Minnesota's role in Civil War-era West

  • Article by: FRITZ KNAAK
  • Updated: July 3, 2013 - 6:37 PM

The First Minnesota’s service at Gettysburg gets the attention, but the war was wide.

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A depiction of bitter hand-to-hand fighting at Vicksburg, Miss., in 1861. Soldiers of the Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment later played a crucial role in giving Union forces control of the war’s Western Theater.

Photo: Associated Press file Illustration,

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A hundred fifty years ago, Minnesotan John B. Sanborn led a group of Minnesotans — soldiers of the Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment — at the head of the column of Union troops marching into Vicksburg to take possession of the besieged city after its surrender on July 4, 1863.

The event is recorded in a dramatic painting hanging in the reception room of the governor’s office at the State Capitol, and it’s fitting that we remember it now. Marching at the head of this victorious army was an enormous honor, one well-deserved by the regiment and its former commanding officer.

Today, as in the days of the Civil War, most of the media focus is on events in the East. So it’s not surprising that the focus of the Star Tribune’s attention so far on the Civil War has been on the extraordinary deeds of a single regiment, the First Minnesota, which happened to be the only Minnesota regiment engaged in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War.

Yet it was in the West that the Civil War was ultimately won, and it was in the West that the vast majority of Minnesotans who served and fought in that conflict were to be found.

In the West, with Minnesotans and other Midwesterners at the heart of his army, Ulysses Grant undertook one of the most daring campaigns in military history. Severing his ties to his supply lines and “living off the land,” carrying only needed supplies and ammunition, he attacked inland into Mississippi and engaged two separate Confederate armies.

The critical battle of the campaign took place at the heights located between Jackson and Vicksburg, Miss. — a place known as “Champion’s Hill.” (The Champion family still owns the land where most of the battle took place.) In a bitter battle, the key high ground changed hands three times in the course of a single day. At one perilous moment, a Rebel Missouri shock brigade came within 300 yards of Grant’s supply train, which included all of the ammunition for the army.

Had this brigade succeeded in reaching his supplies, Grant would have been forced to beat a very hasty retreat and would certainly have been unable to take Vicksburg. He also, very possibly, would have lost his command.

Instead, Sanborn arrived with his brigade in time to stem the final Rebel counterattack. The Southerners literally ran out of ammunition and were forced back for the last time and, ultimately, retreated into Vicksburg. In that fight, the Fourth Minnesota captured an entire Southern regiment: the 46th Alabama. The victory for the Northern forces was decisive. For the Southern forces trapped in their retreat into Vicksburg, it was only a matter of time, after Champion’s Hill, before they would be forced to surrender and the Union would have full control of the Mississippi River.

More than a century after the Siege of Vicksburg, British military historian J.F.C. Fuller declared that the “drums of Champion’s Hill sounded the doom of Richmond.” In his view, Champion’s Hill, and the siege of Vicksburg that followed, were at one of those rare “tipping points” of history where, with just one thing going somewhat differently in the battle, much of what we know of history would have changed. Like the king of England taking an arrow in the eye at Hastings in 1066, the success of the Missourians in capturing Grant’s supply train — they were oh-so-close — would have totally changed the course of the battle and the war. In Fuller’s view, a Grant loss at Champion’s Hill would have meant at least a one-year setback for the Vicksburg campaign and Grant’s likely dismissal from command. Without Grant, he postulates, the North would not have had the commander it needed to defeat Lee in the east. At some point, a brokered peace would have been reached, and North America would have consisted of several additional smaller countries instead of one single United States and its neighbors. Fuller then arrives at the implication this situation would have had for Europe during its two World Wars and what followed.

You get the point.

Sanford and his fellow Minnesotans were there, and played a crucial role. So crucial, and so well played, that they were chosen by General Grant to lead the way into Vicksburg.

We Minnesotans are “Westerners” when it comes to Civil War history, and most of the role of Minnesotans was in the West. We can certainly be proud of the great courage shown by the many Minnesotans who answered the call not only in the case of the famous First, but the Western regiments like the Fourth. Minnesota Civil War Veterans of the past knew this, of course. They worked hard to be sure that our State Capitol was full of instruction and reminders of their efforts. Standing with others in the rotunda of the Capitol is the statue not only of William Colville of the First Minnesota, but of John B. Sanford, among others.

These Minnesota veterans wanted us to know of these people and the efforts they undertook to save the Union. As we reflect on the 150th anniversary of that conflict, we owe it to them to reflect on that sacrifice and to remember them all, and not just the efforts, however extraordinary, of a few.

Fritz Knaak is a St. Paul attorney and former state senator.

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