The quest for the last living Civil War soldier under way in area counties
Chuck Lursen of Fulda is volunteering his time to walk each cemetery.
FULDA — Chuck Lursen is on a mission as he walks from one end of the cemetery to the other, row by row, reading the names and dates etched into each tombstone. Some are weathered and worn, making it difficult to decipher, but Lursen knows what he’s looking for.
His quest is to find the oldest soldier to have served in the Civil War from Nobles County. He’s already found the oldest soldiers in Murray and Rock counties, and continues to walk his way through the cemeteries of southwest Minnesota.
Lursen’s search is part of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Last Soldier Project, a nationwide effort to locate and appropriately mark the final resting place of the last U.S. soldier, seaman or marine from the Civil War buried in each county or parish in the U.S. William Colvill Camp 56 is spearheading the effort in Minnesota, and planning ceremonies to honor each of these last heroes.
This weekend, ceremonies are planned to honor the last Civil War soldier buried in Murray County and Rock County. On Saturday, the ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. at the Slayton Cemetery, about a quarter mile north of town. There, Edwin Wheeler, who died in 1940 at age 98, is buried. In Rock County, a ceremony will begin at 1 p.m. at the gravesite of James Dunn, the last Civil War soldier to be buried in that county.
During the ceremony, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War will place a new GAR star at the graves. The events are open to the public, veterans and Civil War history buffs, and families of Wheeler and Dunn are encouraged to attend as VIPs.
“It’s like a military funeral,” Lursen said of the ceremonies. “They have a firing squad with muskets. The commander reads a story about the soldier; there’s a prayer that goes along with it. On the gravestone, they have the original star and then they unveil the new star.”
Until Lursen volunteered his time to search every cemetery in Murray County, no one was doing the research in southwest Minnesota.
An avid war history buff and a retired U.S. Air Force veteran of 23 years, Lursen joined the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War about two years ago. He was already volunteering with the Fulda Heritage Society, and maintains the graves of 17 Civil War soldiers buried at Prairie Hill Cemetery in Fulda.
“When I first went out to the cemetery, I saw the statue (of Gen. Zach Taylor, erected by Zach Taylor Post 42 of Fulda and the Minnesota Grand Army of the Republic), and I got to researching it,” Lursen said. “It got to be pretty interesting, and I found my 17 soldiers … and started taking care of their stones.”
Lursen’s interest in the Civil War soldiers led him to the William Colvill Camp 59 in Minneapolis, and a connection with Jerry Carlberg, of White Bear Lake.
“He gives me the list of (Civil War soldiers) and where they’re buried, so I go to those cemeteries with a spreadsheet and I look for them,” Lursen said. “Plus, I find other (Civil War soldiers) that are not registered.”
With his searches of Murray and Rock county cemeteries complete, Lursen has just begun to search for the last Civil War soldier buried in Nobles County. He intends to visit every cemetery in the county — and there are more than 20 of them.
“There are a lot of Civil War soldiers here — 107,” he said while walking through the Worthington Cemetery at the corner of Nobles Street and Nobles County 5. “Worthington is a Civil War town.”
Lursen, who grew up in Worthington, lived in San Antonio, Texas, for 30 years before moving to Fulda in 2006. He has found the Civil War project fascinating and appreciates the history that can be found in the region’s cemeteries.
“I think the kids — people — should know about the old guys, what they went through,” Lursen said. “I can’t imagine what these people went through during the Civil War. They’re all lined up, 50 feet apart, thereabouts, and firing at each other. You know you’re going to be hit.”
What he has found almost unimaginable is the ages of some of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War — young boys who were 9, 10 and 11 years old.
“Imagine your son at 10 years old, carrying a musket and going through the battlefields,” he said. “Those kids were growing up fast. I think people should know the history of our forefathers.”
According to information published about the Civil War, there were an unknown number of 9-year-old soldiers, 25 who were age 10, 38 who were 11 years old, 225 who were 12 years old, 300 who were age 13, and 105,000 who were aged 14-15 when they joined the military. The largest age group to have served was 1,009,000 soldiers aged 19-21.
For more information on the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, visit suvcw-wi.org .