset but seem to lose their charm as they drag on. Everyone loves a cause, although it is likely that Lamb and most of his peers could not have given a rational and precise explanation of the cause.

Many of us know of an ancestor in the Civil War, but few are fortunate enough to have one that left behind a relatively detailed recounting of his experience. Perhaps Lamb had a sense that he would not return home, or maybe he simply was satisfying an urge to document his latest adventure.

The start of the Civil War left both sides scrambling for recruits, with little time to train the new soldiers.

A large part of the first two months of his enlistment was spent at home, but even training in Milwaukee, which began in February, appears to have been a serious exercise in military readiness.

Lamb recounted days spent working in the hospital, fighting the occasional fire, reading the local papers and writing letters home for himself and for others unable to write. He had ample time to comment on the day’s weather, watch the steamboats arrive in the Milwaukee Harbor and listen to politicians’ blustering speeches.

Drilling and other military maneuvers seemed to occupy only an hour or two a day.

Despite the brief training, within two months Lamb made his last trip to Sparta and was on his way to war at the end of March 1862. His lackluster training was typical of the day, and men on both sides of the battle paid dearly. Although the losses at Shiloh were enormous, the number of casualties would soon be dwarfed by later battles.

Union casualties were 13,047, and Confederate casualties were 10,699. The dead included the Confederate Army’s commander, Albert Sidney Johnston. Both sides were shocked by the carnage.

Grant commented that after the two-day battle in April, one could have walked across the field in any direction, stepping from body to body and never touching the ground.

Lamb was one of the fortunate survivors, or so it seemed. Captured by Confederates, he was transported to Corinth, and then to Memphis. A week later, he was moved to Mobile and reported suffering greatly from dysentery. No doubt greatly weakened, Lamb wrote his last report April 16, indicating he had been moved to Cahaba. Amazingly, he had the presence of mind to comment that the town had a 7-foot-deep artesian well. Within a month, he contracted typhoid fever and dies.

It was many months before Lydia received a letter informing her of her husband’s death, Anthony Lamb is referred to as “a brave and valiant soldier.” She is also reassured that the Confederate doctors did their very best: “All that medical skill and good nursing could do was done for Mr. Lamb.”

Really? I kind of doubt it. But cold comfort is better than none.

Per usual, the country was good at sending men off to war but not so great at caring for the widows and orphans.

The poor woman had to clear a tangle of red tape before the United States government pronounced her eligible to collect $8 a month in a widow’s pension and $2 for each child younger than 16. I hope the checks didn’t bounce.

By the time she died in 1904, after having been a widow for 42 years, her pension had been increased to $12 a month.

Anthony Lamb did not return to the Kickapoo Valley, even in death. His remains are believed to be buried in Georgia.

And that is his story. It’s something for you to think about on Memorial Day.

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