Flower links civil war, natural history and ‘The Blood Of Heroes’

On August 14, 1864, in a Union Army camp in Georgia, a captain from Wisconsin plucked a plant, pressed it onto a sheet of paper, wrote a letter describing the plant as “certainly the most interesting specimen I ever saw,” and sent it with the plant to a scientist he called “Friend” in Wisconsin.

“It was growing outside my tent and notwithstanding the noise of 500 pieces of artillery flourished,” wrote John Cornelius McMullen, “and seemed to repose as sweetly at night as if its native heath was not disturbed by the tread of hostile armies.”

- Advertisement -

The captain-collector was clearly literate, even poetic.

The scientist, Increase Lapham (1811-1875), is today considered the founder of natural history in Wisconsin. A geologist, botanist and historian, he is the subject of a new biography, “Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham,” published by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

And but for that book, a plant specimen that Wisconsin State Herbarium director Ken Cameron calls “perhaps our most astonishing of all” might never have surfaced from the 1.2 million dried plants in the collection on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Because Lapham’s personal plant collection actually founded the herbarium more than 160 years ago, authors Paul G. Hayes and Martha Bergland held a reading of the biography at the herbarium, located in the Department of Botany, in October. In preparation, the herbarium put on display some of Lapham’s original specimens, including the 150-year-old sheet holding Cassia obtusifolia (“Wild Sensitive Plant”). “We started to read the letter attached to it,” says Cameron. “The sender described the flower as ‘stained with the blood of heroes,’ and that really caught our eyes!”

- Advertisement -

Who was this lyrical captain? John Cornelius McMullen was apparently born in Delaware or New Jersey and graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He entered the First Wisconsin Regiment on Sept. 16, 1861 from Sheboygan Falls, fought with them and was wounded, through Kentucky, Tennessee and northern Georgia under General Sherman.

The plant and the letter were both a surprise, says co-author Bergland, a retired English teacher from Glendale, Wisconsin. “I did not know about it until we showed up to do the reading. It’s wonderful that it was discovered, but I think Lapham would have had a very ambivalent response to such a letter. He was a Quaker, a pacifist – did not want anything to do with war. But he was very supportive … of veterans, especially wounded veterans.”

In his letter, McMullen laid out the circumstances of the First Wisconsin Regiment. “We are now in plain view of the great commercial city of Georgia. My company are in the front line of works only a half mile from town and while I write shot and shells are constantly passing over us. It may be some days before Atlanta falls but in the end it must yield for the best army in the world are thundering at its gate.”

Despite his surroundings – or perhaps because of them – McMullen concluded on a sentimental note: “This flower was moistened by the blood of heroes, for Wisconsin men have died where it was plucked.”

McMullen worked for the federal government in Tennessee after the war, and may have moved to Oakland, California, where a man of the same name and general age was described as running a bank.

An herbarium is a venerable repository of pressed and dried plant specimens that serves as a reference library for plants. Although they are now being used scientifically in ways they never imagined a century ago, Cameron, also a professor of botany at UW-Madison, says this mystery, worthy of Antiques Roadshow, demonstrates another side of these collections.

“This specimen shows that our collection also has value for understanding history and bridging the sciences with the humanities. This comes down from a time when all well-educated people had a different view of nature and collecting plants was a common activity. There are treasures in the collection that we don’t know we are sitting on.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison – Image Credit : Bryce Richter


THE-Heritage Explorer (Magazine)

Support us in launching a printed magazine that explores the history, archaeology, travel, culture and exploration of the world. Find out more

THE Heritage Explorer is an exciting print magazine and publishing business proposal dedicated to delivering you the latest exploration, travel, archaeology, culture and heritage news.

A concept born out of the aspirations of a team of journalists, archaeologists and historians to build a credible and sustainable publishing business that will not only provide the public with entertaining articles and up-to-date research, but also to develop career opportunities for all those involved.

This is not just a magazine, but the opportunity for you to plant the seeds for a real contender in the publishing market place. Find out more

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Rare religious treasures uncovered near Lake Tisza

Archaeologists from the National Archaeological Institute have uncovered a rare silver Eucharist set alongside a treasure hoard of silver coins.

Archaeologists may have discovered the lost city of Tu’am

Excavations in the Umm Al Quwain area of the UAE have revealed 6th century ruins that could be the lost city of Tu'am.

New findings in North America’s first city

Cahokia was the largest urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, a mound-building pre-Columbian civilisation that emerged in the Midwestern, Eastern, and South-eastern United States.

Bottled fruit cache discovered at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Archaeologists have discovered a cache of 35 glass bottles at Mount Vernon, the former residence and plantation of President George Washington.

Mysterious engraving might depict an Archaic temple on the Acropolis of Athens

A 2,000-year-old engraving on a marble outcrop near Vari, Attica, might point to an Archaic temple on the Acropolis of Athens.

Giant catapult shots discovered from siege of Kenilworth Castle

Archaeologists have uncovered eight 13th century catapult shots from the 1266 siege of Kenilworth Castle.

Sappers clear over 4,700 dangerous objects from WWII

A team of sappers under archaeological supervision have cleared over 4,700 dangerous objects from WWII on the Westerplatte Peninsula in Gdańsk, Poland.

Archaeologists find a Bronze Age purple dye workshop

Archaeologists have uncovered a Bronze Age purple dye workshop on the Greek island of Aegina.