Minnesota: charging toward greatness

The charge of the First Minnesota volunteers at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863

The charge of the First Minnesota volunteers at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863

Today is July 2, the actual birthday of the United States of America. (Ask John Adams about that. He abhorred that officials selected July 4, the date of the paperwork being filed, as the holiday).
July 2 is also the anniversary of the charge of the First Minnesota Volunteers on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg — arguably the pivotal moment in the pivotal battle in the American Civil War. Two-hundred and sixty Minnesotans charged against 1,600 Confederates from Alabama, suffering 80 percent casualties but holding the Union flank until the line could be reformed.
Make no mistake, America fought its civil war over freedom and power. Do some have the power to limit the freedoms of others? Or does freedom apply broadly to humankind?  The war hardly settled the matter, but it did begin the long, still incomplete process of national reconciliation for the evils of slavery. If not for the incompetence and racial prejudice of Reconstruction, we might have made more progress much sooner. 
Minnesota was formed as a free state. We were not yet a “good” state (ask the Dakota or Ojibwa about that), but a state that began in motion toward improvement. On this day I’m proud to be an American and a Minnesotan. Not because everything is wonderful; but because this is a place that charges toward ideals.
Minnesotans were willing to reconcile for slavery. We are now increasingly willing to reconcile for the persecution of native peoples. We are moving toward something better. This is a value far more important than nostalgia. Minnesota is a state that has always shouted “Make America Great.” Not “again,” but better than what came before. May that forever remain true.
Enjoy our holiday weekend, dear readers. Thank you for your support of my blog and, however much we disagree, the ideal of leaving something better for future generations.


  1. David Gray says

    I have no idea why one would need to ask a Dakota about Minnesota’s goodness. Minnesota’s collective knowledge regarding the Sioux Uprising has taken a large step backwards during the last generation. A lot of facts have been regarded as unhelpful and consequently are ignored.

    The painting you use is good but I like the one that has traditionally hung in the governor’s office better.

    One of the men in the First Minnesota, Ernest Jefferson, was an official Duluth resident later in life and spent a good deal of his year at Bay Lake in Crow Wing County. He lost a good portion of one leg on 2 July, 1863. My great-grandfather executed his will in Crow Wing County and I have a copy of it in our family records. He once told his comrades that he was the only man in the First Minnesota who could honestly say he had never once clapped for General McClellan.

    • The main reason to ask a Dakota person about Minnesota’s greatness is that Minnesota wouldn’t exist if the US government hadn’t used the threat of military force to coerce the Dakota to sign unfair treaties in 1805, 1825, 1851, and 1858. Among other things, these treaties swindled the Dakota of their lands for small payments, much of which were to be held in trust by the government, and the interest of which they were supposed to receive in the form of annuities. They were also forced to move onto reservations too small to adequately feed their people.

      However, the government stopped paying the annuities owed the Dakota in the early 1860s in violation of the treaties, and the Dakota starved. The prominent traders in the area refused to give them any food or supplies. After a few young Indian men killed a European settler after they asked him for food, and on the brink of death, many (but not all) Dakota went to war against the European settlers in 1863, killing many, including women and children – although some who had been kind to the Dakota were spared.

      In retaliation, Minnesota forces and the US Army rounded up many hundreds of Dakota – including many women and children who did not take part in the uprising – and forced them to march to Fort Snelling, where held in a concentration camp. 400 Dakota men were sentenced to death, although Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. The Dakota were then force marched to Mankato.
      After that, in a form of collective punishment, all Dakota were officially exiled from Minnesota, and the treaties were nullified – despite the fact that it was the US Government that had violated the treaty in the first place.
      This is the original founding tragedy of Minnesota – the original colonial sin that made European settlement possible in the southern part of the state. Innocents were killed on both sides – although ultimately the Dakota suffered much more. But had the government treated the Dakota fairly, and honored their promises, much of this tragedy could have been avoided.
      So if you ask a Dakota person who knows their history about Minnesota’s greatness, I’m sure they’ll give you an earful.
      For more information, visit: http://www.usdakotawar.org/

  2. Thanks for writing about lots of topics in our area.
    I got to visit Gettysburg in Sept 201T with a tour bus group for my town here. First we went to the museum at the Seminary in town. That was one of the best small museums I’ve ever been to. It brought the conflict to life (and about death) at a personal level because we could learn about how the individuals lived, suffered and died, right in that building. We were able to walk at the nearby cemetery.
    We also went to the Park Service’s enormous visitor center and on a tour of the battlefield with a guide. He did a good job of showing us the viewpoints of the various groups who fought there. That brought home the whole battlefield experience in terms of numbers of casualties. The sides weren’t all that far from each other. There are monuments from most states who took part in the battle, and of course, our guide emphasized the part that Minnesota played. The experience was overwhelming.

  3. That was supposed to be 2015.

  4. Gerald S says

    Great piece, Aaron. The role of the First Minnesota, and the role of General George Greene and his 1350 New Yorkers who held a half mile line in the nearly abandoned Union right flank against repeated attack by Jubal Early and 11,000 battle hardened Confederates of the Stonewall Division, get a lot less recognition in the history and myths of Gettysburg than they deserve, but those two groups saved the Union forces that day.

    And yes, Minnesota is a state we all should be proud of, not only because of its great history but because of its great performance today. We need to keep moving forward, but we can spend the Fourth in justifiable pride, part of which is that we can say we are capable of learning from our past and working to move forward, not back.

  5. Independant says

    My ancestors did not arrive in Minnesota from their Scandinavian homelands until after 1900 but as a fourth generation American and Minnesotan I respect the struggles that all of our ancestors have suffered around the globe throughout time and am proud to live in a country and a state where I have family, friends and co-workers of all racial makeups and we are all free to work as hard as we desire to improve our lives and the lives of our families.

    • Amen to that. Despite the terrible reality of the founding of Minnesota, I too am glad to live in a place were we have the freedom to improve our lives and learn from our history.

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