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Book Review 394: The Last Full Measure

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THE LAST FULL MEASURE: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers, by Richard Moe. 345 pages, illustrated. Henry Holt

Richard Moe wrote “The Last Full Measure” 25 years ago, but it has some surprising resonance in today’s pro-nazi political environment.

Moe has been admired for telling the history of the regiment through the words of the soldiers. That, in turn, was possible because for the first and last time, the soldiers were literate (though not much at spelling, despite the adulation of Noah Webster’s blue-backed speller), had a cheap and efficient postal service and were not censored.

Some of the men seem to have written almost every day and they were uninhibited, although, at least in Moe’s selection, not about sex. (Other soldiers did write about that, and Thomas Lowry tracked down some of their letters in “The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell.”) Sex –even in the most genteel forms of longings — is notable for its absence since the men were so young. One enlisted at age 15.

They freely criticized their officers, and some (usually lawyers or newspaper publishers in civilian life) served as correspondents to hometown papers, which freely printed their complaints. Some officers’ lives were made much harder by this. As we learned during recent wars, army officers do not listen to criticism and will use force to prevent it.

What they wrote about were chow, the weather, marching (endless), interactions with the locals and sightseeing.

Minnesota was the far frontier in 1860, and few of the men had ever encountered a black person, slave or free. Surprisingly, although the endemic racism of Americans of the time is on display, the Minnesotans were, often, respectful of the blacks they met — usually referred to as “contrabands” (if liberated slaves) or “servants” (if still enslaved). The cruder names ware mostly absent.

They liked to visit the capital and one, gawking at the White House, was shooed away by a guard. The Minnesotan said he had just stopped by to see President Lincoln. Lincoln opened the front door, came out, shook the man’s hand and chatted a moment. It was a simpler time.

Our main interest is in the descriptions of the fighting, so hard to convey to those who have not done it.

As to current relevance: Over 40% of the volunteers were foreign-born. They didn’t seem to have any difficulty in assimilating to American values, and the man acclaimed to be the best soldier of the regiment was a former Prussian army officer.

Terrorism was also relevant. In 1862, Sioux Indians raided Minnesota’s southern counties, killing hundreds of white settlers. The men of the 1st Minnesota did not panic. In fact, although they were well informed (via letters from home and newspapers, of which they were avid readers), they seem not to have had anything to say. (Possibly Moe left that out.)

The 1st Minnesota was one of the most famous regiments of the war. They fought nearly every battle from Bull Run to Gettysburg, where the 262 effectives (the regiment had been badly shot up at Fredericksburg) were ordered to charge a Confederate brigade to gain a crucial five minutes for Union reinforcements to come up. Outnumbered probably five to one, and facing artillery besides, they did their duty. Somewhere between 60% and 80% were killed or wounded, the highest rate of the war for a Union regiment.

The bayonet charge of the 1st Minnesota on the second day pf the battle and the bayonet charge of the 20th Maine Volunteers on the first day are reckoned to have saved the battle for the Union.

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