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Death of an Old Soldier

                                                            by A.B. Russ - FCHS 

   The 5th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment was organized at Camp Randall near Madison, Wisconsin, was completed by July of 1861, and they then left for our nation’s capital and the war. William Brown was one of these volunteers in the 5th and he had been assigned to Company I.  The amount of military action he would see during the next three years was much more than the average person would want to participate in.  Also the other things that went with soldiering could make life a major challenge.  The twenty-mile marches down dusty roads in the summer months and the knee-deep mud during the rainy seasons were hard on feet, legs, and boots.  His government issued boots or shoes didn’t come with a right or left so his feet would bend the boot to fit his foot as he marched. Since cotton was very hard to come by, the uniforms were made of wool and this was fine during the winter but next to unbearable during the hot humid months of campaigning in Dixie.  The soldiers’ pay of $13 per month was very slow in coming because units were often on the move and the paymaster was often a couple of moves behind the troops.  There wasn’t a central mess but men would form their own groups and draw rations for their group.  The food was somewhat questionable at times and often consisted of side pork or bacon and beans.  An attempt to provide vegetables came in the form of dehydrated vegetables that were generally considered inedible.  When the regiments were on the move they were given hardtack which many were never quite sure how to eat.  Some would dunk it in their coffee to make it more edible, others would treat it like bread and smear bacon fat on it.  Sometimes the hardtack came with its own built in protein when flour weevils had taken up residency.

   The 5th Wisconsin became part of the Army of the Potomac, which was famous for fine soldiers but commanding generals that were questionable at their very best.  Being a member of the Army of the Potomac would take him to places with names like Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and even Appomattox Court House in 1865.  But by 1864 the “Fighting 5th” could no longer call itself a regiment.

     Many of those whose three-year enlistments were up, went home.  Plus 285 soldiers had lost their lives, 4 were missing in action, 33 had transferred to different regiments, and 405 were discharged for reasons of health.  William Brown would be discharged from the 5th but soon enlisted in the 147th Illinois Infantry Regiment at Chicago for a term of one year.  This unit would have garrison duty in Georgia and what fighting it did was against guerilla units.  On January 20, 1866 this unit was mustered out of service.

   Sometime between January 20, 1866, when William Brown left the army and March 15, 1917, when he was to lose his life, dramatic changes were to take place.  William had married, he had fathered a child but both were dead by 1917.  The only family that he let be known was a sister in Clinton, Iowa.  William Brown had become a drifter and was now in his 70’s when he showed up in the small hamlet of Wells, Minnesota.  He would find work wherever he could and when that dried up he would move on down the road.  That fall he had worked helping Bill Tolzman with the harvest.  Mr. Brown had told Bill that he was hoping to find work in Fairmont, Minnesota.

   March 15, 1917, William Brown was walking down the middle of the railroad tracks about three miles from Wells.  A train belonging to the C.M. & P.R.R. with a V plow mounted for snow removal, hit William and sent him high into the snow filled air.  If a locomotive had trapped him under the engine his life would have come to an end that very moment but he flew off to the side and landed head first in the snow.

   As the train neared the Tatge farm, the young Henry Tatge had looked up from his work to watch the plow on the train do it’s job and, to his horror, he witnessed William Brown’s body flying through the air and heard the sickening thud when it hit the ground.  He yelled to the hired man to hook up the horses and ran to the spot where the body lay motionless.  When Henry got to Mr. Brown he carefully raised his head and tried to cradle it for protection.  Soon the hired man was there and a local doctor would soon follow.  The three of them loaded the badly injured person on a sleigh and headed off to Wells.  The life of the old veteran was quickly coming to an end.  By the next day at 8am his injuries proved to be too much to overcome and this loner of a human being would meet his Creator.

   A sharp debate was raised in the Wells Forum and the Wells Mirror as to why the train crew did not see the victim and why they didn’t even blow their steam whistle.  The Mirror stated that the deceased was blind in one eye and perhaps couldn’t hear on the same side and that his body was badly scarred from some injuries that may have happened long before this sad day came to pass.  The one possibility that was not mentioned was that perhaps this man, at the age of 70+, was at the end of his rope and the walking down the middle of the tracks was his way of ending his lonely struggle with a life that was without much hope of a meaningful future.

   No identification was found on the body and if it hadn’t been for his former employer, Bill Tolzman, he may have remained nameless.  The coroner searched for the sister in Clinton, Iowa and was unsuccessful.  The Rev. Armstrong conducted a brief service for this poor soul and Faribault County buried him at Rose Hill Cemetery in Wells.

   This story took place almost one hundred years ago but if you just change the names and dates of the veterans involved it could have been Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans.  Sadly many veterans are all too often finding life so hopeless and so full of despair that they disappear into the shadows. Even more shocking, they want out and an end to what they see as hopeless lives. The William Browns of this world found some comradeship in military life and it’s de facto support system but that doesn’t always seem to transfer well into the busy work-a-day life of our very impersonal world.