Minnesota and the Civil War: From First to Last

Members of the 3rd Minnesota Regiment, Company F in camp at Nashville, Tennessee

From First to Last

The Civil War holds a pivotal place in the history of the United States. Citizens of the new state of Minnesota were a major part of the national story, from being the first state to offer troops through their dramatic role at Gettysburg to Appomattox and beyond. To commemorate the sesquicentennial of these events, the Minnesota Historical Society offered a broad range of programs, publications and online content from 2011 through 2015.

Minnesota, as the free-state home of Dred Scott, played a critical role in one of the national events that led to the Civil War.

Before the war, Minnesota had been the temporary home of Dred Scott, a slave at Fort Snelling.  This detail factored prominently in a landmark Supreme Court decision that would portend the eventual conflict.  Minnesota, admitted as a free state in 1858, helped to elect Abraham Lincoln, who won the state’s electoral votes in 1860 and again in 1864 with the help of many, including St. Cloud newspaper publisher and abolitionist Jane Gray Swisshelm.

Civil War Officers

Minnesota, as a fledgling state, contributed disproportionately to the war through the commitments of its citizens and the valor of its soldiers.

At the outbreak of war in 1861, Minnesota with a population of about 180,000 was the newest state in the union and the first to volunteer troops in its defense.  The 24,000 Minnesota soldiers (including 100 free black men, scores of American Indians, and at least one woman) often found themselves on the frontlines or the last to leave the field in many battles and campaigns of the war, from the Dakota Territory, south along the Mississippi River, to the deep south and east all the way to Washington D.C. At the same time, the state was embroiled in another war, this one  within its borders.  The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 cost the lives of hundreds of people -- whites and Dakota alike -- and saw the eventual removal and exile of the Dakota people from Minnesota.

The Repulse of Pickett's Division [by the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, July 3, 1863]. From the Panorama Battle of Gettysburg. Corner Sixth and St. Peter Streets, St. Paul, Minn.

The July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and fall of Vicksburg a thousand miles away were decisive developments in the Civil War, and Minnesotans played pivotal roles in both.  The casualty rate of the First Minnesota Regiment at Gettysburg was the highest in Union Army.  Still, more ultimately died from disease than did from enemy fire.   After the war, Duluth was home to the last surviving Union veteran, Albert Woolson, who passed away at age 109.

The Civil War marks a turning point in Minnesota history. It prospers in the post-civil war years.

The Civil War changed Minnesota.  The Homestead Act and Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 transformed Minnesota and Minnesotans. With the 1865 surrender of the Confederacy, soldiers from other states were drawn here because of the Minnesotans they had met and stories they had heard.  Support for suffrage accelerated.  Advances in communications, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and medicine forged in war evolved to serve more peaceful purposes.  Veterans formed fraternal groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic.  Their service was commemorated with memorials placed throughout the state in parks, county courthouses and in cemeteries. No fewer than eight Civil War soldiers went on to serve as Minnesota governors and our State Capitol, opened in 1905 after twelve years of planning, was adorned with Civil War statues, paintings, and battle flags which are still on view today.

Civil War Memorial, White Bear Lake.

More than one hundred fifty years later, the Historical Society serves as a steward for many wartime manuscripts and artifacts. The range of initiatives we offered during the sesquicentennial engaged Minnesota communities and connected the past to present.