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Column: Worthington once paid tribute to Civil War heroes

By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — There is one report there were 5,000 “re-enactors” fighting Civil War battles at Chattanooga, Tenn., during the week just past. Another report says there were 10,000 to 12,000 present. Chattanooga was site for a huge observance centered on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There was another re-enactment at Lamoni, Iowa, earlier in the week.

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Civil War battle re-enactments have raged across the nation since early spring. It is judged 1863 was peak year of the war. The battle at Gettysburg was fought in 1863. The battle at Vicksburg was 1863. The celebrations and observances to this date are prelude to events planned for November. The 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will be Nov. 19 — seven score and 10 years ago. It is likely there will be some manner of commemoration in the local area.

The re-enactments of Civil War battles is really old stuff for Worthington. In a time gone by — oh, my. There were actual Civil War veterans fighting their battles a second time, or a third time.

The first and in some ways the most spectacular of the Civil War reunions, parades and re-enactments came during three days in June 1887, with the third annual Southwestern Minnesota encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. Twenty-five posts of the GAR from Fairmont and St. James, Tracy and Lamberton — Lake Benton, Pipestone, Valley Springs, Luverne — came together at Worthington, tenting their nights at Lake Park (Chautauqua Park). Shallow wells were dug at the park to provide campers with water. Gas torches were mounted on trees. One hundred tents were arranged “in a grand circle.”

Worthington businesses closed all of Monday and half of Tuesday to provide volunteers for setting up and hanging decorations. A towering arch 25 feet high was erected at the intersection of Third Avenue and 10th Street, with smaller arches on either side. The Advance reported the arches were “like a beautiful rainbow … gay with every color” and decorated with “evergreens, flags, festoons, pictures and numerous devices.” And, “Every building on 10th Street down to the Advance corner was decorated with flags, banners, red, white and blue festoons, Chinese lanterns and other devices, while nearly every private house in town was gay and beautiful with flags and other decorations ....”

Worthington’s Stoddard Post veterans — up to 120 of them, in uniforms — and the Worthington Brass Band marched to the depot to meet each train as visitors arrived. All visitors were escorted under the great arch and on to the lake shore park “in the suburbs of the village.” Teams and wagons were spread across acres to the north. There were booths along the streets. By 6 a.m., lemonade vendors were calling for customers.

The battle re-enactment was not the focus of the celebration, but it was among the highlights. Capt. N.V. McDowell recruited a cavalry squadron, and a fort — Sykes Fort — was erected with hay bales on a farm “west of town.” There were “fully 1,000 soldiers” in town. The assault on the fort was a triumph and McDowell’s cavalry “did good service reconnoitering, scouting and scaring the Rebels off.”

The costly, elaborate event at Worthington was judged a success. It won praise in the newspapers of the area, and it assured Worthington would win a bid for a second southwest reunion four years later, June 16-18, 1891. Alas, alas. It rained. All three days. Water splattered over every tent. But the veterans would not be discouraged. They resolved to “fight it out on this line.” They spent the days in the GAR Hall and the Masonic Hall telling stories, singing songs and listening to concerts by bands and musical groups, including Worthington’s Banjo and Guitar Club. The veterans did not pretend to fight a battle.

Everyone returned in another four years, June 12-14, 1895. Some recalled the “battle” that Worthington veterans fought “at the Hecox place” in 1885. They divided into 100 Union troops and 100 Confederates. Bigelow & Humiston’s meat market supplied the fighters with real blood to smear on their faces and to pour on their shirts. They fought a mighty battle. In the end, the victors and the vanquished could join another time in singing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.