World War I: The Minnesota experience detailed by historian at local event
NEW ULM — Historian Steven Osman gave a lunchtime presentation on the Minnesota’s experience in during World War I, Thursday at the Brown County Museum.
The presentation was part of the Brown County Historical Society’s WWI speaker series.
Steven Osman, a St. Olaf graduate, has recently retired as senior historian with the Minnesota Historical Society. He managed Fort Snelling for over 30 years.
Osman began his presentation by reminding his audience that exactly 100 years ago many men in Minnesota were worried about being sent overseas to fight in France. The United States came late into the war in April 1917, but even a year earlier Americans feared they could not remain neutral for long.
WWI began following a change in the balance of power across Europe. The rise of Germany threatened several countries leading to a build up in militaries. Conflicting ambition, mutual fears and multiple alliances were the trigger for the war.
In 1917, Minnesota had a population of 2.3 million. Approximately 25 percent of Minnesotans were foreign born and only 25 percent of Minnesotan were born of two native born parents.
“That’s a pretty high percentage of people with a foreign background,” Osman said.
Many of the Minnesota residents had a German or Austrian heritage and were reluctant to fight people from the Fatherland. There were also many descendants of Irish people with anti-British attitudes. The result was a strong desire for the United States to be a pacifist nation. Even after war was declared, there were strong reservations across the state.
The preparation for war was slow in Minnesota. The National Guard was relatively weak and small. In 1916, a National Defense Act was passed, allowing federal and overseas service for the Guard. Reorganization and recruitment began. The first of active duty of the Minnesota National Guard was not in Europe. Instead, in 1916, the troops were sent to the Mexican boarder.
Poncho Villa was raiding towns in New Mexico. The Guard was sent south as an expeditionary force. This delayed early recruitment, as many Minnesotans had no desire to be sent to Mexico or a camp in Texas.
In August 1917 all National Guard units were put under federal control. Around 7,300 men came from Minnesota to join the 4 million men mobilized for the war effort.
Enlistment in the army was allowed between the ages of 18 and 40 or up to 55 if you had a specialty. Among the Minnesota enlistees, 11,000 were sent to the Navy and 2,800 to the Marines.
It was illegal to be unemployed in Minnesota during the war years.
“You had to either work or fight,” Osman said. “Go to the army or get a job.”
A military draft was instituted in the summer of 1917. Men between 21 and 30 had to register. This was extended to 18 to 45 in August.
Osman said this draft was harder to escape than the Civil War draft 50 years earlier. In 1917, it was easier for the draft board to track people down. Some men married to try and escape the draft. The marriage rate in Ramsey County quadrupled in 1918.
Eventually 79,000 Minnesotans were drafted. Most of the drafted men ended up in Camp Dodge, Iowa, as part of the 88th Division.
The best known Minnesota unit was the 151st Field Artillery. It was part of the 42 Division known as the Rainbow Division. The 151st was the first federally recognized Minnesota National Guard unit. The 1,261 men in the unit were sent to New Jersey in September 1917 to prepare for mobilization.
The 151st Field Artillery was sent overseas in October 1917. They disembarked in France in early November to adapt to modern warfare. In the 18 months the 151st was overseas, it was involved in 264 days of combat.
“I don’t know of any unit in Minnesota history that comes close to that,” Osman said.
World War I was different from previous conflicts due to the advancements in weapons and technology. American soldiers were trained to be an army of marksmen. Osman said this made a difference in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive at the end of the war.
Artillery was the principal casualty-causing weapon. In the Civil War artillery needed see where it was shooting, but in WWI it relied on calculations on charts and used planes for recon.
Of the 118,500 Minnesotans serving in the war, 1,432 were killed. Another 2,175 died of other causes. Many of those who came back suffered from permanent injuries, missing limbs, constant coughing from gas attacks or shell shock later called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Fort Snelling was reconstructed into a general hospital for the veterans. The fort had surgical wards and rehabilitation wards. Fort Snelling maintained the role of hospital for four years.
For more information on Minnesota’s role in war, Osman recommended the museum at Camp Ripley in Little Falls. The former curator of the exhibit will be speaking in New Ulm as part of the WWI series in June.
The WWI Speaking Series is a preview of the Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit “Loyalty and Dissent–Brown County and World War I.”