As the flag flap in South Carolina reminded us, Civil War acrimony burns on 150 years after its bloodshed ended.
In Minnesota, there’s a less volatile, more obscure dispute that’s also lingered on for more than a century: Who was the first guy from the three-year-old state to volunteer to help suppress the rebellion after South Carolinians seized Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in 1861 to start the Civil War?
A new article from a St. Paul expert takes a shot at Anoka County history honchos — who have long trumpeted one of their own as the first volunteer. The kerfuffle takes on heightened significance because Gov. Alexander Ramsey was in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, April 14, 1861 — the day after U.S. soldiers surrendered Fort Sumter. He offered, in writing, 1,000 Minnesota soldiers that day.
So historians have long acknowledged that the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry was the first to join the war effort, meaning who ever volunteered first in Minnesota would earn the distinction of being the nation’s first soldier to raise his hand to defend the union.
Most experts agree that Josias Ridgate King, a colorful character from St. Paul, was that first volunteer. Before he had a horse shot out from under him during one of several early Civil War battles, King sailed around Cape Horn at 18 — hunting ostrich and llamas in Patagonia on his way to the California Gold Rush. He lived in St. Paul until his death just shy of his 84th birthday and even modeled for the bronze statue erected in 1903 and placed on a tall stone column near where the Cathedral of St. Paul would soon rise.
But up in Anoka, since at least 1900, folks have contended that a blue-eyed, sandy-haired local flour miller named Aaron Greenwald was the first to sign up. The Anoka County Historical Society’s website calls him “the first man to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War.” He died with a musket ball in his head on the Gettysburg battlefield at age 30.
Now, an amateur historian and Civil War scholar from St. Paul has all but closed the case. In the recent edition of Ramsey County History Magazine, Patrick M. Hill wrote a meticulously researched piece that debunks the Anoka story as “little more than hometown wishful thinking with virtually no evidence to support the claim.”
Hill, a businessman from St. Paul’s East Side who has led Civil War cemetery tours for nearly 20 years, admits it’s a bit of a “nerd fight.” For nearly 20 years, he heard Anoka history buffs make the case for Greenwald.
“I raised no challenge and hoped the story would remain confined to the Anoka area with little harm and die a quiet death,” he said. “I didn’t want to embarrass anyone.”
But he says Anoka County Historical Society leaders have become “tenacious bulldogs who have used their promotional savvy to create a cottage industry” around what he calls the Greenwald legend.
The “legend” is immortalized in a bronze tribute in Greenwald Park and historical placards near a Caribou Coffee stand where Greenwald is said to have signed up. The story resurfaced in a 1996 Civil War Times Illustrated Magazine and has popped up on more websites recently.
Who cares? Hill says “truly understanding the larger events of history is built upon understanding the smaller events” and Anoka’s attempt to embellish Greenwald’s patriotism will “corrupt the history if not challenged and corrected before it spreads any further.”
He points out that only one telegraph line linked to Minnesota in 1861 — connecting St. Paul and La Crosse, Wis. — and King signed up at a meeting of a St. Paul militia called the Pioneer Guards that Sunday night, April 15. Word could not have made it to Anoka until Monday the 16th because messages had to be relayed by horse couriers and would take at least three hours.
He dissects how the legend grew, from a 1905 book called “History of Anoka County,” through subsequent newspaper reports that said Willis Gorman, a former territorial governor, lawyer and eventual First Minnesota colonel, suspended a court hearing in Anoka upon receiving the courier’s message and made a fiery speech for volunteers.
Hill says that likely happened on Monday the 15th, at midday at the earliest, several hours after King volunteered the night before at the St. Paul Armory on what is now Kellogg Blvd. between Minnesota and Cedar streets.
“As with many legends, elements of the tale are true but unsubstantiated; partial truths and oral legends are a poor foundation upon which to base real history,” he says.
He sent his story to the Anoka County Historical Society, with a letter stating, “Is it perfectly natural and reasonable for Anoka to recognize Greenwald as a hometown patriot who sacrificed his life for his country … however, to claim him as the first Minnesotan volunteer cannot be supported by the facts and is clearly based on incomplete or inaccurate information, or wishful thinking.”
Anoka’s History Program Manager Vickie Wendel says she doubts the dispute will ever be settled or that the county’s bronze Greenwald tribute would ever be changed.
She says Greenwald’s two sons and early Anoka journalists claimed to have proof that Aaron was first but didn’t want to disparage King while he was still alive.
Those documents have never materialized, and Wendel tipped her hat to Hill’s research.
“He makes a great argument,” she said. “And, look, we are still talking about it today because history is ongoing and can change.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.