A scene from St. Paul School of Agriculture, 1950s

A scene from St. Paul School of Agriculture, 1950s
The late Ralph E. Williams, UMM music founder, directs choral musicians at the St. Paul campus of the U of M in the 1950s.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Our Samuel Smith, Civil War vet, running into eternity

The Sam Smith statue in Summit Cemetery, Morris MN (B.W. photo)
Our family is honored having its cemetery plot in the same cemetery as Samuel Smith. What a fascinating person Smith was.
You'd think Morris was located too far to the west to have much connection to U.S. Civil War memory. The town wasn't officially formed until 1871. We do in fact have those Civil War connections. Atop this list is the Samuel Smith "running rifleman" of Summit Cemetery.
I would guess such statuary is rare for a community the size of Morris. It's also very distinct and dynamic with its running pose. You might say Sam Smith has never stopped running, running forward and with elan on behalf of the Union cause, helping make the U.S. what it is today.
The Civil War is a little difficult to acknowledge today in comparison to other U.S. wars. Its obvious uniqueness is that it was Americans fighting other Americans. Speeches for such occasions as Veterans Day and Memorial Day don't seem to acknowledge the Civil War much. Those old vets are gone. In the spirit of reconciliation with the U.S. South, I think there's an effort to sort of soft-pedal talk about the Civil War. It was very messy business that had to be attended to. In its aftermath, all the U.S. states had to come together in the slogging process of re-unification.
The difficulties inherent in Civil War remembrance are underscored in a book by Tony Horwitz. Tony is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He traveled the South to study how the Civil War is remembered in that scarred region, a region that still has Stone Mountain as (sort of) a gesture to the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy.
Southerners are conflicted about Stone Mountain itself. Southerners who want to keep it alive and vital, even with some corporate sponsorship, know they can't sell it as a true tribute to the Confederacy. So they try to adjust to modern times, making it a symbol of how the Civil War wounds needed to be healed.
To argue that the war resulted in something new and better is a little labored. Stop and reflect: The tragedy and toll of the war were so immense. Conciliation was forced by the North (or Union). In fact the South was crushed and left as something like a smoldering cinder. Horwitz found, unsurprisingly I guess, that many Southerners honored the old cause with little if any sentiment of reconciliation. Or, they painstakingly try to rationalize that the old cause can somehow be weaved into U.S. history as something other than an abject loser. I'll whisper: It was an abject loser.
  
A reflection of Gettysburg
Our Samuel Smith fought on the winning side. We can visit Summit Cemetery and admire the spectacular statue. It's very close in design to the statue at the Gettysburg Battlefield honoring the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.
Minnesota was quite the fledgling state when it sent its soldiers into the fray. Sam Smith reflected the melting pot of America. You might say America was a still-fledgling country.
Samuel was born in Germany in 1839. It gets complicated because he wasn't born as Samuel Smith! He was born Christ (or Christian) Zimmerman. The war would affect the name issue. He was age 16 when coming to America. He settled in Red Wing MN. He was age 22 when the Civil War conflagration broke out. He entered military service as a substitute for a fellow named Samuel Smith of Winona. He enlisted under Smith's name in Company 'K' of the soon to be heralded First Minnesota.
Huh? How, and why? The arrangements at that time allowed someone who was drafted to "hire" a sub. It does come across as a bit unseemly. Certainly unacceptable for today. But such was the way of the Union in the 1860s, and it would have Mr. Zimmerman taking his new name of Smith all the way to the grave.
Substitution was actually quite common. From this grew the saying: "A rich man's war and a poor man's fight."
My generation had problems with the morality of the Viet Nam War. That's an understatement, but war always proves calamitous from certain angles, even for the winners. There's the saying: "The first casualty of war is the truth."
You might get the impression looking at the Smith statue that war was a glorious proposition. While the cause may have been essential, the business of war was hell, and never more so than in the U.S. Civil War when medical knowledge was so limited. My friend Ken Hamrum notes that any time you were wounded in the Civil War and "it was more than a graze," you were likely in deep trouble. Of course, disease was as much of a calamity, most likely worse, than guns and bullets.
 
Fortunate to get through war
Considering all that Samuel Smith went through, he was incredibly fortunate to exit the war in good enough health to live a bountiful and productive post-war life. He was a very important early resident of the Morris area, building a large family that resulted in many descendants alive today.
Smith saw the panorama of battle in the eastern theater. He was at the First Battle of Bull Run, also called the Battle of Manassas. He got wounded while reloading his musket.
The Civil War was a transition time for Civil War weaponry. It's why the war was so tragically violent and took a toll as if a scythe. The word "musket" suggests the standard weaponry, but this was being replaced by the repeating rifle. One reason why Buford's Cavalry was so successful early in the Gettysburg battle, is that these soldiers had repeaters. The guns weren't always reliable. They could jam. But the military was on the cusp of a significant transition in the tools of war.
The "rifled gun" was deployed for the Civil War. This was an incredible advancement from earlier wars when "smoothbore" was used. The rifled gun discharged bullets that would spin. Shots were more accurate and powerful. Smoothbore was still around. It was a smoothbore that mortally wounded Confederate General Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. The shot was "friendly fire." Jackson failed to survive an amputation. (There is an actual "grave marker" for his arm.)
Sam Smith's wound at Manassas resulted in his right thumb being amputated at the first knuckle. He remained full-go for military service. He became a teamster. He was hurt again in March of 1862, the second year of the war. A train locomotive at Sandy Hook, Maryland, frightened his team of horses. Smith got thrown from the wagon and was pounded by the wheels. Still he was not sidelined from service. He recovered from the chest and back injuries. He was assigned the ambulance corps just before the Battle of Fair Oaks in the spring of 1862.
Sam was discharged in 1864 and you'd think the war would be fully behind him. You'd think he could issue a sigh of relief, but no, he was ready to re-join the war effort. Surely this commitment demonstrates why such a grand statue is appropriate at our cemetery. Sam "substituted" again, this time for a fellow name of Johann Theis, but Sam didn't take on Johann's name. Now Smith is in the rolls of Company 'K' of the Second Minnesota. He got on board in time for General Sherman's march to the sea.
I found it unseemly in 1991 when the Minnesota Twins baseball team beat Atlanta in the World Series and some people invoked the "march to the sea" phrase. Let's not make such analogies.
Smith was discharged again on July 11, 1865, in Kentucky. Then it was back to Red Wing where I'd guess Smith was a transformed person, having seen all that he had seen. Smith resumed his work in a sawmill. The veteran married Catherine Hartman two years after the end of the war.
 
