ROSEVILLE, Minn. — For Julie Rupert of Roseville, Minn., something good came out of the pandemic year of 2020, something 157 years in the making.
“It sat in a box wrapped in good paper in my closet for years. I just didn’t have time to deal with it, but with COVID, I finally found the time,” Rupert said.
“It” is a blood-stained shirt once worn by a Confederate soldier and forever remembered for its part in saving the life of Rupert’s great-grandfather, Henry L. Mills, during the Civil War. Rupert just donated it to the Minnesota State Historical Society.
Tucked away in that box folded and stiff from dried blood and years, it is more than a homespun woolen shirt. It is the visual reminder of one Minnesotan who survived the state’s bloodiest Civil War battle.
'It just got passed down'
Rupert never knew her great-grandfather. She is descended from his youngest child and only daughter, Alice. It was Alice and her daughter Dorothy (Rupert’s mother) who shared the story about Grandpa Henry and his shirt.
“It just got passed down through the years,” Rupert says. “His wife told my grandma, then grandma told my mom and my mom told me.”
Born in Prussia (now part of Germany) in 1833, Mills immigrated to the United States when he was just 5 years old, moving first with his family to Ohio, then Minnesota. When the Civil War broke out when he was 28, the deeply patriotic young man volunteered for the 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company H.
By all accounts, Mills was a strong and obedient soldier getting promoted from private to corporal to sergeant within two years. But Sgt. Mills, like hundreds of other Minnesotans, would face his greatest challenge fighting in Tennessee for what would come to be known as “The Battle of Nashville.”
Minnesota's bloodiest day
The Battle of Nashville took place from Dec. 15 to 16, 1864. It represented the end of large-scale fighting west of the coastal states and is considered one of the largest victories achieved by the Union Army during the war.
Minnesotans, nicknamed “snow diggers” by other Union troops, played a pivotal role leading a decisive charge up Shy’s Hill and capturing rebel fortifications. But it came at a cost. Eighty-seven Minnesota men were killed during the Dec. 16 battle, making it the state’s bloodiest day of the Civil War.
“Here in Nashville we have long recognized the role played by the Minnesota troops in the battle,” said John Allyn, president of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, during a 2014 dedication of a monument on the battlefield in memory of fallen Minnesotans.
Help from the fallen
The same day as the charge up Shy’s Hill, Mills became one of 54 soldiers in his regiment wounded in battle when a bullet tore through his right foot. As he crawled off the field — blood pouring from his wound — he used a rebel shirt to stop the bleeding.
In a memo, Minnesota State Historical Society Curator Sondra Reierson said it seems likely when Mills found the shirt it was probably still on the body of a fallen Confederate soldier.
"A massive ice storm hit Middle Tennessee a week before the battle and much of General Hood’s Army of Tennessee lacked sufficient food, clothing, and shelter. Therefore, it is unlikely this shirt would have been discarded, especially on the battlefield. Instead, Mills likely removed it from a fallen soldier’s body; a tear in one seam supports this theory," she wrote.
The shirt saved Mills from bleeding to death. He eventually had his foot amputated and was sent back to St. Paul. He married wife Isabelle right after the war. Records show the couple had five children together from 1866 to 1885. Rupert said after farming near Brown’s Valley, her great grandparents came back to the Twin Cities where Henry became a justice of the peace. Here is a newspaper article from 1902 when he sought the nomination.
He remained a patriot who attended reunions of Civil War soldiers when he could , living to the ripe old age of 92.
“I think he was pretty amazing,” Rupert said.
'A much better place'
Through the years, Rupert’s grandmother Alice (Henry’s daughter) donated a few other Civil War artifacts to the historical society. But she held onto the shirt, perhaps not quite ready to part with the coarse old Linsey Woolsey shirt still stained with her father’s blood. She then gave it to her daughter, who then gave it to Rupert, who says she believes it was both her grandmother and mother’s wishes for it to go to the historical society. The shirt will eventually be on display at Historic Fort Snelling. Rupert said despite the shirt being in the family for more than 150 years, she wasn’t tempted to keep it in the family for 150 more.
“I am happy to give it away,” she said. “Now more people can learn from it or be interested in it. It's a much better place for it. Much better.”