Grave No. 384 in Section A-3 commemorates one of the more remarkable lives among the 240,000 military people and family members buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Henry Mack, an escaped slave and Civil War soldier who lived to 107, was buried there in 1945 near the fence running along 34th Avenue in south Minneapolis, known as an area where early Black veterans were laid to rest.
Mack was born into Alabama slavery sometime between 1836 and 1838, according to pension records, Civil War logs and affidavits. Newspapers later settled on 1837 as his birth year.
"I only know my birthday being July 4th as having been told to me by my parents and master," Mack said in 1912. He concluded: "I am 75 years old and past."
When he reached 100 in 1937, the Minneapolis Spokesman described Mack as "still well and hearty, with eyes that need no glasses; with hearing unimpaired and an amazing appetite that refuses no good things to eat. ... It would indeed be quite possible that many years are yet his to live." He spoke in what the reporter called "a soft and pleasant drawl, reminiscent of the south from which he came and still loves."
The Minneapolis Star Journal reported in 1941 that Mack, at 104, was "trim, alert, conversational," a busy man with "little time for reminiscing" given his schedule as a "patriotic instructor" and one of the last members of the Civil War veterans' group, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Newspapers, which partly credited Mack's longevity to his avoiding alcohol and tobacco, reported that he was the nation's oldest Civil War veteran when he died of pneumonia. He took his last breath at the Minneapolis Veterans' Hospital on April 8, 1945 — the eve of the day 80 years before when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia as the Civil War came to a close.
While the bulk of Mack's days were spent in Arkansas, Kansas and Nebraska, he moved to Minnesota in the early 1920s and spent his last two decades in Minneapolis, becoming a fixture at parades and patriotic events.
"Henry Mack's regular presence at public gatherings ... served as a reminder to the people of the Twin Cities of the past role of African Americans in the defense of the nation and their willingness to serve," Eden Prairie history writer Steve Chicoine wrote in a 2004 profile of Mack in "American Legacy," a magazine dedicated to African American history.
Chicoine, 70, has authored several military-themed books (freedomhistory.com) and plans to include Mack's story in future projects. He said Mack's headstone at Fort Snelling caught his eye because it had the Civil War era's recessed shield and was well preserved. Chicoine began extensive research on Mack and his 57th U.S. Colored Infantry, scouring old newspapers and interviewing north Minneapolis residents who had called him "the Old Soldier."
According to Chicoine, Mack was known only as Henry in his early years picking cotton on an Alabama plantation. When the overseer threatened to whip his mother, Phoebe, for falling behind, Henry stepped up and took the beating himself. That prompted their escape, a daring 300-mile trek across Mississippi to a Union encampment in Helena, Ark.
"No one gave Henry his freedom," Chicoine wrote. "He seized his freedom without any regard to the likely consequences if he was to be captured."
Henry took the name of Mack and enlisted in the U.S. Army in early 1864. When he boarded a troop ship heading up the Arkansas River, he waved farewell to a mother he would never see again.
Mack's 57th Infantry saw action in Arkansas and clashed with bushwhackers. Gen. C.C. Andrews, a former Minnesota legislator, said later that they served with a "cheery appearance and willing spirit" and "proved good soldiers."
Mack was among nearly 200,000 Black Civil War soldiers and sailors. He completed his three-year enlistment as a corporal on the southwestern frontier, joking later in life about the long walk he had to make between Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and New Mexico Territory.
After returning to Arkansas to search in vain for his mother, Mack moved to Omaha in the 1870s. He married Martha Green, a widowed mother of three, in 1881 and worked as a janitor, porter, carpenter and plumber. After Martha's death and Omaha's race riots in 1919, Mack moved to Minneapolis.
His second wife, Sadie Johnson, died in 1935. Then in his 90s, Mack moved in with her son from a previous marriage and his wife, Clarence and Allie Johnson. They regularly drove him to GAR meetings and Sunday services at Zion Baptist Church.
With the United States engaged in World War II, Mack was in his 100s when he climbed the stairs for the first time in years and grabbed a loaded shotgun and his Army jacket.
When family members found him on a nearby porch, he said he was headed to an Army recruiting station.
Told that he was too old to go to war again, Mack said: "There's a lot of damn good fight in me yet."
Curt Brown's tales of Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.