When John Edwards walked away from the Union Army, he did so with this on his discharge papers:
“Because of general disability, produced by diarrhea and pneumonia, said soldier is wholly unfit for duty, and in my opinion will die unless sent north.”
It was signed by Pvt. Edwards’ commanding officer on March 3, 1863. A copy of that document sits safely in a folder in the home of Bill Edwards, a longtime North Mankato life insurance salesman who, at age 87, has since retired.
“That’s a hell of a thing to say,” he said of his grandfather’s discharge papers.
If you talk to Bill Edwards about John Edwards, he won’t tell you what a great guy his grandfather was or regale you with stories of battlefield heroics. The truth is, his grandfather died shortly before Edwards was born.
But if you go to his Northridge home and step into his office, you’d be hard-pressed to not be impressed with the reverence with which Edwards displays the medals and ribbons that belonged to his grandfather. You’d also be hard-pressed to not be moved when you see Edwards talk about what those medals and ribbons, and his family’s contributions to several wars, mean to him.
“We were expected to be in ...” he says. He pauses. His eyes grow a little misty when he talks about his brother Bruce who, like Edwards, served in World War II. Bruce, however, didn’t make it home. “My father sat us down and said ‘I expect you three boys to go to war for the United States.’” And they did. All three served as Naval officers.
In the 1990s Edwards wrote a letter to the National Archives to see what they had about his grandfather. That’s where the discharge papers came from, as well as several other documents showing he was mustered into the Wisconsin volunteer infantry, 32nd Regiment. He’s not sure why he enlisted in Wisconsin, although he said his father was living in Wisconsin temporarily.
Beyond that, Edwards doesn’t know much about what his grandfather did in the war. He never heard any stories from his grandmother. Never got any anecdotes from his parents.
“He was in, he volunteered, and that’s it,” Edwards said.
Would he want to know more?
“Oh sure,” he said. “Everybody does.”
A quick Internet search reveals there’s not much out there about the 32nd Regiment from Wisconsin. But we did find out that Edwards’ grandfather was part of group that fought in significant battles in Tennessee and Louisiana. Although grandpa was fortunate, so to speak, to have grown ill when he did.
His discharge occurred shortly before his regiment would fight in a pair of key battles, including the Battle of Nashville, which according to Wikipedia “represented the end of large-scale fighting in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.”
Grandpa Edwards then came back to Mankato and lived into his 80s.
Today he keeps his grandfather’s memory alive with a framed box of medals and ribbons he received when left the Army. They’re perched right next to the ones Edwards himself received when he left the Navy.
Edwards says he’s happy that people are talking about the Civil War again. But he wants people to realize the real reason it was fought.
“It wasn’t fought over slavery,” he said. “It was fought over state’s rights.”
And while he doesn’t believe war is the answer to solving problems between nations, he believes that, when a nation does go to war, its men should do what he and his grandfather did.
“I think everybody should go,” he said.