You’re 23. Still living at home. You’re a late bloomer looking for a spark of inspiration.
Consider the life of John Benjamin Sanborn, who rallied from a slow start to write Minnesota’s first laws as an early legislator and lead its soldiers through Civil War carnage at age 35. In his 40s, Sanborn joined famed frontiersman Kit Carson on an Indian Peace Commission, lashing out at corrupt government policies while negotiating with the Choctaw, Cheyenne, Comanches and other tribes.
Not bad, considering Sanborn’s life ambitions were modest at the beginning. He planned to hang out on his New Hampshire farm, which had been in his family since the 1750s. The youngest of five children, “it was my purpose to remain at home and take charge of the homestead and care for my parents through their old age.”
Greenleaf Clark, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice and longtime friend, put it another way: “The lad was not swift in seeking another vocation or eager to win the bays of scholarship … He lingered on the farm.”
When his older brother grew ill as a college senior, Sanborn needed to be a breadwinner so he went into law, entering Dartmouth at 25 for all of one term. He passed the bar and headed to St. Paul.
He opened a law practice the first day of 1855, but his legal career would be interrupted in a big way seven years later. When the Civil War erupted, Sanborn was selected as colonel of the Fourth Regiment of the Minnesota Volunteers.
He would be among the 45,000 soldiers at the blood bath in Corinth, Miss. He commanded an outmanned brigade nearby at Luka, where a quarter of his troops were killed in a two-hour clash.
Sanborn, a rookie commander, “exhibited a coolness and bravery under fire worthy of a veteran,” Gen. Charles Hamilton wrote up in his report. “I am greatly indebted.”
President Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses Grant promoted him to brigadier general, but when the confirmation dragged amid political bickering, Sanborn fumed and threatened to resign. He was promptly confirmed.
That flash of temper showed Sanborn’s split personality. Clark, the judge and friend, said Sanborn “loved the social hour and made it a joy to those wise enough to tap the choicest vintage.” Clark said Sanborn typically smiled with a “pleasant look and had so much sunshine in his heart.” But there was another side.
“The clouds of righteous wrath could gather dark and threatening upon his brow and tones of thunder escape his lips.” On July 4, 1863, Sanborn was one of only two brigade commanders put in charge to occupy Vicksburg, Miss., after Confederates surrendered.
Despite all those heroics, Sanborn was disappointed with a lateral transfer in the fall of 1863 to Missouri, considered “the graveyard of military reputations.” With its contentious factions, armed marauders and crazed bushwhackers, Missouri wasn’t seen as historically pivotal as the battlefields to the east.
But Horace Greeley, the renowned New York editor, politico and Civil War writer, took note of a Sanborn-led 102-mile, 36-hour march to the southwestern corner of Missouri.
Union forces were “outnumbered and getting worsted,” Greeley wrote, “when Sanborn … changed the fortunes of the day,” ending the Confederate invasion into Missouri.
All told, Sanborn was at 20 battles and never saw a single one of his soldiers captured. “A career marked with so large a measure of success cannot be ascribed to mere capriciousness of fortune,” Clark said, years later after his friend’s death in 1904. Acknowledging Sanborn’s over-the-top style, Clark said: “If he smote at times with a heavy hand, it was only because milder means were unsuited to the task.”
Sanborn left the military in 1866, prepared to jump-start his St. Paul law firm. But federal authorities had other ideas after the Civil War. They picked him to join Kit Carson and others in negotiating deals with various tribes. His first task was to liberate black slaves owned by certain tribes.
Dakota tribal members called him “Black Whiskers” because of his well-cropped beard and mustache. He investigated grievances and criticized destructive government policies.
He said tribes should be “localized, educated and Christianized,” which can be viewed as ethnic cleansing nearly 150 years later. But after decades of corrupt Indian agents, Sanborn was relatively respected by tribal members across the West.
Like many men of his era, it’s tough to find much criticism in the historical narrative — partly because Sanborn and his peers wrote the history as leaders of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Sanborn went on to work as a Washington lawyer for years before returning to Minnesota. Considering his lack of legal training and late start as an attorney at 27 — “an age,” Clark said, “when many another has already made his mark” — Sanborn’s career as an attorney often gets overshadowed by his legislative, military and treaty dealings.
“He possessed a rare degree of that excellent quality, too often wanting in the lawyer’s intellectual assets, a solid judgment,” Clark said.
When he died at 77 in 1904, Sanborn was the president of the Minnesota Historical Society. A member for nearly 50 years, Sanborn donated all kinds of stuff to the society’s collections — including a holster, sword belt, collapsible cup, saddle, revolver and an array of Indian artifacts.
A scowling sculpture of Sanborn has stood, with his trademark erect posture, in the State Capitol since 1910. Another bust stands in Vicksburg. And his pedestal monument at St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery details his service.
Clark, the state Supreme Court justice, succeeded Sanborn at the helm of the Historical Society. In his 1904 eulogy for his longtime friend, Clark thanked Sanborn for helping “elucidate events around which the gloom of time was settling … Minnesota should treasure in her soil the ashes of a citizen whose deeds are among the jewels that adorn her brow.”
Not bad for a late bloomer.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.