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A story of two Union soldiers: One of service and sacrifice

WILLMAR — Memorial Day is a time to remember the sacrifice that men and women have made for the United States for more than two centuries. It becomes personal when you examine those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Today I reflect upon two of my ancestors — Peter Parson, a paternal great-uncle, and George F. Matthews Jr., a maternal great-great-grandfather.

It was 150 years ago on April 9 that these two Union privates and their respective Iowa regiments fought together at the Battle of Pleasant Hill in northwest Louisiana. This was the largest battle west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War.

Parson was born in southern Sweden and immigrated in 1853 to America with his parents, Erich and Lena (Olson) Parson, and his siblings. Parson’s parents immigrated for a better life and so their sons would not face mandatory duty of the time in the Swedish Army. The family settled in Richland Township, between Strawberry Point and Manchester in Delaware County, Iowa.

Matthews was born in 1832 in Wellington County, Canada West (now Ontario), to George F. Sr. and Mary (Summers) Matthews. Matthews would later immigrate prior to 1860 to Black Hawk County, Iowa. Matthews’ mother had earlier bought out her husband’s military commission in the British Army, so that they could marry and emigrate from England to Canada.

While their parents had sought ways out of military service in their countries of birth, both Matthews and Parson answered the call to arms to defend their new country in the Civil War. While neither had yet become a U.S. citizen, each chose to voluntarily enlist in 1862 — Matthews, married, a father, age 30, in the 32nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Parson, single and age 19, in the 35th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

In early 1864, privates Matthews and Parson, along with their respective regiments, were assigned to the Red River Campaign. By April 8, the Union Army had advanced up the Red River about 150 miles. There the Confederates took up a defensive position to repulse the Union advance and the Battle of Mansfield began late that afternoon. After losing the battle, Union General Nathaniel Banks withdrew his forces during the night about 13 miles to Pleasant Hill.

There the 32nd and 35th Iowa were placed in frontal positions when the Battle of Pleasant Hill began about 4 p.m. on April 9 as Confederate forces attacked the Union units’ positions.

The 32nd Iowa’s position was attacked by first a Confederate cavalry and then by infantry multiple times, according to author Scott John’s 1896 book “Story of the Thirty-Second Iowa Infantry Volunteers.” The 32nd Iowa, including Matthews, soon found themselves alone and flanked on three sides but were able to stop the Confederate advance.

The 32nd Iowa had lost more than 210 men in those attacks. Private Matthews, now 32, had survived. The 32nd Iowa then retreated and formed up a junction with the 35th Iowa and another regiment as the battle continued into the evening.

During the battle, the 35th Iowa, with Parson included, advanced across an empty field to attack a Confederate position. As the 35th approached the position under fire, the Confederate forces charged “the left of the 35th Iowa line,” writes author Lee Miller in his 2012 history book “Triumph & Tragedy: The Story of the 35th Iowa Volunteer Regiment.”

During this last Confederate charge, “Private Peter Parson and Sergeant Benjamin Linnville were desperately trying to load their muskets when they were struck by minie balls killing them instantly,” Miller wrote.

Parson, now 21, was dead.

The Union lines repelled attacks throughout the evening, winning the battle with the 32nd and 35th Iowa regiments playing major roles. Despite winning the field at Pleasant Hill, General Banks began a general retreat overnight toward Natchitoches and then down the Red River.

Parson, along with other Union and Confederate dead at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, were buried in the following days in unmarked graves around the battlefield and along the Union roads of retreat.

Private Matthews survived the Battle of Pleasant Hill and future battles with the 32nd Iowa in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. After returning to Iowa and mustering out August, 1865, Matthews returned to his family in Black Hawk County. He would later father three more children, move near Frederika in Bremer County, Iowa, and then, in 1894, to Poplar Township in Cass County, Minn. He is buried there in Poplar Cemetery.

Parson gave his life defending the Union. With no children of his own, his legacy lives on in his Parson, Johnson, Morris, Tripp and Boldan nieces and nephews and their descendants, including the Boldan families in Willmar, New London, Leader, Tenstrike and beyond in the U.S.

Matthews’ descendants include many of the Matthews and Johnson descendants of Poplar and Leader in southern Cass County and others Matthews relatives across Minnesota, the U.S., Canada and Australia.

This is the story of two men — Matthews and Parson — who volunteered to serve their country. One lived and one died. It is such service and sacrifice we honor on Memorial Day.

It is only fitting and just that we remember such service and sacrifice. We should never forget that we live each day in freedom in America because of the service and sacrifice, in life and in death, of men and women such as these.

KELLY BOLDAN is editor of the West Central Tribune.