Fight for the Union, 1864: Hope grows for war's end
Cpl. Thomas Christie, a farmer from Winona County, was camped about 2 miles south of Atlanta, which had fallen to the Union army two weeks earlier.
His older brother, William, who owned the farm in the St. Charles area, was marching with Union Gen. William T. Sherman, who after some cleanup operations around Atlanta, was preparing to evacuate the city, set fire to it, then begin his devastating "March to the Sea."
Col. Judson Bishop, of Chatfield, who had moved up in June to lead the 2nd Minnesota Regiment, was in hot pursuit of Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood in northern Georgia and Alabama.
The 2nd Minnesota Cavalry was in the badlands of western Dakota Territory, where, in July, the army had battled with Sioux Indians in the aftermath of the 1862 Dakota War.
First Minnesota Regiment Capt. William Colvill, who was severely wounded at Gettysburg and had been mustered out after his enlistment expired, was back in Red Wing, editing a paper called the Republican.
Others in the 1st Minnesota who re-enlisted formed a new unit, the 1st Minnesota Battalion of Infantry, and immediately returned to action in the east.
All had been fighting for the Union since the earliest days of the Civil War. The end of the war was in sight 150 years ago this week. Atlanta, the industrial capital of the Deep South, had fallen just a few days earlier. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's huge army was firmly entrenched in the heart of Virginia, and Gen. Sherman's army was preparing to march to Savannah, destroying just about everything in its path.
No one was predicting the South would surrender anytime soon -- for one thing, the Union had an election to get through in November that could oust the commander in chief. But there was reason to think the end could come in 1865.
That wouldn't be soon enough for thousands of men who would fight and die before the end came, including hundreds of Minnesotans. And for families and friends back home in places such as Rochester, Red Wing, Winona and Chatfield, it seemed like it would never come.
Minnesota soldiers re-enlist
Since southeastern Minnesota soldiers were among the first to respond to President Lincoln's call for recruits when the war began, they were among the first to reach the end of their three-year enlistment in 1864.
Many re-upped, including the men of the 1st Minnesota who formed the new battalion. Some were from southeast Minnesota; there were more men from the Rochester, Chatfield and Winona areas in the 2nd Minnesota , and their three-year enlistments also came due in December 1863. Those who re-enlisted, and many did, received a $400 federal bonus -- almost a year's pay for a typical worker in those days. The soldiers also received a 30-day furlough and other benefits for re-enlisting and becoming "veteranized."
Soldiers in the 2nd Minnesota returned home in early 1864, in part to recruit new members, but they were back in plenty of time for the Georgia campaign.
Minnesota was the second-smallest state in the Union by population, but it punched well above its weight. It sent 11 regiments into battle, plus other irregular units such as sharpshooters and the like -- about 22,000 men in all, out of a population of about 175,000. About 1,250 of those soldiers were from Olmsted County, which had a population of just 9,500 in 1860.
By 1864, those soldiers were battle-hardened, the kind that generals prized above all. Many had seen the worst of war and kept fighting. They had shown valor at places such as Gettysburg and Chattanooga, where the 1st Minnesota and 2nd Minnesota had played crucial roles.
They wouldn't buckle and run under pressure. They'd stand and fight.
A soldier in the 1st Minnesota wrote in a letter after Gettysburg, "Our boys felt bully during all the fight, and no one thought of running or of the danger."
Grinding toward victory
Since the Union victory at Gettysburg in July 1863, the North had pressed its advantage in the west, through the Tennessee mountains and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. When the armies came out of winter camp and hostilities resumed, it was primarily in Georgia and in Virginia, where Grant began a massive and multipronged attack on Gen. Robert E. Lee's positions, called the Overland Campaign.
Though Grant's army had to retreat after heavy losses at Cold Harbor, Va., in early June and hit an impasse at Petersburg, Va., the siege that ensued kept pressure on Lee and led to the collapse of both Lee's army and the Confederacy in 1865.
The Christie brothers, who had farmed in Winona County for a few years before enlisting in the 3rd Minnesota Regiment in October 1861, fought together with the 1st Minnesota Battery during the climactic days in Atlanta in August and September 1864. They had marched out of Huntsville, Ala., on May 25 and caught up with Sherman's army in early summer.
Their whereabouts are well-documented in part because they were meticulous letter-writers. About 275 of their letters survive, capturing the full arc of the war, and are preserved at the Minnesota Historical Society and have been published in a book entitled "Brother of Mine."
In 1864, the brothers were involved in major battles at Nickajack Creek and Kennesaw Mountain in June and July, and they were with Sherman when he led his army into what became known as the battle of Atlanta, just southeast of the city, on July 22. The battle raged for just a day, and the Union prevailed against Hood's larger army. Among the estimated 3,600 Union casualties was Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, the second-highest ranking federal officer to be killed in the war. Southern casualties were estimated at 5,500.
Thomas Christie was nearby when McPherson was killed. "When the fighting at first was beginning to be serious, Gen. McPherson rode down by us, going to the place where the brigade I have mentioned was forming; he rode right through the line, out to the front where the skirmishing was going on, and before he suspected was right among the advancing enemy. They told him to halt, but he wheeled to escape when they fired on him and shot him through the breast. It was not 10 minutes after he passed us till he was hit.
"No language can tell the grief that fills the heart of every man in the Army of the Tennessee, and especially do we of his old Corps feel his loss. Not a man of us but would willingly have given his own life to save that of our much loved young commander."
Hood's army remained intact at the end of the day, however, and Southern forces still held the city. Sherman began cutting rail and supply lines, the city was shelled and the Union army made occasional sorties into the city, but the Confederate army stood firm through August.
