Sunday, June 30, 2013

I am a Proud Minnesotan

This is my land, my home and the place where my remains shall rest throughout eternity. As the anniversary of the battles of Gettysburg approach, my pride in homeland is heightened.
by Charlie Leck

There’s a lovely, peaceful, little spot in Orono, on a gentle hill that overlooks Long Lake, that I often visit. My wife’s great-great Grandfather, Bradford Wakefield, sold the spot, which had been a part of his farm, to the city for one dollar. Back then, before he gave the property away, the locals called it Teepee Hill because the Native Americans (the Dakotah) of the area often set up camp there.

In 1861, however, with the Civil War raging and the bodies of Minnesota boys being returned from the battlefield, the community was in need of a cemetery. One of Bradford’s sons, John Wakefield, is buried there. He, like many troops on both sides of battle, lost his life to typhoid while he was in Tennessee. So, today, the little hillside is known at Union Cemetery.

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is upon us (July 1 – 3). It caused me to stop at the cemetery yesterday. It looked wonderful from atop the little hill. The lake looked peaceful. I found John’s marker. He’s surrounded by other members of his family, including his parents and many of his siblings.

I may have been born, too many years ago, in New York City, but I have become a solid Minnesotan. I thought about that yesterday as I leaned back against grandpa Warren Wakefield’s big tombstone. This spot, where Warren liked to come to play, represents home for me about as much as any place in the world. There’s another cemetery – even older and about 7 miles west of this one and attached to our farm property – that I also find extremely peaceful. It’s called Pioneer Cemetery because, I think, it lies alongside what was a wagon train trail to the west. It appears that one of the parties of adventurers had a difficult time and pulled up in this area. They lost a number of their children to disease and buried the tikes here and marked the graves with crude stones on which names and dates are carved. That’s the story I’ve built up in my mind from what I find there.

This is my Minnesota. I am a part of this land now – part of these lakes and rolling meadows. When my soul departs for the stars, it is here – near this old cemetery – that I want my ashes to be scattered. This was all once a part of the famous Big Woods, an area so dense with giant hardwood trees that arriving white settlers did not know that one of the most magnificent lakes in the world was hidden deep inside these trees.

I am proud of this place and its hearty pioneers of the past. I often wish there could be some way to reverse history to such a point that more kindness and fairness could have been extended to the beautiful people who lived here before our white ancestors arrived.

And, I am damned proud of those young Minnesota men and boys who trooped off to join the fight to end slavery. Their story is legendary here in Minnesota and those troops are held in positions of near reverence to this day. President Calvin Coolidge would say of that Minnesota Volunteer Regiment that they had… “few if any equals and no superiors in the history of warfare!”

At Gettysburg, the Minnesota Volunteers would suffer the highest rate of casualties of any Union regiment.

Those brave soldiers left Minnesota before the break of light on 22 June 1861. They marched down to the Mississippi River from Fort Snelling and boarded steam boats that headed south. Others of them boarded trains out of St. Paul. Their reputation preceded them. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune, having seen the Minnesota soldiers changing trains in his city, wrote of them…

“There are few regiments we have ever seen that can compare to the brawn and muscle with these Minnesotans, used to the axe, the rifle, the oar and the setting pole. They are unquestionably the finest body of troops that has yet to appear in our streets.”

They went proudly and bravely and they fought in places like Antietam, Bull Run and Fredericksburg. Then history led them to Gettysburg and to one of the ugliest, fiercest, most violent encounters of the Civil War.

Tomorrow, 1 July (150 years later), I shall write about these proud and brave Minnesota boys and their part in the great battle in Pennsylvania.

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