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Kilburn Knox

Governor of the Northwestern Branch, NHDVS,1889-1891

by Stephen Michaels,
Past Commander-in-Chief, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War

Early Life
Civil War Service
Post-War Service
Tenure at the Milwaukee Soldiers' Home

 Kilburn Knox was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania on October 23, 1842, the eldest of six children born to Judge John Colvin  and Adeline Knox.  John Colvin Knox, was a law partner of Edwin M. Stanton (later, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War) and became a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice. Adeline’s father was also a Superior Court Judge.

Kilburn Knox dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania when the Civil War began.   He enlisted as Private Ira K. Knox in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Artillery on April 24th, 1861.  He completed his three month term on June 9th and was commissioned a 1st lieutenant in the 13th U.S. Infantry, serving under Col. William T. Sherman at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Lt. Knox later served as an aid-de-camp on the staff of General James Birdseye McPherson and was a close friend of that officer.  He also served as commander of the muster of the 17th Army corps and held the same office in the Army of the Tennessee, presumably under McPherson, who commanded both. His record was one of bravery and efficiency at Vicksburg and Corinth  He was promoted to captain in 1864 and was made a brevet major the same year for gallant and meritorious service in the attack on Atlanta. During the war, he was in all of Sherman’s campaigns and was a personal friend of the general’s, the latter visiting him at the Soldiers Home during the 1889 National GAR Encampment in Milwaukee.

Maj. Knox was visiting the home of Secretary Stanton on April 13, 1865, when Lincoln assassination conspirator Michael O’Laughlin, wearing dark clothes and a slouch hat, entered the home and inquired of the Secretary’s whereabouts. Knox’s testimony helped convict O’Laughlin, who also believed General Grant was staying at Stanton’s home.

 After the close of the war in 1865, Knox served as military secretary in the War Department. In early 1866, he was made a brevet lieutenant colonel and accompanied Co. D, 13th U.S. Infantry into Dakota Territory. The men were transported by the steamer “Rubicon” to Sioux City, Iowa, where they traveled into Indian Territory to Fort Randall. Then the troops marched another week, reaching Fort Brookings (the present site of Sioux Falls, South Dakota) on June 8th.  Upon their arrival, the 82 men of the 13th relieved Co. M, 7th Iowa Vol. Cavalry and found four buildings: two enlisted men’s barracks, a stone commissary and a stable along the river. Knox renamed the post “Fort Dakota” and put his men to work, improving and enlarging the post.  By the time the Federal Government closed the post in May 1869, there were 18 buildings. In September, during an Army reorganization, Knox and his men were redesignated Co., D, 22nd Infantry. The Indian threat quickly diminished and the immediate need for the post had passed. In anticipation of closing the post and an army reorganization, Knox resigned from the service on April 1, 1869 and went to New York.

There, he takes turns working at different jobs. He worked for a military goods supplier, Schuyler, Hartley & Graham and for McMahon & Morse, Counselors at Law.  In 1871, he married Annette “Annie K.” Meanger, who was ten years his junior.  They had one daughter, Birdseye McPherson Knox, born July 26, 1877, in New York City.

In 1872, with some of his “speculations” causing him to lose most of his savings, he wrote to various officers, seeking an appointment from the Indian Bureau of the War Dept. as a trader in on the west bank of the Missouri River.

In 1873, New York Governor and former Union general John Adam Dix appointed Knox commissary general of New York. He remained in that post until the end of Gov. Samuel Tilden’s term in 1877. He also worked for a time in the New York custom house.

On June 25, 1883, Knox applied to the President and to Secretary of War Robert Lincoln for an appointment as a captain and assistant quartermaster in the army. He repeated his application on January 29, 1885. At this time, he was working in the Offices of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in New York City.

 General Knox arrived in Milwaukee on January 12, 1887, from New Hampshire, to take the position of secretary of the Soldiers' Home. He also served as inspector and was described as a “most capable man.” Less than a week after arriving, he abolished the “obnoxious store order system.” The abuses of the system had been exposed by the Milwaukee Sentinel a few weeks earlier.

On Wednesday, April 3, 1889, at a meeting of directors of the National Soldiers Homes in New York, Kilbourn Knox was appointed governor (promoted to general) of Milwaukee’s Soldiers' Home to succeed General Jacob Sharpe, who resigned voluntarily, due to impaired health from a war wound. Sharpe had been in charge for nine years.  Knox’s appointment became official on May 1, 1889.

General Knox was looked on as a very able manager in the affairs of the Home.  He was described in the Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph as “a man of great energy, an indefatigable worker and a man of wonderful executive ability. “  A year later, on July 9, 1890, the officers of the Home celebrated his one-year anniversary by presenting him with a gold watch. During his short tenure as governor, the library and the chapel were built, freeing up needed space in Old Main. A beer hall was built so that veterans living at the Home would not be subject to unscrupulous individuals and taverns in the neighborhood should they venture off the grounds.  Work was begun a new laundry. Ten female nurses from the Milwaukee Woman’s Training School supplemented the male staff, stretched thin by the increase in admissions. And the wells supplying the Home were failing, so plans were made to connect to Milwaukee’s water supply.



One of the first classes of female nurses to serve at the Northwestern Branch

While not a longtime Milwaukee resident, General Knox did make many friends by his genial nature. He frequently attended the banquets of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), of which he was a member, and often came into the city to attend Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) meetings.

Gen. Knox suffered from liver trouble for several years. The trouble, which was a form of jaundice, accelerated two months before his death, when he traveled to Washington, D.C., to secure an appropriation for a new hospital for the  Soldiers Home.

General Knox died on April 17, 1891, at the age of 48. Before his death, he expressed a desire to be buried on the Home grounds and this wish was granted three days later. The Rev. E.P. Wright, Home chaplain, presided over the funeral service in the Home Chapel, attended by 1200 veterans. General John C. Black of Chicago made a brief address. During the service, fellow MOLLUS Companion Byron Kilbourn escorted Gen. Knox’s wife and Richard Corbett escorted his daughter. Both Birdseye and her mother worked at the home after their husbands’ deaths. Wife Annie, who was appointed hospital matron, died on February 10, 1927.

In 1892, 27-year-old Canadian immigrant and medical school graduate Oscar Chrysler began work as a physician at the Home. He was promoted to major and chief of the Home’s Medical Department (Chief of Staff) on January 1, 1903.  He remained at the post until his death ten years later. On February 18, 1903, at age 37, he married 25-year old Birdseye McPherson Knox. They had three children: Laura Annette (28 Feb 1904-19 Mar 1970), who married Alfred R. Ewert; Harriet Louise (17 Mar 1905-14 Jul 1987), who married Joseph Henry O’Neill; and Frederick Knox (11 May 1907-12 Sep 1957).  Birdseye passed away in 1943 and was buried with her parents and husband in Wood National Cemetery.

SOURCES
Memoirs of Milwaukee County, edited by J.A. Watrous; Western Historical Assoc., Madison 1909

Milwaukee Sentinel, January 13, 1887; April 5, 1889; July 10, 1890; April 18, 1891  

Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph, July 29, 1889

MOLLUS  Resolution of Respect, June 3, 1891

Biography & Images of Michael O’Laughlin, Assassination Conspirator website             
Fort Dakota Virtual Tour website


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