Ghosts, lessons of Civil War still with us

Bonnie Boberg

by Bonnie Boberg
Secretary, Burnsville Historical Society

Monticello Seminary, April 21, 1861, 10 days after the beginning of the Civil War:

My dear George,
Amid such extraordinary scenes as in St. Louis as well as every other city of the Union (or, rather dis-union) you will perhaps welcome a letter from me as something by which to divert your mind for a short time from the present all-absorbing topic of interest – “Civil War.” All I know of this present disastrous state of the country is what I have learned from the teachers, and through the papers with which you have taken the trouble to provide me. …

My great-grandmother, Celia Chase, was a student at the Monticello Ladies’ Seminary during the Civil War. She wrote the letter excerpted above to the man she cared about, George Hilliard, before they were married.

If only my great-grandma knew how important this letter would be to her descendants and others more than 150 years later. She attended the school for only two years (1860 and 1861), and in 1864 she married the man she was writing to, my great-grandfather, George Weld Hilliard. She was later quoted in a 1938 newspaper article talking about her recollections of Lincoln and Grant and when she met President Hayes. She also recalled many incidents of the Civil War.

A few years ago a Burnsville friend and I took a road trip through the South to learn about the Civil War and black history. We visited Andersonville, a prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia, and saw the gravestones for those from Minnesota who died there. I swear we both could feel the ghosts of those soldiers as we wandered about the land that held so much pain and so many tears.

We walked across the bridge in Selma; we looked into the motel room where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying the night before he was shot; we saw a home that still shows the hiding places slaves used during their trek north on the Underground Railroad; we visited Birmingham; I stood by the cannons at Fort Sumter, where the Civil War’s first shot was fired.

Not only is February Black History Month and a month to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and President Abraham Lincoln. It is also a month when the Burnsville Historical Society is featuring a presentation on the Minnesota connection to the Civil War.

Everyone is invited to attend the society’s monthly meeting from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Burnhaven Library on County Road 42 in Burnsville. Bring any stories, artifacts and questions you might have about the Civil War.

Our guest speaker will be Eagan resident Ken Flies, a frequent presenter on Minnesota in the Civil War. Flies became interested in the Civil War through his family history and the historical nurturing of his mother and grandmother. Having grown up in Plainview, Minn., he tells people that on Dec. 16, 1864, at the Battle of Nashville, nine men from Plainview were killed and two of them are buried in the Plainview Cemetery today.

His great-great-grandfather, a Pennsylvanian who came to Minnesota, fought with his brother in all the 10th Minnesota engagements except Mobile. He died and is buried in Tennessee. Also this man had a brother in the 3rd Minnesota Infantry and brother-in-law in the 2nd Minnesota Cavalry.

Flies agrees with the adage, “If you don’t observe history you are bound to repeat it.” The Civil War had more than 750,000 casualties, more than any other war in U.S. history. It deserves our continued study, he said, because it was a devastating event that bonded the country and made it into one overlapping experience and one republic.

One-third of Americans today can tie themselves to an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, Flies said.

Flies is a member of the Twin Cities Roundtable, a past member of the Rochester and Hiawatha Valley CWRTs, a member of The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society and chairman of the Soldier Recognition subcommittee of the Minnesota Commemorative Civil War Task Force.

He is a frequent presenter and writer on the Indian Wars, Civil War battles in middle Tennessee and the Battle of Nashville, and the XVI Corps-Union Army of Tennessee.

He served in the Peace Corps in Brazil in 1962, is a founder of the Great River Ridge State Trail, wrote and produced the Civil War play “Guerillas from the Greenwood,” and wrote the poem “The Ode to a Soldier Long Forgotten,” for which he won the Editors Choice Award of the National and International Libraries of Poetry. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and is an international business consultant with his focus on Latin America.

For more information on the meeting or the Burnsville Historical Society, call Bonnie Boberg at 952-890-5089.

Bonnie Boberg, secretary of the Burnsville Historical Society, worked for the Current and Sun-Current newspapers from 1976 to 2009. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.