Capitol art: First Minnesota at Gettysburg is a must-keep

  • Article by: MATT MELLO
  • Updated: January 23, 2014 - 7:13 PM

The two times in my life when I've been proudest to be called a Minnesotan are linked to that fabled unit.

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Detail from “Battle of Gettysburg,” a painting by Rufus Zogbaum, shows Col. William Colvill standing behind the tattered flag and rallying his men forward.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, DML - Star Tribune

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Gov. Mark Dayton has questioned if we really need four pictures of American Civil War battles in the Governor’s Reception Room at the Capitol. One of them involves the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Dayton should be ashamed of himself for even thinking the thought that images involving the First Minnesota do not belong at the Capitol.

The two times in my life when I have been proudest to be called a Minnesotan are linked to that fabled unit.

The first time was when I was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2006, right before the surge in Iraq. The drill sergeant gathered Third platoon together and told us how at Gettysburg on July, 2 1863, 262 Minnesotans charged 1,600 Confederates and suffered 83 percent casualties, but in the process saved Cemetery Ridge, a crucial defensive position. This charge saved the Union position and saved the battle of Gettysburg, he said.

The charge of the First Minnesota was held up as the gold standard of bravery in the Infantryman’s Handbook, a book every soldier received, because the regiment suffered the highest casualty rate for any unit that was not destroyed. This was not just in the Civil War but in the history of human warfare. I pounded my chest with pride that day.

The other time I have been proudest to be a Minnesotan also involved the First Minnesota, and came while riding the 17 bus line home from work. I was reading James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” and enjoying Minnesota summer days. In the heart of the book, he described the fight of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. The passages brought tears to my eyes.

As I looked out at Nicollet Avenue from the 17, I wondered if the men who made that charge had looked upon that same ground. I also wondered if the men around me on the bus would be ready to make the same sacrifice that the First Minnesota made.

I read McPherson’s account and I felt proud that the same Minnesota blood runs through my veins.

If Gov. Dayton won’t take my word for it that the First deserves to be honored in the Capitol, maybe he would listen to Calvin Coolidge, who said of regiment commander William Colvill: “Col. Colvill and those eight companies … are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.”

The First Minnesota’s charge is the most important thing this state has ever done — or will ever do. So of course, the painting should stay.

 

Matt Mello lives in St. Louis Park.

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  • Detail from “Battle of Gettysburg,” a painting by Rufus Zogbaum, shows Col. William Colvill standing behind the tattered flag and rallying his men forward.

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