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War Exhibit Commemorates 150th Anniversary of Draft Riots

Ozaukee County Historical Society has put together a free exhibit featuring old photos and historical items collected from friends and family of local veterans from the Civil War days.

Port Washington is often recognized as a historical community, though that history doesn't often lead to thoughts of war.

"(It's amazing) how many people in Ozaukee County don't even know the extent to which (county residents) were involved in the Civil War," Ozaukee County Historical Society Vice President Allan Buchholz said.

Part of that history involves the draft riots of 1862, and Saturday marks the 150th anniversary of the protest. The society is hosting a free historical exhibit starting Thursday through Nov. 16 — but closed on Sunday — and an event at 2 p.m. Saturday will include a narrative recounting the historical day.

"A group of us got together and we decided that it was an important point in our history," Buchholz said. "I'm a big World War II buff but — I got on this (exhibit) committee and starting digging into the personal side of it ... and it just grew." 

The draft riots history

The draft riots are said to have involved anywhere from 200 to 1,000 protestors — though the historical society believes 300 is probably an accurate number.

"For the size of this community, this was major," he said. 

There were three factors that contributed to the riots in 1862, Buchholz said. At the time President Abraham Lincoln had called for more soldiers, but many people living in the Port Washington area were immigrants who had recently left countries to escape such wars. Also, some individuals felt the draft was being drawn up unfairly — that certain people close to the Draft Commissioner were being left off. And lastly, many read local newspapers that were pretty anti-Lincoln.

So on Nov. 10, 1862, the group of protestors marched down to the old courthouse that used to stand where the historical courthouse, built in 1901, now still stands behind City Hall in Port's downtown.

"On the morning, therefore, of he said 10th day of November, I left my house and family ... and went down to the village of Port Washington, the courthouse, the place of the draft, being situated therein," Draft Commissioner William A. Pors writes in his historical recounts of the events. "Crowds of people had already congregated; a great number arrived with stones and clubs; a banner bearing the inscription, 'No Draft' had been prepared."

The mob attacked Pors and threw him down the stairs, Buchholz said; the group also destroyed equipment needed to carry out the draft and also destroyed Pors' homes and the homes of others they felt were being treated special by the Draft Commissioner. 

While history isn't 100 percent clear on who, either Pors or someone involved in the draft efforts fled to Milwaukee and telegraphed the governor about the situation, Buchholz said. The governor sent 600 soldiers who are said to have arrived at a pier in Grafton, and walked to surround Port Washington from there. 

About 139 people were arrested, Buchholz said, and it took several weeks to bring the village back to order and instill the draft. About 20 of the rioters were eventually drafted, and about a dozen were killed in the war.

The exhibit

Buchholz said he's been working for about six months to put together the exhibit that is now on display on the second floor of the historical courthouse, 121 W. Main St. He often receives phone calls from people offering historical items for display.

Visitors to the exhibit can learn stories such as that of the Towsleys, a father and son from Port Washington who went to war together and both died — leaving a 14- and 7-year-old orphaned as their mother had died a year earlier.

There is also Ed Blake, an 18-year-old soldier from Port Washington who was offered $10,000 by his father, a rich business owner in Port, not to enlist in the war. Blake declined his father's offer, and proudly served many years at battle; a picture of the flag he carried through the battles is on display with the exhibit.

The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Thursday through Nov. 16, except for Sunday, and is free. Saturday's event starts at 2 p.m. and is also free.

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