By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
— An Eagan man’s quest to give Minnesota Civil War soldiers’ deaths their due includes the eventual honoring of two Mankato-area gravesites.
Of the 800 state soldiers killed or fatally wounded in that war, Civil War researcher Ken Flies has identified 18 whose bodies were returned to Minnesota for burial.
Bodies sent home was a rarity, given the daunting and costly logistics of transporting thousands of remains.
Among the Minnesota 18 are Capt. Asgrim Skaro, buried in St. Peter, and 2nd Lt. John Roberts, buried in Le Sueur.
Flies (pronounced Fleece) said special state funding will enable the placement of new granite markers at the burial sites of the 18.
Moreover, it’s his hope a comprehensive list can eventually be compiled of all state soldiers who died, along with data on where they were killed and the U.S. sites of their graves.
“At least give them the dignity of having their names and burial spots recorded,” said the 70-year-old Flies, a descendant of two men killed in the Civil War.
The gravestone project is under the auspices of the governor’s Soldiers’ Recognition subcommittee, a task force created to coincide with the 150th anniversaries of key Civil War battles that included Minnesotans.
Working with $100,000 in Legacy amendment funding, the task force has identified 18 weathered gravestones in 15 Minnesota counties, and Flies suspects there are several more that he’s eager to sleuth out.
Skaro, buried in Greenhill Cemetery in St. Peter, was killed in the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16,1864.
His men showed their lofty respect for him by pooling their money to ship him back home, a daunting effort because during winter in Minnesota there were no trains, no riverboats and roads were nearly impassable.
Roberts, likewise killed at Nashville, was freighted home under similar circumstances.
Flies said gravesite ceremonies for the two men likely will be held in 2014, the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Because the grave markers of both men are still in relatively good shape, Flies said the new gravestones will augment rather than replace the originals.
Eventual plans call for placing bar-coded computer chips in the markers that will allow visitors to access pertinent historical information with their smartphones and other mobile devices.
Flies, an original Peace Corps volunteer (1962) who served in Brazil and still does consulting work there, became hooked on delving into state Civil War deaths after hearing about two men from his hometown of Plainview who died at Nashville.
To date, he said he has found 450 U.S. burial sites of the 800 state soldiers who died — and some of their stories could be the stuff of novels.
There was Elbert Woodbury, whose family wealth not only enabled his remains to be shipped back to Anoka for services but to be shipped again to Massachusetts for burial in the family plot.
There also was a black soldier, Albert Van Spence, who Flies came across during his research on state troops.
Van Spence was known as the “Lamplighter of Litchfield” in reference to his post-war job of lighting gas street lamps in the city.
Van Spence, the son of slaves, had been forced to serve in the Confederate Army before deserting to join Union forces.
He befriended abolitionist Union officer and Minnesotan Frank Daggett and followed him back to Litchfield.
But the most surreal story Flies came across involved 21-year-old Irish immigrant Patrick Connell from St. Peter, a woefully unlucky Union soldier who was wounded and captured by Rebel forces and sent to the South’s notorious Andersonville prison camp.
To “buy” his way out of that hellhole, Connell joined the Confederate Army, only to be captured anew by Yankee forces and sent to a Union prison in Illinois, where he died of disease.
Flies said he’s also had some heart-pounding moments in his physical searches for long-hidden gravesites.
On one occasion he went looking in a St. Paul cemetery for a Pvt. Edmund Sampare.
Using only a vague map of the cemetery and a sharp probe, he made four trips there until one day, while poking into the soil in a plot of unmarked grass, the probe struck something solid.
Flies’ eureka-moment discovery lay hidden under 6 inches of sod. It was Sampare’s memorial plaque, identifying him as a member of Company A of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters.
Sampare received his new granite gravestone in September.