It had been nearly 50 years since Pvt. Wilber Coleman mustered out of the Union Army after the Civil War. In a typed letter to his brother dated Nov. 19, 1914, the 69-year-old raised in Hennepin County explained he was “writing with the machine” because his right arm was paralyzed — a lingering injury from Gettysburg when an artillery shell blew off a potato-chip-sized chunk of his skull.
Like most of his war buddies, Coleman attended Grand Army of the Republic reunion encampments — including one earlier that summer near his Washington state veterans’ home. The old soldier didn’t spend all his time reliving his Civil War days, though. In 1914, a new war erupting in Europe captured Coleman’s attention.
“I cannot help sorrowing for the poor soldiers across the water,” Coleman typed at the cusp of World War I. “Our soldier’s life was bad enough, but when I think of the thousands upon thousands, in the trenches or wallowing in the mud … I cannot help thinking we had a much easier time of it than they are having on the other side.”
Much easier time? It’s hard to imagine a life any harder than Wilber Coleman’s. He was shot along Antietam Creek in Maryland in 1862, a musket ball carrying away some bone, fracturing his left fibula and looking “as though you had scooped out all of the muscles of outer side of leg,” a doctor later reported.
Coleman returned to his sharpshooters unit, attached to the fabled First Minnesota Regiment, less than six months later — and less than five months before the battle at Gettysburg, Pa., would leave that hole in his head.
Coleman wasn’t even supposed to be in the Union Army — he was too young. Born Jan. 19, 1845, north of Youngstown, Ohio, Wilber moved with his four older brothers and parents in 1855 to what would become Long Lake west of Minneapolis.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Wilber’s father and frontier schoolteacher John Alonzo Coleman took his sons to Fort Snelling to sign up. “Mr. Coleman, with difficulty, restrained a lad of sixteen — the only son left — from accompanying his brothers,” a St. Paul newspaper reported.
Not to be denied, but still more than a year shy of his 18th birthday, Wilber mustered into the Second Company of Minnesota Sharpshooters just before Christmas, 1861.
Leslie Coleman, Wilber’s 84-year-old great nephew in Fridley, has a copy of the affidavit in which his great-grandfather, John Alonzo Coleman, falsely certified that Wilber was “18 years of age, and I do hereby freely give my consent to his enlisting as a soldier” in the U.S. Army for three years.
“His is only one of a vast number of stories of interest about those who served during the Civil War. Many are of more interest than Wilber’s,” Leslie Coleman said. “I do not pretend that his is unusually unique.”
To me, that makes Wilber’s story all the more worth retelling. Never promoted from the rank of private, Wilber Coleman’s hard life and times are too easy to forget.
But Wilber comes to life, thanks to Leslie Coleman’s thoroughly footnoted research — including pension records, letters and other documents. Leslie’s background helps. He retired after 31 years as an insurance investigator.
“I became accustomed to seeking out information pertinent to the question at hand,” he said, “and going to banks, court houses, police departments, neighborhoods, and employers became second nature to me. I have always had a belief in getting it right.”
And in Wilber Coleman’s case, getting it right meant unearthing details about a life that continuously went wrong.
Wilber married Lois Frye, a widow with two sons, in 1876. Their first child, Viena, died of diphtheria at 4. Another daughter, Edna, died at 18 (cause unknown) and their youngest daughter, Gertrude, lived with a bad heart from an early bout with rheumatic fever. Lois entered a California mental institution in 1903, where she’d spend the next 30 years before dying there.
After the war, Wilber became the postmaster in Silver Lake and then Marshall, Minn. The 1870 Census lists him as farm laborer but, within a few years, he became a trapper delivering furs to Aitkin, Minn. By the mid-1870s, Wilber was a shopkeeper in Marshall — just as grasshopper infestations crippled the farm economy.
Eventually pushing west to Glendive, Mont., and then to Seattle, Wilber Coleman continued to struggle with severe headaches and a useless right arm — both traced to his head injury at Gettysburg.
Amid all the pain and family heartache, Leslie Coleman said, Wilber obtained “a goodly amount of wealth” from his $6-a-month Army pension, business acumen and real estate deals.
And there was at least one day of unfettered joy for Wilber Coleman, who died Dec. 7, 1915, at 70, in a Washington State Soldiers Home. That happy day came in Gettysburg, of all places, on July 2, 1897 — 34 years after the battle. Wilber Coleman attended the dedication of the Minnesota monument at Gettysburg, where he reunited with fellow sharpshooters David Archibald and Eldridge Barnes and their captain, Mahlon Black.
They were seen “walking around with their arms entwined” for about an hour in the old Gettysburg train depot, Long Lake historian Bessie Olive Wiley wrote in 1952, “renewing old war born friendships and calling each other fantastic nicknames they had used for each other during their war experience.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.