The Civil War was a family affair. Most of the 750,000 casualties were men, but in the wake of their coffins drifted grieving wives and children, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors whose lives were as irrevocably shattered as the limbs and torsos of the dead. Even now, 150 years after Gettysburg, the Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history.
Minnesotans distinguished themselves in the carnage. The valor of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment is legendary. Having fought at Bull Run in the summer of 1861 and the next year at Antietam Creek, the surviving members of the regiment were well seasoned when they fixed bayonets and charged from Gettysburg’s aptly named Cemetery Ridge on July 2, 1863. Historians are still quibbling over the numbers, but generally agree that of the 262 or more Minnesotans in the assault, only 47 stood unscathed afterward. Their charge turned the tide of that battle and with it, the war.
That valor is well documented in “Minnesota and the Civil War,” a sweeping, history-rich, and emotionally stirring exhibition opening Saturday at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Drawn primarily from the Historical Society’s collection, it runs through Sept. 8.
The centerpiece is a gleaming cannon and there are plenty of guns, swords, powder tins, maps, carefully mended uniforms and even a rare defused land mine. The show is much more than a battlefield biography, however. Contextualized with diaries, letters, photos, newspaper accounts and artifacts — a widow’s black taffeta mourning dress, a slave-made quilt, daguerreotypes of soldiers and families — the show draws a bigger picture of how the war touched and changed lives in a three-year-old state on the nation’s frontier.
“Minnesota was a new state eager to show it belonged, so it was quick to volunteer and the soldiers distinguished themselves in ways that were really quite tragic,” said Dan Spock, the History Center’s director. “This is not a general exhibit but specifically about Minnesota in the Civil War, and especially about women trying to hold their families together and keep their farms and homes. There is a lot of pathos, and we wanted to show the toll war takes on people.”
In planning the exhibit, designer Earl Gutnik said he wanted to communicate “the poetry and beauty of the time” through color, typography and design. Photography was only 20 years old then, and daguerreotypes were luxurious novelties packaged in jewel-like cases of velvet and brocade. Everyone, it seems, had elegant penmanship, even soldiers scribbling in their lantern-lit battlefield tents. Gutnik translated those qualities into crimson and gray walls, calligraphic signage and ornate faux-wood “frames” for videos and a sound-and-light show that illuminates harrowing diary accounts of battles.
While the show opens with images of pride and normalcy — pictures of families at home and soldiers in their new uniforms — a guest book from the Winslow House hotel hints at national tensions. Minnesota was already a popular tourist destination, and the Winslow, built near St. Anthony Falls across from present-day downtown Minneapolis, catered especially to Southerners seeking cool summer air. In a single week of July 1860, guests came from Memphis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis, New York and Pittsburgh.
Among them was the C.R. Christmas family from Issaquena County, Miss., whose entourage included Eliza Winston, one of their 160 slaves. She escaped with the aid of Minnesota abolitionists and, despite threats and mob violence, retained her freedom. The show’s section on slavery in Minnesota — including the state’s connection to the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which declared that African-Americans could not be U.S. citizens — is a quiet eye-opener.
As in all wars, tenderness and horror exist in shocking proximity. A sound-and-light diorama illuminates spirited letters exchanged by a couple who were separated for four years. During that time she gave birth to a daughter that, he gently jokes, surely would have been a boy had he been present at the delivery. Another soldier writes about a bird starting to nest in the muzzle of a howitzer, which he calls “the very jaws of Death.”
Photos and letters document women who disguised themselves as men in order to enlist, a man who buried his brother, and prisons where captured soldiers died by the thousands of disease, starvation and cruelties that reduced them to looking like survivors of Auschwitz.
Surprisingly, Civil War veterans lived long enough for their reunions to be filmed as late as the 1930s. The last surviving Union veteran, Albert Woolson of Duluth, was 109 when he died on Aug. 2, 1956. His oft-quoted observation serves as a bittersweet coda to this poignant exhibit:
“We were fighting our brothers. In that there was no glory.”