In December of 1864, Minnesota infantry sergeant Henry Mills suffered a grave leg wound at the battle Nashville, as the U.S. Army virtually destroyed what was left of the Confederate forces outside of Virginia.
The wound was bad. Mills’ leg was amputated later. But in the heat of the battle, quick action was crucial — he took the shirt from a fallen Confederate soldier and wrapped his wound, stanching the blood enough to save his life.
And you can still see the result: the brown, rough woven shirt is still stained with his blood, more than 150 years later. His family saved it all those years, as a memento of his sacrifice, and have now made it among the rare Civil War battlefield artifacts held by the Minnesota Historical Society.
“I can't speak to where it's been,” says curator Sondra Reierson. “But in this past February, the donor reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, I know you were interested in this years ago. And if you're still interested, now we're ready to donate.’ It’s very generous.”
It joins the state’s most famous artifact, the battle flag captured from the 28th Virginia Infantry at one of the direst moments of the war during the battle of Gettysburg.
Like the flag, the uniform shirt is very unusual. Both originated among the enemy ranks. And battle in the 19th century was very destructive for the uniforms, weapons and equipment that actually took the field.
“Any item that survives the battlefield is extremely rare. And this one is particularly unique,” Reierson says. “Of all the Civil War Era uniforms in our holdings, virtually none of them were worn on the field, because these men were wearing these clothes to shreds.”
The society has about 1,000 Civil War artifacts in its collection, reflecting the state’s status as the first to offer troops to president Abraham Lincoln, and the 1st Minnesota volunteer regiment’s famed repulse of the Confederate charge on the second day of the battle at Gettysburg.
The shirt has been photographed and documented, and will soon be available to view in the society’s internet archive. It isn’t out and available for viewing, however, as it doesn’t have an exhibit yet.
But improvements at the Fort Snelling historical site will eventually host a rotating display of Minnesota military artifacts, and Reierson says that may be a fitting setting, since Mills himself mustered out there — possibly with the shirt in hand — when the war ended in 1865.
Reierson says the shirt also has a bit of a puzzle yet to be solved — the pocket flaps are embroidered with the intials J and B; possibly a clue for a future scholar to figure out who fell on the battlefield wearing it.
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