Feb 12, 2013 • By

President Lincoln and the Washburns

With the marking in the U.S. today of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – and the hubbub surrounding the award-winning movie bearing his name – it seems fitting to note the accomplishment of the Washburns, Lincoln’s contemporaries who changed the world in their own right.

Cadwallader Washburn was the founder of General Mills, and is somewhat well-known in Minneapolis, where our headquarters is located. But there’s a lot about this entrepreneur – and his band of highly successful brothers – that has been forgotten.

“The number of Washburn siblings who went from their simple farm in Livermore, Maine, to positions of national leadership has never been equaled by any American family,” writes biographer Kerck Kelsey in his book, “Remarkable Americans: The Washburn Family.”

Successful in politics, law, business and the military, the Washburns “harnessed waterfalls, redirected rivers, cut down forests, built railroads, milled wheat, dug coal and even led a national religious movement,” writes Kelsey, Cadwallader’s great-great-grandson. “They were either bitter enemies or trusted allies of at least eight different American presidents.”

Cadwallader Washburn was a school teacher and a lawyer who, like many others, moved west as a young man. He served as a Congressman and governor (Wisconsin), a lumber baron and a general in the Union Army.

During the Civil War, Cadwallader led a blocking force during the final stages of the siege of Vicksburg, keeping Confederate General Joseph Johnston from relieving the besieged city.

Later, as leader of the district of Western Tennessee, Cadwallader brought to a halt the huge and illegal cotton-for-supplies trade that flourished across the lines up and down the Mississippi River.

“Stopping this trade in Memphis was Cadwallader’s greatest contribution to the Union war effort,” according to Kelsey.

After the war, Cadwallader returned to La Crosse, Wis., to lead his lumber business, which had survived boom and bust periods. The post-war years also centered on development of mills along the Mississippi River in what would become Minneapolis.

A visionary, Cadwallader bought 89 acres along the west side of St. Anthony Falls for a dam and canal to harness water power. A series of mills followed, grinding wheat and milling flour needed to feed not only America, but the world.

The Washburn B Mill circa 1866.

The years 1870 to 1880 “saw a revolution in the milling industry, with Washburn’s people and Washburn’s investors at the head of every development,” Kelsey writes in the book. Cadwallader, who embraced innovation that made milling safer and more efficient, also got into the business of building railroads to transport grain.

Known as an exceptionally honest, hard-working leader, Cadwallader focused on business opportunities throughout his life. His wife suffered from depression and was hospitalized for years, which led to their two daughters being raised by grandparents on the East Coast. Throughout his life he was close to his brothers.

In fact, in their younger days, three Washburn brothers (Cadwallader of Wisconsin, Israel Jr. of Maine and Elihu of Illinois) all served together in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Fiercely anti-slavery, six of the seven Washburn brothers traveled to Washington in 1861 to see an event they all had worked hard for – the inauguration of President Lincoln. Because of his role in Illinois politics, Elihu was particularly close to Lincoln, delivering political support and providing Illinois troops during the war.

Elihu, known as the “Watchdog of the Treasury,” also was an early supporter of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, securing spots for him and smoothing over the missteps of the brilliant, hard-drinking leader of the Union forces. At the end of the war, Grant, a future president of the United States, provided a cavalry escort so that Elihu could witness the surrender ceremony.

He was the only civilian to stand with Maine’s General Joshua Chamberlain as Robert E. Lee’s army stacked its arms.

When Lincoln was assassinated less than a week later, Elihu accompanied Lincoln’s body in the long cortege across the country to a graveside ceremony in Illinois. He served as a pallbearer as the 16th president was laid to rest in Springfield, Ill.

The following telegram from Lincoln to Elihu speaks to how close the two men were:

Editor’s note: The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post. You can learn more about our past on GeneralMills.com. Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.