I will be the first to admit that when it comes to the history of the Civil War, the role Minnesotans might have played does not leap immediately to mind. No battles were fought here, after all, hardly any black people lived here in the mid-1800s, and to even participate in the war, one had to travel a long, long way from home.
So when the Minnesota History Center announced that it was opening an exhibit called Minnesota and the Civil War, my initial reaction—borne of ignorance, skepticism, and a reflexive disdain for the provincial, Minnesota-centric view of the universe all too often offered by the local media—was to wonder if this wasn’t just another instance of Minnesotans exaggerating their contribution to a worthy but ultimately distant cause? Or worse, an instance of us taking more credit for the outcome of the Civil War than is warranted or strictly true?
After seeing Minnesota and the Civil War, that latter part may still be up for debate. But the fact is that Minnesota did send some 24,000 troops, 2,584 of whom did not return. But only 626 were killed in battle—the rest died from disease, imprisonment, accidents, or other non-battle causes. That’s nothing compared to say, Illinois, which sent more than 250,000 troops and lost 34,000, or Iowa, which sent 75,000 and lost 15,000. But it’s much better than Texas, which sent fewer than 2,000 men and lost only 12 of them in battle. There’s no shame in our numbers—we were the newest state in the union at the time, and our total population was only 180,000—but whatever glory Minnesota can claim from its participation has come with a wee bit of humility.
Two indisputable ways in which Minnesota did distinguish itself are: 1) because our governor, Alexander Ramsey, was in Washington when the war broke out, he was the first to offer Lincoln extra troops; and 2) at the Battle of Gettysburg, 247 men from the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry led the charge, and all but 47 were killed. So we were there when it counted—and for that, we can be justifiably proud. If it weren’t for these two highlights, however, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.
As History Center exhibits go, Minnesota and the Civil War is very much an artifact-under-glass kind of show. There aren’t many fun, interactive elements—it’s designed more for contemplation and reflection. There are lots of photos of soldiers wearing some fantastic beards and mustaches, as well as women and children looking stoic and resigned. The artifacts and memorabilia, too, are fascinating. Drums, hats, uniforms, boots, swords, mess kits, diaries, and an impressive array of weaponry—including a full-size cannon—are all on display. There’s nothing flashy about it. The artifacts speak for themselves, with a little help from the numerous and informative placards accompanying them—so bring your reading glasses.
The most emotionally wrenching part of the exhibit is a video diorama chronicling the participation of Minnesota soldiers in battle, with the narration/voiceover reading from actual letters written by surviving soldiers. The short slideshow talks of “men with long faces awaiting their doom,” with one young soldier describing the mad surge into battle thusly: “We rushed in like wild beasts.” After the battle, “men and horses were torn to pieces,” and there were “dead men by the hundreds.” It was utter mayhem, in other words, followed by unimaginable carnage. It’s a miracle anyone survived.
But they did. And they wrote a lot of letters, in the sort of precise, curlicue cursive that is currently being abolished in our schools. And from those letters, the History Center has constructed a sort of meta-narrative of the Civil War as it relates to Minnesota—not so much about death and destruction as fear and longing and love interrupted. In one way or another, the Civil War affected everyone, and its collective impact can be felt quite strongly at the History Center’s exhibit, even if moments of high drama are few and far between.
Minnesota and the Civil War continues at the Minnesota History Center through Sept. 8.