By Dean Cameron
Above, the 1st Minnesota Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg. Image courtesy of the National Guard. Harrison Lyons served in the 1st Minnesota, and was wounded at Gettysburg. Read more below.
My wife and I had the pleasure to care for my grandfather in his declining years. We heard all sorts of stories of when he was a young man that enriched our lives beyond measure. Those stories will carry on to my children and grandchildren.
My great-grandfather Fred Cameron was born to John J. Cameron and Permelia (Millie) Lyons in Wadena County Minnesota. My grandfather had told me that his grandfather had four brothers who died at Gettysburg. It turned out that they were not brothers, but rather brothers-in-law, and did their stories ever turn into a treasure trove of history!
I collected the following historical text on my grandfather’s great grand uncle, Harrison Lyons, with the help of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Co, a Re-enactment Troupe in Ft Schnelling, Minnesota:
Harrison Lyons was born in Chautauqua County, New York on May 31, 1841. In 1855, the family moved to Shakopee, Minnesota.
He was the third of four brothers, all of whom served during the Civil War. Stephan, the oldest, (born 1839) and Harrison served together in company A of the 1st Minnesota Infantry. George F (born 1841) served in the 9th Minnesota and John L, the youngest (born 1847) served in the 11th Minnesota.
At 6′ 2″ tall, Harrison was one of the taller enlisted men in the regiment. Colonel William Colvill was 6′ 5″. Harrison was now 19 years old, had a fair complexion, light colored hair and blue eyes.
On June 29, 1862, at Savage Station, while charging a Confederate artillery battery, he was wounded by a piece of shell cutting the right side of his right knee. The regiment retreated. He was left on the field for five days before he was found and taken prisoner. He was taken to a field hospital, but the hospitals were already full of sick and wounded. He lay on the ground without shelter for another ten days, all the time being exposed to heat, cold and rain. Then, at some time between August 10 and 20, he was moved to the Libby Prison Hospital in Richmond. He was exchanged six weeks after his capture.
Harrison was sent to recover at the hospital located at 4th and George Streets in Philadelphia. He was there during August and September, 1862. Dr. Gross, who treated him, told him that he would have a weak knee for the rest of his life.
On the arduous march toward Gettysburg in late June 1863, many otherwise strong men were laid prostrate by the hot sun. Many men from the first fell out along the way and did not participate in the charge on July 2, 1863 because they were somewhere behind, still working to catch up with the army. Many did make it in time to participate in the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3.
Later in life Lyons said, “In regard to the battle of Gettysburg, The First Minnesota were the only troops from this state in the battle. As I was a member of this regiment I don’t feel like telling what they did. Will say, however, that on the second of July when the 3rd corps were overpowered and driven back in confusion and the rebels were nearly breaking our line, Minnesota was there. On the third of July when the rebel general Pickett, made his grand charge, Minnesota was there, and so were the brave soldiers from Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin and General Stanley’s brave Vermont brigade…. At Gettysburg, for the first time, I saw commission[ed] officers picking up pebbles and rocks to throw at the rebels and I saw artillerymen of Cushing’s Battery use their swabs to bat back the rebels.”
Lyons was mustered out with the regiment on May 5, 1864, though Harrison was absent sick at the time.
Shortly thereafter, he enlisted as a substitute for someone who had been drafted. That person would have paid Harrison a cash fee of some amount for Harrison to take his place in the Army. He was placed in the 9th Minnesota Infantry, thus serving with his brother, George. Harrison was the drillmaster for the 9th. He was mustered out at Fort Snelling, for the second and final time, on May 11, 1865.
After the war, he settled back into the life of a farmer. He lived in Shakopee for a while. On December 3, 1866, Harrison was married to Miss Sarah Elizabeth Moore. He and Sarah settled in Duluth, Minnesota. They had three children. In 1876, they decided to move to Wadena. Sarah died in Wayzata, on October 20, 1875, during the trip.
Harrison started his farm in the small community of Aldrich, Wadena County. He soon married an Irish girl named Ann Gillespie. There were no children by that marriage. Later he divorced Ann.
Harrison developed rheumatism as a result of his war time injury. By 1887, he was not able to work as a farmer more than half the time. In 1888, he was confined to his bed for most of the winter. In 1889, he was stricken again and laid up for nearly a year. With that he gave up farming all together and moved from his farm to the village of Verndale.
On March 6, 1890, he married a Flora Wright in Hubbard, Minnesota. He was 49. Having been born in 1853, she was 37. They had two children. Minnie died, as an infant, on June 13, 1890. The other, Isaac Lyons, grew up to be a soldier, as well. Unfortunately, Isaac died in battle in the Argonne Forest during World War I. The only child to survive Harrison was Effie (Lyons) Castle, from his first marriage. She lived in Woodburn, Oregon.
Harrison lived for a while at the Soldiers Home in Minneapolis. He was there from June 5 to June 15, 1890. Apparently he had difficulty writing because of a bad arm. His handwriting on the admission papers was practically illegible. At the time the doctor wrote that “unless God intervenes in a dramatic way he (Harrison) will lose his arm at the shoulder.” But Harrison didn’t lose his arm. He kept it for the remaining 35 years of his life. He asked to be discharged after only 10 days and returned to his home near Verndale, just outside the town of Wadena.
Harrison was an influential member of the Verndale community. He was County Commissioner for Wadena from 1876 through 1917. He sold property, farmed, and was a County Clerk and Justice of the Peace.
Charles Parker, a comrade from their days in the First Minnesota, also lived in Verndale and they were best of friends. The two of them went on exploratory excursions in northern Minnesota as they surveyed much of the land up there. Lyons State Forest is named after Harrison.
He became destitute when his health prevented him from working his jobs. By the late 1880s, his circumstances were so bad that the First Minnesota association collected money to aid him. He attended many reunions and is pictured in several of the reunion photos. He was a Commander of the CC Parker GAR Post in Verndale. He enjoyed attending the reunions of the First Minnesota veterans. His last reunion was in 1923, when only three veterans attended. They had a large bottle of wine the “Last Man” was to open and drink a final toast to his comrades. The last three decided it would be a shame if they all died in the same year so they opened it to have a toast together. Once they had opened the bottle and sampled the wine they were disappointed to find out that it had turned sour! That bottle of wine is now on display in a glass case at the state capital in St Paul.
Harrison died at the Wesley Hospital in Wadena, Minnesota, on April 25, 1925. He was 83 years old. He was buried in the Verndale Cemetery, Section S4, Lot 46. The local newspaper, The Verndale Sun, called him, “The Grand Old Man of Wadena County.”