The second week of April 1865 might have been the most newsworthy in the nation’s history. Within six days, the Civil War ended and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Echoes from that week 150 years ago reverberate in a strangely concrete way in four Minnesota places — Waconia, Zumbrota, Winona and a busy corner in Minneapolis.
There’s moss on the gravestone of Sgt. Andrew Matson at the Scandia Baptist Cemetery just east of Lake Waconia. It’s not the only green around.
“It’s a little itty-bitty cemetery in the middle of Island View Golf Club,” said Wendy Petersen-Biorn, who runs the Carver County Historical Society. “He’s right past the parking lot and next to the driving range.”
Matson was born in Sweden and wound up an infantryman in Company H of the Ninth Minnesota Regiment. In June of 1864, Matson was captured at a battle at Brice’s Crossroads, near Guntown, Miss. He’d spend the next eight months in hellish Confederate prisons before contracting a disease — likely chronic diarrhea.
He was released and allowed to return home to Waconia. He died three months later on May 28, 1865, and was buried in a casket made of butternut wood.
For the fledgling, seven-year-old state of Minnesota, Matson’s fate was all too common. While an estimated 626 Minnesotans died on Civil War battlefields, three times that number died of illness, according to Randal Dietrich, a Civil War expert at the Minnesota Historical Society. Census counts show about 170,000 people in Minnesota during the Civil War.
About 90 miles southeast of Matson’s mossy headstone, there’s a drum in the Zumbrota Area Historical Society Museum.
“It’s made of brownish wood like you’d see in the curved wood of an old canoe,” said Alice Lother, the museum’s director.
The drum belonged to Prussian-born Ernst Louis Abend, who emigrated to New York when he was 18. He joined a cavalry company out of Texas in 1857. He was injured at a skirmish in Virginia during the Civil War but re-enlisted as a drummer for Pennsylvania and New York units.
Civil War drummers were unarmed but vital communication cogs at the front of the front lines. When a cannonball knocked Abend off his horse, he was nursed back to health from back and kidney problems by a laundress and nurse named Harriet Crowley. He married her in 1863 before enlisting again. All told, Abend participated in 20 Civil War battles from Chickamauga, Ga., to Gettysburg, Pa. He played his drum at Lincoln’s second inauguration and at the president’s funeral a month later.
After the war, Abend and Harriet settled on a farmstead near Zumbrota in southeastern Minnesota. Neighbors were skeptical about his stories surrounding his famous drum.
But as Zumbrota’s centennial celebration neared in 1956, local historians verified Abend’s claims. The drum was last banged around that centennial in the mid-1950s, Lother said, by a high school student before it went in its specially designed case.
Another 70 miles southeast of Zumbrota, there’s a bridge inside Section CC of Winona’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Turn left from the bridge and, just before the road turns sharply, you’ll find the flat, weathered headstone of Sgt. Moses Chamberlin adjacent to those for his wife, Eliza; his son, Elmer Jay; and Elmer’s wife, Isabella.
On July 18, a group of Civil War buffs will replace Chamberlin’s fading marker with a new gravestone. A similar ceremony will be held in Waconia at Matson’s grave.
Records show Chamberlin had blue eyes, brown hair and stood 6 feet tall. He farmed near Elmira before joining Company K of the Ninth Minnesota. Like Matson, he was captured in Guntown, Miss., and sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. He was later part of a prisoner swap..
But Chamberlin wound up in a Missouri hospital with chronic diarrhea. He was sent home and died July 17, 1865, in tiny Saratoga, Minn., between Chatfield and St. Charles.
The fourth and final stop on this 150th Civil War-ending Minnesota tour swings back to the urban core of Minneapolis, at the corner of Lake Street and Cedar Avenue — more specifically: Lot 56, Section C at the north end of the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery.
There, in the middle of the traffic noise, rests James Frances Towner, another blue-eyed Minnesotan. Son of an alcoholic father who abandoned the family after moving from Illinois to Minneapolis, Towner enlisted at 16 and joined Company K of the fabled First Minnesota Regiment.
He was grazed by a bullet at Gettysburg and parlayed that slight wound into furlough home to visit his mother and sisters. He’d been sending a portion of his $13 monthly salary back home and earned another $100 for re-mustering. He gave his mother and sisters enough money for a cow and new dresses.
Towner, too, wound up in Confederate prisons in Richmond, Va., and Salisbury, N.C. Nine of his group of 15 Minnesotans taken prisoner together died within a year.
Towner survived and was exchanged on March 10, 1865, before landing in a Baltimore hospital with tuberculosis and diarrhea. He rallied enough to board a train home.
But by the time it reached La Crosse, Wis., Towner had collapsed. He was brought to a house, where a La Crosse physician tended to him.
Towner died on April 3, 1865, and would make the final leg of his trip home in a casket. Six days later, the war would end.
There are many Minnesotans to remember 150 years after the Civil War ended. These are just four of them.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.