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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Assembly Speaker Held Up a Train

As the Civil War approached, our state government had no funds with which to organize, equip, and pay troops. Watching one southern state after another secede during the spring of 1861, legislative leaders crafted a bill authorizing the governor to raise the money, should the need eventually arise.

Although both houses were Republican, there was also strong opposition to the impending war among a critical mass of legislators. The law they passed, therefore, was a delicate compromise.

In those days, the legislature always adjourned by mid-April so members could get home in time for spring planting. After passing the compromise bill on Saturday, April 13th, all the lawmakers returned to their hotels and began packing to leave Madison on Monday morning.

But on Sunday, Assembly Speaker Amasa Cobb received two pieces of disturbing news.

First, when the state's attorney general read the final bill, he declared it was so vague as to be null and void. It did not, in fact, authorize the government to raise funds to carry on a war, and had to be amended or replaced.

"And to make good the saying that 'misfortunes never come single,'" Cobb recalled, the news reached Madison that Fort Sumter had been fired upon. War had actually broken out. "After three and a half months of hard work," Cobb said, "we were about to close the session leaving Wisconsin utterly unprepared to take her place" in the Union war effort.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and so as midnight approached on Sunday Cobb began a campaign to stop the legislature from leaving town.

First he called on the governor, who gave him carte blanche to do whatever was necessary to call the legislature back into session. Then he tried to convince the vice president of the railway and the head of its Madison office to halt the Monday morning train. Though sympathetic, both men said they lacked the authority. And one added that trying to get top-level railroad authorities to change the schedule was as futile as trying to stop the sun from coming up.

Returning to his rooming house a little before dawn, Cobb ran into the train's conductor leaving for the station. Though the conductor did not technically have any leeway, he said – in so many words – that if martial law was declared, a letter from the governor ordering him to delay the train would suffice. Cobb immediately drew up such a letter, signed for the governor, and the conductor went back to bed.

The next morning the special session opened at the same hour that the Milwaukee train was due to leave. Lacking a quorum, Cobb and his Senate counterpart sent Capitol staff to find the missing legislators. They were found at the depot, he recalled, "swearing like our army in Flanders" at the tardiness of the railroad. Apprised of the seriousness of the situation, they returned and soon passed an amendment permitting the governor to immediately begin raising troops.

Cobb became colonel of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry during the war, and is mentioned more than 50 times in our new online collection of Civil War eyewitness accounts. He later served in Congress for 12 years before going west and becoming chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 20, 2011
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