Civil War heroes rest proudly at Oakwood Cemetery
By Ruth Nerhaugen
Though 150 years have passed since it became apparent that the North was likely to win the Civil War, a Red Wing crowd was reminded on the Fourth of July that the task of preserving the Union has not ended.
Commemoration and rededication ceremonies held Thursday at Oakwood Cemetery praised two Civil War soldiers from Red Wing who are buried at Oakwood, and by extension all who fought.
They won the war, but in the aftermath there was plenty of “unfinished business” facing the nation, said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who co-chairs the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force.
Minnesota’s Civil War veterans came together to leave a legacy — the State Capitol, which they wanted to be “the most beautiful building in the country,” inside and out. They wanted it to be a reminder of what they had given in the struggle to defend the Constitution: “the gift of democracy. …”
“They fought for a future for their children,” Ritchie pointed out, adding that the fight continues. “There’s so much more to do, but we have so much to be grateful for.”
Members of the Patriot Guard, local veterans and Civil War re-enactors provided the backdrop as historians and dignitaries gathered around the grave of one of Red Wing’s heroes to tell his story. City Council member Peggy Rehder, wearing a Civil War-style dress, welcomed them to the historic cemetery.
The task force and the Soldier Recognition Subcommittee, chaired by Ken Flies, had identified Major Abraham Edward “Ed” Welch as one of the few men who died in battle or of battle wounds whose bodies were brought back to Minnesota for burial.
The organization is making a special effort to commemorate those soldiers and provide new headstones if the old ones are in poor condition, which was the case with Welch’s grave, Flies explained.
Ceremonies were scheduled July 4 because that was the 150th anniversary of the battle in which Welch received his mortal wounds — Vicksburg, Miss.
The Vicksburg Campaign, which concluded with a six-week siege, was a critical victory for the north. Its strategic importance was explained by Dr. Mitch Rubinstein, president of the Twin Cities Civil War Roundtable.
He detailed Gen. U.S. Grant’s plans and the results of the victory. “It demoralized the Confederacy,” Rubinstein said, in addition to severing the South’s supply routes and opening the Mississippi River to the Union.
Dr. Joseph Fitzharris, professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas, described the roles played by Minnesota regiments in various battles during the campaign and during the siege. The 4th Minnesota earned the honor of being first to enter Vicksburg.
Red Wing resident Frederick Johnson, historian and author, provided Welch’s personal story, including the well-known race between 22-year-old college student Welch and Battle of Gettysburg hero Col. William Colvill to be the first to sign up for the Minnesota Volunteers.
Colvill became captain of the unit and Welch was first lieutenant when they fought at Bull Run. Injured, Welch was captured, but eventually freed in 1862 in a prisoner exchange. Returning to Minnesota on leave, he was given command of the 3rd Minnesota and sent to fight in the Dakota War.
Welch was shot again, but continued to direct the battle from a high vantage point, Johnson said.
After recovering he eagerly sought to return to action and was sent to the 4th Minnesota at Vicksburg, where he was promptly wounded yet again. Those injuries weakened him, and Welch died in 1864 while attempting one more time to rejoin the conflict.
Sacrifices made by Welch and other Minnesotans at Vicksburg were commemorated Thursday by the 3rd Minnesota Company C Volunteer Infantry re-enactment group, led by Capt. Randy Kuznicki. He and his men read the names of the 22 Minnesotans who died at Vicksburg and offered a musket salute; member Dean Gunn played taps.
The group, which included women re-enactors, also conducted a grave rededication ceremony adapted from a Grand Army of the Republic service. They placed an evergreen wreath, a rose and a grapevine at Welch’s new gravestone — symbols of comradely affection, purity and victory.
Following the grave rededication, the entourage moved to another part of Oakwood to commemorate the grave of Gen. Lucius Hubbard, who joined the 5th Minnesota in 1861 and rose to a leadership role. He led the 5th at Vicksburg and participated in 32 other battles.
Johnson also told his story, including Hubbard’s post-war success as a Red Wing businessman, a state senator and ultimately Minnesota governor. The honor guard closed with another musket salute and taps.
For more about statewide events, check the task force website www.mncivilwar150.com.