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Museum buys photo of Civil War soldier who saw Lincoln assassinated

Madison — Like most in Ford's Theater that night, Spencer Bronson figured the gunshot he heard was part of the play.

Since enlisting in Company B of the Wisconsin 7th Infantry, he had heard many gunshots. Bronson fought valiantly throughout the Civil War with the Iron Brigade — he was captured at Gettysburg, wounded in several battles and still carried a bullet in his right hip when he was sent to a hospital to convalesce. That's how he ended up in Washington, D.C., at the end of the war.

When Bronson read in a newspaper that President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant and their wives were going to see "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre that evening, April 14, 1865, Bronson bought a ticket and walked three blocks from the hospital to the theater.

In chilling detail Bronson wrote to his sister Amanda Bronson back home in Fall River, Wis., what happened next:

"A clang takes place, a dark form is seen to fall from the private box, his spurs catching in the flag as he descends. A second & he recovered & (arising) in a tragical attitude he draws a dagger & with his white face towards the crowd he repeated in Latin 'So be it ever to tyrants.'"

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison recently purchased at auction an original photo of Bronson, dressed in his uniform dating from around 1865 — the only known photo of him from the war.

The museum has acquired thousands of Civil War photos of Wisconsin soldiers and regularly seeks to add to its collection of original images. This purchase was particularly important because, of all the eyewitness accounts of the first assassination of an American president, Spencer Bronson's is one of only a handful that include a translation of the words John Wilkes Booth screamed in Latin.

When Kevin Hampton, curator of research and public programs, noticed photos were being auctioned in December of Spencer Bronson and his brother, Manley Bronson, he researched the Fall River brothers.

Hampton originally became interested in them because of a family connection — he's a descendant of an Irish immigrant named John McMahon, who fought with the Bronson brothers in Company B. Hampton began searching the Internet for Spencer Bronson and found military records. He also noticed that the 1996 book "We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eye Witness Accounts" included a letter written by S.H. Bronson. He wasn't sure that was the same Spencer Bronson whose photo he was trying to acquire.

Eventually, he noticed Bronson's handwriting on the back of his photo was the same as the letter, and both were signed S.H. Bronson. That's how Hampton discovered Bronson wasn't simply a Wisconsin soldier who fought in the Iron Brigade, but a guy who saw Booth leap from Lincoln's theater box.

"For a history nerd, it was one of those 'Oh my gosh' moments," Hampton said.

It isn't known what happened to that original letter written the day after Lincoln died, and the envelope with 3-cent stamp addressed simply to Miss Amanda Bronson, Fall River, Columbia Co., Wisconsin. The last anyone heard of it was when it was sold at an auction of Civil War memorabilia in 1973 from an unknown collector to an unknown collector.

Somehow, however, a photocopy of the letter and envelope became part of a collection of Lincoln memorabilia of the Lincoln Financial Group in Indiana. When the company's Lincoln museum in Fort Wayne closed in 2008, part of the collection found its way to the Allen County Public Library in Indiana. Hampton contacted the library and got copies of the photo of the actual letter, as well as a typed translation.

In his letter to his sister, Spencer Bronson describes the chaotic scene as people shouted "hang him" and "shoot him" after Booth fled through the backstage to a horse waiting outside. He saw a distraught Mary Todd Lincoln and heard her screams as men hoisted water and spirits to the box to be given to the dying president.

It was a couple of days before newspapers printed the name and photo of the assassin. But Spencer Bronson, a regular theatergoer, knew immediately who killed Lincoln. He wrote his sister: "I will also send you a paper with the full account of the affair & also a good portrait of the murderer who I am shure is J. Wilkes Booth who I have seen before...the city is mad with excitement at the act. Three men have been shot dead by soldiers for saying they were glad the president was dead. Thus far the murderer has not been caught."

He also enclosed a handbill advertising the play and asked his sister to save it.

"It shows that perhaps not everyone was aware at the time it was John Wilkes Booth," Hampton said. "For Spencer Bronson it was the realization, 'Hey, I've seen that guy before.'"

Spencer Bronson returned to Wisconsin after the war and became a merchant and Fall River's postmaster. He eventually settled in South Dakota, got married, had four children and was elected to the state Senate. He died in 1930.

Jo Ann Welton of Rochester Hills, Mich., is a descendant of Spencer Bronson's older brother, Edward, a chaplain in Company K of the 32nd Wisconsin Infantry. Welton knew her ancestors had fought in the Civil War, but it wasn't until the Wisconsin Veterans Museum contacted her that she learned her great-great-uncle had been at Ford's Theatre.

"That was news to all of us. We knew that he had been in a lot of Civil War battles and was decorated, but we didn't know he was at Ford's Theatre," Welton said. "I was really surprised. I just couldn't believe it."

Iron Brigade memorabilia — photos, letters, documents, uniforms — is highly prized by collectors. In 2008 a collection of 55 original letters by Spencer Bronson describing eloquently the battle of Antietam, where his brother Eli was killed, being taken prisoner on the first day of Gettysburg and getting shot in the chest at the Battle of the Wilderness, among other events, was sold at auction for $14,500.

Spencer Bronson's photo likely will be displayed next year at the museum, and it can be seen by the public in the archives.

What makes the Spencer Bronson photo unusual is he chose to put his Iron Brigade black hat on a table next to him when he sat for a Racine photographer. Many soldiers were photographed without their hats, but for the Iron Brigade, the distinctive black hats were a source of pride.

The photo, called a carte de visite, cost Spencer Bronson 3 cents. Because they were so cheap, pretty much every Civil War soldier had his picture taken to send to families and sweethearts back home.

"They were the baseball cards of the Civil War. They were cheap and easy to produce," Hampton said. "For lack of a better word it's the Civil War selfie."

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©2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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