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Last Civil War veteran buried in Crow Wing County to be honored in Brainerd

A public dedication ceremony by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Camp No. 56 will take place Aug. 27 at Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd to honor Union Pvt. Elias Fenstermacher, the last

Elias Fenstermacher
Elias Fenstermacher was the last Civil War veteran buried in Crow Wing County and was pictured in this photo from May 29, 1929.
Contributed / James Johnson
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BRAINERD — Elias Fenstermacher lied about his age to enlist in the Union Army but he served the state of Minnesota honorably when he fought for the North.

The private was the last Civil War veteran buried in Crow Wing County. The former soldier will be honored in a ceremony at 1 p.m. Aug. 27 at Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd.

“The ceremony is open to the public, veterans and Civil War history buffs,” according to Gary E. Carlberg, commander of Camp No. 56 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Elias Fenstermacher gravestone with dates of birth and death, and military service.
A gravestone at Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd marks the final resting place of Union Pvt. Elias Fenstermacher.
Contributed / James Johnson

Organized in 1881, the fraternal organization was chartered by Congress in 1954. It is dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of those who fought and worked to save the Union.

“Part of that mission involves saving and protecting our nation’s endangered memorials, graves and monuments. These memorials are part of our national heritage and honor American soldiers who lost their lives in the preservation of freedom and union,” according to the organization.

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Last Soldier Project

The organization’s Last Soldier Project is a nationwide effort to find and mark the gravesite of the last U.S. soldier, seaman or marine from the Civil War in each county — veterans like Fenstermacher.

“We set up the ceremony and then we have a special marker that indicates that this is the last Union soldier buried in this county, and the marker was placed by the Sons of Union Veterans,” said James Johnson, a Brainerd resident and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War member.

James Johnson in a Union soldier uniform typical of the American Civil War.
James Johnson of Brainerd wears a Union soldier uniform typical of the American Civil War while speaking on July 30, 2022, at a headstone dedication ceremony near Detroit Lakes.
Contributed / James Johnson

Fenstermacher was born in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, on April 24, 1850, and died on Jan. 28, 1948, at the age of 97 at his Brainerd home after he relocated to be closer to his son who lived in Pillager.

“After doing due diligence, and going through a complete list of soldiers that I have identified as buried here in Crow Wing County, there was no doubt at all with our work that he’s the last because nobody came close to that age,” Johnson said of Fenstermacher’s significance.

Fenstermacher, a stage driver, enlisted on Aug. 20, 1864, in the 2nd Minnesota Light Artillery Battery. He declared his age as 18 when in reality he was 14 and appeared big for his age.

“He served for a little over a year in the garrison, scouting duties and defense of Chattanooga (Tennessee) during the last year of the war,” according to a news release.

Elias Fenstermacher Civil War enlistment papers
Elias Fenstermacher lied about his age on his enlistment papers to fight for the North in the Civil War, claiming he was 18 years old when in fact he was only 14, but he appeared big for his actual age.
Contributed / James Johnson

The 5-foot, 5-inch tall teenager with blue eyes, light hair and fair complexion was sober and of sound mind and body when he enlisted, according to the examining surgeon and the recruitment officer who also signed the boy’s enlistment paper.

“The former ‘powder monkey’ who carried powder bags to the big fused canon of the bygone era was discharged Aug. 16, 1865, at Fort Snelling just four days before his year of service would have expired,” according to a story in the Jan. 29, 1948, edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch about Fenstermacher.

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Civil War veteran

Fenstermacher lived in Easterville, Iowa, for two years after his discharge and then farmed in Winona County, Minnesota, from 1868 to 1901. He relocated to Brainerd in 1910 and farmed near South Long Lake for a decade.

“And at the end of the war, they didn't give out land parcels to veterans, but they did offer a veteran 160 acres,” Johnson said. “And they would take off the time he served in the military toward the five years that was required for a homestead to develop that land before it became his property.”

When Fenstermacher was 88 years old in 1938, he was invited to attend the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. He traveled to the event by train with his son, which was chronicled by the Brainerd Daily Dispatch.

“In his interviews, he said his mother had died in 1860. His father, brother and brother-in-law had all joined the Army,” Johnson said of Fenstermacher’s reasons for enlisting in the Union Army. “He was lonely and wanted to do his patriotic duty.”

A clipping from the Jan. 29, 1948, edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch newspaper about the death of 97-year-old American Civil War veteran Elias Fenstermacher that occurred a day earlier.
A clipping from the Jan. 29, 1948, edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch newspaper informs readers about the death of 97-year-old American Civil War veteran Elias Fenstermacher.
Contributed / James Johnson

Denise Blackwell-Kraft is one of Fenstermacher’s great-great-granddaughters. The 71-year-old Brainerd resident is a wife, a mother of two, and a grandmother of two who was born after he died but learned about Fenstermacher from her mother.

“On Memorial Day, she always went to the cemetery and put flowers on the graves,” Blackwell-Kraft said. “And then when I was old enough, my sisters and I, we all helped her do that, so we grew up taking care of all the family graves and, of course, he was one of them.”

The Minnesota camp of Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War will conduct the Aug. 27 ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery with the help of local veteran organizations, the Crow Wing County Veterans Service Office and the Crow Wing County Historical Society.

“The Civil War veterans, the Spanish-American War veterans, World War I and World War II veterans — their graves, in a lot of cases, have been forgotten, neglected. … They haven't been cleaned. They don't have families to take care of them anymore,” Johnson said.

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The 63-year-old retired Brainerd postal worker said he is a descendant of six Union Army soldiers — his grandfathers — and another grandfather of his was in the Confederate Army.

Evergreen Cemetery

Blackwell-Kraft said she feels a “very great sense of pride” about Fenstermacher, her maternal great-great-grandfather.

“We go out in the spring before Memorial Day, and we clean up around the plot and we plant flowers,” Blackwell-Kraft said of her family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. “And then all throughout the summer, my sisters and I go to water those flowers.”

Blackwell-Kraft, two of her older sisters, her 94-year-old aunt and other surviving Fenstermacher relatives will be at the Last Soldier dedication ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery.

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“To think that he had that in him to go to war at such a young age is just incredible. … It's incredible,” Blackwell-Kraft said of Fenstermacher.

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War veterans organization has more than 6,000 members across the country and is the successor to the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans organization formed after the Civil War by those who served in the Union Army.

“The members of Camp No. 56 consider the Last Soldier ceremony an honor and a fitting tribute for a Union soldier whose service helped preserve the liberties Americans enjoy as a nation today,” according to Johnson.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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