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St. Cloud Area Men Volunteer To Fight In Civil War – on ‘This Date In Central Minnesota History’

Stephen Miller (Stearns History Museum)

ST. CLOUD – April 29th, 1861 – First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry organized at Ft. Snelling

On this date 150 years ago, the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry organized at Fr. Snelling. These troops were answering President Lincoln’s call for help. When Governor Ramsey volunteered 1,000 soldiers on April 14th, he set the precedent by making Minnesota the first state to offer volunteer soldiers to fight in the United States Civil War.

Minnesota’s Governor Alexander Ramsey was in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1861. He was at the War Department where he saw Secretary of War Simon Cameron looking hassled and worried. At Ramsey questioning, Cameron told him that the Union forces had just surrendered Ft. Sumter to the Confederacy. Ramsey quickly offered 1,000 men to defend the Union. Cameron told him to write up his offer, as he was on his way to President Lincoln’s offices and would deliver it. Later that day, Lincoln decided to issue a call for 75,000 men to volunteer for the Union Army, but he would not announce this publicly until the next day. Ramsey’s early offer won our state the recognition of being the first to answer Lincoln call, thus making Minnesota’s the first volunteer unit in the entire Union Army.

Stephen A. Miller, who was in the mercantile and real estate business with Henry Swisshelm in St. Cloud, heard this first call for soldiers and went into action. He raised a company of local volunteers and brought them to join the First Regiment at Fort Snelling. (Note: Stephen Miller would be elected the 4th Governor of Minnesota in 1863, the only Governor with direct ties to Stearns County).

At least 36 of these first 1,000 soldiers are known to have come from Stearns County. They were mustered in at Ft. Snelling on April 29, 1861 and would leave for Washing D. C. almost two months later on June 22nd. Jane Grey Swisshelm watched them leave and remarked: “It was a grand sight to see the men in their red shirts and white Havelocks marching down the rocky winding way, going to their Southern graves, for very few of them returned.”

Indeed, the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry is noted for its brave soldiers and the heavy casualties it suffered. At the First Battle of Bull Run, it took the heaviest loss of any Union regiment on the field. It would hold this unfortunate honor at more than one battle. This regiment is most remembered for their actions at the Battle of Gettysburg, where they rushed the Confederates, allowing the time for more troops to move into position. 215 members of the 262 men who were present at the time became casualties in this rush. The unit’s flag fell five times during this battle, and rose again each time. The flag underwent conservation work at the Minnesota History Center earlier this month and is on display in the Rotunda at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Thanks to Sarah Warmka and the Stearns History Museum for their help with our series, “This Date In Central Minnesota History.

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