Vol. 76, No. 8, August
A Lawyer's Life in Civil War Crawford County
An ancestor's journal provides insights into
Civil War-era Crawford County. Dealton Tichenor practiced law for 10
years before his death in 1864 as a Union prisoner of war in
Andersonville Prison, Georgia.
by Larry A. Jones & Phillip J.
Dealton Tichenor's legal career spanned only 10 years
before it was ended by his 1864 death as a Union prisoner of war in
Andersonville Prison in Georgia, but his journal and letters preserved
at the State Historical Society at Madison depict a life familiar to
lawyers today. He worked hard for his clients, he never got rich, he was
accused of twisting words by his eloquence, and he was a leader in local
Joseph Ranney, the foremost Wisconsin legal historian, has styled the
earliest Wisconsin lawyers, those who practiced between 1836 and 1865,
as the "heroic" generation.1 These early
lawyers usually had not attended law school, but rather trained
themselves or became apprenticed to another lawyer. How and where
Tichenor learned lawyering and when he was admitted to practice is
unknown. Tichenor was born in New York state in 1822. He moved to
Platteville in Grant County shortly before Wisconsin attained statehood
in 1848 and then, by the mid-1850s, moved to Seneca Township in Crawford
County, where the first record of his practice exists.
Presumably like the great majority of the early bar, Tichenor had a
general practice, taking any civil or criminal matter that came in the
door. The door was to his home, where Tichenor conducted his business.
His simple pine desk was of a schoolhouse design, four feet wide and
three feet deep. His business card declared that he was a notary public
as well as a lawyer.
Civil and criminal litigation. In those days
newspapers often noted every local court case, naming the lawyers and
summarizing the outcomes. On June 3, 1859, a Prairie du Chien newspaper
printed the results of the 54 cases heard during the May term of the
circuit court serving Crawford County. Tichenor appeared in eight of the
cases. By the latter half of 1861, Tichenor was trying five to 10 cases
A quaint picture of Civil War-era justice emerges from Tichenor's
journal entry of Dec. 23, 1861. Tichenor tried a case at Lynxville for
McDonald against Graham for trespass and assault. Justice of the Peace
Cole was set to hear the matter at plaintiff McDonald's saloon - perhaps
itself the site of the trespass and assault. Justice Cole arrived and
adjourned the suit until "about 1/4 before 11 o'clock." The defendant
decided it was past 11 and went home. Justice Cole went to his house and
told him that he should try the suit. Apparently none of the
participants had a watch, because Tichenor writes "I got [a] compass and
by the Time it was not 10 o'clock." The trial was called and notice was
served on defendant Graham that the jury was ready to try the suit.
Graham was subpoenaed and took the stand. "Verdict for Pltiff $20.00
Although in that case Tichenor had a victory in a suit for tortious
damages, he is rarely explicit about the nature of the case for which he
had been retained. However, Tichenor's journal entries suggest that his
cases frequently were about breach of contract. In addition, his journal
lists six actions in trespass, four in replevin, one in assault, and one
in contract. Compared to today, the number of intentional torts is
striking, but even more striking is the total absence of lawsuits based
on negligence, which was only then emerging as a cause of action.2
His office practice. Tichenor's practice was not
limited to litigation; it also involved what we describe today as
transactional work. Much of his work outside the courtroom concerned
real estate, which was likely a common component of most lawyers'
practices in the 1850s and 1860s. On the frontier, the government gave
away land, and people moved frequently, so they needed lawyers for land
transactions. Tichenor made and gave deeds for his clients, as well as
drafting and taking satisfaction for mortgages. He also drew up deeds to
divide the township and assisted in defining the boundaries of real
property. Finally, he advised his clients on land purchases and acted as
their agent to sell real estate.
In addition to doing real property work, Tichenor often acted as a
general financial agent for his clients. He gave, made out, signed, and
received bonds. He acted as collection agent, endorsed notes, paid debts
and taxes, and received goods and accounts to sell on commission. He
even practiced a little family law, drawing up papers for "binding out"
children of a man who had died.
