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Upholding a 152-year tradition

Fritsche nears 50 years as member of New Ulm Battery

History is about stories, both great and sad. It’s about real people, places and events from another time.

For John Fritsche, 75, of New Ulm, his connection to history for the past 49 years has been in a familiar place. He stands at his post and gives orders to a gun crew for the next thunderous roar of a vintage Civil War cannon fired by the civilian artillery unit of the New Ulm Battery.

As the oldest remaining member of the New Ulm Battery, Fritsche’s pride and dedication is self-evident in upholding a tradition of men who, for 152 years, have carried on by fulfilling many roles in an organization that was first established during the middle of the Civil War on Jan. 19, 1863.

The Battery Believed to be the only remaining one of its kind in the nation, the Battery was established in the wake of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. In the aftermath of the two attacks on New Ulm and at other locations in the area, word spread to German friends in the Cincinnati Ohio Turnverein Society who collected donations and purchased a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer cannon and sent it to the Turnverein Society in New Ulm.

The Battery was founded by Charles Roos in early 1863 who decided it was time for New Ulm to form a hometown artillery group under the state militia laws, and 40 citizens joined. They elected officers and Richard Fischer, a Civil War artillery officer veteran, became the Battery’s first captain.

In 1864, the Battery obtained a 6-pound cannon field gun, limber, caisson and harness from Civil War surplus, and the Battery held drills, marches and artillery practice on a monthly basis.

State militia laws were suspended in 1871 ,and interest in the Battery started to decline after Roos died in 1878. However, former German artillery officer Frank Burg lived in New Ulm and wasn’t about to let the unit disband.

He reorganized the group into a traditional working artillery unit, and for the next 30 years, Burg built the Battery’s reputation into becoming a symbol of New Ulm’s history, which then took on the nickname of “Burg’s Battery.”

In 1907, Burg convinced Minnesota Gov. John Johnson to donate two, 3-inch rifled cannons, limbers, caissons and harness from the National Guard surplus, and now the Battery had four big guns.

In 1910, the City of New Ulm appropriated operating funds of $100 to the Battery for the first time and has continued ever since, recognizing the importance of maintaining a living piece of history, public relations and a regional tourism attraction.

Throughout the years the New Ulm Battery has evolved into a community-based group that often participates in community celebrations, civic events, parades, anniversaries, Memorial Day, July 4 observances, live-firing exhibitions, some funerals and historical re-enactments. Fritsche once was part of a gun crew that shot a cannon every 30 minutes from 1-4 p.m. during a patriotic celebration at the historic Harkin Store in 2006.

Each spring the Battery appears at the Friends of Ft. Ridgely grade school day at the fort site, when approximately 500 students get a chance to hear Fritsche’s popular talk on life in the 1860s and cannon fire demonstrations.

“I just like U.S. history,” explained Fritsche who enjoys the pageantry of authentic equipment, Civil War-era uniforms and loud firing cannons with various reactions by assembled crowds, even after they are told exactly what they’re going to see and hear.

Fritsche says that part of the Battery’s presentation in parade appearances means mobile units are always horse drawn by 16 large draft horses and eight to 10 riding horses to carry the officers. Enlisted men ride on the seats of the equipment, and the cannons will never be pulled by a tractor, vehicle or have rubber wheels.

Joining The Battery Fritsche was born and raised on a farm seven miles northwest of New Ulm.

He joined the Army in 1959 and trained in artillery at Ft. Still, Okla. He served in Germany from 1960-62 before returning to New Ulm to begin a 33-year career working for Kraft Foods. It was there he was recruited by Vernon Arndt who was in the Battery to join the group in May 1966.

“I knew a lot about history and horses, and with my artillery background, it was a good fit for me,” Fritsche explained. “My great-grandfather was a defender of New Ulm during the U.S.-Dakota War, so I have a personal interest in the events of that time,” he added.

Since he joined, Fritsche has served in nearly every rank and elected office and currently serves as a first lieutenant. “About two years after I joined I became secretary-treasurer. I recall we didn’t have a lot of money to work with, only about $229 in our account.”

From May through September Fritsche recalled the Battery used to participate only in about three events a year, mostly in parades and demonstrations, before their appearances increased to nearly a dozen a year, including several Civil War re-enactments in a couple of states.

“We may do a cannon shoot for a member’s or veteran’s funeral, and we belong to the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Associations where we supply the horses and caissons for funeral processions to burial sites for police officers killed in the line of duty,” he said.

“In the past few years we’ve had to do two of those at Cold Spring and Mendota Heights. I hope we don’t have to go to any more, but yes, we’ll go if we’re needed again…we’re ready to help honor their lives and public safety service.”

