Moorhead prepares to raise a monument to a long forgotten soldier
The idea for a monument to honor Felix Battles germinated about five years ago at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
“Felix Battles is somebody that we at the historical society we’ve been studying for about 30 years,” explained program director Markus Krueger. “But he never really got out of our archives. He’s got a fascinating story.”
The story is about a Black man born into slavery who fought in the Civil War and was among the first residents of a new town on the western Minnesota prairie.
As Krueger listened to the national debate in 2018 about removing Confederate Civil War statues in the south, he says he thought, “I know who deserves a statue. Felix Battles.”
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With a limited budget in mind, it began as a simple idea.
“It started off with cutting out a piece of paper and spray painting a stencil onto a piece of wood,” said Krueger.
The idea was to perhaps paint the stencil on a wall.
Then a conversation with his neighbor, an engineer, raised the idea of cutting a silhouette from a thick sheet of steel.
Krueger recently watched as a water jet machine carved the monument at a metal fabrication shop in Fargo, N.D. Using high pressure water jet the size of a pencil lead infused with crushed garnet, the computer guided machine precisely cut the design into a large steel plate.
“It’s three-quarter-inch steel. I can’t do this in my garage. So this is pretty cool,” said Krueger.
There are no known photographs of Battles and researchers have not found any living descendants. Krueger intentionally used a photo of an unidentified Black Civil War soldier to guide his design.
“The idea of an unidentified soldier is just to represent everybody. So this particular statue is for Felix Battles, but it’s also for all 209,000 African American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War,” he said.
Felix Battles was born into slavery near Memphis, Tenn. Records track him to a plantation in Mississippi as a teenager.
Battles then escaped and made his way north to St. Paul, working on Mississippi River steamboats, said Krueger.
In 1864 he joined the army at Fort Snelling and fought for the Union.
“I think one of America’s great stories is at the start of the Civil War, we had millions of enslaved people. And then by the end of the war there were over 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors fighting in the United States Army,” said Krueger. “The stories of Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were intentionally written out of history. And so what we’re trying to do here is bring awareness to that.”
After the war, Battles became one of the earliest residents of Moorhead, arriving in 1873 with his wife Kate and several extended family members. A job with the newly constructed railroad likely led him to settle in Moorhead.
A newspaper at the time called him “the pioneer barber of the Red River Valley.” He lived in Moorhead until his death in 1907. He shares a simple marker with other family members in a Moorhead cemetery.
“He was a quiet guy, his obituary said, respected by all who knew him,” recalls Krueger. “All the old pioneers were going to go to his funeral, as well as the old soldiers of the community going to honor him at his funeral.”
Delson Saintal also watched the monument take shape. Saintal is one of several Black community members on a committee advising the historical society on this project. He owns several barber shops and runs a barber school in Fargo.
He’s 30 years old, the same age Felix Battles was when he arrived in Moorhead 150 years ago.
“Imagining what it was like around that time back in the early 1900s for him to be a Black barber in the Fargo-Moorhead area probably wasn’t quite easy,” said Saintal, who thinks a permanent statue honoring a Black community pioneer is about representation.
“And that really matters,” he said. “And if we have a Felix Battles monument in the Fargo-Moorhead area I think it just gives a chance for the younger generation to see that they are capable of doing stuff,” he said.
Felix Battles was 5 feet, 8 inches tall according to his army enlistment papers. The monument will be life size because Krueger wants people to be able to look Battles in the eye as they contemplate the history he represents.
It will be located on a street corner where Battles once lived. The home is long gone and the site is now part of the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus.
The goal is to raise enough money for benches and a small interpretive display so the spot can be a community gathering point.
Krueger calls the statue an illustration to a biography, a marker that allows more people to learn the story of Felix Battles and a forgotten piece of history.