History seemed nearer than usual in the Governor’s Reception Room at the Capitol Wednesday.
There were three soldiers in Civil War Union Army attire, looking as if they’d stepped out of a mural on the wall. There was Al Quie, ramrod straight at age almost 89, behind the podium at which he stood so often as governor from 1979 through 1982. There were flags that will be carried this weekend to the cemetery near Antietam, MD., to be placed on the graves of 10 Minnesotans.
The Battle of Antietam occurred 150 years ago this month; its second day, Sept. 17, 1862, still ranks as the bloodiest single day in U.S military history. Among the nearly 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers killed or wounded that day were 147 members of the First Minnesota Regiment.
One of the wounded was Halvor Quie, Al Quie’s 27-year-old grandfather. A Norwegian immigrant, Halvor talked a surgeon out of amputating his injured leg and made it back to Minnesota, where he farmed near Dennison, raised a family and lived to age 85, dying four years before the birth of the grandson who became Minnesota’s 35th governor.
President Abraham Lincoln claimed victory for the Union at Antietam and used it as a pretext for the Emancipation Proclamation he issued five days later, on Sept. 22. From that day forward, the official justification for the Civil War was not only the preservation of the Union. It was also about ending slavery.
Opposition to slavery was the moral cause was that motivated Halvor to enlist, Quie said he learned from family lore. The lesson he took away: “It’s important that somebody stand up for what’s right.”
He said he applied that lesson during the 1955 Minnesota Senate debate on a bill sponsored by another future governor, state Sen. Elmer Andersen, prohibiting racial discrimination in employment. Republican Quie, serving his first term, rose during the floor debate to say he had no reason to vote for the bill, save one: “It’s the right thing to do.” The speech had its intended effect. The bill passed.
Some 24,000 men from the new state of Minnesota – including 104 African-Americans -- wore Union Army blue at some point from 1861 to 1865. About 11 percent of them didn’t come home. The rest returned to build this state and pass on their example and values to future generations.
It’s fitting that at this weekend’s Antietam battle reenactment in Maryland, 25 re-enactors from Minnesota will participate. More than many Minnesotans know, their state bears a Civil War imprint.