BLUFFTON - In an unassuming country cemetery, a group gathered Saturday, May 22, to remember the life and sacrifice of a Civil War veteran with connections to central Minnesota, Private Frank Fairbrother.
Fairbrother fought in and was wounded in perhaps the most pivotal day of combat in American history. Like the roughly 2,500 Minnesotans killed in the Civil War, Fairbrother went to battle ready to die for the country. After being wounded in two different battles, the tables turned for the Union Army. Several months after Fairbrother's death, with the soil still fresh over his grave, President Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address.
Ron Windels of the New York Mills VFW recited that address before the crowd. Lincoln spoke about the world not recalling the speech -- "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
Pioneer Cemetery president Paul Sailer said the message of the Gettysburg address still rings of importance today in an age where the country continues to fight over rights and beliefs. Many have perhaps forgotten the history of this place. If not for the ultimate sacrifice made by men like Fairbrother, there's no telling where the nation would be today. Lincoln's words were not just remembered and recited generations after, they still hold true.
"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Pioneer Cemetery is in such a location that most would never see it without searching for it. The small, but well kept green space only improved with the recent addition of a granite bench in honor of Fairbrother, and distant relative of Lois Sailer of Wadena. Sailer is also mentioned on the bench in order for folks to make the connection of this Civil War veteran from Maine to this ridge outside of Wadena.
Had it not been for an interview Lois and Paul Sailer of Wadena had with Pearle Burnham, Lois’ grandmother, they’d have never learned that Frank was a great uncle to Pearle. Nor would they have known the story of a young man who paid the great price of his life when told to hold his position no matter what.
It’s now been nearly 160 years since Fairbrother was claimed by war. The Memorial Bench sits in a way so those sitting on it will look upon Lois’ headstone. Lois had visited Frank’s hometown in Maine and was very interested in his sacrifice and finding some way to honor him. After her death eighteen months ago the family, with the support of the Pioneer Cemetery Association, decided to honor Private Fairbrother by placing the Memorial Bench in the cemetery for all to use.
“Lois and I had talked about honoring Private Fairbrother’s sacrifice in some way,” Paul Sailer said. “When Lois died in December 2019, I decided the bench was a way we could do this as the cemetery needed a bench. So, the association provided the lot and I paid for the bench.”
You can visit the site to remember their lives and many more at 62203 Otter Tail County Highway 144, Wadena. According to Missy Hermes, an education coordinator with the Otter Tail County Historical Society, about 1,200 Civil War veterans had connections to Otter Tail County, where the cemetery is located. Hermes also attended the event dressed in a mourning dress from the Civil War period.
Here’s Frank’s story of service to his country, as researched and written by local author, historian and president of the Pioneer Cemetery Association Paul Sailer:
Nineteen-year-old Frank Fairbrother and 998 officers and men were sworn into Federal service on Aug. 14, 1863, as the newly formed 16th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The unit served with the Army of the Potomac, whose primary opponent was General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On Dec. 13, 1862, Private Fairbrother received a gunshot wound in his Regiment’s first engagement, the Battle of Fredericksburg, a Confederate victory.
He spent four months convalescing in a military hospital, returning in time to participate in a second major Southern triumph, the crushing defeat of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Lee’s army invaded the North in June. The two armies clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of July 1. A victory by General Lee would likely secure international support for the Confederate States of America and doom President Lincoln’s goals of reuniting the country and ending slavery in the South.
After eleven months in the field, Private Fairbrother’s regiment had lost 75% of its soldiers from disease and combat deaths. On the afternoon of July 1 this small regiment, and the brigade and division that it belonged to, defended the area north of Gettysburg that was under attack by a much larger enemy force. The longer these Union soldiers held out, the better the chances for the main body of the Army of the Potomac to gain control of the critically important high ground known as Cemetery Ridge, a long ridge located on the south edge of Gettysburg.
The regimental historian reports that late in the afternoon the division commander, General Robinson, ordered the 16th Maine to “hold their position at any cost.” When they were finally overrun, they were the last of the five regiments of the brigade to leave the “extreme front.” Only four officers and thirty-eight men out of two hundred and fifty reached the safety of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge.
Private Fairbrother was wounded on July 1, dying eight days later. His remains are buried alongside his comrades in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg.
The three day battle resulted in 51,000 casualties, the most ever in one battle on the North American continent. The 600,000 Union and Confederate deaths in the Civil War exceeded the combined total of all the lives lost in America’s other wars.