The remainder of Tichenor's nontrial legal work was probably related
to his service as town clerk - performing a marriage and paying the
school teacher, for example. He also managed the bidding for the wood
contract for the school house and made out notices of road taxes due. He
even convened a meeting of the cemetery association and appointed its
Public office and politics. The vast majority of the
first generation of Wisconsin lawyers held public office,3 including Tichenor. In 1858 he was elected "Town
Clerk & Seale of Weights and Measures etc" and, in 1860, to the
Seneca Township Board of Supervisors. In 1861 he was appointed a court
The few formal offices Tichenor held before his enlistment in the
army were not, however, the measure of him politically. From 1858 until
1860 he was the unsuccessful leader of the major prewar political
dispute internal to Crawford County: the attempted relocation of the
county seat from Prairie du Chien to Seneca Township.4
Prairie du Chien was founded in the 1700s as a French fur-trading
village on the Mississippi River. It long remained the population center
of the area. However, by shortly after statehood in 1848, the
Mississippi River trappers lost their predominance to the farmers who
had spread across the county and who were in the majority by 1860. It
was hard for farmers, who traveled on foot or horse, to reach the
river-boat town on the county's southwest border.
Tichenor's efforts to relocate the county seat presumably did not
endear him to the court sitting in Prairie du Chien nor to the rest of
the political establishment, which was centered there. The surviving
newspaper accounts of the controversy do not suggest any sophisticated
argument. Tichenor's "county seat" campaign even failed to get the
support of his own Republican party and of newspaper editor Greene in
the Republican-leaning Leader - presumably because the editor
lived in Prairie du Chien.
Opposing Tichenor's concurrent run for the Seneca Township Board, the
editor of the Democratic-leaning Prairie du Chien Courier
lashed out, claiming that Tichenor "... will of course hatch any and all
kinds of reports to make his hobby - the county seat question - an issue
in the election. ... Tichenor would be engaged in his habit of
pettifogging and palavering."5
The words are old-fashioned, but they express a sentiment still
common today. The editor was attacking Tichenor as a typical lawyer. A
pettifogger, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a
legal practitioner of inferior status, who gets up or conducts petty
cases; esp. in an opprobrious sense, one who employs mean, sharp,
cavilling practices; a 'rascally' lawyer." Similarly, palaver is defined
as "to talk profusely or unnecessarily, to 'jaw,' to 'jabber,' to talk
plausibly or flatteringly."
The state legislature authorized a vote on relocating the county
seat, the issue went to the voters, and Tichenor obtained a seven-vote
majority in favor of the move.6 But, through
post-election legal maneuvering, the established powers prevailed and
the status quo was maintained. Warning signs of trouble soon followed
the 1859 election. A meeting was called a month after the vote by
Colonel Hercules L. Dousman, the famed and wealthy fur trader who no
doubt was the most powerful individual in Crawford County and probably
in this entire section of the state.7
Dousman raised the question of whether the vote was legal and added
that, if not, the county seat could not be removed. Apparently, meeting
attendees decided to seek the advice of the local member of the
Wisconsin Senate on the legality of the election.8 Tichenor, who was present at the meeting,
presumably felt no second opinion was necessary. Rumors and confusion
about the outcome of the election swirled for months. There were
allegations of post-election vote-tampering.9 A history published 25 years later in 1884
attributed the outcome to "some technical point of law, or artful
management on the part of the opposers of the movement."10 In any event, the county seat stayed at Prairie
The Economics of a Frontier Law Practice
It seems unlikely that many Civil War-era lawyers outside the largest
towns could have supported themselves by their legal work alone.
Tichenor, who also was a farmer, certainly did not. It is difficult to
determine from his journal the financial importance of Tichenor's work
as a lawyer, because he usually does not record his fees.
Seated at Dealton Tichenor's law office desk is his
great-great-grandson Larry A. Jones. Jones, Ph.D. 1975, J.D. 1989, is a
Washington state lawyer.
Not shown is coauthor Phillip J. Tichenor, Ph.D., a retired member of
the journalism faculty at the University of Minnesota, and a
great-grandson of Dealton Tichenor.
However, three 1857 journal entries show that Tichenor charged $1 for
drafting a deed and in 1861 the same amount for "Legal Advise." In 1861
he charged $5 for a half-day trial. If an estimate is used of $1 for
each deed or power of attorney drafted, $1 for legal advice given, and
$5 for a half-day trial, then Tichenor's surviving journal entries from
1861 suggest that his law practice may have earned him $650 that year.
The federal government's estimated consumer price index for 1860 shows
an approximate 20-fold price increase between then and today.11 So in 1861 Dealton Tichenor may have grossed
about $13,000 in today's dollars. Of course, it is also true that
lawyers had little overhead in 1860 - no secretary or paralegal, no
telephone (let alone fax and Internet) - so a much larger percentage of
the fee was profit.
