By DANA LARSEN
As the mayor of Newell, Dick Christiansen never expected to have an opportunity to spend time with a President of the United States... and certainly not with Abraham Lincoln.
But Christiansen found himself recently caught up a 150-year-old Civil War drama, next to Honest Abe himself.
"I got a call one night three or four weeks ago, and the man on the other end asked me if the name Taylor meant anything to me. I thought is must be a scam," Christiansen said. But something stopped him from putting down the phone as the man kept asking questions, and finally the voice over the line mentioned a name that caught his attention.
"That's my mother," he said.
Christiansen reached for the old family Bible, and pulled out a letter written in the late 1800s, and indeed found the name Taylor.
The Newell man didn't know it, but his family tree was about to sprout a fascinating new branch, its bark scarred by a war that nearly destroyed a young nation.
The caller had searched him out and believed he was the great-great nephew of Pvt. David Taylor, a Minnesota man who fell on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the day before the Fourth of July in 1863. Months later, Taylor's body was recovered and send home for burial. But the last funeral for this little cemetery was in the 1930s; and overgrown weeds later obliterated the forgotten grounds. If the Civil War hero had ever had a stone marker, it had long since disappeared. Recently the site was rediscovered and restored as a county cemetery.
The state of Minnesota had decided to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and appointed a committee. As one element of the celebration, it set out to individually recognize each of its soldiers killed in battle - 18 of them were buried around the state.
Lanny Witter, who has worked on the project, with the aid of a genealogist friend, set out to determine if Pvt. Taylor had any living relatives who could be brought to a special memorial ceremony at the small rural cemetery to honor his sacrifice. Eventually, he traced down Christiansen - who had no idea there was a Civil War veteran in his family, though his great-great grandparents were buried directly beside the soldier's grave.
The Christiansens made the trip for the event, despite a thunderous rainstorm that stopped just in time for the celebration.
"I had no idea what to expect, but they treated me like a king," he said. Speeches were made, the Patriot Guard riders turned out, Civil War re-creators took part in full uniform, and a special memorial stone was placed for Pvt. Taylor. "There was a gentleman portraying Abe Lincoln, and he did an amazing job. He looked the part, and he gave the entire Gettysburg Address without any notes."
A crowd of about 175 Minnesotans came out to pay their honors, many of them dressed in Civil War era regalia. Christiansen discovered that as soldiers are honored one by one, these people make a point of traveling to each ceremony.
Though he never knew of his great great uncle, he said that he felt an unexpected connection as he stood at his resting place. "It was pretty emotional. A woman in an 1800s-style dress with a black veil and gloves stepped out of the crowd and placed a red rose on the tombstone, and well... it was quite an emotional moment."
A bugler blew "Taps" on an authentic Civil War style cavalry bugle, and the honor guard fired its salute with black-powder muzzle-loaded rifles of the period, tamping down the charge between each shot.
Christiansen could not help but think about what his great-great uncle, who died at just 27, had been through.
Specifics are few from the chaos of the great battle, in which approximately 50,000 soldiers died in three days of fighting - over ten times the number of casualties in the entire Revolutionary War and nearly equaling the losses of the entire Vietnam War.
The Pennsylvania battle is termed the turning point of the war. The Union line held against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending the Southern invasion of the North.
On July 1, 1863, Lee's soldiers streamed into the valley, collapsing hastily placed Union lines, the northern soldiers retreating into the hills to await reinforcements. On the next day as both armies gathered in mass, the North established a defensive "fishhook" formation, and despite fierce attacks, held the ground. On the third day, 12,500 Confederates launched a desperate assault, known as Pickett's Charge, at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The North's rifle and artillery fire cut the unprotected Confederates down, and Lee retreated back to Virginia. Lincoln's dramatic Gettysburg Address four months later was intended to honor the casualties buried at the battlefield, but in effect redefined the purpose of the war.
The commanding officer of Taylor's unit wrote home from the battlefield near Gettysburg on July 4, 1863 reporting the death of Taylor and several others:
"We are in the midst of a terrible battle, and what remains of our regiment is now for the third day in the front line. Co. K went into the battle with twenty-nine men, of whom twenty-two beside the captain are either killed or wounded."
Taylor's family was more fortunate than most, Christiansen notes. With bodies piled on top of bodies, many casualties of the battle went unidentified, hastily buried as bodies began to rot in the sun. Carcasses of some 3,000 cavalry horses were burned in piles, the smoke causing violent illness to people in the town nearby.
There is little to tell of Pvt. Taylor's exploits. No known photos of him exist. Growing up in Utica, he with four close friends had enlisted together at the President's first call for soldiers in the early spring of 1861; by Gettysburg he had seen many battles with the First Minnesota Regiment. Reality for the young friends set in early. The young men were involved in the Battle of Bull Run in July 1863, where one in every five of the company's men died. One of the five was killed and buried less than two months after marching away from home; one was severely wounded and sent home disabled; one was wounded and captured, sent to a prisoner of war camp in Richmond. Only one of the five friends survived the war uninjured.
Taylor and the survivors of First Bull Run went on to fight at Antietam, where nearly one-third of the surviving members of his company were casualties.
Witter said that it appeared that Taylor was fatally wounded on July 2, and died or was found dead a day later. He and his fellow First Minnesota soldiers had been thrown into what amounted to a suicide mission. On the second day of Gettysburg, at a pivotal moment in the fighting, General Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the Minnesotans to charge the enemy, which outnumbered them at least five to one. Their lives would buy precious moments for the Union line to regroup. One survivor said that it was fully expected that every man in the charge would be killed or gravely wounded.
Taylor and his fellow soldiers executed the order instantly and fought bravely, despite 82 percent casualties. President Calvin Coolidge later praised the First Minnesota for "unsurpassed gallantry," as they contributed mightily to preservation of a key Union defensive position on the heights of Cemetery Ridge.
Records show Taylor as a faithful soldier, never accepting a furlough and never absent or sick a day from duty. He had apparently obtained some homesteading land, with hopes of establishing himself upon returning. His soldier pay was $13. Every month he sent $10 of it home to his parents.
David was the eldest of seven children, coming to America as a child in 1841. The family drifted through Ohio and Indiana before coming to Minnesota sometime in the 1850s. Never married, David had been a farmhand for a neighbor to his family, working the land that surrounded the cemetery where he was later put to rest. His younger sister Margaret married and eventually moved to Iowa. Christiansen is her grandson.
Because his family was found to have emigrated from Ireland, a bagpiper was invited to play "Amazing Grace" at the memorial ceremony, which must have rivaled the original funeral for the fallen soldier, which a local newspaper in 1863 described as " perhaps the most imposing, and the concourse of people brought together by the event was the largest, that ever occurred in that town."
The Mt. Union Cemetery included the graves of David Taylor, his parents, and two of his siblings, along with another local man who was a survivor of the Civil War and the Indian Wars.
Christensen is eager to study papers related to his relative's war service, which Minnesota officials are helping to obtain for him. At 82, he is completing his eighth year as mayor of Newell and says he plans to slow down his pace and not seek office again. Christiansen has also served as a member of the Buena Vista County Hospital Board of Trustees.