Thursday, August 23, 2012

21 May 1861: Minneapolis

21 May 1861: Members of a newly-formed Minnesota regiment, about to head East to join the Union Army in the American Civil War, pose in downtown Minneapolis.

The photograph was taken within yards of what today is Orchestra Hall.

Immediately prior to the Civil War, Minnesota had received a massive wave of immigration from Scandinavia and Germany. The wave of immigration halted as soon as war erupted, but resumed immediately after the war’s resolution.

Brand-new Minnesota citizens were called upon to fight in the war, and did so without reluctance or complaint—even though many if not most Minnesota soldiers had yet to learn to speak English.

It was in the years immediately preceding the Civil War that my mother’s ancestors had emigrated from Norway to Minnesota, settling near Minneapolis.

In the very same period, my father’s ancestors had emigrated from The Netherlands to Iowa, settling near the town of Pella, which retains its Dutch influence to this day.

At least two of my mother’s ancestors fought—and died—in the Civil War.

At least two of my father’s ancestors fought—and died—in the Civil War.

All gave their lives for a new country they had barely settled into.

It is believed that none of my ancestors that fought in the war knew English before joining the Union Army. All surviving letters home, quite naturally, were written in Norwegian and Dutch, respectively.

The states of Minnesota and Iowa led the nation in the percentages of their respective populations that fought in the war.

Iowa, admitted into the Union in 1846, had 675,000 residents as war began. Over 75,000 joined the Union Army, more than ten per cent of the state’s population.

Most Iowa soldiers were assigned to the Western campaign. The casualty rate for Iowa soldiers was 17 per cent. The largest number died at Vicksburg, the second largest at Andersonville.

At the onset of war, Minnesota, admitted into the Union in 1858, had a population of 150,000, less than one-quarter the population of Iowa. (Today Minnesota has almost twice as many residents as Iowa.) Minnesota contributed 22,000 fighting men to the Union Army, more than twenty per cent of the state’s population.

About half of the Minnesota regiments were sent to the Eastern battlefields and about half were sent to Kentucky and Tennessee to serve as an occupying force. The latter fact contributed to Minnesota’s relatively-low casualty rate of 11 per cent, significantly lower than Iowa’s casualty rate.

Minnesota’s largest casualties occurred at Gettysburg. The First Minnesota Regiment lost 82 per cent of its personnel at Gettysburg on a single day, accounting for more than ten per cent of the State’s total wartime casualties within the span of a few hours.

For me, one statistic about Minnesotans in the war stands out above all others: of the 2400 Minnesotans killed in the war, only four had been born in Minnesota. The rest were immigrants.

The last surviving Civil War veteran, nationwide, was a Minnesotan. He died, age 109, in Duluth in 1956, having joined the Union Army at age 14 and having served the duration of the conflict.

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