Traveling to Gettysburg: Pt. 4

A lot has happened in the world since part three of this series. If you have turned on the tv, logged on to a computer, or picked up the rare paper print version of a newspaper you know the many events that have taken place during the month of May and the early days of June. When I began this series the pandemic had forced many into a “lockdown” situation. Wandering and restless souls chaffed within the confines of their homes and yearned for a chance to travel once more. So, with the help of this series, we took a virtual trip to Gettysburg for the 1913 reunion. In Traveling to Gettysburg: Pt. 1, we explored the long journey from Minnesota to Gettysburg. Part two provided us with a look at Chester’s activities during the first day of the battle anniversary, July 1, 1913. Chester and his comrades movements on the second and third of July 1913 was the focus of part three.

In the intervening time between part three and today’s post, traveling has become a reality again. Although restrictions have eased, and some are still in place, the ability to hop in the car and go, albeit either to Target or the zoo is getting easier. So as our ability to travel again eases, we find in stark contrast Chester’s time traveling to Gettysburg coming to an end.

On the morning of July 4, 1913, orders rippled through the camp of the Minnesota delegation to pack and be prepared to march to the train station to depart for home. Chester decided to grab a few close friends in the delegation and see the battlefield one more time. On July 2, 1863, fifty years earlier he could have little imagined coming back to this field. It had become a place of great suffering and anguish, especially for the men of the devastated 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. Now, fifty years later, he must have surely felt that this would be his final time on these very fields.

As “Pickles & myself” walked the battlefield, they stopped at such places as “General Meades Headquarters & through field hospital, over to the Bryan House & down on Baltimore ave.” Lost in reflection of how these places looked fifty years earlier, the two Minnesota veterans had to have been surprised to see “President Wilson, as he arrived on the Battlefield amid cheers from thousands of the old Veterans in Blue & Gray.” This must have been a big moment for the two men, to see a sitting president when they thought they were just getting a last, quick look around the battlefield. Following their time on either Baltimore Street or the Baltimore Pike (the road changes name depending on which end of town one is on), and now having seen President Wilson, they headed back to camp. It was not long after their return that they “soon were ordered to fall in.”

“At 410 P.M. July 4th 1913. Our train moves slowly away amid cheers upon cheers for the Old 1st Minnesota, the waving of flags & cheering as we kept passing the mass of people was something long to be remembered by us,” Chester wrote of the solemn moment. He recalled that goodbyes between soldiers and comrades was especially moving. It was not so much a goodbye, but rather “was answered by yes we will meet again fifty years from to day.” The sounds of the masses dimmed and so did the sight of them as the train pulled out of Gettysburg and “we passed out of sight of the Great Battlefield…no doubt for the last time.”

By “635 P.M.” the train had reached Hagerstown, Maryland, and just shy of an hour later, Williamsport. Chester recalled with accuracy that “this is where Genl Lee with his remaining  Army after [their repulse] at Gettysburg passed through for Virginia.” Before drifting off to sleep that evening, his last entry, at 10:45, recorded that they were “at the foot of the Mountains along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.”

Before sun up on July 5, 1913 the train passed Homestead, Pennsylvania. Chester spilled much ink recalling the story of “the great Man Carniga [sp] [and how he] Made his Millions,” and “Frick. the leader of that great strike….” He marveled at the “many large bridges,” steamboat tugs, smelting works, iron foundry and machine shops, and piles of iron and steel. Just a short while later the train arrived in Pittsburgh. The men had a brief fifteen minute stop in which to stretch their legs before getting back on the train to prepare for breakfast, which was served promptly at 6:15 am.

It is the next part of the story that grabbed me the most when I first read Chester’s accounting of his travels to Gettysburg and back in 1913. As a native of Youngstown, Ohio, I am proud of my native city. And as I read I could not believe that a veteran of the battle of Gettysburg, no less the famed 1st Minnesota, who had survived their fateful charge on July 2, 1863 and Pickett’s Charge the following day had spent time in my native city. Yes, many other veterans with incredible stories hailed from Youngstown, while many others moved to the city in the years after the war. But as a long time Park Ranger at Gettysburg, the connection between my home town and the place where I am able to share this incredible story of the 1st Minnesota to visitors from across the globe was especially moving.