Court fees and costs. Among the few costs incurred
in Tichenor's practice were court fees. On Aug. 8, 1861, Tichenor
recorded in his journal that he was retained for an appeal and in the
process "paid ... $7.30 Justice cost & $1 for Return and $1 State
tax making in all $9.30." On Sept. 10-11, 1861, Tichenor took a
deposition of a judge to be used in an Iowa case. He charged $5. The
judge charged $1.50 for his time, a party was charged $1, postage to
mail the deposition was $.24, and the Crawford County clerk charged $.25
to certify the deposition. In another case, on Oct. 28, 1861, Tichenor
recorded that his client paid the balance of judgment and costs: $4
clerk's fee, $2.70 witness fee "as per right," and $2 constable's fee,
"leaving $1.30 in my hands."
The End of His Career
Dealton Tichenor's surviving letters and journals do not suggest that
he was an abolitionist. Nonetheless, he hated Southern secessionists and
their northern Copperhead sympathizers and supported his country's war.
Presumably due to these views, on Aug. 6, 1862, at the age of 40,
Tichenor enlisted in the 31st Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment. We know that
he was not forced to volunteer, because, although an 1863 statute made
men eligible to be drafted until age 45, those over 35 were practically
never drafted.12 Tichenor served until his
discharge for disability - for chronic illness, like so many other
soldiers - in November 1863. Back at home, he resumed his legal
practice, as a Jan. 21, 1864 newspaper article reported:
"DEALTON TICHENOR. - Mr. Tichenor, late of the 31st Wis. Regt., has
returned home on account of his health, and is now in town Seneca, this
county. Mr. Tichenor has taken a license, and will practice in our
courts. Such business as our citizens desire in his line as
conveyancing, legal advice, or as an attorney, he will be always ready
to attend to. He is a Notary Public and can take acknowledgments."
But a month later, the 42-year-old Tichenor reenlisted in the newly
organized 36th Wisconsin Regiment. On May 10, 1864, the 36th Wisconsin
arrived in Virginia, where it served as part of the Army of the Potomac.
On May 18, the 36th Wisconsin was in the Battle of Spotsylvania as a
reserve unit. On May 26, Sergeant Dealton Tichenor of Company A led a
skirmishing charge on Confederate works in the battle of the North Anna
River, where he was captured. He was soon transferred to Andersonville
Prison, Georgia, where he died of jaundice on Aug. 18, 1864, and lies
buried in grave #6097. He was survived by his wife Mary and six minor
children. Mary received a widow's pension of $8 per month.
Tichenor died young by today's standards and did not bequeath a large
inheritance. What he did leave behind, however, were records providing a
glimpse of one lawyer's career of advocacy and hard work - qualities as
admirable now as they were 150 years ago.
1Joseph A. Ranney, Practicing
Law in 19th Century Wisconsin, 67 Wis. Law. 10 (March 1994).
See also Joseph A. Ranney, Trusting Nothing to Providence:
A History of Wisconsin's Legal System (Madison, Wis. 1999.)
2Prosser & Keaton, The Law
of Torts 5th ed., 160-61 (St Paul, Minn., 1984).
3Ranney, supra note 1.
4See History of
Crawford and Richland Counties 492-94 (Springfield, Ill. 1884) See
also Prairie du Chien Leader articles beginning in the fall of
1858, e.g., Oct. 16, 1858, and Nov. 13, 1858. Relocating the county seat
was the major internal political battle, but other political disputes
also roiled the county. Arguments about the proper course for the
nation, for example, fill the pages of the strongly partisan Republican
and Copperhead newspapers in the county. See Phillip J.
Tichenor, "Copperheadism and Community Conflict in Two Rivertowns: Civil
War Press Battles in Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, Wisconsin,
1861-65," paper presented to the Symposium on the 19th Century Press,
the Civil War, and Free Expression, University of Tennessee at
Chattanooga, Nov. 2, 2002.
5Prairie du Chien Courier,
March 8, 1860.
6Prairie du Chien Leader,
Nov. 15, 1869.
7It was Dousman's son Louis who,
after the Civil War, replaced the family home with the elegant structure
now widely known as "Villa Louis" on the western side of Prairie du
8Leader, Dec. 5,
9Courier, Sept. 6, 1860
(the results from one township had been mistakenly reversed, leading to
the conclusion that the vote to move had failed. But this "recording
error" only surfaced months after the election, fueling suspicion of
10History of Richland and
Crawford Counties 492-94.
11See Federal Reserve
Bank of Minneapolis, woodrow.mpls.frb.fed.us.
12James McPherson, Battle Cry
of Freedom 600-01 (New York, 1989).