Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Washburn, Gov. Cadwallader Colden (1818-1882)

Wisconsin Civil War Officer, U.S. Congressman, Founder of General Mills

Washburn, Gov. Cadwallader Colden (1818-1882) | Wisconsin Historical Society
b. Livermore, Maine, April 22, 1818
d. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, May 15, 1882

Cadwallader Colden (C.C.) Washburn was a U.S. Congressman, Civil War officer, industrial empire builder and founder of General Mills, and 11th governor of Wisconsin. Few people of his generation had as much influence on Wisconsin history.

Early Life

Washburn grew up in Maine. He taught school there before moving to the Midwest to seek his fortune. He worked in Iowa and studied law in Rock Island, Illinois, before settling in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in 1842. He opened a law practice, founded a bank, and acquired a vast amount of northern Wisconsin forest.

Washburn, a Republican, served in the U.S. Congress from 1855-1861, and again after the Civil War, 1867-1870 (five terms in all). At the same time, he broadened his business operations in banking and real estate. Early in 1861 he moved to La Crosse and was sent as a delegate to an unsuccessful peace convention held in Washington, D.C., that had hoped to prevent the impending Civil War.

Civil War Service

After the outbreak of hostilities, Washburn accepted an appointment as colonel of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, on October 10, 1861. The following spring he led it south into Arkansas to join Union forces in the West.

Washburn was promoted to brigadier general in June 1862. He took command of not only of his regiment, but also the entire 2nd Cavalry Brigade. On July 7, 1862, it defeated Confederate forces at Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and then marched east to take possession of Helena, Arkansas. From there it supported the Union campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. In March 1863 Washburn was commissioned a major general with command over all Union cavalry in West Tennessee, headquartered at Memphis.

After the Siege of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, Washburn's command was moved to New Orleans. In August he led 16,000 men in support of the Red River Expedition, occupying and pacifying large areas along the Texas Coast. He spent most of 1864 and the spring of 1865 in command at Memphis and Vicksburg.

Postwar Career

After leaving the military in May 1865, Washburn returned to La Crosse and served again in Congress, from 1867 to 1870.

He was elected governor of Wisconsin in the fall of 1871 and served from 1872-1874. At that time, there was movement by farmers for government regulation of railroads to alleviate the monopolies of railroad barons. Washburn made some decisions that alienated the farmers, railroad barons and other constituents. This, combined with his veto of a popular construction project, led to his defeat in the 1873 gubernatorial election. After an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1875, Washburn retired from politics.

Afterward, Washburn devoted himself to business enterprises. In 1866, he opened his first flour mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which became known as General Mills. It was spectacularly successful and flourished for over a century. He also worked in the lumber industry and helped secure the construction of the Minneapolis and St. Louis railroad.

Washburn served as a regent of the University of Wisconsin and president of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. He died in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, on May 15, 1882, while recuperating from an illness.

Links to Learn More

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, 1965); Love, William D. Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Madison, 1866): 743-746, 895-896; Quiner, E.B. Military History of Wisconsin (Chicago, 1866: 408-409.]