Curt Brown
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After the Civil War erupted in 1861, a 26-year-old brick maker named Axel Hayford Reed left his home in Glencoe, Minn., to join Company K of the 2nd Minnesota Infantry Regiment.

Two years into the war, Reed found himself under military arrest in Tennessee for writing a letter to the Nashville Union newspaper, complaining that soldiers' rations had been cut and distributed instead to "rebel citizens and deserters." The anonymous letter was traced back to him, prompting his superiors to jail him for breaching discipline.

"I spent last night in the guard-house, a prisoner for the first time in my life," he wrote in his diary in July 1863. A few days later, he added: "It is humiliating to be under arrest, but as long as I am not conscious of having committed any wrong, I do not feel in the least humiliated."

Within two months, Reed would go from hoosegow to heroics. On Sept. 19, 1863, while still under arrest, he bolted unarmed from his place in the rear, grabbed a wounded soldier's musket and fought with "distinguished gallantry" for two days at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.

That was enough to drop the discipline charge and send Reed back into the fray. Two months later, on Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tenn., Reed — by then commanding Company K — fired at a fleeing Confederate soldier mounting his horse.

Before he was able to load again, a minie ball "struck my right arm, shattering the bone for eight inches above the elbow," Reed wrote in a 1915 book he compiled about his family going back to the 1600s (you can read a digital version of the book at

Reed stanched the bleeding by tying a strap torn from his haversack above the wound. While Union soldiers celebrated their victory, he caught a ride on a mule-driven wagon to the Army hospital in Chattanooga 3 miles away, where the arm was amputated on Nov. 25, 1863.

After recovering from the wound, Reed declined to take a disability discharge and instead joined Gen. William Sherman's "March to the Sea," fighting through the war's end. The War Department cited his acts of bravery in 1898 when at the age of 63 he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest award granted by the United States for military valor.

During his nearly four years in the Union Army, Reed moved quickly from private to sergeant and first lieutenant, but upon his return to Glencoe "locals called him Captain Reed," according to Ron Pulkrabek, 86, a local history buff who's researched Reed's life. "He was full of energy. Having only one arm did not slow him down."

After the war, Reed opened a mercantile store, built a grain elevator and published the Glencoe Enterprise newspaper from 1878 to 1889. A Republican, he was elected to the state House in 1869 and served as a McLeod County commissioner from 1876 to 1878.

He organized and ran the First State Bank of Glencoe, managed wheat farms and developed an apple orchard, and helped bring the railroad to town. He was credited with constructing a railroad from Albert Lea to Mankato.

And Reed did it all with just one arm for the last 52 years of his life, according to Pulkrabek: "Axel was overly energetic, working up to 18 hours a day. He should be considered the 'Founder of Glencoe.' ''

As amazing as those 52 years were, I like an anecdote from Reed's early years. Born in Maine in 1835 as the youngest of seven children, Reed was 7 when his mother died. He kept working on the family farm — enduring "the monotony of a farm life" — until he turned 19 and his father relented to his son's constant lobbying, letting him head west in 1855.

His father gave him $5 and a prediction: "You will always be poor."

Reed and his wife, Hannah, raised four children after their 1869 wedding. Grandson Edward W. Reed donated the two bullets removed from Axel's amputated arm to the Meeker County Museum at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, Litchfield.

When Reed died at 81 in 1917, his obituary in the Minneapolis Tribune heralded him as "one of the most vigorous, positive, energetic figures in the history of Minnesota. Though more than 50 years had passed since he really was a captain, his military title endured as the best familiar description of the man, for he was a captain in his community all his mature years."

The obituary credited his Civil War service and surviving amputation as factors that led Reed "to keep on fighting all the rest of his days — fighting because he was too honest a man to compromise, and too courageous in his convictions to keep still. This was the reason he became a positive, wholesome force."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: