In a time when it seems that the whole world is quarantined, everyone is stuck at home, and traveling is almost certainly out of the current realm of possibilities, cases of cabin fever are bound to increase. Here in Youngstown, we’ve seen endless days of rain and clouds only worsening the daydreaming of getting out of the house. As my office has shifted from the school where I teach, to my home library, to the dining room table, and now to the couch, I too am longing to get out of the house and back to the battlefield. This longing reminded me of a soldier’s return to Gettysburg in 1913 and his incredible journey to get there.
Chester H. Durfee was born in Wisconsin in 1845 to a large family (mom, dad, four brothers, and a sister). When Chester was 11, the family moved to Minnesota, and when the Civil War began just five years later, one of Chester’s brothers joined the war effort almost immediately upon the call for volunteers. Chester, only 16 in 1861 (listed officially as 18 on government paperwork) joined the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry on August 26, 1861. It took almost two more years before Chester traveled to Gettysburg for the first time.
The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, part of the Army of the Potomac, began their march towards destiny in the early days of June 1863. Over the next month, they, along with the rest of the army, moved northward through Virginia, across the Potomac River into Maryland, and by the beginning of July, onto northern soil in Pennsylvania. For many who have studied the battle of Gettysburg, even casually, the actions of the 1st Minnesota on the evening of July 2, 1863 have become legendary.
In desperate need to fill a hole that had developed along the Union line of battle on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the regiment to charge into the fray, push back a brigade of Confederate soldiers that was rushing towards the opening, and ultimately buy time for more Union reinforcements to arrive. The regiment had made the ultimate sacrifice and saved the Union’s defense of their position on that evening, but it had come at an enormous cost. Despite the horrendous casualties the 1st Minnesota sustained on the evening of July 2, their service at Gettysburg was not yet done. The following day, July 3, as Confederate soldiers attacked the Union position along Cemetery Ridge again, (Pickett’s Charge), the 1st was once again thrown into the maelstrom of battle. Charging northward towards another gap that had developed in the Union position, the regiment sustained even further losses. The second charge of the 1st Minnesota was over, and they had helped seal the gap that had opened as a result of the massive Confederate effort that has become known as Pickett’s Charge.
One of the many casualties that the regiment suffered during their second action at Gettysburg was Chester Durfee. He had been wounded during the charge by a shell that had broken both his tibia and fibula on his left leg. Durfee laid on the field for several days following his severe wound. He was next taken to the train station north of town and evacuated to New York to begin his long road to recovery. For nearly the next year, Durfee remained in New York, and was moved to different locations during that time to continue his healing. He developed gangrene on several occasions during recovery, and each time fought off his doctor’s desire to amputate. He was transferred one last time to Chicago during his recovery before being transferred to the 1st Battalion, eventually being discharged due to disability in March 1865. The wound bothered Chester for the rest of his life.
During the postwar years Chester seemed restless, moving quite frequently, living for brief periods in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and finally settling back in Minnesota. His restless spirit also played out in his relationships, married and divorced three times, none of which produced any children. Maybe it was that restless spirit that led Chester to take the long journey to Gettysburg in 1913 at age 68 for the fiftieth anniversary of the battle.
Just several days before the battle anniversary, he attended a reunion of the 1st Minnesota that “was held in the Court House in Minneapolis, which was attended by about 47 of the Old first Minn Vols….” At the end of the reunion meeting, those in attendance heading to Gettysburg boarded a “train of 18 Pullman sleepers…and the train pulled out and soon [out] of sight.” According to Chester, by 1 AM the train had made it to Wisconsin, with a brief stop in Milwaukee nearing 7 AM to add a dining car to the train. “At 8.a.m. we sat down to breakfast our first meal on the train which we all enjoyed,” Durfee later wrote.
By 9:30 am on the morning of June 29, 1913, Durfee and the other combat veterans of the 1st Minnesota on their way to the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg had arrived in Chicago. After passing through Indiana, the train arrived in Toledo, Ohio, pulling out of that city by 8 pm, “The boys…all turning in for the night.” By the following morning, June 30, the train had pulled in to Cleveland, “a lively place, steamboats, tugs, Railroad shops, & c.” but many on the train missed it as the “…Veterans are a sleeping.” Throughout the rest of the day, the train passed through such places as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cumberland, Maryland, Williamsport, Maryland, and Hagerstown, Maryland.
Upon reaching the latter, Durfee reflected upon his last visit to the Maryland town fifty years earlier. “Here is the old stomping ground where we experienced some hardships on our terrible long, hot dusty march to the battlefield of Gettysburg Pa. in 1863. Just 50 years ago to day. I for one do well remember while marching along here with the blood trickling down my poor chaffed limbs to my shoes, still on us poor old soldiers, no no not yet Young Soldiers, plodded & many miles…we were so near worn out we felt as we could not go another half mile.” The aged veterans of the 1st Minnesota had several more miles to go that day fifty years later, however, “Arriving at the city of Tents on the old Gettysburg battlefield at 10.P.M.”
Join me and the story of this Gettysburg veteran in part two as we explore the fiftieth anniversary of the battle and the reunion of the blue and gray through his eyes.