Josias Ridgate King was born on Feb. 21, 1832 in Washington D.C. to a Catholic family active in politics. Josias left home in 1847, at age fourteen, when he joined a crew sent off to survey Florida after its admission to the Union in 1845. He returned to Washington in 1850. Josias enrolled in Georgetown University in preparation to go West Point, having decided on the military as a career.
Soon after beginning his studies, however, he headed to California to prospect for gold. With the help of family money, he sailed for California but, held up in the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America until late 1851; he hunted ostrich and llama in Patagonia and Terra del Fuego. Eventually reaching California, he went to Bodega Bay where, with several others, he planted seven acres of potatoes which they sold three months later for $5,000, enough to outfit them for the gold fields.
Not striking it rich, he went to work surveying the state, then went back to the gold fields, and then joined a party of Rangers searching for the Mexican bandit Joaquin, followed by more surveying before returning to Washington in 1855.
Getting a boost from his father’s connections, he was appointed an assistant to the surveyor general of Minnesota in 1857. Shortly after his arrival in St Paul, Josias joined the newly formed Pioneer Guards, a local militia.
At a meeting of the Pioneer guards held at the St Paul Armory to raise a company of 100 men to join the 1000 man regiment being raised to fulfill Governor Alexander Ramsey’s pledge to President Lincoln, those there were asked to sign the enlistment book. Before the book was handed down by their leader Capt. A. T. Chamblin, it is reported that Josias bounded onto the stage declaring, according to one, “Here’s another for the war;” to another he said, “I’ll be the first to sign.
Josias was mustered into Company A of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment and was appointed to the rank of 1st sergeant also known as the orderly sergeant. He moved up through the ranks, serving with several companies and participating in a number of battles including Bull Run, Edward’s Ferry, the siege of Yorktown, action at West Point, battles of Seven Pines, Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, First and Second Malvern Hill, the battles of Vienna, South Mountain and Antietam, action at Charlestown and the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He had a horse shot out from under him at Charlestown.
In mid 1863 he was briefly assigned to the staff of General Alfred Sully as an aide. He accompanied Sully on a campaign against the Indians along the upper Missouri River. He participated in the fights at White Stone Hill and Taka-on-Koutay.
As a result of this assignment Josias was not at the Battle of Gettysburg. With their officer ranks terribly depleted, on Sept 14, 1863, he was transferred back to the First Minnesota to become the 1st lieutenant of Company A. On Oct 19 was promoted to Captain of Company G. Josias was wounded at Savage Station. On May 5, 1864, he was mustered out with the regiment.
He continued in the military until 1871 serving in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Kentucky. As the result of a serious illness to his wife, Louisa, he resigned from the service and returned to St. Paul where he returned to work surveying, and later working at an insurance company. He was appointed Inspector General of the Minnesota National Guard where he made a number of improvements, earning the sobriquet of “Father of the Minnesota Guard.”
At the intersection of Kellogg Boulevard and Summit Avenue in St. Paul atop a fifty foot granite shaft looms a tall statue of a Civil War soldier dedicated to all who served. Josias posed for the sculpture and his face is easily recognized.
He died of a heart attack on February 19, 1916 at age 84.
Aaron Greenwald was born Dec 6, 1832, in Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. He moved to Minnesota around 1854, eventually settling in Anoka, where he found work in a flour mill. He married Irish born, Ann Sweeney, on Dec 15, 1858. They had two sons: William was born on Aug 8, 1859 and Louis just fourteen months later on Oct 10, 1860.
When word of the Governor’s commitment arrived, a message was sent to former Governor Willis Gorman, a veteran of the Mexican War, who was holding court in Anoka. He adjourned court, went outside and announced what had happened. A meeting was called that evening with the purpose of enlisting men who would volunteer to help defend the union. At that meeting, 28 year old Aaron was the first to sign up. He claimed that he was the first man to enlist for the Union cause.
He was mustered in, placed in Company C on Apr 29, 1861, and ranked as a corporal. He stood 5′ 8 1/2″ tall, was of fair complexion with blue eyes and light colored hair. On Nov 17, 1861, he was promoted to regimental quartermaster sergeant and transferred to the non-commissioned staff. Later, at his own request, he resigned this position and returned to Company C. He fought in eight battles; Bull Run, Fairfax, the Seven Days Battle, Antietam, two battles at Fredericksburg, Rappahannock and finally, Gettysburg.
Aaron was a corporal at the time the regiment marched into that Gettysburg. He was not engaged during the First Minnesota’s famed charge on July 2, 1863. Company C was on provost guard duty at General Meade’s headquarters on the 2nd. On July 3rd, his company rejoined the regiment and was used to shore up the decimated regiment. During the third day’s battle at Gettysburg, the First Minnesota faced Confederate General Pickett’s famed charge. In the fight leading to the repulse of Pickett’s troops, Aaron was mortally wounded. The ball entered his head, finally lodging in his shoulder. He lay exposed on the field all night.
On Saturday, July 4th, he was found and taken to the field hospital. He died the next day. Aaron was buried on the battlefield along with many others. Nineteen days later his father arrived, taking him home, where he was buried in the Jerusalem Union Church Cemetery, in Wernersville, Berks County, PA.
The case for Aaron being the first to enlist was made after the war by local historian A. M. Goodrich. In a history of Anoka County, he defended Aaron Greenwald as being the first.
According to Goodrich, when the telegram reached St Anthony it was placed in the hands of a messenger who carried it with all speed to Anoka. The court was recessed at 11 AM. Gorman addressed the assembled and called for volunteers. Aaron Greenwald was the first to record his name and may have been the first man in America to volunteer to the President’s call. Six others enrolled in Anoka at the same time.
These two were self-proclaimed claimants to being the first to volunteer for the Union cause. With Aaron’s death at Gettysburg, no one aggressively defended his claim. Thus the honor has generally gone to Josias King.
Yet, it remains an open question.
This post is the first in an ongoing series titled “Soldier of the Week.” In this case it’s actually two soldiers – Josias King and Aaron Greenwald, the men who claimed to be the first to sign up after Lincoln’s call for troops in April of 1861.
These soldier profiles were adapted from the website www.1stMinnesota.net and provided courtesy of Wayne Jorgenson.