From Ramsey to Dayton

The ongoing “Minnesota cage match” is now venued before Judge John Guthmann in St. Paul. The city of St. Paul sits in Ramsey County. The Minnesota House and Senate filed their lawsuit against Governor Dayton and his commissioner of management and budget in Ramsey County District Court, within shouting distance of the state capitol.

In writing about the lawsuit yesterday I misspelled “Ramsey” as “Rasmey.” A friend wrote to note the typo. As an admirer of the man after whom the county is named, I seriously regretted that typo.

Ramsey County is named for Alexander Ramsey. Ramsey was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where he overcame personal hardship to become a lawyer and win election two terms in Congress as a Whig, from 1843-1847. After his two terms in Congress he was appointed in 1849 to serve as Minnesota’s first territorial governor.

Ramsey had a lengthy and distinguished political career in Minnesota, which achieved statehood in 1858. He was elected the state’s second governor as a Republican in 1860, serving until 1863. In 1863 he resigned to run for the Senate. Elected in 1863, he served two terms. He also served later as Secretary of War in the Hayes administration.

Ramsey achieved success in business as well. He built a house in St. Paul equipped with all the modern conveniences available as of 1872. It is now maintained as the Alexander Ramsey House by the Minnesota Historical Society (of which Ramsey himself was the first president).

On April 13, 1861, Governor Ramsey made his way to Washington to discuss patronage jobs with the Lincoln administration. News arrived the following day that Fort Sumter had been fired on and surrendered. In The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers, Richard Moe recalls that Governor Ramsey rushed to the War Department to track down Secretary Simon Cameron, an old Pennsylvania acquaintance:

As Ramsey later told the story, he “found the secretary with his hat on and papers in his hand, about to leave his office. I said, ‘My business simply as Governor of Minnesota is to tender a thousand men to defend the government.’ “Sit down immediately,’ he replied, and write the tender you have made, as I am now on my way to [the White House].’ Ramsey wrote out the offer as requested, thus earning for Minnesota the distinction of being the first state to tender volunteer troops to save the Union.

The 1,000 men tendered by Governor Ramsey became the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, participating in virtually every significant battle fought by the Army of the Potomac until the unit was mustered out of service in 1864.

The First Minnesota is the storied regiment whose great moment came when General Hancock ordered it to make a suicide charge down Cemetery Ridge at a crucial moment on the second day of Gettysburg. All present heeded General Hancock’s “charge” command directly into enemy fire, as a result of which they sustained an 82 percent casualty rate. The regimental battle flag survives as a sacred relic kept on display in the rotunda of the newly refurbished state capitol along with other regimental flags.

Ramsey is now mostly remembered as the man who called for the extermination or expulsion of the Dakota Indians when they went on a rampage against white Minnesotans in 1862. Hungry and angered by the government’s delay in delivering food as well as other grievances, the Dakota undertook a war that, according to President Lincoln, killed some 800 men, women and children in southern Minnesota.

Those who weren’t killed were terrorized. General Pope, dispatched by the War Department to restore order, described the scene as one of “wide, universal and uncontrollable panic[.]”

Ramsey appointed Henry Sibley commander of the forces raised to fight against the Dakota, notoriously stating that “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” This was a point on which General Pope agreed with Ramsey.

Sibley put down the uprising and appointed five officers to conduct summary trials that resulted in more than 300 death sentences. After reviewing trial proceedings to isolate the murderers from those who had simply participated as warriors in the uprising, Lincoln approved the hanging of 38 of the Dakota — in his words, “those guilty of individual murders and atrocious abuse of their female captives.”

In 2013 Governor Dayton sought to rectify history in the current style:

“I am appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement… “The viciousness and violence, which were commonplace 150 years ago in Minnesota, are not accepted or allowed now.”

Dayton called for flags to fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset Friday, declaring it a day of remembrance and reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the start of the six-week U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

He asked Minnesotans “to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.”

The Star Tribune has more of Dayton’s 2013 statement here. Let me note that I don’t think Governor Ramsey “called for vigilante violence” or did anything wrong to put down the uprising. The uprising and its aftermath are part of a complicated story representing a sad chapter in Minnesota and American history, retold most recently in Duane Schultz’s Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 (not recommended).

If Minnesotans know anything of Ramsey today, I am afraid that it is likely to be limited to his statement at the outset of the uprising, partially quoted by Dayton in his condemnation of Ramsey. He deserves better. Indeed, in considering the descent from Ramsey to Dayton, I think of the ghost’s lament to Hamlet: “…what a falling off was there!”


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