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Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History

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Source: Sheboygan Press November 27 1923

{There is a picture of W. H. De Groff}

W. H. De Groff Tells Of His Experiences In Washington Night Of Lincoln's Murder

As the years roll by and the pages of American history become more and more dim, deeds of the defenders of this land, especially those of the earlier days, become fainter and fainter, and the veterans of that memorable conflict, the Civil war, become fewer and fewer, Americans begin to learn something of the men and women who participated in the contest between the north and the south.

Reticent in their makeup, veterans of that terrible civil conflict that came near tearing two important sections of this great nation apart are reluctant to tell of their experiences, fearing it may be misunderstood. But on occasion a word slips here and there. It was on an occasion of this kind that W. H. Degroff, civil war veteran of Sheboygan Falls, was in Sheboygan and dropped a remark that identified him as one having had a remarkable experience during his period of service.

On April 14, 1865, Mr. Degroff was on the point of entering the Fords' theatre in Washington, D. C., when his mind was changed by a superior officer, who ordered him to duty. That was a memorable night in America's history on which Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Mr. Degroff did not go into the theatre, however, as he was met at the door by an officer of his company, who ordered him with other comrades that were in company with him to go on picket duty for the purpose of catching the assassin in a huge net that was being formed. The pickets were placed around the outskirts of Washington, and the orders were given that no one, except persons that could identify themselves as being on legitimate business, were to be permitted to pass.

Mr. Degroff said that as he and his companions were approaching the theatre, they saw a saddled horse standing near the theatre and that it was being held by a negro. That was not so extraordinary that any suspicion should be aroused, but as the soldiers got closer to the theatre, they saw a man run from the building, jump on the horse and start off at a stiff gate.

The last act was sufficient cause to attract suspecting attention, and an instant afterward, all the soldiers present knew what had prompted it, and were hurrying to their lines of duty upon orders of superior officers.

President and Mrs. Lincoln were at the theatre to witness the presentation of a play entitled "The American Cousin," They occupied a box in the second tier. At the close of the third act of the play, a tall man, answering to the description of J. Wilkes Booth, a prominent actor and identified with the secession movement, entered the President's box and fired a revolver bullet into the head of Mr. Lincoln. After firing it, he jumped to the stage, and made his escape through the rear door.

These details were conveyed to Mr. Degroff by others, but he was so deeply impressed with them, he said, that he felt almost as if he himself had seen the murderous act.

It was when Booth darted from the rear door of the theatre, however, that Mr. Degroff observed him. He told the Press-Telegram that he noticed the man ran poorly and that he jumped awkwardly to his horse, snatching the reins from the hands of the negro attendant, and dashing off into the darkness.

As the soldiers walked to the front of the building discussing what they had seen, they were met by an excited officer, Mr. Degroff said, who ordered them to picket duty.

Mr. Degroff and the others remained on watch until daybreak the next morning. Meanwhile, the assassin had been caught.

Washington army forces had been set on the trail of the fugitive. It afterward developed that the plan for the murder of President Lincoln was premeditated. The horse waiting at the theatre door conveyed him to the Potomac river not more than a few rods distant. There Booth boarded a boat that was in waiting, and was transported to the opposite side. A horse and buggy across the river dashed through the mists of night, and deposited the murderer in a hiding place in the country, where he was soon afterward apprehended by soldiers, who scoured the city and countryside of Washington.

Mr. Degroff was stationed at Camp Ellsworth in the little town of Alexandria, eight miles from Washington, at the time, and was in the capital city on leave to attend the play at Fords' theatre when the deadly act was committed by the dastardly assassin.

Mr. Degroff was born in Wyoming county, New York, on June 22, 1843, and came to Sheboygan county with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Degroff, when only a month old. He was a member of a family of three boys and two girls. His parents operated a farm a mile east of Plymouth for four or five years after coming to Sheboygan county, then moved back to New York. After staying in the home state for five years, the Degroffs came back to this county, and Mr. Degroff conducted a farm west of Sheboygan Falls for seven or eight years.

In the fall if 1864, the year of Lincoln's second election, W. H. Degroff volunteered in Fond du Lac for Civil war service. He was sent to Camp Randall, Madison, where he was assigned to Company G, First Wisconsin Heavy Artillery, under Captain H. F. Rhuse. After being there four weeks, the company was ordered to Camp Ellsworth, Alexandria, District of Columbia.

Company G remained at Camp Ellsworth until the summer of 1865, when it was mustered out of service. While there, he engaged in a number of skirmishes with the famous Mosby Gorillas. The casualties in these conflicts were light, however, Mr. Degroff did not suffer even the slightest wound while in the service, but soon after going back to civilian life, four fingers of his left hand were cut off in a corn shredder.

It was while his company was stationed at Camp Ellsworth that President Lincoln was shot.

After receiving his discharge sometime in July, 1865, at Milwaukee, Mr. Degroff went back to Sheboygan Falls and secured work on the farm owned by A. G. Dye. While at the Dye farm, Mr. Degroff began courting the daughter of his employer, Miss Adelaide Dye, and they were married in Sheboygan Falls in 1872.

A few years later, Mr. Degroff bought the farm from his father-in-law. He and Mr. Degroff operated the property for twenty years, when they went to Clark county. They ran farms in Clark county until four years ago, when they retired and bought a home in Sheboygan Falls. They have lived in that city since.

Mr. Degroff has been a steadfast Republican in political belief ever since he was old enough to consider such questions. He cast his first vote for Abraham Lincoln the first time Mr. Lincoln was elected to the presidency, and he has had the privilege of voting for every Republican president since. He had attended the Methodist and Baptist churches most of his life, but never affiliated with any. His health has always been the best, and he is now as keen minded as many men much younger. He declares that he has never been sick in his life, except for minor illnesses such as colds and grippes.

The subject of this sketch is still blessed with the companionship of the woman he took as his wife some fifty-one years ago, and they are going down life's lane happily, hand in hand. Mrs. Degroff is also in good health.

Mr. Degroff has been a member of the Richardson post of the G. A. R. at Sheboygan Falls for many years. He has never held any office in the organization, and never sought it. As a matter of fact, he never aspired to any office, and would not have taken one had it been foisted upon him. He never cared for politics, except as a voter.

Four children, all of them living, were born to Mr. and Mrs. Degroff. They are: Earl Degroff and James Degroff of Waldo, Mrs. Rose Patrick of Sheboygan Falls, and Miss Mae Degroff of Minneapolis.

Transcribed by Kay R.

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