History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Friday, July 17, 2015

First Minnesota Regiment: the stuff of movies

Here's a twilight profile of the Gettysburg monument (Chris Heisey photo)
My sixth grade class visited the historic Ramsey House as part of our field trip to the Twin Cities. My teacher was Marion Beck. I didn't have enough knowledge to really feel fascinated during the visit. Today I surely would be. To be honest I felt rather bored. I was just a kid.
The late Jack Imholte, UMM chancellor
Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey happened to be in Washington D.C. when the rebels fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. The governor from our fledgling state, considered way in the raw west, immediately offered 1000 men. Those men have been lauded with having so much to do with the Union victory. Tragically they were cannon fodder, being mowed down on a tragic scale. Someone had to do it, I guess. How primitive we were with our combative tendencies. Thousands of men would get shifted around to try to kill other men.
We are emotionally detached from all that now. We can see movies about that and not really internalize the kind of pain and tragedy that were created.
The movies show us the gallant charge. The messy aftermath is avoided. Certain generals get criticized in hindsight for not "going for the kill." So foolish to second-guess like that. Why didn't McClellan pursue the rebs more aggressively in the closing stages at Antietam? Why didn't general Meade close the vise on Lee in the aftermath of Gettysburg? Why? Because we're dealing with human beings who at a certain point cannot simply sacrifice an ever-increasing amount of lives. The troops had to feel as though they at least had a chance to survive. Had generals not followed this wisdom, they risked a breakdown in troop morale that would have given rise to mutiny, which in the Viet Nam war would be called "fragging." Fragging (with fragmentation grenades) has been given as the reason why the U.S. had to get out of Viet Nam.
There really is a limit to the extent which you can simply order these men around. The men have to have a sense of purpose and a sense of having some chance for survival. 
Minnesota had been a state for only three years when Ramsey made his commitment to Lincoln. A cynic might say the governor with his hasty move wanted to impress the East Coast establishment.
Most of the men in the First Minnesota had been born in the U.S., including a number from Maine. Maine! It was Maine troops who were at the forefront in the movie "Gettysburg." We see Joshua Chamberlain leading his Maine men on Day 2 at Gettysburg. We hear they likely "saved the Union" with their bayonet charge on Little Round Top. It is probably hyperbole to suggest that any single micro engagement "turned the tide" or "saved the Union."
 
Breaking bread with Civil War scholar
I remember bumping into Jack Imholte one afternoon at the City Center Mall restaurant, back in the iteration when that restaurant served American food. (Sorry if I sound like Donald Trump on that.) I had a pleasant conversation with the well-known Civil War scholar, author of a definitive book on the First Minnesota. I suppose he as an academic would have opinions carrying more weight than mine.
Our conversation was when the movie "Gettysburg" was fresh. I alluded to the movie. His first comment was that he had heard the First Minnesota was not represented in it. 
The First Minnesota had an engagement in that bloody Pennsylvania place that could be cited as just as important as Chamberlain's charge. Since Chamberlain went on to become a politician and he focused a lot on his Civil War background, his charge came to be high-profile in Civil War history. That's fine. It made for the most dramatic scene in the movie "Gettysburg" (starring Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain).
The First Minnesota's heroics were equally dramatic but tragic. Many of us have heard the story. General Winfield Hancock was surveying the disintegrating Union line from horseback. He came up to the well-ordered Minnesotans and asked Colonel Colvill, "What regiment is this?" I had an elementary school textbook that claimed Colvill answered the question "proudly." I was rather amused by that. Elementary kids are smart enough to see through the pretensions of textbooks. Proudly? I suspect the question was answered in a businesslike way.
Hancock ordered the Minnesotans (many of them lumberjacks) to charge down the slope and take the rebs' colors. Hancock would later say "I would have ordered that regiment in if I had known every man would be killed. It had to be done."
 
Doing their duty
The frontiersmen ran in formation down the slope through the stubble of a wheat field to the dry creek known as Plum Run, where they faced about 1400 rebs from Alabama. I believe there is a monument at Gettysburg that refers to the Alabama men as "Alabamians," not "Alabamans."
General Hancock was trying to buy time. It worked. The Minnesota regiment was nearly demolished before the order came to retreat.
An urn placed by survivors at the cemetery in Gettysburg was the first monument at the battlefield. Today there are more than 1300 monuments, which may puzzle many young people. Why would we want to remember such an awful conflict? There is an impressive Minnesota monument on Cemetery Ridge. The running rifleman statue inspired a statue at our own Summit Cemetery in Morris MN. The Sam Smith statue here is nearly identical, but contrary to popular myth that circulated for many years in Morris, the gallant Sam was not the "model" for the sculpting of the Gettysburg statue.
Having read the book "The Killer Angels," I had to ask Chancellor Imholte whether "Longstreet was right" at Gettysburg. It is Longstreet and not Lee who is the central focus of Shaara's book "The Killer Angels." Longstreet is portrayed as having the sharper mind when contemplating tactics. Lee was instinctively pugnacious. He may not have fully appreciated the awesome power of the advanced Civil War weaponry. Buford's Union cavalry had repeating rifles.
Longstreet insisted on defensive tactics, to get between the Army of the Potomac and Washington D.C., at which point General Meade would "have to attack." It would be the blue-clad troops making a charge like what Pickett in reality orchestrated. It would be the rebels dug in and repulsing the charge. Buford in fact had a great fear of this happening when he first arrived at that little Pennsylvania crossroads town.
The Confederates actually won on Day 1. Porter Alexander, the reb artillery specialist, would later say it might have been prudent for his forces to simply leave after Day 1, to be remembered as the victor. He suggested the reb army could have "held a mountain pass" for 2-3 days on the way home. Instead it was Lee's judgment that prevailed: "attack!" The impulse might have served him well on previous occasions. Not this time.
Jack Imholte said Longstreet's judgment was superior. I agreed. Tom Berenger played Longstreet in the movie.
I am rather surprised there has not been a re-make of "Gettysburg." It has the elements of conflict and drama that movie audiences like. It's troubling, though, to view a movie in which virtual waves of men get cut down by gun and cannon fire. What could possibly inspire such conduct among Americans? Was "forming your own country" so important to Southerners? Why? Any new movies about the Civil War have to try to answer that question before showing all the hellish conflict.
We miss Chancellor Imholte's wisdom in assessing the Civil War. "The Silver Fox" passed away not long ago. His book is definitive for learning about the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. It's at our Morris Public Library.
My field trip to the Twin Cities and the Ramsey House was at the same time the song "Western Union" was popular. I remember it playing on the radio during the trip. I loved that song. The group "The Five Americans" performed the song live (not lip-synched) on the Steve Allen show. I encourage you to watch the YouTube clip of that performance. I guarantee you, this will transport you back to the 1960s. If only we hadn't fought the Viet Nam War. Here's the link to the clip - please click on it:
 
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com


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