The cannon that goes to most events is the 6-pound bronze field gun and the cannon is primarily loaded with 12 ounce black powder blanks for firing. “We don’t do long-range shooting, only at Ft. Ripley or Ft. McCoy where that kind of solid projectile competition shooting has to be done on a military range.

Fritsche said the Battery membership, which consists of about 25 active members including four women, holds practices and drills periodically during the summer or before parades as time permits.

“Recruiting enough members, is a challenge as we’d like to have about 40, which was what the Battery had when it was formed in 1863,” Fritsche commented. “But it’s challenging finding younger guys with families as it’s a time-consuming organization. If someone is interested they have to be 18 years old and buy their own uniforms, then we make sure they’re taught what they need to know. They don’t get out of the barn without knowing how to fire and ride.”

Fritsche says he’s been trying to keep interest in the Battery going, which has been his main job since retiring 19 years ago from work. “Keeping the Battery intact to represent New Ulm is a huge commitment by the members. I’m the oldest member of the Battery, and most of us are old codgers, but our present captain is younger. I remember being at his house for his baptism about 30 years ago,” he said.

One of the biggest re-enactments they participated in three years ago was at a Civil War re-enactment for the 150th Battle of Shiloh, Tenn. “We took along two cannons, limbers, caissons, horses and ordinance rifles,” Fritsche stated. “And I had the honor of being in command of a seven-gun battery. It was all choreographed but I had to tell about 60 guys what to do.”

The Battery’s clubhouse and storage facility is located on the outskirts of New Ulm and holds all of its equipment, including stall space for 30 head of horses. “We have to lease our animals from local farms,” Fritsche explained. “Most of the horses are used as teams pulling our equipment, but seven or eight head are saddle horses for our outriders…it all depends on what we’re doing.”

He says the Battery takes care of all the horses until they go back to the owners’ barns. “We buy all the hay and oats for them. Half the hay comes off my 20 acres I own between my house and the Minnesota River, and we try to get the same horses to work with each year,” he explained. When we need horses for an event they’re usually transported by truck or trailer and that’s how we move our cannons and equipment too.”

Fritsche explained the Battery is unique in that it’s one of the few horse-drawn units remaining in the country. “All of our equipment is original, and since 1863 we’ve never gone out of existence. It’s the only one in the nation with that sort of prestige.”

Fritsche said the most enjoyment he gets from participating in the Battery is being able to teach and share his knowledge of history with viewers. “Also, there’s a certain pride you get being around and taking care of equipment that’s over 150 years old.”

He noted that the Battery is grateful for all the financial support it receives from the city to cover expenses. “We’re very thankful, that’s for sure, but we like to think that we give back by being sort of ambassadors for New Ulm. I know everybody in the artillery community, and in fact, sometimes a person will come up to me and say, ‘Aren’t you the cannon man from New Ulm?’’

Fritsche says the Battery has been fortunate not to have had many injuries by members over the years moving heavy cannons and handling big horses but admits it helps to have quick feet at times.

“I broke my toe once from getting stepped on by a horse when we were prepping for a parade at the fairgrounds. But I kept going until we were done, then I went to to the hospital and had to miss two weeks of work,” he recalled.

About 25 years ago the Battery experienced a close call during the Heritage Fest Parade.

“I was the captain at that time, and we had four units in the parade when one horse decided to bite another ahead of him in the butt,” Fritsche recalled. “And holy hell broke loose as we had to stop to get the teams under control and separated. We got some of the horses out of there and pushed one unit aside so we could keep going. Nobody got hurt, but spectators on the curb had to jump out of the way. One couple moved their beer cooler but in all the excitement forgot the baby sitting in the stroller.

“But we’ve been lucky overall, no major injuries to anyone, although we did have one member get kicked by a horse and broke his leg under the knee,” Fritsche stated.

Lincoln Funeral Train The Battery will have the privilege this month to participate in commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s funeral train, which brought the assassinated president’s body on his final trip from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Ill., May 1-3.

The train will follow the same dates start to finish. On April 21, 1865, the train began a 12-day trip that traveled about 1,600 miles through more than 160 communities back to his hometown of Springfield for burial.

“We were asked to bring our cannon to Springfield where we’ll be the No. 1 gun out of 12 cannons registered,” explained Fritsche. “We’ll be involved in two, 21-gun salutes plus a 36-gun salute at Oakwood Cemetery as part of the ceremonies.

“I heard there will be national television coverage, and security could be tight if President Obama attends since Illinois is his home state. It’s quite an honor to be asked to do this, but they really wanted our bronze cannon to be there since it has a distinct ringing sound like a bell after it’s fired,” he explained.

Fritsche thought about another funeral that he wants the Battery cannon to attend someday.

“When I die I want to be buried in my uniform in the Old Soldiers Rest section of the cemetery,” he said. “and, the Battery’s cannon better be there for me that day.”

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