“Arriving at Youngstown Ohio at 730 A.M.,” Chester wrote. He recalled and recorded a sad moment in our history, “…the great flood…[that] made so many homeless,” one of several historic level floods of the Mahoning River. He also said of my hometown over 100 years ago “Here is where the great Iron & steel work are located that made so many men rich. Youngstown has over One Hundred Thousand Inhabitants.” Chester was right. Our town was booming because of the iron and steel industry. Men were getting rich, jobs were plentiful, and our population was exploding as our town, built on this industry, barely kept up with the large demands for good American-made iron and steel. The train kept moving, however, next passing through Warren, Ohio, not war to the northeast of Youngstown and home to the 6th Ohio Cavalry.

The train continued on, through Mantua, Cleveland, and Toledo before reaching Elkhart, Indiana that afternoon. Chester noted in awe that the train “ran a mile every 68 seconds from Toledo to Elkhart Indiana. & all the way through a blinding rain & wind storm” of which he believed “…was quite a young hurricane.” Dinner served, and countless more views from the windows of the train, the aged veteran “signed off” for July 5 having recorded that the train had reached Chicago by 10:30 that evening.

July 6, 1913. Home was ahead of them. The end of this “long good & interesting journeys of [our] lives” was coming to an ed. It was still dark when the train pushed through Wisconsin. By 7:30 a.m., the train had arrived in Winona, Minnesota. It was here that some of the first of the delegation departed the train, their portion of their trip at an end. Just before eight o’clock the train reached Minnesota City, Minnesota. It was a special place for Chester. So much so he spent a good portion of his record of the days’ events of July 6 explaining why. “This is the Village where I spent my first night in the then Minnesota Teritory [sp],” he recalled. “That was the 14th night of August 1856. Along [sp] time ago. It was in this small village where I spent my boyhood days, and where I last attended school. as I look out at the few flickering light as we pass them swiftly by they bring back to memory many–many happy–sad–and varied–childhood days never to be forgotten.”

We can all relate to this moment. Returning back home to our childhood town. The flooding back of memories from our childhood. But few can relate to leaving your childhood home and city and going off to war, to be forever changed. “It was from this little City that I left my [affectionate] Father and Loving Mother to share the life of the Soldier upon the long tedious Marches and the bloody battle fields. And it is from one of these great battle fields with the few surviving comrades of the Old 1st Minnesota that we are returning.”

Durfee realized the inevitable of life in this moment, his generation was marching on. That this trip and the veterans that went with him were soon to move on into history themselves. And so we leave Chester Durfee on the train ride home. The steam engine stopping at depot after depot as more men of the Minnesota delegation of veterans disembark from perhaps their last trip to their former field of glory. For many, it would be the last time that they saw their fellow comrades. His current city and train depot several more stops down the line, and so to the final years of his life, Chester wrote of their remaining trip on this earth, “and only a very few more years will come and go, when we Old Comrades will have crossed to the other shore. We will now proceed to the end of our long Journey.”

5 Responses to Traveling to Gettysburg: Pt. 4

  1. Dan
    I’m from northwest Ohio and it was cool to hear they passed thru Toledo going West, I was born and raised in Montpelier and they would have traveled thru my hometown, thanks for the story.

  2. Dan
    Thanks for the story. I was born and raised in northwest Ohio, and they would have passed thru my town leaving Ohio.
    thanks again

  3. Hello Dan,

    What a fantastic story! I’m doing research on the 1913 Reunion and I would love to learn more about Chester Durfee. How can I find out more about him? Any information you have would be most helpful and appreciated!


  4. It’s heartbreaking that this civil war veteran who gave so much lies in an unmarked grave in the Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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