Plymouth soldier witnessed one of history’s darkest moments

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • forThe Review

The Civil War is still to this day one of the bloodiest and most catastrophic wars this county has ever fought. Even today amongst those who love history the study of this dreadful conflict goes on endlessly. Books on the Civil War by learned scholars are constantly being published. Wade House holds its annual Civil War reenactment weekend in the fall which thousands attended.

During the four terrible years that the tragedy that became known as the Civil War raged, thousands of young men from Wisconsin were either drafted or volunteered for duty in the Union Army. When these veterans returned home many of them had gone through traumatic events. Most of them, as our veterans today, were reluctant to talk about their experiences for fear they might be misunderstood.

The Sheboygan Press-Telegram of November 27, 1923, the forerunner of the Sheboygan Press, carried the recounting of one such event by a Plymouth area resident. In the year 1923 an 80-year-old Civil War Veteran and retired farmer, W.H. De Groff, re-counted to a Press Telegram reporter an astonishing experience he claimed to have had while he served with the Union Army.

It seems that Mr. De Groff, who was then 22 years of age, volunteered for service in the army in the year 1864. De Groff, who was born in the state of New York, moved to a farm just one mile from Plymouth when he was just a year old and lived there with his parents until he entered service in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

After volunteering he was sent to Camp Randall in Madison, Wisconsin where he was assigned to Company G, 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery. After basic training he was sent to Camp Ellsworth, Alexandria, District of Columbia where he remained until the summer of 1865 when he was mustered out of service.

While there his unit engaged in a number of violent skirmishes with the famous Mosby Gorillas. De Groff went on to relate that even though his unit suffered numerous casualties he never received so much as the slightest wound. Soon after going back to civilian life he ironically lost four fingers from his left hand in a corn shredder while working on his farm.

Few people who knew the elderly Civil War veteran, who operated his farm near Plymouth until he was nearly 80, knew of the extraordinary experience that he and another soldier had while stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. It was not until the Press- Telegram’s reporter was made aware of the incident that was so well remembered by the aging veteran, that his story came to life in the Sheboygan Press-Telegram.

It is through the re-counting of the personal experiences of veteran’s of the disastrous Civil War that we can gather a true picture of what it was like to live during this traumatic period in our history.

The story Mr. De Graff had to tell began on April 14, 1865 in Washington, D.C when he and a fellow soldier received passes to go into town for a night of relaxation. There are days, that after they have passed, the world is changed forever. Such was December 7th, 1941, September 11th, 2001 and April 14th 1865.

As the Civil War began to wind down and it became clear that the south was beaten Abraham Lincoln felt at last he could relax, if just for an evening. The president, his wife and several colleagues decided to attend a play at Fords Theater in Washington D.C.

On that same fateful day a young Plymouth area farmer W.H. De Groff was granted a pass for a night of relaxation in Washington. As De Groff and several companions approached the theater he noted that there was a small black boy standing near the rear of the building holding a saddled horse.

The men took only casual note of this as it was quite common for someone on horseback to ask a small boy to hold the reins of his horse while he attended to business elsewhere.

However what occurred next caused the soldiers to take particular note. According to De Groff, in an interview with a reporter in November of 1923, they saw a rather tall dark haired man run from the rear door of the theater. The unknown man, awkwardly, and with great difficulty jumped on the horse and dashed from the area towards the Potomac River.

As the young soldiers entered Fords Theater they were stopped by an excited officer of their company who prevented them from entering the building and ordered them to immediate picket duty around Washington D.C.

The Officer at this point gave them the startling news the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, had been shot by the well know actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth was described as being a rather tall dark haired man with possibly a broken leg.

Suddenly the reality of what the men had seen as they approached Fords Theater struck the soldiers like a thunder bolt! They had seen the assassin of the President escaping.

Immediately it became clear as to why the man they had seen dart from the rear door of the theater had such great difficulty mounting his horse; it was Booth with a broken leg.

As De Groff continued to relate his amazing story to the Press reporter he went on to say that he and his companions and hundreds of other Union troops were ordered to immediately surround the city of Washington and permit no one to enter or leave without positive identification and proof they had legitimate business to conduct in or out of Washington.

After the war De Groff returned to farming, but few who knew him ever realized that a young farmer from the Plymouth area had been at the center of one of our nation’s darkest events 152 years ago.

If anyone has any comments or suggestions for future columns please feel free to contact me, Bill Wangemann at 920-458- 2974 or e-mail me at

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