Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review - "Fort Snelling and the Civil War" by Stephen Osman

[Fort Snelling and the Civil War by Stephen E. Osman (Ramsey County Historical Society, 2017). Paperback, 7 maps, 100+ photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,295/335. ISBN:978-0-934294-76-8. $27]

Established in the early 1800s on treaty land acquired from the Dakota, Fort St. Anthony (renamed Fort Snelling in honor of Col. Josiah Snelling of the 5th U.S. Infantry) was completed in 1825 and became a key component of the chain of fortifications that shielded the Old Northwest frontier of the United States. Situated on a high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, the massive stone fort served the country off and on for many decades before finally being decommissioned in 1946. The surviving facilities eventually fell into disrepair, but today the site is run as a Minnesota Historical Society education center, the stone fort having been remarkably restored to a state resembling its original appearance. The most significant military post in Minnesota, Fort Snelling would feature prominently in the Civil War years. This wartime history is fully recounted in book-length format for the first time in Stephen Osman's stunning Fort Snelling and the Civil War. Osman, a retired MHS historian who managed Historic Fort Snelling for over thirty years, clearly developed an expert knowledge of and passion for the military post's history during his long tenure there. Fort Snelling and the Civil War appropriately focuses on the two most important responsibilities the post fulfilled during 1861-65—(1) the processing of Minnesota troops for distant service against Confederate armies and (2) the direction of the country's military response to internal threats from the Santee Sioux and other hostile tribal groups in the surrounding region.

Approximately 24,000 volunteers and draftees passed through Fort Snelling on their way to the fighting fronts to confront either Confederates in all three major Civil War theaters or Indian threats that materialized in Minnesota and the Northern Plains. In addition to processing, training, and equipping recruits, the fort was the region's chief administrative and logistical hub. When existing facilities proved inadequate to the scale of operations, the fort rapidly expanded outside its stone walls and tower. During the war years, wooden warehouse, barracks, hospital, armory, prison, and other structures were constructed west of the old stone fort. Each stage of this dramatic physical expansion is documented at great length by Osman and his detailed text descriptions are supported by numerous maps, period photographs, and firsthand accounts.

After the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 resulted in the indiscriminate murder of hundreds of Minnesota settler families at the hands of Eastern Dakota (a.k.a. Santee Sioux) angry at the federal government's recent neglect of its treaty obligations, panic ensued in the state and Fort Snelling coordinated the military response that both quelled the uprising and expanded the war into the Northern Plains. The actual fighting is not covered in the book, but the fort's central role in directing affairs is thoroughly covered in evenhanded fashion. In line with the views of other historians, Osman credits Minnesota politician turned volunteer colonel (and later general) Henry Hastings Sibley for leading an effective campaign. A significant section of the book also deals with the large enclosed refugee/internment camp that was established near the fort to house surrendered Dakota and other native groups (whether they participated in the uprising or not) before final removal was approved.

Also explored at great length are soldier life at the fort and the mutually beneficial relationship that developed during the war between the military authorities and nearby civilians. Practically every possible context of soldier duty and experience at the fort are discussed in the book, including training, living conditions, entertainment, food, religious life, and health along with darker aspects such as alcohol abuse and violent crime. As was the case in every fort located in populated areas, Minnesota civilians provided valuable support networks (ex. assistance from the state sanitary commission, local aid societies, etc.) while also benefiting themselves from lucrative army supply, construction, and transportation contracts.

Most books that will never realize great acclaim for their authors are labors of love to some degree, but this study really takes it to another level. In addition to his exhaustive research and expansive narrative, Osman packs his book with an incredible number of rarely-seen images. There's seemingly a photograph, map, or visual aid of some kind on every other page. The publisher also deserves a great deal of credit for sparing no expense in presenting all of this material in an arresting package.

Flaws are few. Not related to the material itself, the chief complaint (if one exists) is with the relative unwieldiness of the volume, as such a thick, very heavy paperback published in 9x11-inch landscape format is difficult to handle comfortably during reading. Also, though the author is upfront about the sprawling Dakota War of 1862-65 lying outside the scope of his already dense study, some kind of summary of those events would have been helpful for newer readers in need of more context for the fort's Civil War era activities and expansion.

One never knows, of course, but it's difficult to imagine a future study of Fort Snelling and the Civil War that could replace Osman's book. Anyone with a deep interest in Civil War Minnesota (or Minnesota history in general), the Dakota Wars, and Trans-Mississippi frontier forts will want to own a personal copy of this exceptionally detailed and lovingly crafted pictorial and narrative history of Fort Snelling's Civil War service.

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