In his arms, the father cradled the head of his dying son, who had just been shot in the belly during a Civil War naval battle near Galveston, Texas. It was the first day of 1863.
“Edward, your father is here.” The wounded 25-year-old naval commander grimaced: “Yes, father, I know you — but I cannot move.”
Medics told the injured man that he would die soon and asked if he had any special disposition requests for his body. “No, my father is here.”
That heart-wrenching moment was among the more dramatic of the 600,000 death scenes that played out during the Civil War.
But what’s even more remarkable: The father was a Confederate major and a leading engineer for the rebel forces, 54-year-old Albert Miller Lea. And his son was a lieutenant colonel for the opposing Union Navy and the executive officer of the frigate just rammed and overtaken by crew members of a Confederate gunboat named the Bayou City.
This summer, there’s been a renewed clamor to rename Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis — stripping a connection with its namesake: slavery advocate and onetime U.S. War Secretary John C. Calhoun.
Flying far under that debate’s radar is the Confederate allegiance of Albert Lea: namesake of the southern Minnesota city of nearly 18,000 people, plus an adjacent lake, near the crossroads of I-35 and I-90.
Lea was born on July 23, 1808, near Knoxville, Tenn., and spent his last 35 years in Texas. Despite his familiar name in Minnesota, he visited the state only twice. Those two trips came 44 years apart, with Lea’s first stop in Minnesota 180 years ago this summer.
He led 180 cavalry soldiers, surveying and mapping out the area for the U.S. Army in 1835. When the town sprouted up where he had camped, settlers named it after Albert Lea. That was 27 years before his son’s death near Galveston.
Albert Lea civic leaders, many of whom were former Union soldiers, invited him back in 1879 — 14 years after the Civil War ended — for the town’s 40th anniversary.
Lea lived to age 82, and his accomplishments include far more than his stint fighting for the losing side of the Civil War. (Go to tinyurl.com/potnncp for a profile from the East Texas Historical Journal).
If a man’s worth can be measured by the company he keeps, Lea stands on high ground. He either walked or corresponded with Presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore — not to mention Texas Gov. Sam Houston and Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
Lea enrolled at what is now the University of Tennessee at the ripe age of 13, becoming one of the school’s youngest graduates. By 1831, at 23, he graduated fifth in his class at West Point Military Academy, majoring in math and engineering.
He bounced around as an Army lieutenant — from Massachusetts to Detroit to New Orleans — and is credited with naming Iowa. His 1836 book, culled from his Wisconsin Territory travel journals, not only suggested the new territory to the west be called Iowa, it also encouraged waves of immigration that would flood the area west of Lake Michigan. Van Buren appointed him to draw the Iowa-Missouri border.
Lea worked for several fledgling railroads and served in the war department under Van Buren and Tyler. He left Washington to teach math at East Tennessee University. He would go on to manufacture glass and own a bookstore, among other things.
Lea and his first wife, Ellen, spent three years in Maryland, working as a track builder and engineer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. When his wife died, he moved to Washington, D.C.
His son, Edward, was born in Baltimore and stayed in Maryland to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Albert Lea wrote to his son, telling him to follow the dictates of his own conscience when choosing sides.
Albert’s older brother, Pryor, was a vocal advocate for Southern secession, and Albert quickly became a Confederate major after rebel forces took Fort Sumter to start the war.
His son Edward had risen in the ranks with the U.S. Navy, stationed on the frigate the Harriet Lane. He sent his father letters from France and China but was back at Fort Sumter when the war began.
Albert Lea was credited with building a breastwork at the Cumberland Gap where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia converge — confounding a Union general with his strong defensive engineering. He was reassigned to Texas in late-1862, where he placed cannons for the Galveston sea battle.
He observed the Jan. 1, 1863, clash from a tall church steeple. When the Bayou City smashed into his son’s boat and Confederate soldiers swarmed on board, Albert Lea soon followed.
That’s where he found his son, dying. He made hospital arrangements, but his son would die too quickly. Albert Lea delivered funeral rites above the coffins of both Edward and his son’s captain before they were buried in a common grave.
When the captain was exhumed and reburied at the Naval Cemetery in Annapolis, Md., a wealthy Lea relative offered to move Edward’s body, too, so he could be buried near his mother in Baltimore.
Albert Lea declined the offer, saying his son would have rather remained where he fell in battle — “in sight of the sea.” On his gravestone in Galveston, four words are etched: “My Father is Here.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.