Centennial of local gun battle marked by Sept. 19 presentation
By Lee Kaschinska
COLBY – Sept. 14 of this year marks the centennial of one of the most extraordinary events during Wisconsin’s participation in World War I – the gun battle between two federal marshals, a posse of over a hundred men, and Frank, Leslie, and Ennis Krueger.
What were the circumstances behind this event? In August 1914 when the war began, Wisconsin politics, religion, and culture were reflections of its ethnic populations. At this time, Wisconsin is the most “German” of states numerically, culturally, and as viewed by those living in our states and regions of the United States. Many of those who had migrated to Wisconsin still retained their German citizenship. They took pride in the growing power of a unified Germany, and had close ethnic and family ties with the “fatherland.” Often, they viewed English as their second language. German was spoken at home, and a number of German language newspapers were published throughout the state.
Politically, Wisconsin was the home of the Socialist and Progressive parties. Both were strongly anti-war, and as a result were viewed with suspicion by many. In the period 1914-17, the United States struggled to remain neutral. But, the reality was the British were experts in presenting a picture of the Germans as the “Huns” – autocratic’ militaristic and guilty of atrocities – some of which were true. Additionally, because the British navy controlled the sea lanes, while the United States maintained the right to trade with either side, in reality almost all our trade was with the allies. In 1914, trade with these nations was $824 million and in 1916, it was $32 billion. This not only created a boom economy in the United States, it also tied us closer to the allies.
Germany was slowly being strangled by the allied naval blockade and resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to break it. The Germans knew this would probably bring America into the war on the allied side, but they gambled on being able to win the war before the United States could have a significant impact on its outcome.
As long as the United States remained neutral divergent views were tolerated, if often viewed with suspicion and distrust. But, with the declaration of war in April 1917, this changed both suddenly and drastically. This was a “total war’” and a total war needs consensus, but Wisconsin was under stress because it was not unified behind the war.
The Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal by word or deed to interfere with the draft, or to criticize the government, the war effort, or the flag. Technically these rules were voluntary, but there were many who felt they were not only mandatory, but that they must be strictly enforced.
In Wisconsin, those who were either born in Germany, or had German parents had to carry an ID card, had a 9 p.m. curfew and had to be within one mile of their homes at all times. The Wisconsin Defense League was formed to seek out “traitors.” Unfortunately, the exact definition of what defined a traitor was left to the discretion of each individual, and for some “super-patriots,” almost any word or action remotely seen as anti-war was justification for action that included anything from shunning to tar and feathering.
Against this background the citizens in and around Withee felt justified in their suspicious concerning the Kruegers. Caroline, the matriarch of the family was notorious for her statements about the war; claiming it was the fault of the pope, and that the war was the Armageddon in which every solider sent to fight would die, and accordingly no son of hers would register for the draft.
In 1917, the government conducted its first draft since the Civil War. Frank was too old, Ennis to young, but Leslie was ordered to register. Instead he left the area. In the summer of 1918, the United States issued its third draft call, and both Frank and Ennis were eligible, and expected to register in Longwood, but neither did. Unlike Leslie they remained on their farm. In the meantime, a large box had arrived at the Withee train station and the station agent, seeing it was addressed to the Krueger’ took action. He informed the town constable that he felt the shipment was “suspicious.” It was illegally opened and found to contain a number of guns. This was duly reported to the federal officials in La Crosse, who up to this time while aware of the Krueger’ failure to register for the draft, had not felt it necessary to take any overt action. With this report, however that attitude changed, and two federal marshals were dispatched to Withee to arrest Frank and Ennis for draft evasion.
The stage was set for the shoot-out. To learn what happened next, join us on Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Colby Community Library for a presentation by Kris Leonhardt, Hub City Times, about this incident. This presentation is co-sponsored by the Colby Rural Arts Museum and the Colby Community Library. German themed refreshments will be served as part of this presentation.