Minnesota's first war heroes

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2011 - 7:05 PM

Through a series of new programs, the Washington County Library is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's start and the contributions of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

Jay Wittenberg used old photographs of the men of the First Minnesota to create five to eight sketches before starting his oil portraits.

Photo: Tim Harlow , Star Tribune

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Four years ago, Jay Wittenberg began painting portraits of the courageous men from Washington County who answered President Abraham Lincoln's call for more troops and went off to fight in the Civil War.

He collected biographical information on the band of young farmers, teachers, loggers, lawyers and students, and obtained photographs from books and websites to draw hundreds of sketches. They served as the basis for his oil-based paintings that depict local Union soldiers who were part of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

Wittenberg, 44, has finished 18 of the portraits, and facsimiles are on view at the Wildwood Library in Mahtomedi and the Oakdale Library. The exhibits will kick off five months of appearances by authors and historians, recitals, and re-enactments put on by the Washington County Library to commemorate the First Minnesota and its heroic stand at the Battle of Gettysburg and other battles 150 years ago.

"They set a bar that is unparalleled in American military history, and I hope it strengthens their [people's] resolve to be interested in history and find out what it means to make sacrifices," said Jim Moffett, chairman of the First Minnesota re-enactment group, a non-profit organization founded in 1973 to perpetuate the memory and teach the history of the unit. "I hope it will pique the interest for people to study military history and support troops who make sacrifices."

Seeing their faces

Through Wittenberg's portraits, library visitors will have the chance to see the faces of soldiers who fought in the Civil War and learn their stories.

He used the photos to create five to eight sketches of each soldier before starting his portraits. (Many of the photos are believed to be keepsakes that soldiers gave to loved ones.) Each portrait took six to nine months to paint, said Wittenberg, who teaches community art classes in Woodbury and will lead a portraiture workshop March 26 at the Stafford Library in Woodbury.

"Somebody may look at them and recognize a long-lost relative," said Wittenberg, whose work has been featured at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. "It's exciting that could happen."

Of the hundreds of men in the First Minnesota who headed east, few ever returned to Minnesota. The regiment had the highest casualty rate of any among Federal troops -- estimated at 82 percent by some accounts. But it is remembered most for its bravery and the key role it played in the outcome of the war's bloodiest battle.

"I hope this brings it to people's minds," said Wayne Jorgenson, a founding and associate member of the First Minnesota re-enactment group. "We get busy with our daily lives and don't remember our roots. Things would be different today if things had been settled in a different manner."

The program series honoring the First Minnesota is long overdue, said Brian Leehan, former Star Tribune staff member and author of "Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburg." He will give several talks based on his book.

A life saved

Several touching and untold stories about the war will unfold during the series, including one about John George Bauer, who after his war service was a Methodist minister in Woodbury until his death in 1918. During a skirmish in Tennessee, Bauer's right shoulder was injured so severely that the prescribed procedure for saving his life was amputation. He refused, so his battalion left him on the battlefield.

A Southern woman sympathized with his plight and took him in until he was fit to travel back to Minnesota. She sewed a quilt that he could wear to cover his Union uniform so he could pass through enemy lines on his way back to Fort Snelling.

Local textile artists Nancy Miller and Lynne Michaels have made a replica of the original quilt, which is in the hands of Bauer's great-grandson, John W. Graber . The replica will rotate among various Washington County libraries.

Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824

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