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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Last Full Measure by Richard Moe

The Last Full Measure - The Life and Death Of The first Minnesota Volunteers

"As the first troops offered to President Abraham Lincoln after the fall of Fort Sumter, the brave men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment fought in virtually every major battle of the eastern theater during the first three years of the Civil War. From Bull Run to Antietam to Fredericksburg to their famed suicide charge at Gettysburg, these stalwart soldiers defended the Union and helped change the course of the war and their country's history." (from the book jacket)
The brand new state of Minnesota sent 11 regiments into the firestorm to defend the nation against the insurrectionists and traitors. The First Minnesota was the only one to travel east and fight with the Army of the Potomac. The other ten fought and made their mark in the West.
My state had grown twenty fold from ten thousand to two hundred thousand in the 50's. It was then on the far end of what was called the Northwest Frontier. The rallying point for the regiment was at Fort Snelling, situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. From here they traveled by steamboat down the Mississippi, picking up more volunteer militia companies at towns like Red Wing, Lake City, Wabasha and Winona. They disembarked at the rail terminuses of LaCrosse and Prairie Du Chen Wisconsin. Here at the end of the line (there were no bridges yet across the Great River) they embarked for Washington D.C. The route east was filled with thousands of people, all along the way, who cheered them on and provided treats.
They were young, naive and no doubt filled with the thought of a great adventure as well as of duty.
Their story drawn from personal letters, diaries and recollections is told by author Richard Moe.It is the real Civil War told from the ground up. That’s what makes this book very special. And brings it to life. We meet the men up close and personal. They fit into the grand pattern of events and circumstance but the focus always remains on who they were, what they did from day to day and most important what they were thinking. It all makes for wonderful reading.
The lasting fame of this particular group of heroes came at the tide turning Battle of Gettysburg.
Arriving on the battlefield after the first days battle, on July 1st, the Minnesotans were placed on Cemetery Ridge as part of the strong defensive alignment set by General Winfield Scott Hancock. Unfortunately, the adjacent III Corps was then ineptly moved forward by political General Dan Sickles, leaving a large gap in the Union lines. It was through this gap that Confederate general Longstreets forces attacked, threatening the whole position. General Hancock seeing disaster in the making quickly ordered some of his II Corps to move a quarter of a mile to the left but they were some minutes away. The first to arrive on the scene, overlooking the valley and the Peach Orchard below were 262 Minnesotans. They could see Longstreets forces overwhelming Sickles III Corps and pour thru the gap. Should they reach the ridge, the Union army would be split in half and the balance of the war would be at issue. Hancock, who was on the scene needed but a few minutes for the reserves to fill the gap. To gain those minutes he ordered the First Minnesota to charge the two brigades, over a thousand men strong, of Confederate Generals Wilcox and Barksdale. They did and at the cost of their lives stopped the attack long enough to save the day.

I also found the attitude of these men on the issue of slavery most interesting. Duty, honor and country seemed to be their concern. They were more curious than anything else about blacks. It was not a defining issue for them. As the "contrabands" poured into their lines they clearly were appaled at the condition of these "niggers". They had never seen anyone looking this miserable back in Minnesota. Battles too were hardening their attitudes toward the "seccesh" and opening them to the notion that these "slaves" had a humanity which did not deserve the treatment the had been living under.

It has been somewhat fashionable in certain circles of late to deny that the practice of human bondage was the root cause of this tragic war. That other factors were equally or even more important. That the slave owning class were really early Reaganites defending human liberty in the cause of "less government is better for everyone and everything." This is delusionary at best and a deliberate lie in fact. I rate it on the same level with the "holocaust deniers" who like to portray WWII as a well meaning effort to defend against Godless communism.

Gettysburg was the last battle for the First Minnesota as only a handful returned unscathed. They knew what they were doing. Why they did it makes this book well worth reading. I highly recommend it.


NCmountainwoman said...

I love Civil War history. It is so fascinating to see how different states were affected by the war. Here in the NC mountains folks were truly divided and many committed atrocities against their neighbors.

Arkansas Patti said...

I found it interesting when I was a kid who spent equal time in schools in the north and the south. The history we studied about the Civil War had two entirely different versions depending on the part of the country I was in. Really confusing for a child.