Early that month, Thomas wrote to his sister Sarah, who lived with her parents on the family farm northeast of Madison, Wis., that he doubted that Sherman and the Union leaders prized Atlanta for its own sake.
"I think Atlanta is not the chief object of Sherman's operation myself, for the destruction or capture of the Rebel army is worth more to us than a dozen Atlantas, and we will be kept on the move till that object is accomplished," he wrote.
Confederate soldiers were just as weary of the war as the soldiers in Union blue. Thomas Christie wrote to his sister that "everything shows that they are desperate ... as for the men, they wish the thing ended anyway, and express the greatest job when taken prisoners and are allowed to go to our rear."
On Aug. 15, Christie wrote that "our junior 1st lieutenant, William Koethe, was killed yesterday by a sharpshooter. We feel his death deeply; he was a universal favorite. It happened yesterday afternoon. We were not firing at the time. He was sitting between two of the men, talking with them. In his earnestness he learned forward to put his hand on the knee of one of them. Just then the bullet came, from the direction of our right flank, and passed through his heart. He gave a piercing shriek, and fell forward dead.
"This is the worst position we ever were in; the enemy have a raking fire upon us," he wrote. "This bullet passed through my tarpaulin twice and another one twice before it hit the lieutenant. I was under my tarpaulin at the time, but lying down; so the bullet passed over me."
Gone with the wind
The Rochester City Post reported tersely on Aug. 27, 1864, that "the siege of Atlanta is progressing. (Confederate Gen. John B.) Hood has been heavily reinforced."
Four days later, the Union army captured the rail line at Macon, Ga., and cut the last supply line to Hood's army in Atlanta. The next day, Sept. 1, Hood withdrew. On his way out, he set fire to supply depots and to more than 80 railcars loaded with ammunition to keep them from falling into Union hands.
On Sept. 2, the mayor of Atlanta surrendered the city, and on Sept. 3, Sherman sent a telegram to Lincoln that said, " Atlanta is ours, and fairly won. "
It was a crucial moment militarily and psychologically for the war effort, but it also was a key to the 1864 elections. Lincoln was in a tough fight with one of his former army leaders, Gen. George B. McClellan, a Democrat who favored continuing the war but was running on the party platform of opposing it.
In August, before the Confederates surrendered Atlanta, Lincoln's chances were precarious enough that the Goodhue Volunteer newspaper in Red Wing ran a story that said, "It is rumored in New York, and is believed by many who are in position to be well-informed, that at an early day, Abraham Lincoln will withdraw his name as a candidate for re-election and urge the assembling of another nominating convention."
The victory in Atlanta changed that. When the St. Cloud Times reported the news on Sept. 8, the headline said, "Glorious news! Atlanta captured. Bad news for Copperheads," the anti-war Democrats.
In Minnesota, which had been the first state to offer troops to the Union effort in April 1861, Lincoln remained popular, though his party lost some ground in the 1862 congressional election. Lincoln carried the state by a 2-1 margin over Stephen Douglas in 1860, the first time Minnesotans had voted for president. But it was a four-man race that year, and since then, the country had been torn apart. McClellan was a formidable candidate, with military credentials and charisma to spare.
As Thomas Christie wrote to his brother James on Sept. 15, a few weeks after the Union victory at Atlanta, most of the men in his unit were "in favor of our old Abe, 'the Railsplitting Buffoon,' as the New York World calls him. Our fellows say that the President has done very well, considering all the circumstances; and that it would be folly to put either of the other two (candidates) in his place."
On the homefront
The big news in Rochester in fall 1864, however, wasn't the siege at Petersburg, the fall of Atlanta or the presidential campaign -- it was the arrival of the railroad.
On Oct. 1, the Winona & St. Peter Railroad reached Rochester and began regular service. Winona was the third-largest city in Minnesota at that time and one of the nation's largest wheat-shipping ports. The Winona & St. Peter was established in 1862 and already it had reached the Zumbro River; it would take another year just to get as far as Kasson.
The arrival of the first train was a transformational moment for Rochester, comparable to only a few events in Rochester's nearly 160-year history, such as the founding of Saint Marys Hospital in 1889 and the beginning of regular passenger air service to Rochester in about 1929.
The city had a population of 1,400 in 1860 -- it was barely half as big as Winona -- and would more than double in size within a decade, thanks in large part to the railroad.
"Jubilate! Jubilate!," the Rochester Post declared. "This is what everybody and his wife cried on hearing last week for the first time in Rochester, the whistle of the locomotive on the Winona & St. Peter Railroad now completed and in running order to this city."
Among those who presumably heard the locomotive's whistle that day: William Worrall Mayo.
An examining surgeon for the Union army as well as a doctor in private practice, Mayo had moved to Rochester with his family in January. The Union army enrollment board was headquartered in Rochester, and with the war prolonged into its third year, he decided it was time to move here from Le Sueur, north of Mankato.
An ad in the Rochester City Post on Jan. 27 announced the medical services of partners Hyde & Mayo, with an office over the Union Drug Store on Third Street -- "all calls answered by day or night."
Did Mayo and his 3-year-old son, Will, hear the whistle and hurry over to witness history that day? Judging by the newspaper story, it's easy to imagine they did.
So the Rochester area had a lot to "jubilate" about in 1864, but the war was never far from people's thoughts. And just as rail service was beginning here and connecting southeast Minnesota to the world, Minnesota soldiers were tearing up the railroads leading to Atlanta, to make sure the Confederate Army couldn't rebuild before the crushing final blows of the war were struck.