It was certainly a quest. The cemetery seemed out in the middle of nowhere, an abandoned graveyard amidst a grove of tall trees and tangled underbrush.
Henry Abbott’s final resting place wasn’t easy to find. The old limestone grave markers were small and nearly invisible under the vegetation that grew around them. After a bit of searching, however, there they were — little white headstones hidden from view and nearly lost to history. The whole experience was spiritual to say the least, a true quest for history that ended on an all but forgotten piece of hallowed ground.
We had just finished filming an episode of “History Quest,” the somewhat zany McLeod County Historical Society show broadcast on HCVN. Each month, Liz Marcus, station coordinator, and Matt Steinhaus, editor, and I head out somewhere in the county in search of a historical site — one that is typically tied to the stories I write each week.
Thanks to two good friends of mine, I’d recently discovered the story of Koniska and Henry Abbott, a Civil War hero who tragically died nearby. So for the October episode of “History Quest,” I asked the HCVN crew to accompany me to the site of the old Koniska bridge — a rusting relic tucked inside a patch of woods.
Since none of us had ever been to Koniska, it took a bit of searching for the bridge. We drove down Koniska street, down the highway, pass the Koniska cemetery, and finally found the bridge in full view. It was a simple looking iron bridge, and it was interesting enough.
We closed out the show by the Koniska sign and headed back to the car. And yet, the bridge and the sign were not enough to satisfy our “quest” for history on that day. In the car, while driving back to Hutch, Marcus, the show’s producer, decided that we should go out looking for Henry Abbott. We should find his grave and film part of the show there. Surely, finding the resting place of an old war hero would be a great addition to the show.
Marcus used her phone to find the spot. She led us out into the “sticks,” a place covered in cropland with a few wooded groves about. It seemed, at the time, a wild goose chase. We teased our “guide” for leading us astray and began backtracking. We then called for the help of someone who had once before been to the site and began a second trek to the cemetery.
Much to our surprise, and to the pleasure of our producer, we found ourselves back in the same spot, staring at the same wooded grove in the middle of farm country.
After some deliberation, we decided to walk out to the grove and search for the cemetery. The walk turned into more of a hike — a trek down an old field road where the grass grew tall in the ditch. At the end of the road was the grove. Being mid-autumn, the trees in the grove were losing their leaves. They fell like little pieces of orange confetti, gently and quietly making their descent from the sky to the cold ground below.
On the edge of the trees sat an upturned concrete pillar, a sure indication that we were in the correct place. As we entered the grove, we were treated to a sight that was far different than what I had anticipated. Instead of a clearing marked with neat and tidy headstones, we were treated to a mass tangle of vines, thorns and “buckbrush.” Still on a quest, however, we made our way through the mess of underbrush, stepping over fallen tree limbs and trudging through briar patches that tore at our feet and legs.
The first headstone came in sight, it was tiny and barely visible among the vegetation. As we pushed on further, we began discovering more headstones. Nearly all the inscriptions were eroded away so that we could not tell who was buried there. Finally, a large marker came into view, and we knew we had the one we were searching for.
Anxiously, we tore at the briars that obscured the headstone, ignoring the stickers that clung to our clothes and tore at our skin. Suddenly, there it was, an inscription that named the man buried below as Henry Abbott. A bit more searching through the underbrush revealed the G.A.R. grave marker — letting people know that Henry served the Union Army during the American Civil War.
We stood there among the hidden headstones, the fallen leaves, the trees that were growing bare, and found ourselves transfixed at the grave before us — knowing that below our feet lay a true war hero, one of the few survivors of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. A man that took part in the famous charge that may have been the very thing to save the Union from defeat in 1863.
Reflecting on the entire journey to the spot, beginning with the story handed down to me by a friend, I could not find words, and still can’t fully explain the way I felt. I’ve been to cemeteries, to monuments and historic sites — yet for the first time, I truly had a sense of standing on hallowed ground. It was a fitting end to our episode of “History Quest,” and an even more fitting end to my story of Henry Abbott — a war hero who is not forgotten and will live on for at least one more lifetime.