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

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14 Responses to “Chauncey, a Civil War soldier”

  1. Mark Ritchie Says:

    Thank you for this moving post – it is a good reminder of why we need to remember. MN Civil War history was part of this special day at the State Capitol http://tinyurl.com/3kwjsqe

    Mark Ritchie

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I think all too often we walk through a cemetery and don’t really stop to think about the individuals buried there (unless the person is a loved one). Every single person was loved by someone. When you pause to consider someone like Chauncey, a Civil War soldier who died serving his country, it really makes an impact when you consider how his family was impacted by his death.

  2. Dan Peterson Says:

    I am sorry. I was in that cemetery in late April and MISSED this stone. I will have to go to see it soon. Thanks for the info. DAN Peterson

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      This stone is quite difficult to miss. I wish I could give you the location, but, even though I’ve lived in the area for nearly 30 years, my sense of direction still is mixed up. If you figure out the specific meaning of why Chauncey would have a cannon on his tombstone. please stop back and share.

  3. A cannon seems to symbolize being in the artillery. St. Louis soldiers were housed in the swampy area near the river and disease such as malaria was rampant. Many soldiers’ lives were lost due to diseases such as this rather than actual battle wounds. It is still hard to see how many men and boys actually suffered and died in this war. We are a 150 years past this one and we still send men and boys to fight wars. Will there ever be an end?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for the info on the symbolism of the cannon. I figured it had something to do with his actual service assignment.

      Good question: Will we ever stop sending our boys and men off to war? I suppose not, if we are to keep freedom.

  4. Neil Says:

    I did a little research to find out more about that star.  It is taken from the GAR badge that members were authorized to wear.  You can easily find legible pictures of it on the internet.

    It is described as follows:  On each star is the symbol for the different aspects of the armed services (bugle for infantry, crossed swords for cavalry, crossed muskets for marines, cannons for artillery, anchor for navy).  The allegory at the center of the star depicts the goddess of liberty, representing loyalty. On either side, a soldier and sailor clasping hands, representing fraternity.  At their feet are two small children, meant to represent the protective nature of the armed forces as well as the charitable qualities of the GAR.  Alongside both the soldier and sailor are the national flag, the eagle, and the ax and bundle of rods, or fasco, representing union.  The inscription around the allegory reads “Grand Army of the Republic, 1861 – Veteran – 1866,” commemorating the commencement of the rebellion and the date of organization of the Order.
    There are also more symbols on the reverse side and clasp of the badge, but I’ll let the really curious look that up themselves.

  5. Bernie Says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I love it when you go out and about. You come back with the best stories and pictures.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, thanks, Bernie. I think you kind of miss Minnesota, which is why you especially appreciate my “Out and About” pieces. Now that summer is here, I should have more of these types of stories and images to share. In the winter, as you know, we kind of hibernate and I don’t so much like freezing my fingers to take photos.

  6. Dana Klest Says:

    Thank you for the beautifully moving words. Chauncey is the younger brother of my great-great grandfather, Robert Swartwoudt (Swartwood). I recently started researching this side of my family history. I have many ancestors who died for the Southern cause and am only recently discovering that the blood of my family was shed for both sides of a terrible argument.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You are most welcome, Dana. I found Chauncey’s gravestone so intriguing. It would behoove all of us to remember that these were once individuals who were loved by many.

      I’m curious as to where you live.


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