PORTAGE (AP) - On Abraham Lincoln's 204th birthday, the Columbia County Veterans Service Office was the place where long-lost Civil War history was perused, electronically catalogued and presented to a veterans' organization.
It started when Veterans Services Officer Richard Hasse found a ledger, at least 130 years old, listing the names of Civil War veterans who were members of the John Gillespie Post 50 of the Grand Army of the Republic - a post based in Kilbourn City (now Wisconsin Dells) from 1882 to 1932, and open to all honorably discharged veterans of the Union fighting forces in the Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865.
On Jan. 10, Hasse was moving the contents of the veterans service office from the lower level of the Columbia County Courthouse to remodeled space on the courthouse's first floor.
As Hasse was trying to stow a box of old records in a storage area, just across the hall from the old veterans service office, he felt something on the shelf that was blocking the box.
He reached back and found the handwritten ledger listing all 183 people who had been on the membership roles for the John Gillespie GAR post - starting with member No. 1, Henry H. Bennett, who went on to become the photographer best known for his 19th-century images of the Wisconsin Dells area.
How the ledger ended up in the courthouse likely will never be known, the Portage Daily Register reported. No similar records from any of the other 10 Columbia County GAR posts were found in the courthouse, nor have they been found anywhere else, to Hasse's knowledge.
Thomas McCrory of Oshkosh, a Civil War history aficionado and the author of a book on the GAR in Wisconsin, said the ledger contained information that he'd been seeking, in vain, for a long, long time.
In researching his 2005 book "Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin," McCrory had no success in finding the names of members of the 10 Columbia County GAR posts that had been established in Portage, Poynette, Pardeeville, Lodi (two posts), Columbus (two posts), Wisconsin Dells, Fall River and the town of Marcellon.
He said he'd searched the microfilm archives of late 19th-century and early 20th-century newspapers, including the Daily Register, where he found notices of GAR meetings, but no accounts of who was on the membership rolls or what activities had been conducted.
McCrory wasn't the only one who was delighted to find the long-lost list of member names for at least one Columbia County post.
So was John Van Wie of Wisconsin Dells, one of three members of the Columbia County Veterans Service Commission, and the great-great-grandson of one of the Civil War veterans listed on the ledger, David Van Wie.
According to Van Wie, the ledger for the John Gillespie GAR post includes members who lived not only in Kilbourn City, but also nearby communities such as Lyndon Station.
The post's recording secretary had hand-written, in ink, the name of each member as he joined.
The first name in the ledger also might be the most famous.
H.H. Bennett (1843-1908) was a carpenter in what is now Wisconsin Dells. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Union Army and fought in the Battle of Vicksburg before he was injured by the accidental discharge of his own gun. The injuries prevented him from resuming his work as a carpenter, so in 1865 he returned to Kilbourn City, where he took up photography. His images of the Wisconsin Dells rock formations and surrounding scenery were instrumental in making the area a popular destination for travelers.
McCrory, who is retired from the furniture business and studies Civil War history as an avocation, has a particularly strong interest in the GAR, which he described as one of the first and largest veterans' organizations of its kind.
There were 404 GAR posts in Wisconsin, with the earliest ones established in 1866.
"The first 20 years of the GAR in Wisconsin," McCrory said, "are kind of an Arthurian mist."
That's because some posts fizzled within a few years of their establishment.
The GAR was one of the first organizations specifically for Union veterans of the Civil War. It was open to anyone who had an honorable discharge from service in the Civil War. A comparable organization for Confederate veterans, called the United Confederate Veterans, was established in the 1880s, McCrory said, although it never achieved the nationwide membership side of the GAR.
Very early, the GAR took on a political identity. The organization was perceived, usually accurately, as a means of strengthening the fledgling Republican Party. In 1860, Lincoln was the first Republican elected president.
There were some people, McCrory said, who bristled at the political connections and sneered that GAR really stood for "generally all Republican."
Many posts "fell away" in the 1870s for that reason, McCrory said. But in the late 1870s and early 1882, some of them started up again as Civil War veterans banded together to seek assistance in collecting
Records show that the John Gillespie Post 50 was chartered on Oct. 26, 1882, although it likely was re-established after having been previously chartered, then disbanded.
The GAR never admitted veterans from any future conflicts in which the United States was involved, and each post officially ceased to exist when the last surviving member died - in the case of the John Gillespie Post 50, in 1932.
One reason why the membership ledger might have ended up at the Columbia County Courthouse, McCrory said, was because no one was able to bring it to state GAR officials in Madison.
Hasse said that, when he first turned the pages of the ledger, he noticed their fragility.
Hasse contacted McCrory because he owns a copy of McCrory's book about the GAR, and McCrory and his wife, Gail, came to the Columbia County Courthouse partly to scan the book electronically, including not only the pages, but also the covers.
"I'm scanning every page," he said, "so that the book can be put away and never touched again."
The scanned images were initially saved on McCrory's hard drive, but he made copies for Hasse.
Witnessing the preservation was Ed Fox, commander of the Harold B. Larkin Post 187 of the American Legion in Wisconsin Dells - the organization that is now the custodian of the original ledger.
Fox said he plans to display it, behind glass, at the American Legion Post at 609 Wisconsin Ave., Wisconsin Dells.
Hasse suggested that Fox engage the services of a conservator with expertise in preserving old documents.
"In its current condition," he said, "every turn of the page will make it worse."
According to Thomas McCrory's book "Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin," the namesake of the John Gillespie Post 50 of the GAR was someone who fought in the Civil War from beginning to end.
Gillespie enlisted immediately after the Civil War started with the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter near Charleston, S.C. He was first in Company E of the three-month First Wisconsin, then joined Company E of the 12th Wisconsin in September 1861. Less than a month later, he was promoted to first lieutenant.
He was captured on May 11, 1862. During the Atlanta campaign of July 1864, he was taken prisoner and sustained a wound that necessitated amputating one of his arms.
Gillespie was mustered out of the service on June 7, 1865. He was elected to one term in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1868, and he died three years later.