Heroism, Missing Medals of Honor
|One of the memorable images of
Wisconsin's four-year Civil War centennial observance from 1961 to 1965 was a photograph
of a solitary legislator in the State Assembly chamber standing at attention between two
rows of American flags and facing a display of three of the war's Medals of Honor. Taken
by Richard Vesey and published by the Wisconsin State Journal on January 27, 1961,
the photo captured the spirit of the joint Legislative session at the Capitol that began
the state's centennial ceremonies on the 26th. The display of the medals, the nation's
highest military award, marked the 100th anniversary of the Medal of Honor itself and was
a tribute to all of the 91,000 Wisconsin veterans of the war and the 12,000 who lost their
From the capitol, the display containing the three Medals of Honor moved to the State Historical Society museum as a cornerstone of the Society's public exhibitions commemorating Wisconsin's role in the war. At a ceremony at the museum on the 26th, Alan T. Nolen, author of the now classic and then recently published book, The Iron Brigade, offered the keynote address to open the exhibit. Descendants of the Medal of Honor winners were honored at the ceremony and included Mrs. Abbie Pond and her son James B. Pond III; Mrs. F. D. Hollenbeck, Menasha, her son, Fred, and her father, William Knight; and T. F. Abbott and his son, Ted.
The medals remained on exhibit at the Historical Society museum, and it was there in 1963, midway through the four-year centennial, that the medals were stolen. In an article on the theft on June 15, the State Journal reported that, "The two gold [Civil War Medals of Honor] and a bronze Civil War Medal of Honor were taken from a display case in an unguarded room on the museum's first floor during public hours Wednesday [June 12]." It identified the names on the missing gold medals as William Knight and William Reddick. The name on the bronze medal was identified as Thomas Schwann [Theodore Schwan]. The Journal also reported that:
In addition to the three medals reported stolen, however, at least two other medals had been on display at the museum. The Society's publication, Wisconsin Then and Now, for December, 1959 (6:5), indicates that "[the James B. Pond Medal of Honor] is now on display at the State Historical Society." The same article also mentions that, "James Pond's younger brother George also won the Congressional Medal of Honor; this is one of the few cases where brothers won this honor." Correspondence by Alan Kent, Historical Society research assistant, in the exhibit archives of the Society indicates that the Society had been pursuing the loan of memorabilia from both branches of the Pond family since 1952. The Pond family confirms that both medals were on loan to the Historical Society during the war's centennial. Presumably Abbie Pond and her son James represented both Pond families at the opening of the exhibit in 1961 in conjunction with the display of the two medals.
Furthermore, when a Wisconsin museum approached George Pond's descendants this spring about the possibility of an exhibit honoring the two Pond brothers, it was informed that George Pond's medal had disappeared from the Historical Society while on display in 1963.
It remains a question, then, which of the five medals were actually stolen.
Madison and University of Wisconsin Police reports related to the theft have not been located. The only document that has surfaced and that may offer a clue is an official report written on April 22, 1965, by John W. Winn, Assistant to the Museum Director. Winn's report is contained on a Personal Property List related to the loan of the Schwan memorabilia from the Abbott family. His summary of the materials on loan follows:
There is a handwritten note, date and author uncertain, next to the second item that reads simply "Pond." A second note also undated and unattributed just below the list reads, "The second item should be a CMH 1862-1903 type this was stolden [sic] from the museum 6/13/63," suggesting a Medal of Honor other than Schwan's. Winn's report concludes with a note that, "This matter is characterized by a complete lack of any record on file. Field Services has no record, nor does the Museum, other than this present paper." What "This matter" referred to presumably was the followup to the theft of the medals.
Pending the discovery of additional documents, it appears that at the time of the theft, there was some confusion as to which medals were actually on display. The Pond family has confirmed that James B. Pond's medal is currently in their possession. The Winn report's confusion over the Theodore Schwan and George Pond medals casts doubt on the details initially reportedafter the theft and appears to substantiate the Pond family report of the loss of George Pond's medal.
None of the missing medals has ever been recovered, and additional information confirming the details of the theft appears to be unlikely. The collector community is encouraged, therefore, to remain vigilant for any of the four medals still in question and to contact the State Historical Society with any information.