Part three of a series
A soldier from Houston County, Gundar Knutson of Yucatan, was on duty guarding the body of President Abraham Lincoln as it was lying in state in Washington, D.C. in April of 1865. It is possible that honor went to battle-ready men in brand new uniforms, clothing not yet soiled or torn on the battlefield. Knutson was one of 75 Houston County men who had answered the war’s final draft call of March in1865. But Company F of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Battalion arrived out east too late for combat – after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrendered on April 9. The president was assassinated on April 14, and Knutson experienced exceptional duty during unprecedented national mourning.
Houston County soldiers saw action in many major battles of the Civil War – Bull Run, Antietam, Chickamauga, Nashville, Gettysburg, the siege of Vicksburg and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Christian Thompson of Spring Grove Township was taken prisoner at Chickamauga in and died in the infamous Andersonville Prison. William Matteson of Caledonia Township died of wounds sustained at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi.
Despite amazing growth, Minnesota was still a less-populated frontier state. There were 11 infantry regiments from Minnesota, while there were 53 from Wisconsin and 51 from Iowa. But out of 43 political areas (35 states – north and south, District of Columbia and seven territories), Minnesota officially ranked seventh in soldiers per capita – 14% of the population – 23,913 men. It is thought 800 to 1,000 men went to war from Houston County.
Minnesota was unique in fighting on two fronts for several months in 1862 – not only far away in the South but also close to home with the Sioux Indian revolt in the western part of the state
The county was most represented at the Battle of Shiloh. Over 50 county men were there with units from Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota. Eventually, it would rank 10th in casualties (killed, severely wounded), but in the second year of the war – the nation was shocked with 17,987 casualties – more than twice as many as all previous battles combined. County men wrote home about the horror they had endured. Enlistments in Minnesota drastically decreased.
The most tragic day for Houston County families occurred at the Battle of Nashville on December 16, 1864. There were seven deaths and five wounded. Back home, families of deceased soldiers were notified by mail in a black-trimmed envelope. Among those perishing at Nashville were William Everett and Peter Eichelberger of Wilmington Township along with Hans Oleson and Chandler K. Fleming of Black Hammer Township.
Houston County men fought with units from Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, where close to 60,000 were killed or wounded – the costliest battle of the war. No Union regiment sustained more casualties than an estimated 82% of the 1st Minnesota. Today, there are two monuments to the 1st Minnesota at the site.
Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock would say of the 1st Minnesota “No soldiers on any field in this or any other country ever displayed grander heroism.”
The same week as Gettysburg in the east, the siege of Vicksburg ended out west. Spring Grove resident John Penergast was at Vicksburg as was Mark Hargeaves from Hokah and Peter Tuper of Money Creek. Tuper later joined Gen. Sherman’s devastating March to the Sea.
With Sherman, at least 150 Houston County boys were among 60,000 who lived off the land as they tragically laid waste to a 60-mile-wide strip of land through Georgia in 1864. At the end, they were in rags, many without shoes. After Lincoln’s assassination, they were a part of a grand review in Washington, D.C. Their disheveled appearance was in sharp contrast to other units, but “here they came, every man in lockstep, every eye frozen to the front, their bronzed lean frames flexed… long hair and beards flowing in the breeze… they were a sight to behold, and the crowds loved it.” Three Minnesota regiments “swayed with the same long striding steps as the rest of the western army, and the proud moment was etched into the memories of over 150 county boys for the rest of their lives.”
This week’s column is based on the writing of Civil War historian David Klinski of Caledonia.