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As a child, I met Albert Woolson,
a veteran of the Civil War, when he visited my grade school in
West Duluth. Before his death in 1956 at age 109, he was the
last surviving veteran of the Union Army. Dick Moe, another
Duluthian who later became my classmate in law school, traced
his life-long interest in the Civil War to meeting Mr. Woolson.
His book, The Last Full Measure, chronicles the bravery and
devotion to duty of the First Minnesota Volunteers. They had
the distinction of being the first regiment offered in response
to the President's call for volunteers after the fall of Fort
Sumter, and they saw action with the Army of the Potomac in the
major battles of the first three years of the war.
THE FIRST MINNESOTA
On July 2, 1863, the First Minnesota Volunteers were positioned
on Cemetery Ridge, south of Gettysburg, for the decisive battle
of the war. When Confederate forces began to break through the
Union line, threatening a rout, only 262 men of the First Minnesota
stood in the path of an advancing brigade of 1,600, supported
by well-positioned artillery. Union reserves were called for,
but it was obvious they could not arrive before the Confederates
reached the ridge. To delay the Confederates' advance, General
Hancock ordered the First Minnesota to charge their lines. He
and the Minnesotans knew the order meant the sacrifice of the
regiment to gain a few minutes' time and save the position.
The charge of the Minnesotans was led by Colonel William Colvill,
a lawyer from Red Wing. With fixed bayonets, they ran down an
exposed slope toward the Confederate forces. William Lochren,
a lawyer from St. Anthony, later recalled: "The First Minnesota
rushed through the storm of bullets coming from the direct fire
of two brigades, into the midst and centre of this overwhelming
force, with nothing but death to look for, and no hope or chance
for any other success than to gain the brief time needed to save
that battle-field. And not a man wavered."
The charge had the desired effect; it stopped the advance of
the surprised Confederates. But the Minnesotans still had to
hold their position under heavy fire until darkness and reinforcements
allowed them to return to the ridge. Their casualties in the
battle totaled at least two-thirds of those engaged. During
the night, the regiment recovered dead and wounded from the field
and returned to its morning position.
On the following day the regiment was in the middle of heavy
artillery fire, and in the path of General Pickett's famous charge.
Again they were ordered to charge into the enemy ranks and engaged
in close fighting. They suffered another 55 casualties, bringing
their total for the two days fighting to 229, of whom at least
80 were killed or mortally wounded.
William Lochren said of his regiment's actions on July 2:
"The annals of war contain no parallel to this charge.
In its desperate valor, complete execution, successful result,
and in its sacrifice of men in proportion to the number engaged,
authentic history has no record with which it can be compared."
General Hancock, who ordered the charge, said: "There
is no more gallant deed recorded in history."
ALL CREATED EQUAL
President Lincoln, a lawyer from Illinois, honored those who
fell at Gettysburg, and called upon the living to dedicate themselves
to the cause for which they gave the "last full measure
of devotion" - preservation of a nation conceived in liberty
and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The cause of racial equality has been slow to advance and hard
to achieve. For a century after the Civil War, racial segregation
and discrimination existed with legal sanction. Significant
progress in civil rights did not come until the last half-century.
U.S. armed forces, which were racially segregated through the
Second World War, were ordered desegregated by President Truman
in 1948. U.S. schools remained racially segregated until desegregation
was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954. Segregation and racial
discrimination in public accommodations continued until enactment
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Barriers to registration of
African-American voters were removed by Voting Rights legislation
in the 1960s and 1970s.
A task force was appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court in
1993 to examine racial bias in Minnesota's justice system. It
found some examples of blatant racial bias. However, it found
more widespread and pervasive disparities in the treatment of
people of color, and a marked disparity between the racial composition
of the community and that of those employed in the justice system.
People of color were found to be underrepresented among judges,
lawyers, police, probation officers, and other officials. The
task force also found that many officials were insensitive to
racial and cultural differences and needs. The results, it concluded,
were that policies and practices intended or believed to be race-neutral
have disparate impacts on people of color, and that the justice
system is widely perceived to be unfair to them.
Concerns about racial bias have been heightened by recent reports
of racial profiling, and of racial disparities in rates of arrest,
conviction, imprisonment, and executions. Concerns about lack
of diversity have been heightened by reports about minority enrollment
in law schools and pass rates on bar examinations.
There is also growing strength and energy in minority bar organizations.
Talented minority lawyers are in positions of leadership as
judges, legislators, and in public and private law practice.
Through the Bar Summit and other activities, MSBA leaders are
offering support to minority leaders and organizations. As an
organization, we are committed to eliminating racial bias and
increasing diversity. It remains a challenge we must acknowledge
Kent A. Gernander is president
of the MSBA. A general practice and trial lawyer in the Winona
firm of Streater & Murphy, P.A., he is a graduate of Harvard
College and of the University of Minnesota Law School.