Fargo-Moorhead honors former slave
Markus Krueger watched with interest as the controversy over whether to take down Confederate monuments roiled the South.
A self-described Civil War nerd and program director for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Krueger says he thought, “Do you know who deserves a statute more than Robert E. Lee? Felix Battles,” an African-American who fought for the Union Army and settled in Moorhead shortly after the town formed in the 1870s.
So Krueger decided to build a statute to him, and local residents have enthusiastically put up the money for the idea.
“Fargo-Moorhead is a lot more multiethnic and multicultural than we have a reputation for being,” Krueger said. He noted that the community has opened its doors to refugees since after World War II and now has a sizable population of Kurdish, Sudanese and Bosnian residents.
Mark Peihl, a senior archivist with the county’s historical society, had been researching Battles for 30 years and compiled a thick file on him.
Battles was born into slavery on a cotton plantation outside of Memphis and somehow won his freedom — no one knows how — before the start of the Civil War. He worked on steamboats that plied the Mississippi from St. Paul, then on Aug. 8, 1864, Krueger said, “he risks everything to join the [Union] Army.”
Battles served with the 18th United States Colored Infantry, where he rose to the rank of corporal.
“As a member of this regiment he took part in the crucial Battle of Nashville, a Union victory that brought Battles back to his home state of Tennessee and effectively took the Confederate Army out of the western theater of the Civil War,” the historical society says. “After the war, Battles worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad that brought him to the Red River Valley. He then worked as a traveling barber before setting up his own shop in Moorhead. A stroke forced him into retirement in 1905.” He died two years later.
No photographs of Battles exist, so Krueger, an artist, based the design on an unidentified black soldier in a Civil War photograph. He initially thought of commemorating Battles in a painting. Then it dawned on him that his neighbor, Lyle Landstrom, had a foundry. Krueger said he figured he could make something out of steel for less than $500. (Landstrom agreed to donate his labor.)
“Of course, that was before the trade war with China, so we raised the budget to $1,000,” he said.
Krueger decided to pass the hat in May at his monthly talk, called “History on Tap!” at the Junkyard Brewing Co. in Moorhead. The historical society backed the idea, making contributions tax-deductible, and by the time he got to the fundraiser he said he was just $15 shy of the goal.
At last check, contributors have given nearly $1,500. It’s unclear where the statue will go, Krueger said, but he hopes to have it in place “before the snow flies.” It could go near the site of Battles’ old house, which is now a parking lot on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus. Or someplace in downtown Moorhead, which is undergoing a renewal effort.
The historical society says Battles deserves recognition:
“Throughout our national history, stories like Felix’s have been intentionally and systematically overlooked or erased. Our difficulties researching his life affirm this: no birth certificate, no photographs, no personal artifacts. His first public record? An anonymous listing in an 1850 slave schedule in Shelby County, Tennessee. His next? A name, Felix, in an 1856 Mississippi probate inventory. One of 68 slaves. A 13-yr-old worth $600.”
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493