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Letters recall life during Civil War

Martha Dieter grew up in a log cabin just north of Rochester. She moved with her family to Minnesota from Wisconsin in the early 1860s at a time when unrest between the North and South was simmering to a boiling point. It was also a time when conflicts between white settlers and Minnesota's Dakota tribes had become violent.

Rochester, just over a decade old, consisted of several dozen homes and a few small businesses. There was no railroad through the town, so Martha's father, Jacob Dieter, took the grain he grew to support his family by ox-powered wagon to Lake City.

Life changed dramatically for the Dieter family when Jacob enlisted in the Army. He was stationed for a time at Fort Ridgely near New Ulm, where his family joined him for a few months while his wife worked at the fort so she could be close to him. The family was brought to Fort Ridgely in a covered wagon by one of Jacob's brothers-in-law and another relative.

"I remember when we went through the Mankato woods over a log road, a man came on horseback — back to warn us from the Indians," Martha wrote 60 years later. "We saw many skeletons; we passed a house where the family had been killed except the husband. He got away in a cornfield. A short distance from there men were holding a meeting, with the guns on their shoulders. We camped a short distance from them on the open prairie that night."

In a typewritten letter titled "Memories of my Childhood," dated Jan. 10, 1927, Martha details the family's time at the Fort.


"First we went into a building and my father vaccinated us all (for smallpox) with a jack knife... After dinner we went out to the tent. We have an old pine chest my mother brought from Scotland when she was seventeen years old that was our table. We had hard tack and after soaking it all night we broke it with the rolling pin in the morning."

Things didn't get any easier for the Dieters over the next few years. Jacob went off to war with the Union Army, and Martha, her siblings and mother returned to Rochester.

They endured serious illnesses, grieved over the deaths of loved ones, and received word that Jacob had been taken prisoner by the Confederate Army in South Carolina. He'd been sending some of the $18 a month he was earning as a soldier home to his family, but the money stopped coming when Jacob was captured and sent to Andersonville Prison at Sumter, Ga.

"The prison was in a field with a stream of water running through it. A chalk line was made, and if they stepped over it, they were shot dead. My father, Bill Williams and another man dug a trench to sleep in and thatched it over with brush. They had to dip the water out of it when it rained. They had one blanket to cover the three of them."

Williams survived his imprisonment and told the Dieters about conditions there after the war. Jacob was not as fortunate. He died while being moved from Andersonville to another Confederate prison.

"He was so nearly dead from starvation that he could not stand the trip," Martha wrote. "He was buried in a trench in the South."

Martha's compelling story about life in Minnesota during the Civil War era is archived at the Olmsted County History Center and is available for public reading by anyone with a computer and Internet access as part of the Minnesota Historical Society's Minnesota Reflections Web site (reflections.mndigital.org). The site is an extension of the Minnesota Digital Library, a statewide initiative involving multiple institutions to store and make available to the public archived information from museums and historical societies throughout the state.

Also available for viewing are photos of Martha and Jacob, and letters Jacob wrote home to his family during his time in the Union Army.


The digital library is just one of many historical preservation projects being funded by money from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 2008.

The project is a boon to historians, authors, genealogists, and anyone else interested in history and learning more about what life was like in our state in the age before modern recording equipment.

The Minnesota Digital Library, and projects like it, are important because I think far too little attention is being to paid to preservation these days. That's especially true in Rochester — where most of our historic buildings have fallen to wrecking balls.

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record (or maybe digital recorder) on this. But we can all contribute to the historical preservation effort. Take pictures. Write stuff down. Record your memories. Tell your kids.

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