Curt Brown
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Jim Johnson started delving into genealogy in 2019 when he retired after 21 years in the U.S. Army and another two decades sorting mail at the Brainerd post office.

"As I dug into my family tree, one document kept popping up and I couldn't figure out what it was," said Johnson, 65.

The mysterious document, he learned with surprise, was a Civil War pension stub for his great-great-great grandfather, Israel Stephens, who is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery outside Palisade, Minn. "No one even knew he was a veteran," Johnson said.

Since that discovery, Johnson has started transporting dusty historical research into the present with a dizzying schedule of 2024 cemetery ceremonies across Minnesota that he hopes will "keep green" the memories of long-forgotten soldiers in blue.

Johnson will be donning his Civil War-era uniform several times this summer, crisscrossing the state to mark the graves of the last Union soldier buried in a number of Minnesota counties. He's junior vice commander of William Colvill Camp 56, a hardcore group of history buffs that make up the sole Minnesota branch of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW). On Saturday, he will set out from his home in Brainerd to coordinate a recognition ceremony at Greenwood Cemetery in Park Rapids.

"When we take the oath and muster into the organization," Johnson said, "we make an obligation to keep green their memories."

The period-costume-wearing volunteers of Camp 56 have placed Last Soldier markers in 36 Minnesota counties so far and will have 50 to go after the ceremony next weekend for Missouri native Frank Teus, a private who served with a Wisconsin regiment in 1865.

After the war, Teus managed the Rest Haven resort on Lake Emma near Park Rapids until his death at 89 in 1936, according to Nancy Newman of the Hubbard County Historical Museum.

While planning Saturday's event, a member of the group mentioned to Johnson that World War II hero Lloyd Hawks, a Medal of Honor recipient, is also buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

"We honor them all," Johnson said. "So after we gather at Frank Teus' grave, we'll walk over and commemorate Lloyd Hawks."

The youngest of seven siblings, Hawks was born in Becker, Minn., in 1911. He served as an Army medic in North Africa and Italy in 1942-43. Crawling 100 yards through machine gun fire, Pfc. Hawks rescued two wounded soldiers during a fierce battle near Carano, Italy, on Jan. 30, 1944. Bullets shattered his hip and splintered his left forearm but failed to stop him from rescuing the injured soldiers.

A year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Hawks the Medal of Honor — the military's highest decoration — "for gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life."

Said Hawks at the time: "Sure, I gave aid to a good many wounded men under fire, but there's nothing remarkable about that. After all that's what a medical soldier is supposed to do, isn't it?"

Hawks stayed in the Army and served in Korea before suffering a fatal heart attack at 42 in 1953. His 1940 draft card shows him living in Fergus Falls, about 90 miles southwest of Teus' resort on Emma Lake. The two veterans of different wars are buried near each other at Greenwood Cemetery — and Johnson, a soldier from the post-Vietnam War era, will help honor them both.

Camp 56 is named after Col. William Colvill of Red Wing, who commanded Minnesota soldiers at Gettysburg before serving as attorney general and in the Legislature. Johnson regularly posts updates on the group's Facebook page (

In 2022, Johnson helped honor Pvt. Elias Fenstermacher, the final Union soldier buried in Crow Wing County. Fenstermacher served as a so-called powder monkey, distributing gun powder to cannon blasters. After the war he farmed near Winona and then Brainerd, where he died at 97 in 1948.

"There was no doubt at all that he's the last [in Crow Wing County] because nobody came close to that age," Johnson said.

Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, organized in 1881, includes 6,000 members across the country; there are about 50 members in the Department of Wisconsin, which includes Minnesota. In 1954, Congress chartered the group to succeed the Grand Army of the Republic — the organization of Union veterans that ended in 1956 when the last of the three million veterans, former drummer boy Albert Woolson of Duluth, died at the reported age of 109.

Johnson and his compatriots' busy summer schedule includes trips to Jasper Cemetery in southwestern Minnesota and Polk County cemeteries in the state's northwest corner, along with more than 20 other stops. (

"The members of Camp No. 56 consider the Last Soldier ceremony an honor and a fitting tribute for a Union soldier whose service helped preserve the liberties Americans enjoy as a nation today," Johnson said.

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