Recently I had occasion to visit La Crosse, Wisconsin. An evening soiree on behalf of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy was held on sightseeing pontoon boat. We left from Levee Park in downtown La Crosse and wandered amongst the backwater islands and sand dunes near La Crosse.
La Crosse’s Levee Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead the Younger in the early 1900’s. His father, Frederick Law Olmstead the Elder, designed Central Park. Go to Wikipedia and read about the two Olmsteads and imagine what America would be like without the influence of their landscape contributions.
The 1st Minnesota passed through La Crosse on their trip out east in 1861 and again when they returned in February of 1864. Their return trip in the dead of winter was cold and harsh and not without danger. After commandeering a train in Portage City, Wisconsin by declaring it a “military action,” the 1st made it to La Crosse to begin their trip upriver and to home.
There still being no operating railroad in Minnesota, the trip upriver was to be, as described by James Wright, “rather primitive, being bobsleds with large boxes on them filled with straw and cross-seated with boards, without backs of any kind. There were plenty of buffalo robes, as well as straw, and these met the needs of the cold night.”
Wright continues, “It was the first sleigh ride in the service, and they were soon talking, laughing, and singing like a pleasure party out for an evening ride. We were on the ice-covered river, which made a level and very smooth road and progress was rapid.” Eventually this festive atmosphere gave way to sleep.
The first town they came to in Minnesota was Winona, home of Company K. Wright reports, “We were approaching Winona, and a bonfire was burning on the ice near some of the warehouses. We were soon there and out of the sleighs, to be quickly surrounded by a cheering crowd, which welcomed us with a hearty enthusiasm that warmed us almost instantly. It was about midnight and bitterly cold, and it was a surprise to us that there should be any one in waiting at that hour, on such a night.
“That first meeting, with people of our own state on the western bank of the Mississippi, was all we could have asked and much more than we had any right to expect, especially if we consider the hour and the temperature. It touched our inmost natures. Only those who have been absent long and suffered much can rightly appreciate such a greeting.”
It is the shared feeling of the production team for our film “No More Gallant a Deed” that once again, after 150 years, it is time to bring the soldiers of the 1st home to a warm welcome from their fellow Minnesotans.
In 1864 when the boys returned home, the islands seen in the photos would have been nearly stripped of their trees, having been used for firewood. The bluffs of Minnesota, seen in the background of these photos, would have been nearly treeless on the south and southwest facing sides and covered instead with what is called “goat prairie,” a mix of wild flowers and tall grasses and brushy trees. Fires started by lightening kept trees from gaining a foothold and foresting over the bluffs.