Hidden heroes: Veterans group works to honor Minnesota's Civil War soldiers

There’s a history project playing out in cemeteries across the state of Minnesota.

A veteran’s group known as the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War is researching the names of all the Minnesotans who joined the Union Army.

There are about 24,000 troops from Minnesota who joined up, but the group has only been able to gather 11,000 names so far.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, when the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Minnesota's governor, Alexander Ramsey, was in Washington, D.C. Ramsey immediately promised President Lincoln a regiment of 1,000 volunteer soldiers from Minnesota. These were the first troops offered to fight for the United States during the Civil War.

When researchers embarked on this project, they started noticing something was missing. Many of the soldiers were lying in unmarked graves. So the project took another turn and they’ve started applying to U.S. Veterans Affairs for military headstones, which are provided by the government for veterans.

"We realized there’s a lot of these guys that don’t have headstones and the headstone is free from the VA," says Gary Carlberg with Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. "As a veteran of multiple deployments, it bothered me," he added.

Carlberg estimates that there are at least 1,000 unmarked graves of Union soldiers in Minnesota. 

Over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the group dedicated 20 new headstones for graves at Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul. The service was one part military funeral and one part historical re-enactment with some participants wearing the dress of the 1860s. Last year, the Sons of the Union Veterans in Minnesota dedicated 27 headstones and this year they hope to do 250.   

In addition to sending the first troops, Minnesota is also home to the last surviving Union Civil War veteran. Albert Henry Woolson died in 1956 in Duluth, Minn. at the age of 106.

If you’re interested in helping to research names, you can contact the group on Facebook.