It’s been more than 150 years since Robert E. Lee offered his sword to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the nation’s bloodiest conflict at Appomattox in 1865, yet new tomes on the Civil War continue to find interested readers and strain bookstore shelves in history sections wherever bookstores and history sections still exist. One of the newest works to elbow its way into this packed company is “The Hardest Lot of Men: The Third Minnesota Infantry in the Civil War,” by Joseph C. Fitzharris, an emeritus professor of history at the University of St. Thomas.
Fitzharris has made room for his book by choosing as its subject the story of a Minnesota infantry regiment, which has never had its history told in detail. The Third Minnesota is not one of the storied Minnesota regiments like the First and the Second, which both fought at Gettysburg. Its narrative has no grand sweep, no campaigning with William Tecumseh Sherman to Atlanta and the sea, or particularly bloody battles like the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth regiments faced in Nashville late in the war.
In fact one of the chief distinctions of the Third is its mixed legacy. It is the only Minnesota regiment to have surrendered during the course of the war, at Murfreesboro, Tenn., in July 1862 to the notorious Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, future founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The men of the Third were deeply shamed by this action, which they blamed on a spineless commander, who, as Fitzharris indicates, was probably less culpable than other histories (and his own cashiering from the Army at the time) have judged.
The Third Minnesota was organized at Fort Snelling in the fall of 1861 and went south to Kentucky in November and then on to Tennessee the following spring. It was sent to St. Louis after its capture, where it stayed in a prisoner-of-war holding camp until the regiment was paroled and returned to Minnesota, where it was reorganized. In September, it was sent south to the Minnesota River Valley to participate in the Dakota conflict. The regiment fought against Native Americans in the climactic battle of the campaign, the Battle of Wood Lake.
By January 1863, it had returned to the South, where it was soon attached to Grant’s command at the siege of Vicksburg. The regiment ultimately wound up in Arkansas, where its chief claim to fame was that it liberated the State Capitol in Little Rock, a scene that is memorialized in a mural that still hangs at Minnesota’s State Capitol in St. Paul.
“The Hardest Lot of Men” is a deeply researched and detailed account of the lives of the 19th-century men who made up this regiment. With extensive use of firsthand accounts of the soldiers in the form of letters and writings, newspaper articles, Civil War archives and postwar narratives, Fitzharris has exhausted sources that might contain even a snippet of Third Regiment involvement.
Readers of Minnesota Civil War history will find this book rich in detail, thorough in its description of the daily lives of Civil War soldiers, fulfilling in its depiction of a regiment that didn’t quite achieve glory, and a valuable addition to the state’s military history. Casual readers should be forewarned that this is not a book that offers the kind of compelling narrative that keeps a person speeding through its pages.
St. Paul writer Tim Brady’s latest book is “His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt Jr.”
The Hardest Lot of Men
By: Joseph C. Fitzharris.
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press, 338 pages, $34.95.