New database brings World War I home to Milwaukee
Their faces peer hopefully out of history in portraits -- in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library -- snapped, presumably, before these Wisconsin soldiers went off to fight in World War I.
Cards compiled by the American War Mothers Milwaukee County Chapter in 1921 -- also at MPL -- tell a different story.
More than 30,000 of these cards are in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library and catalog the Americans who fought in the Great War. Thousands and thousands of cards, mostly detailing the service of Milwaukeeans, though there are cards for soldiers from other parts of the state, too.
Those cards -- which include a wealth of information that will be of delight and utility to genealogists, historians and other researchers -- are being scanned, along with about 3,000 photographs and other documents in the library's collection and the resulting database went live this week, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
More items are still being added, but more than 32,000 of them will populate the database soon.
Digital projects librarian Maria Cunningham-Benn has been leading the charge to get these materials scanned and prepped for posting, with a team of more than 30 volunteers, interns and library employees all lending a hand.
"The cards were donated sometime in the '20s," says Cunningham-Benn, as we look at a selection of cards she's pulled. "The American War Mothers, the Milwaukee County chapter, mostly did this collection. They had soldiers and their family and friends send information for them and they compiled it all and they typed it up. It's been here since then."
The cards are all handwritten -- which has, at times, made Cunningham-Benn's job challenging -- and include name, address, birth date and place, but also parents' names, the church they attended, education level, employer and job, and a host of military information, from date and place of entry to promotions and honors, date and place of mustering out and more.
Users will be able to search the database by almost every one of the fields.
On the back of the card is a space for battles at which the soldier fought and, below it, a remarks section.
"The remarks show their ideas about what they did there," says Cunningham-Benn. "Many cards just read simply, 'War is hell.' I've come across several of those that just say that or 'Sherman was right.'"
A chaplain wrote, "This experience in serving my country I count as one of the rarest privileges of my life."
On another, a soldier wrote of carrying his dead friend's body from the battlefield,
fulfilling a mutual promise they'd made. Later, he told the war mother compiling his card, he was, "asked to surrender and told them to go to hell."
A gold star on a card means the serviceman was killed in action.
But it wasn't all bad news. On another card, a soldier wrote, "Over-seas one year, was near the front but did not engage in any battles."
Instead, the war led to a different engagement for this particular American: "Met the girl, who is now my wife, when my regiment was in a Southern army camp. That was worth something to me at any rate."
Another soldier wrote, in appreciation, "The War Mothers really care about the servicemen."
Cunningham-Benn and her ever-changing team compiled a complete list of World War I battles and other supporting information to consult while deciphering the handwriting on the 13 boxes of cards, which could vary from typewritten to elegantly lettered to barely legible with challenging spelling.
After the scanning is complete, the librarian has to adjust the image in Photoshop and then enter all of the information into the database. Other photos and documents in the library's collection are also being scanned and associated with the relevant servicemen.
So, if you search, for example, your great-grandfather, you might find not only a scan and the information from one of the index cards, but perhaps a portrait, maybe a Certified Copy of Discharge to accompany Application for Educational Bonus or some other document.
Cunningham-Benn has been working on this project at the same time as she's been doing similar work with the library's extensive recipes collection, historical photos collection and other archives. And, she typically only gets a couple hours per shift to do the work. The rest of the time she's on desk duty in the library.
The library will continue to add relevant materials to the World War I database as they are discovered or acquired, but even right now it's extremely extensive and a boon to Milwaukeeans searching for their roots.
There are even a number of Milwaukee notables represented. I was pleased to see Alexander Eschweiler Jr.'s card, for example.
"This collection is very heavily used," says Cunningham-Benn. "A lot of people come in and use it for genealogy research. We thought it would be good to have online so people wouldn't have to come all the way here to use it.
Also, she says, picking up a disintegrating index card -- a somewhat surprising find when most of the cards appear so pristine -- "Some of these are a bit fragile. There's stuff like this, where it has been taped, so the less they handle it, the better."
In conjunction with the launch of the database, the library will host a genealogy resources event on Saturday, Aug. 9 from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Central Library's meeting room 2B, 814 W. Wisconsin Ave.
It will also host four free Veterans Resource Series events at the Central Library in partnership with Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative, Veterans for Diversity, Center for Veterans Issues and the Zablocki VA Medical Center. These will help guide veterans and their families toward resources available to them in the community.
A panel exhibition is also up at the main library, focusing on the World War I collections and it will travel in the future to branch libraries and other sites around the city, says Cunningham-Benn.
Although there's no launch celebration, Cunningham-Benn expects to breath a sigh of relief when the project is completed.
"Personally," she says, "I'll be partying."
And then it's back to work on those other collections.
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