Commentary: Remembering their service

It has been 150 years since the end of the Civil War, that epic conflict that divided our country and eventually led to what we know today as Memorial Day.

It has been 150 years since the end of the Civil War, that epic conflict that divided our country and eventually led to what we know today as Memorial Day.

My story today is about three Union soldiers, all ancestors within my family and how their service and sacrifice in the Union army changed lives.

The beginning of the end of the Civil War occurred 150 years ago in April when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

However, the beginnings of the war started in Minnesota, the free-state home of Dred Scott at one time. Minnesota had been the temporary home of Scott, a slave at Fort Snelling. This detail factored prominently in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1857 denying his freedom, a decision that would fuel the conflict that would erupt in the Civil War. Minnesota, admitted as a free state in 1858, later helped to elect Abraham Lincoln, who won the state’s electoral votes in 1860 and again in 1864 with the help of many Minnesotans.

In 1856, a young 17-year-old Maine teenager seeking adventure joined the U.S. Army in Boston and soon sought transfer to a unit headed for Minnesota. Thus, my maternal great-great-great-grandfather William F. DeLaittre was among the first of my ancestors to reach Minnesota. On July 4th that same year, his unit left on a patrol for the Dakota Territory. As a U.S. Army private, he walked across a Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis, traveled northward through central Minnesota, then northwest to Pembina, North Dakota. The trip’s purpose was to discuss treaties with American Indian tribes.


Their return trip was cold and wet, and they did not arrived back at Fort Snelling until December. DeLaittre had found Army life not so romantic and sought a discharge for being underage and returned to Maine.

Back in Maine in August 1861, DeLaittre, now age 22, again volunteered and joined the 7th Maine Infantry to fight for the Union. Within the year he was wounded while on guard duty in a battle during Gen. McClellan’s’ Peninsula Campaign in 1862 n Maryland. He was eventually discharged due to his hand injury and returned to Maine,

In 1853, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather, Erick Parson, immigrated from Sweden to America with his wife, two sons and three daughters and settled near Strawberry Point in northeast Iowa. He did not want his two sons to have to serve in the Swedish Army, according to family oral history.

In September 1862, just as the U.S.-Dakota War broke out in western Iowa-Minnesota, his eldest son, Peter Parson, then 22, volunteered and enlisted in the 35th Iowa Infantry to fight for the Union.

Sometime in the 1950s, my paternal great-great-great grandfather George F. Matthews Jr. immigrated from northern Ontario and settled in the Waterloo, Iowa, area. By September 1862 at the age of about 30, he volunteered and enlisted in the 32nd Iowa Infantry. His father, George Sr., soon immigrated from Canada to stay with his son’s family in Iowa and be on guard during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Through 1863, both of these two Iowa infantry units served in Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, including both at the Siege of Vicksburg.

They, like many soldiers, soon found that war was not all glory.

A Minnesota soldier serving at the Siege of Vicksburg wrote:


“I am sick of reading in the papers of ‘the glory’ of war....Is there glory in the shrieks of men torn by bullet or shell? Is there glory in the cry of the mother as she sees her child’s head swept off by a cannonball? Is there glory in the weeping of widows and orphans? Is there glory in the burning cities and the desolated homes that War leaves behind him? Is there glory in the undying hatreds that war creates and nourishes?...Let these newspaper men come down here and see for themselves war in its terrible reality.”- William Christie, First Battery Minnesota Light Artillery, writing to his father from Vicksburg, Aug. 6, 1863.

By early 1864, both Iowa 32nd and 35th Infantry units were assigned to the Red River Campaign in Louisiana, a series of battles along the Red River from March to May, which was the largest combined Army-Navy operation of the war. This campaign overall was an unsuccessful Union campaign to capture the city of Shreveport.

By April 9 following a battle at Mansfield , the Union forces had retreated throughout the night and into morning and took up positions near Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. Both the 32nd and 35th Iowa were involved in the battle. The Yankee and Rebel forces skirmished throughout the afternoon. About 5 p.m., the Confederate side charged the Union positions and the battle continued for about two hours.

The Union forces took refuge in a series of gullies, regained their composure and were able to repel the attack.

Near the end of the attack with the 35th Iowa near the front, Peter Parson, age 24, was frantically reloading his rifle in the pitch of battle when he was struck in the head with a mini-ball, according to the infantry history. The eldest son, whose father immigrated to protect him from having to serve in the Swedish Army, was killed instantly. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana.

Matthews Jr. survived that same battle and future ones through Mississippi and Alabama. During one battle he was wounded, but refused to go to hospital as the treatment was just to cut off wounded limbs. He walked upstream daily from his camp to clean his wound in the stream and change his dressing.

He survived and in August 1865, he would return by paddle boat up the Mississippi River and mustered out on Aug. 24, 1865, in Iowa.

William F. DeLaittre and his family remained in Maine before moving to Minnesota in the 1870s and settling in Little Sauk and then near Farm Island in central Minnesota. His injury remained with him through his life and his wife would later receive a Union pension following his death in 1902. He is buried at Bay Lake Cemetery near Deerwood, Minnesota. His descendants reside across Minnesota, western Canada and throughout the United States.


After his first born was killed in action in 1864, Erick Parson would then lose his wife, Isabella, in 1865. He soon would remarry my great-great-great-grandmother, the twice-widowed Phoebe Boldan. After her death in 1879, he moved with his youngest daughter and son-in-law’s family to northwest Iowa and then to Wright County in Minnesota in 1900.

Multiple generations of his descendants reside throughout Minnesota - from Bemidji and Leader to New London and Willmar - and across the U.S. However, his eldest son, the soldier Peter Parson, who had not married before his enlistment in the Union Army, had no children.

George Matthews Jr. would return to farm near Frederika in northeast Iowa for nearly three decades, before moving in 1894 to central Minnesota with several adult children and their families to buy available land.

The Matthews and related Johnson families would homestead in Poplar Township in southern Cass County. He later received a small Civil War pension. He died in 1914 and is buried in Poplar Cemetery in rural Cass County. His descendants reside from Cass County, across Minnesota - and throughout the U.S.

The Civil War changed the lives of these three soldiers - one wounded who lived with a crippled hand for the remainder of his life, but still raised a family; one who recovered from his wound, lived a long life and raised a family; and one killed in action, who never got the chance for his own family.

These three men and their families are no different than many other families. Many have served our country in peacetime and in war, from the Revolutionary War through the World Wars to the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The glory of war quickly becomes the pain of war.

Many have returned home to live out their lives and raise their families. Some returned home with injuries that they lived with for the rest of their lives.

The bodies of many who died are returned home for burial in their home communities, many others are buried at sea or in some distant field or some far away shore. And some are lost at sea or on land, never to return.


On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifice of those who died in their service to this country.

It is for their sacrifice that we pause on Monday - to remember. That’s why it is called Memorial Day.

Kelly Boldan is the editor of the West Central Tribune.

Opinion by Kelly Boldan
Kelly Boldan has been editor of West Central Tribune and in Willmar, Minnesota, since October 2001. He joined Forum Communications Co. in November 1998 as editor of the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer.
Boldan can be reached via email: or telephone: 320-214-4331.
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