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Personal, painful, poignant: Area heroes showcased in Minnesota's 'legendary' Civil War history

A cannon sits at the center of the exhibit, a reminder of the devastating weapons used by - and against - Minnesota's Civil War soldiers.1 / 2
A display for the Battle of Gettysburg describes the contribution of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry at the "turning point of the war" 150 years ago. Seventy percent of Minnesotans who took part in the battle were killed, wounded or reported missing.2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate forces had broken through the Union Army lines. Col. William Colvill, commander of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, was ordered to charge his regiment in a desperate attempt to stall the Confederate advance.

The 1st Minnesota attacked an enemy force that outnumbered them by as many as 5-to-1. The charge was a success, but the victory was hard-won - only 47 of the 262 Minnesotans were still alive after the 15-minute skirmish. Colvill was shot twice.

Colvill, who worked in Red Wing and is buried in Cannon Falls, is one of many state heroes showcased in "Minnesota and the Civil War," a new exhibit at the History Center in St. Paul.

The exhibit uses more than 170 firsthand accounts and original documents to tell the story of Minnesota's pivotal contribution to the Civil War, including the exploits of Company F from Goodhue County.

Since opening on March 2, the exhibit has been well-received by the public, said Jessica Kohen, public relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. Its opening had the second largest visiting weekend in the center's history, behind only the George Washington exhibit in 2011.

"We've seen a lot of families coming in, and intergenerational groups," Kohen said. "The exhibit caters to different age levels, as well as levels of interest."

At the center of the exhibit sits an imposing Civil War-era cannon, flanked by display cases featuring uniforms, equipment and firearms used by Union soldiers. But on the periphery resides the personal side of war - photographs and correspondences from Minnesotans on both the frontline and home front.

A patriotic flute melody echoes through the space, mixing with the sounds of battle and narrated accounts of soldiers and their families. The exhibit has a melancholic tone, accentuated by rich Victorian reds and moody lighting.

"It's an interesting blend of the excitement of war and the somber realization of the losses of war," Kohen said.

Against the far wall is a section on the Battle of Gettysburg that details the charge of Colvill and the 1st Minnesota, calling it "a legendary moment in Civil War history."

"I immediately gave the order, 'forward, double-quick,' and under a galling fire from the enemy we advanced," Covill is quoted as saying. "(The men) started down the slopes in a beautiful line."

Along with important battles and key figures like Colvill, the exhibit emphasizes the war's impact on common Minnesotans as well.

"It's more personal than you normally get," Kohen said. "There's discussion of the battles, but it also focuses on the individuals who fought and the people at home."

Off to one side is a display of letters between Infantryman John H. Mitchell and wife Emma. As recorded actors narrate the letters, silhouettes of the couple are projected onto cloth - a canvas tent for John, and fresh laundry hanging on the line for Emma.

"They're really moving," said Kohen, who said she enjoys the letters the most. "I like the emotional take and how it sets the tone for the exhibit."

If you go ...

What: "Minnesota and the Civil War"

When: Open Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 8; hours vary

Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul

Cost: $11 for adults, $9 for seniors and students and $6 for children ages 6-17. Free for children under five and MHS members. All admission free Tuesdays from 5-8 p.m.

More info:

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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