Throngs of civilians gather inside the ramparts of Fort Snelling in St. Paul. The heat, nearly 100 degrees, oppresses all movement. Ladies fan themselves while the men soak stiff collars with sweat. Cooks fry and boil a feast over open flames; the smell hangs heavy in the air.
At once a light breeze blows in layers of relief. A momentary cooling, yes, but also the lilting sound of drums and fifes. Soon distant soldiers in Union blue march into the opening framed by the gates of Fort Snelling, exciting the crowd which quickly parted to make way.
The sound of boots stepping in time on the hot summer dust begins to echo around us and all at once the Second Minnesota regiment has poured into the gate. Children run out to greet their fathers among the men, pulled back by their jubilant mothers. Gentlemen lift their hats into the air, shouting hip-hip-hooray!
A man with muttonchops, a thick mustache and a top hat is heard remarking to a friend, “If I’d known it was going to turn out so well, I might have joined the Army.” The band plays “Battle Cry of Freedom” on the parade ground as the men assemble to hear their final orders.
About the only thing that made it different from the real thing, which happened in this same place in 1865, was the fact that everyone had a cell phone.
Last weekend, the Historic Fort Snelling hosted “Coming Home,” a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of the return of Minnesota’s Union soldiers after their shared victory in the U.S. Civil War. Re-enactors sought to replicate the events of a day that was as much bittersweet as it was celebratory. The Union victory had indeed preserved our nation and set us on a path to our modern nation, but at great human cost, and with debts to human justice yet unpaid.
As a kid I was fascinated with the Civil War, I think because it was the last war that was entirely on American soil, its landmarks still visible around the country. I couldn’t believe the notion that people kept slaves in America, or that so many people couldn’t vote. So the battle cry of freedom was doctrine to me, and when my grandparents took me to Gettysburg when I was 12 I took pride in the importance of the Minnesota memorial. My state was a Union state; its tradition was freedom.
Of course history is always more complicated than a child’s hope. It would be years before I heard a single word about Minnesota’s troubled history with native people, and how years of distrust boiled over in the U.S.-Dakota War, which happened during the Civil War. The state always loved the abstract concept of freedom, but struggled with its realities.
Nevertheless, the speakers at last Saturday’s gathering at Fort Snelling orated the same speeches given years ago, when the governor of Minnesota called for freedom, and for voting rights for the men who fought the war — regardless of age, country of origin or race. The line generated applause in 2015 as surely as it did in 1865. How difficult it has been to turn the sentiment of freedom and equal opportunity for all into practice. So difficult that racial or ethnic divisions in this country require no re-enactments at all.
My sons and I visited the blacksmith at Fort Snelling. The interpreter there had a tough task to explain that the 1820-vintage forge at the fort was not the same one that would have been used during the Civil War. Nevertheless he showed how iron could be bent and shaped with the heat and pressure. He explained that the work of blacksmiths after the Civil War would be transferred to the lumber camps and mines of Minnesota, including places we know so well here on the Mesabi Iron Range.
The men, too, and their families, or their children —- broken, traumatized and scarred by the events of the war, would be among the people who would journey north, or eventually out West. How powerful one event could be in setting forth what comes next. History is like that. One-hundred and fifty years pass like a hot summer afternoon, shaping a future that marches slowly toward us.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.