A venture into new challenge!
After all the wartime adventures, Smith was about to embark on the adventure (to be sure) of raising a large family: 12 children! Eleven were boys, ensuring that the "Smith" name would stay most high-profile for a long time here. What a legacy, both in terms of wartime service and family vitality. I'll venture he had the most incredible life of anyone buried at Summit Cemetery.
He attended a reunion of the First Minnesota in 1874 in Lake City.
The year was 1876 when Smith came to Stevens County, settling in Rendsville Township. He rolled up his sleeves for a farming career. He became active with the Overton Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a precursor to the Legion, VFW and AmVETS of today.
Again there is a distinction: Those earlier vets were marking a war that had Americans fighting other Americans. The speechmakers of today can be a little restrained acknowledging that conflict, because after all, we have welcomed Southerners back into the fold.
Stone Mountain starts out celebrating the "Lost Cause" and ends up as a sort of symbol of reconciliation. A strange world, or strange country. Certainly a unique country. The bottom line is the South lost. General Grant's "total war" ensured that. He did what Lincoln hired him to do.
It wasn't until 1880 that Sam Smith became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. He had his name legally changed to Samuel Smith in 1889. Why? Descendants would explain that the Smith name would facilitate or make certain the pension benefits from war injuries suffered when he served as "Sam Smith." He first applied for a pension in 1872. He began getting $2 per month. In 1886 he applied for a hike in benefits. The name "Sam Smith" would cement his association with all that happened on the war front.
 
The grim nature of war
Getting pinned under wagon wheels reminds me of the Civil War trading cards which once made the rounds among boomer generation males. My friend Del Sarlette grins when recalling the Civil War series because they were "awfully gory." He grins about our ghoulish nature. Getting caught under wagon wheels is just the type of subject we might expect. Fortunately for Smith, he was resilient enough to overcome that and other incidents.
Sam and Catherine had a son named Ferdinand who died in 1895. It was at that time that Smith bought a lot in the Morris cemetery. Catherine passed away in April 1915. In October of that year, Sam, now age 76, traveled to attend the 50th Review of the GAR in the nation's capital. On the way back he visited the Gettysburg Battlefield.
Sam left us for the peace of heaven on May 11 of 1923. He died on his farm near Morris.
The statue of Smith is obviously inspired by the statue for the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. The pose is of a soldier making a bayonet charge. The statue in Gettysburg faces the Emmittsburg Road at the top of the slope where the fighting Minnesotans began their storied and tragic charge on Day 2 of the battle.
The Gettysburg statue, sculpted by Jacob Fjelde of Minneapolis, was put up in 1893, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the battle. It wasn't until 1897 that this monument was formally dedicated, on July 2, the same date as when the First Minnesota gained its permanent fame. Governor David Clough accompanied the party of eligible honorees on the trip east. William Lochren was the emcee. Governor Clough donated the statue to Gettysburg National Park. "Three rousing cheers" came forth when Col. William Colvill, who commanded the men at Gettysburg, was introduced. The GAR post of Lafayette PA gave a 44-gun salute.
 
A salute from Morris MN
Sam arranged for his own statue in Morris as a gesture of honor toward the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Sam was assigned to the ambulance corps on the day of this charge, and was not part of the charge. The First Minnesota had to close a gap in the Union line, and paid a dear price doing so.
Both statues reflect the "rank and file" of the military, nothing explicitly heroic. The common man of wartime was celebrated.
The statues have accomplished their purpose. Smith most likely got inspiration for his own statue from his GAR trip out east in 1915.
"Samuel Smith had a sense of history and his place in it," wrote Thomas Rice, whose research I pored over for writing this post. Thank you Thomas. "(Sam) and all of his comrades saw that they had saved the Union for posterity. They were proud of their accomplishment and wanted history to know about their deeds."
All is not placid with Civil War remembrance out here in West Central Minnesota. I have seen a Confederate battle flag flying at a residence in Starbuck. The Confederate flag is a symbol today of vague notions of rebellion. The actual "War of the Rebellion" - a term popular in the North during the war - had the rebels stomped out as if an ant underfoot. Lincoln, Grant, Colvill, Smith and all the others ensured that.
Let's salute Samuel Smith whose life is an incredible story. Pay homage at Summit Cemetery. Walk a little ways east and stop by our Williams monument also, which acknowledges WWII with my father Ralph's service in the Pacific. He was a gunnery commander. When my father died, one of my first thoughts was that I wanted to make sure there would be a gun salute for his funeral. There was, and it was moving. Thanks to our Legion, VFW and AmVETS.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

No comments:

Post a Comment