Two young men gone to soldier

The ruins of a stone bridge on Bull Run, photographed in March 1862 by George N. Barnard and James F. Gibson.

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Gov. Alexander Ramsey was in Washington, D.C., and immediately offered War Secretary Simon Cameron a thousand men for service, making Minnesota the first state to offer troops for the Union army.

Among them were Jasper Searles, a 20-year-old from Hastings, and Edward Bassett, a year younger and from the Faribault area, and thousands of other young southern Minnesota men who went to war to preserve the Union.

The 1st Minnesota Infantry volunteers trained at Fort Snelling under Col. Willis A. Gorman, and they trekked across the nation by steamboat and railroad and on foot, arriving in Washington on June 26. A month later, on July 21, Minnesota troops suffered 180 casualties at Bull Run in Virginia, more than any other Union regiment.

From the Minnesota Historical Society's collections and the writing of Edward G. Longacre, we can read the letters home of Capt. Jasper N. Searles, who enlisted at age 20. In June 1861, he wrote a letter from Washington, D.C., about his journey there. "Taking it all together, we got along very well, considering the distance and time -- over 2,000 miles in five days...this morning it was rumored that we were to pass in review before the president and probably would be his body guard, the post of honor."

From Arlington, Va., a month later, he wrote of being "occupied this morning in several minor surgical operations...such as extracting teeth, operating for corns." But on July 25, 1861, he wrote of the carnage at Bull Run. "Then the 1st Minnesota came onto the field...we advanced rapidly, (the Confederates) turning their batteries on us but did nothing until we had reached the bottom of a hill (and) a new battery opened on us in the distance."


Later that day, he wrote, "both surgeons and the assistant (steward) are gone...probably taken prisoner...the (1st Minnesota) suffered more than any all ideas of having a short and easy conflict is past." But he summed up: "I am in good spirits...and anxious to follow the Minnesota 1st through this war."

Advancing from an enlisted surgical assistant to commissioned rank, Searles told stories of bravery and bloodshed through his three years on the battlefield. He returned to Minnesota in 1864 and went on to have a prosperous career not in medicine, but in law. He also served a term in the Minnesota House and was a district court judge at the end of his long career.

Searles died in Stillwater in 1927, at age 86.

Edward H. Bassett, from the Morristown area, near Faribault, was mustered into the 1st Minnesota  in April 1861. During his three-year enlistment, he fought in 61 battles and skirmishes, including Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Fredericksburg.

His 218 letters to family members are the heart of a book by Rochester author Richard G. Krom, his great-great-grandson, in his book, "The First Minnesota: Second to None," published in 2010.

Krom's objective in writing the book was to pay tribute to the brave men of the 1st Minnesota who participated in "61 engagements, including 34 battles and numerous skirmishes that decimated the battle lines of this proud regiment and left only a large handful to be mustered out on April 29, 1864."

The book isn't a "treatise on military tactices, rather it is the story of the struggles in the everyday lives of these American heroes. Based on the personal letters of Edward H. Bassett, its purpose is to relate their story of valor, glory, deprivation, hardship and unquestioning devotion to duty."

In his letters, Bassett describes the long journey east: "We came on the boat from (Fort) Ridgely to La Crosse and then took (railroad) cars to Chicago (and Fort Wayne, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg), camped one night and started for Washington," he wrote on June 28, 1861. He described marching through the capital "with loaded gun," and a week latter, "we marched through the Navy yard, got on board a steamboat and landed in Alexandria."


In a letter dated July 23, 1861, he wrote from Washington that "we had a chance to try our skill in the field fighting...but we lost our captain. He was shot through the heart and fell dead instantly...among the killed was one flag bearer...Asa Miller from Cannon City, I believe. He was hit by three balls before he fell, and after that he loaded and fired some three or four times."

The letter continues: "We were decoyed upon one of their masked (hidden) batteries...They hoisted the Union flag as we advanced (to) show every appearance of being friendly until we got in range of them when they opened up on us...Bullets were flying about as thick as rain drops...By this time, the enemy had come up in sight and the boys fired into them and killed them off pretty fast."

Throughout the letters, Bassett describes fatigue, fear, hunger and the horrors of artillery barrages. He added to his own accounts by citing newspapers, which were delivered to the battlefields by vendors on horsedrawn carts.Bassett

As Krom wrote, Bassett portrayed a story of "valor, glory, deprivation, hardship and devotion to duty."

Bassett returned to Minnesota in 1865 and the difficult life of farming on the Minnesota frontier. He died in April 1897 at age 56 and was buried in Worthington.

He, like Searles and thousands of other young Minnesotans, met and survived the challenge of war as best they could. They witnessed the horrors of the war and left a written record that continues to inspire new generations of Americans.

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