Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Chauncey, a Civil War soldier June 4, 2011

The grave of Chauncey Swartwoudt at the Cannon City Cemetery.

THE NAME ON HIS TOMBSTONE is barely readable as my husband, Randy, struggles to decipher the letters that form “Chauncey Swartwoudt.”

I like how the name rolls off my tongue—the Chauncey part at least. I’m unsure how to pronounce his surname.

He means nothing to me. His is just another tombstone marked by an American flag, among many in a Minnesota country cemetery.

A close-up of Chauncey's tombstone, decorated for Memorial Day.

Yet, because of the size of this grave marker and the rectangular border surrounding it, I am drawn to this spot in the Cannon City Cemetery on Memorial Day.

When I lean in close, I discover more. Or, more accurately, Randy uncovers a veteran’s star with difficult-to-read words. He decodes “The Grand Army of the Republic.” GAR equals veterans of the Union Army who served in the Civil War.

Randy pulls back foliage to reveal a GAR star with words that are barely readable and a design that we can't clearly see. Does anyone know what design graces the center of these old GAR stars?

Chauncey was mustered into the military on August 8, 1862, at the age of 22. He served as a Union Army private with Company C, Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. Two years, one month and three days later, on September 11, 1864, at the age of 24, he died at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.

He was a soldier, the son of Henry and Catherine and brother of Charles. (He may have  had other siblings, but my quick research reveals only Charles.)

Nine years after Chauncey’s death, on March 15, 1873, Charles and Elizabeth Swartwoudt named their new-born son after his uncle. Little Chauncey lived only three years.

This is all I know about the elder Chauncey who fought in the Civil War, who died far from his Minnesota home. A young man of only 24, his entire life ahead of him.

Why did he die?

Detailed artwork, in the form of a cannon and cannonballs are engraved on Chauncey's tombstone.

Why is a cannon, with stacked cannonballs, etched into the cold stone of his grave marker? I’ve visited many Minnesota cemeteries and never seen such detailed art on the marker of a Civil War soldier.

It’s not like I should care. I have no connection to Chauncey. Yet I do care. He was a soldier, a son, a brother. I am a mother and a sister. He came home in a box. And a mother wept.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling