The reputations of many men were made in the Civil War, which became a springboard to greatness for some of the best and brightest. However, Cadwallader C. Washburn, who went to school in Rock Island, enjoyed his finest moments in civilian life.
Born on April 22, 1818, in Livermore, Maine, Washburn came from limited means and had a burning drive to succeed, a trait shared by his siblings. One brother, Elihu, was a lawyer in Galena, where he was closely associated with Ulysses S. Grant. Elihu later served in Congress and as Secretary of State. Another brother, Israel, was a wartime governor of Maine, while a third, William, served in both houses of Congress from Minnesota.
Cadwallader came to Iowa in 1839 and spent his last four dollars on a pair of shoes, which he needed to wear to his job as a school teacher. Three years later, he began to study law in Rock Island and passed the bar in Wisconsin. There, he established a practice in Mineral Point, where he also amassed considerable wealth in land speculation. In 1852, he co-founded a bank in Mineral Poin, and eventually owned 40,000 acres of logging timber on the Black River.
His holdings were highly leveraged, though, and by the late 1850s, Washburn was facing financial ruin. Still, he was one of the most popular men in western Wisconsin, and, in 1854, he won the first of three terms in Congress as a Republican. In 1859, he moved to LaCrosse and, two years later, attended the peace conference in Washington in 1861.
Wisconsin Gov. Alexander Randall offered a colonelcy if Washburn could raise a regiment, which became the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry. Partly from family connections – Elihu was also a friend of President Abraham Lincoln – Cadwallader moved quickly up the ranks to brigadier general on July 16, 1862, and major general that Nov. 29.
A reasonably competent officer, Cadwallader held various divisional and departmental commands in Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, as well as serving three stints as commander of the XIII Corps. Captured at Memphis in August 1864 and later exchanged, he also was nearly captured by troops under the notorious Nathan Bedford Forrest, who chased Washburn down a Memphis alley in a nightshirt. Still, Washburn is credited with preventing Forrest from threatening William T. Sherman’s armies in Georgia.
Washburn also battled military corruption and ended the lucrative contraband cotton trade that lined pockets on both sides. Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee once said Washburn “was the only Federal commander we couldn’t buy.”
After the war, Washburn spent two more terms in Congress before winning election as Wisconsin governor in 1871. In Madison, he favored railroad freight regulation, which drew the wrath of rail executives, and his support of limits on liquor sales angered the German population. He was defeated for re-election in 1873.
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But there was plenty else to keep Washburn occupied. A spike in lumber prices in 1865 had saved his business empire, and by the late 1860s, Washburn was looking to expand once again. In 1871, he was part of a conglomerate that built an enormous sawmill near LaCrosse, and he bought out his partners four years later. By 1880, the mill had an annual output of 20 million board feet of lumber.
Washburn was also raking in money in other ventures. In 1866, he poured $100,000 into a flour mill near Minneapolis, which he continually upgraded. Six years later, the mill made a $150,000 profit, and, in 1873, Washburn built an even larger mill. His operations reportedly produced 2,600 barrels of flour a day in 1874.
As his wealth grew, so did his philanthropic efforts. He donated his opulent estate near Madison to a convent for a school for young women, which today is Edgewood College. Other gifts included a new library to LaCrosse, an orphanage to Minneapolis and an observatory to the University of Wisconsin that bears his name.
Washburn died on May 15, 1882 and is buried in LaCrosse.
Today, his legacy lives on with his flour mills, which later became food giant General Mills, and one of its signature products, Gold Medal Flour.