Many of Otter Tail County’s ‘founding fathers’ were Civil War veterans–including Scambler and Dunn

By Louis Hoglund

One need look no further than an Otter Tail County plat book to recognize how important veterans are to the history of the area.

Civil War veterans, specifically, during the early decades of Otter Tail’s evolution, played crucial roles in the developoment of the county.

The War Between the States, and the estimated 1,400 veterans that helped settle Otter Tail County, was the focus of a presentation at the Pelican Rapids Senior Center Oct. 5. Presenting was Missy Hermes, education coordinator at the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

Dunn Township, which surrounds most of the eastern shores of Pelican Lake, was named after Civil War veteran George W. Dunn. The resort village of Dunvilla was named after the family, and his son Roy brought the Lizzie lakes area into the modern era of the resort industry over most of the last century.

Just down the road from Dunn Township, on the west end of Pelican Lake, is Scambler Township–named after another Civil War veteran, Robert W. Scambler. Died in 1896 and buried in the Scambler Cemetery at the junction of County 9 and Highway 34, Scambler’s marker includes the distinctive bronze veterans star–except it is not a World War I or II star, it is G.A.R., for Lincoln’s fighting force: The Grand Army of the Republic.

Civil War veteran Robert Scambler’s gravesite at the intersection of County Road 9 and Highway 34, north of Pelican Rapids, at the Scambler Township cemetery.
Civil War veteran Robert Scambler’s gravesite at the Scambler Township cemetery.

The earliest military organizations in the county were the Veterans of the G.A.R., which included a substantial unit and Ladies Relief Corps Auxiliary in Pelican Rapids, said Hermes, who wore a vintage 1860s era dress for the presentation.

Just a few of the interesting facts Hermes presented about the Otter Tail County’s historic connection to the Civil War:

• Perhaps one of the best-known veterans was Ebenezer Corliss, for whom Corliss Township is named. He enlisted at age 19 in the Minnesota volunteers. He sustained a head wound in combat. He settled in Otter Tail County, was later elected to the legislature and played a role in the construction of the Capitol building in St. Paul.

• The backpack carried by Corliss is in the collection of the Otter Tail Historical Society, and Hermes displayed it and its contents–including the shoes he wore.

• Other places named after Civil War veterans: Buse, Butler and Everts Township. Clitherall was named after one of the few known Confederate veterans.

• There are about 150 Civil War veterans buried in one Fergus Falls cemetery alone. The Maine Township cemetery, across from the Presbyterian Church, has an unusually high number of Civil War veterans for a rural area. “I’ve spotted a number of Civil War veteran gravesites in my walks through Pelican area cemeteries. However, grave markers are largely dominated by the names of Scandinavian immigrants–the vast majority of whom immigrated at least a decade after the Civil War ended,” said Hermes.

• The Homestead Act brought many of the veterans to Otter Tail. As a benefit for those who served, the United States “discounted” the required five years required to fulfill a land claim. The typical tour of duty being three years during the Civil War, a veteran could own a quarter of land free and clear after only two years.

• A number of African American veterans, mostly former slaves, settled in Otter Tail. In fact, at one time, Otter Tail County had the third largest popultion of African Americans in the state.

Former slave Prince Honeycutt was a mess boy during the war, at ten years old, and followed his officer to Fergus Falls–where he later opened a Barber Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Nelson Preston was a black soldier for the Union Army, who participated in President Lincoln’s second inaugural parade. He came north to homestead near Deer Creek, later moved to the Dent area, and is buried in the Dent cemetery.

Civil War nurse Maria Jane Blaisdell came to Otter Tail with her husband, who carried psychological wounds from the war–and was a patient at the Fergus Falls State Hospital. She was an early activist, lobbying both in St. Paul and in Washington D.C. for a pension for the nurses who served. She died in 1917–unsuccessful in gaining pensions for Civil War nurses.

Missy Hermes delivers Civil War prorgram at Pelican Rapids Senior Center Oct. 6.
Missy Hermes delivers Civil War prorgram at Pelican Rapids Senior Center Oct. 6.

• One of the earlier newspaper editors in Fergus Falls, O.S. King, was a survivor of one of the Confederate Prisoner of War camps–at Libby Prison, Virginia. An early Fergus Falls Police Chief, Daniel Sullivan, was a survivor of the most notorious of the Confederate Camps: Andersonville.

We often wonder how ideologically aware or committed many of the boys and young men who enlisted actually were–at the time. Mass media was not what is is today, especially in rural America.

Was “going off to war” more or less an exciting adventure for these young men?

Or did they have deep philosophical concerns over the Confederate cause, the importance of preserving the union; a deep moral opposition to slavery?

A passage in the Ebenezer Corliss diary clearly states that he was informed and committed to the objective of “…Crushing out the vile and ever degrading Southern institution of slavery…”