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Milwaukee Light Guard Uniform Coat | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Milwaukee Light Guard Uniform Coat

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Milwaukee Light Guard Uniform Coat | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeMilwaukee Light Guard uniform coat

Milwaukee Light Guard uniform coat, 1858-1861

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1957.282

EnlargeDetail of uniform coat collar

Detail of uniform coat collar

Detail of uniform coat collar showing oak leaf cluster embroidery. Officers of the Guard wore United States Army general staff buttons on their dress uniforms, instead of ones embossed with the Wisconsin State Seal as their enlisted men did. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1957.205

EnlargeCaptain John C. Starkweather

Captain John C. Starkweather, 1858

Portrait of Captain John C. Starkweather in his Milwaukee Light Guard uniform as painted by fellow Guard member Charles V. Bond in 1858. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1942.56

EnlargeLithograph of various uniform styles

Lithograph of various uniform styles, 1859

Lithograph of various uniform styles of the Milwaukee Light Guard from the cover of sheet music for the “Milwaukee Light Guard Quickstep” in 1859. Capt. Starkweather is pictured second from right. An enlisted man in a gray uniform is shown at far right. View the original source document: WHI 2133

Milwaukee Light Guard coat worn by Captain John C. Starkweather, 1858-1861.
(Museum object #1957.282)

John Converse Starkweather was a born leader, a successful lawyer, and a distinguished Civil War officer. Born in Cooperstown, New York, in 1830, Starkweather's education began in a military school and was completed at Union College in Schenectady. In 1849 he moved west to Milwaukee to pursue a career in law, becoming a member of the firm Finch & Lynde. While in Milwaukee, Starkweather also served as a captain in the Milwaukee Light Guard. This elegant navy blue wool uniform coat reveals the pride Captain Starkweather took in his appearance as a soldier.

In 1855 Starkweather helped organize the Milwaukee Light Guard, a group of men that raised a "Continental" troop formed exclusively of native-born patriots. Many other units in the area were composed of foreign-born soldiers wearing uniforms that reflected their native countries. The Milwaukee Light Guard wished their appearance to reveal their own heritage as native-born Americans and to establish a connection to similar-minded companies on the east coast.

Because the soldiers were in favor of being "Continentals," the initial idea for a uniform resembled the expensive outfits of their Eastern military brethren. Their desired military costume, however, proved cost prohibitive, and the Light Guard selected an alternate, less expensive uniform. Samuel Shoyer & Co. of Milwaukee received the contract to create these uniforms at $22 per suit. The original style consisted of a light gray wool uniform trimmed in red, with white cross-belts, patent leather cartridge boxes, and a gray wool skull cap.

Disagreements within the unit caused the Milwaukee Light Guard to split into two companies in February 1857. The members of the original organization were renamed Company A, while the new members of the quickly growing guard became Company B. Due to his popular status in the community, John Starkweather was elected captain of Company A in April of 1857. Desirous of a more brilliant militaristic display, he ordered new uniforms for the soldiers of Company A in July 1858. Milwaukee tailor C.T. Dutton crafted the new gray wool uniforms, which included bear-skin caps from Boston, white enameled leather cross-belts, and black patent leather knapsacks and cartridge boxes. Starkweather's vision resulted in a stunning ensemble, but also cost $50 for each member of Company A.

As the Company's commanding officer, Captain Starkweather's uniform differed from those of his troop. His and other officers' uniforms were navy blue instead of gray, with white trim and considerable embellishment. Two orderly rows of gleaming brass buttons trimmed the front of Captain Starkweather's woolen uniform coat. The interior was lined in a heavy ribbed white silk. Silk thread wrapped in silver or bronze added special detail to the button holes on the cuffs and tail, as well as to the ornate epaulettes and oak leaf motif on the stand-up collar.

Captain Starkweather's Company was the first to offer its services to Wisconsin Governor Alexander Randall when President Lincoln issued his call for volunteer soldiers at the beginning of the Civil War. Later in 1861 Starkweather was commissioned a colonel of the First Wisconsin Regiment of Volunteers, and went on to participate in 27 engagements reaching the rank of Brigadier General two years later. Wounded at the battle of Chickamauga, Starkweather served primarily in administrative roles in the Army for the rest of the war.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, Starkweather resigned from the army and moved his family to rural Oconomowoc to pursue stock farming. There he held the positions of town post-master and president of the Waukesha County Agricultural Society. Starkweather moved again to Washington, D.C. in 1876 to practice law until his death November 15, 1890. His body is interred in Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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[Sources: Damon, Herbert C., "History of the Milwaukee Light Guard" (Milwaukee, WI: Sentinel Co., 1875); Ahrenholz, Ray G. et al. "Company 'A', Milwaukee Light Guard, 1858-1861," "Military Collector and Historian" (Spring 1979, vol. 31); Langellier, J. Phillip. "Parade Ground Soldiers: Military Uniforms and Headdress, 1837-1910, in the Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin" (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1978); Reed, Parker McCobb. "The Bench and Bar of Wisconsin" (Milwaukee: P.M. Reed, 1882).]


Posted on July 19, 2007