It has been said that the Civil War made Minnesota. Certainly it went far toward healing the wounds caused by the constitutional fight between Republicans and Democrats. As it turned out, Governor Alexander Ramsey was in Washington at the time South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, and immediately went to the White House to offer troops to suppress the rebellion (Moe, pp. 7-8). The troops he offered would become the First Minnesota — not the only Minnesota troops to serve in the war, but the most famous.
It was the tragedy of the First Minnesota that it fought brilliantly but largely in vain. In the first great battle of the war, at Bull Run, it had the highest casualties of any regiment in the army, and was one of the very few bodies of troops to leave the field in good order. At Gettysburg, it was sacrificed in a suicidal charge that may well have saved the Union army but ruined the regiment.
Not every Minnesota regiment was as unlucky as the First Minnesota — though the Third Minnesota would thoroughly embarrass itself by surrendering to the Confederates in a body. But the First Minnesota Battery fought in the first great battle on the Tennessee front, at Shiloh (where an uncle of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had joined a Wisconsin regiment, was one of the 10,000 Union casualties. Two of her other uncles would eventually join the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery, but enlisted late in the war and survived; Miller, p. 18). The Second Minnesota was one of the regiments that helped stave off complete disaster at Chickamauga. The Fourth Minnesota suffered heavily in the successful Vicksburg campaign. The Fifth Minnesota served a vital role at Corinth. The Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Minnesota were at Nashville, where the last Confederate attempt at an offensive was smashed. While that was going on, the Second and Fourth Minnesota were taking part in the March to the Sea — the final campaign in the west, in which William Tecumseh Sherman succeeded in his goal of “mak[ing] Georgia howl.” The march, combined Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, allowed Lincoln to election and also so damaged the Confederate “infrastructure” that they simply could not supply their armies. Sherman was on his way to link up with General Grant’s forces around Richmond when General Robert E. Lee was finally forced to give in. The troops in the east had won fame. But it was the Westerners, including many Minnesotans, who had done the most to win the war.
The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history. No one knows exact casualty figures, but it is believed that at least 600,000 men died, many of them in battle but far more of disease, in unsanitary camps at a time when medical care was primitive and food difficult to preserve. The losses would change the nation for many years to come.
Although most of the nation’s attention in this period was spent on the battlefields of Virginia and Tennessee, Minnesota would have its own tragic “second front” in this period.
The history of Minnesota followed a common pattern during the period of westward expansion: A few white men arrived. They bought a small area (in this case, the region around Fort Snelling). More of them arrived, and overflowed their territory. They pressured the Indians to give up more land, making a forced treaty. As more people arrived, the whites again broke the treaty, and forced the Indians onto reservations — often on poor land where they were nearly assured of suffering abject poverty. “In the 1850s the government devised a reservation system whereby Native Americans could be concentrated, assimilated, Christianized and, most importantly, kept out of the way of the white settlers occupying ceded lands. Between 1853 and 1856, the government signed fifty-two treaties with Native American tribes and set up thirteen new Indian Agencies” (Beck, pp. xix-xx). The Dakota (Sioux) were among the victims of this policy. Not all were against the United States; some even fought in the Civil War. But others rose up against the white settlers. This was the Dakota Conflict of 1862 — and it inspired what seems to have been the first “popular” song written and published in Minnesota, “Minnehaha,” with music by Frank Wood and words by Richard H. Chittenden. This probably inspired a folk song, “Haunted Falls” (or “Haunted Wood”); unfortunately, it seems to have been written as a piece of anti-Indian propaganda.
Interestingly, that first Minnesota attempt at a popular song seems to have been the only one to go into tradition. “Serious” Minnesota composers produced quite a bit of sheet music, but none of it seems to have caught the imagination of the common people. Perhaps the closest thing to a “popular” Minnesota song (at least prior to Bob Dylan) was “By the Waters of Minnetonka,” by J. M. Cavanass and Thurlow Lieurance, which was a hit in 1921 (and supposedly based on an Indian melody), but which has never been collected in tradition.
Appendix: Common Folk Songs about Battles involving Minnesota Regiments
Jun 21, 1861: First Bull Run (1st Minnesota) — The Battle of Bull Run [Laws A9]
Jan 19, 2862: Mill Springs (2nd Minnesota) — The Battle of Mills Springs [Laws A13]
Apr 6-7, 1862: Shiloh (1st Minnesota Battery) — The Battle of Shiloh [Laws A10], The Battle of Shiloh Hill [Laws A11], The Drummer Boy of Shiloh [Laws A15]
Jul 4, 1863: Surrender of Vicksburg (4th Minnesota, 5th Minnesota) — The Battle of Vicksburg
Oct 5, 1864 — Allatoona (4th Minnesota) — Hold the Fort (a hymn, but based on a message sent to the garrison by general W. T. Sherman)
Nov 15-Dec 21, 1864: The March to the Sea (2nd Minnesota, 4th Minnesota) — Marching Through Georgia