Minnesota during the 1860s
By Sarah Shonyo
Just three years into statehood, Minnesota was drawn into the chaos of the nation’s most tumultuous decade, when the survival of the Union was put into question.
Minnesota spent its formative years, the 1860s, in the clutches of battle on both the regional and national level. All the while, European immigration was at an all-time high and economic development seemed promising. The key institutions that would provide law and order, commerce, education, education, places of worship and entertainment would all take root during these years.
Heroes of Gettysburg
Shots fired on Fort Sumter in May 1861, just one month after President Lincoln’s inauguration, divided the nation by marking the onset of the Civil War. Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey happened to be in Washington, D.C., on business when word of the attack in South Carolina reached the president’s office.
Ramsey immediately offered Lincoln 1,000 troops to assist the Union effort. Ramsey’s gesture placed Minnesota first among the states to volunteer manpower to the Union.
The First Minnesota Regiment made its reputation at the Battle of Gettysburg, where an all-out charge by the Minnesotans plugged a hole in the Union line on the second day of the battle — July 2, 1863. The action made possible Union victory in the war’s most important battle. In the process, 215 of the 262 officers and men who made the charge were killed or wounded. Another 17 men were killed or wounded the next day when the remnants of the 1st Minnesota helped repel Pickett’s Charge.
Letters and journal passages recovered from those who served — and family members at home — have allowed later generations a glimpse into the lives of the people whose shoulders bore a burden upon which a great nation would be built.
"We were up very early," wrote Sam Bloomer, a native of Switzerland and a 1st Minnesota member in fall 1862.
"We fell in line, forded Antietum (sic) Creek marched about 1 mile, formed in line of battle & Advanced through fields… was covered with dead and wounded from both sides."
Less than one month later, Bloomer, 25, added this to his diary: "This day will long be remembered by me for about 8 o’clock A.M. the doctors put me on the table and amputated my right leg above my knee and from thence suffering commenced in earnest."
Unlike many of his comrades, Bloomer survived the war and returned home to Stillwater in 1863.
War with the first Minnesotans
At the height of the Civil War, Minnesota also was in a much more personal battle, the Dakota War of 1862.
In August that year, four young Dakota Indian men killed five white settlers and ignited what would become one of the most violent periods in Minnesota history.
The Dakota War came as a surprise to many pioneers in the state, but had been brewing for decades. Forced to live on reservations along the Minnesota River, where crops failed to sustain an acceptable quality of life, the Dakota people became increasingly disillusioned and by 1862 were starving.
Because the Dakota tribes blamed their plight on the government’s broken promises and insufficient compensation, relationships between white settlers and Indians were strained.
Although the Dakota War lasted only 38 days, hundreds of lives were lost. Many of the surviving Dakota people fled west while others surrendered at Camp Release. That same winter, 303 Dakota were tried, convicted and sent to a prison just west of Mankato. President Lincoln eventually commuted the sentences of all but 40 Dakota prisoners, 38 of whom were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato.
State growth powered by immigration
Though Minnesota’s first few years as a state saw a large number of lives lost to the Civil War and the Dakota conflict, this was also a time of mass European settlement, particularly by natives of Germany and Ireland.
Minnesota welcomed immigrants. The state was eager to draw settlers who would promote development, thereby stimulating Minnesota’s economy. In the late 1860s, an organization called the Board of Immigration was formed and Hans Mattson named its secretary. The board not only created and distributed pro-Minnesota pamphlets, but also erected temporary housing for newly arrived immigrants and even asked the railroads to give immigrants a reduced rate when traveling east-to-west.
It worked. So well, in fact, Minnesota’s population nearly tripled between 1860 and 1870.
By the time the sun set on the 1860s, young Minnesota had seen more than its fair share of tragedy, but emerged stronger than ever.
Sarah Shonyo is a Rochester freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Post-Bulletin.