Civil War Battles in . . . Minnesota?
The loud boom of cannon fire echoed through the smoky summer air as Union and Confederate forces bombarded each other at the Battle of Appomattox in … southern Minnesota?
Reenactors came from as far south as Texas and as far north as Winnepeg, Canada.
Even as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War gives all Americans an opportunity for remembrance and reflection regarding that great and terrible event, one might find it odd to discover a large-scale reenactment taking place in Minnesota. It is, after all, far away from the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Kennesaw Mountain and other battlefields of the war. Nevertheless, on the fourth weekend in June, over 500 reenactors supported by 21 cannon made camp at the little town of Wasioja for three days of bivouacking, various historical demonstrations, and of course, battles.
The organizers of the Wasioja event did not choose the town (population 992) randomly. Its significance comes from the fact that it is the home of the only Civil War recruiting station still in existence west of the Mississippi River. Furthermore, as an event brochure explained, “The town, nestled near the Zumbro River, served more than 200 men who formed the nucleus of Company C of the Second Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.”
In Virginia or some other state chock-full of Civil War landmarks a recruiting station might not justify commemorations and reenactments, but it is more than adequate in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes—much to the satisfaction of the estimated 10,000 visitors who turned out for the occasion.
The three different battles reenacted during the event were not chosen on a whim. Tom Jensch, executive committee member of the Friends of Wasioja, explained the significance of each. Friday’s Battle of Chickamauga, he said, memorialized the heroic sacrifice of the Second Minnesota, which suffered tremendous casualties there while plugging a hole in the Union line. The First Battle of Bull Run, reenacted on Saturday, celebrated the bravery of the First Minnesota in its refusal to flee before the Confederate advance, thus giving other units a chance to regroup. Finally, the event’s planners chose to reenact the Battle of Appomattox because of its significance in the ending of the war. Plus, it provided an opportunity to showcase Wasioja’s excellent replica of the McLean House in which the fateful surrender meeting took place.
The battle reenactments were certainly a high point for the gathered crowds, but there were many other sights to see and activities to participate in at Wasioja. These ranged from period medical demonstrations to a military/civilian ball and social. In addition, a number of period vendors provided plenty of memorabilia for those wishing to carry on the spirit of the commemoration long after it ended.
By any estimation, the Wasioja Civil War Days event was a great success. Jensch happily related the incredibly positive reactions he received from the reenactors, who came from as far south as Texas and as far north as Winnipeg, Canada. Many of them told him they had not been to an event of this caliber in years. One long-time reenactor stated that “It was the best event he had seen in 35 years.” Those reenactors doing educational demonstrations were particularly pleased with the Minnesotan audience’s pleasant demeanor and hungry curiosity for historical knowledge.
While the Wasioja Civil War Days planners intended the commemoration to be a one-time event, its success has created a strong desire for more. As Jensch explained, every reenactor he talked with “begged us to do it again.” A newly planted crop of soybeans currently prevents any preparations for a 2012 Wasioja Civil War Days, but popular demand just might fill the little river town with blue and gray again in 2013.
The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War will be sparking events large and small all across the country during the next four years. Armchair General presents this article as an example of one of those events, held in a state not usually associated in the public’s mind with Civil War commemorations. To see a photo essay on our partner site HistoryNet.com of activities at the sesquicentennial observance of the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, held July 21–24, 2011, click on this link. A photo essay of the kickoff of Civil War sesquicentennial events in Tennessee can be found by clicking this link.
About the Author:
Nick Kaminsky is a recent graduate of of Minnesota State University where he received an M. A. in American History with an emphasis on 19th- and 20th-century American Religious History.