Standing in the heart of a state that has gloried in its role in helping save the Union at Gettysburg, President Donald Trump extolled at length Friday the battle prowess of a seemingly odd hero — Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Some Minnesota veterans and Civil War historians were surprised to hear the commander-in-chief lavish praise on a man who led the Confederacy’s fight against Americans trying to preserve the Union.
“Had he won, we would be two countries,” state Sen. Jerry Newton, a veteran who served in the Vietnam War and the Middle East, said Saturday. “That’s just unconscionable for me, for him to make those statements.”
Newton, a Coon Rapids DFLer, said the president praising Lee “hurt for those of us who have served and who have lost friends in the service.”
On Friday, the president told a crowd of thousands at his rally in Bemidji that Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, “won many, many battles in a row.”
“It was supposed to end immediately because the North was too powerful for the South,” he said. “But it just shows when you have leaders, when you have a great general. And Robert E. Lee, he would have won, except for Gettysburg.”
Minnesota has a rich Civil War history, and soldiers from the state are credited with courageous actions and sacrifices that led to victory at Gettysburg.
Trump suggested that removing statues of the general, as some activists and state and local governments have done over concerns that they perpetuate racism and white supremacy, is “crazy.”
The president has for years defended Confederate monuments against widespread calls for removal and championed the rights of those who continue to display the Confederate flag itself, despite polling showing that the majority of Americans now view it as a racist symbol.
The Minnesota Republican Party and several GOP legislators and officials didn’t respond Saturday to requests for comment on the president’s remarks.
Newton’s great-grandfather fought for the Union before moving to Minnesota using land grants offered to Civil War veterans.
“Lee was indeed a great general, a great tactician, but he was leading a revolt against the United States of America,” said Newton, who served 23 years on active duty. “You can respect his military ability, but you can’t respect the position he took to fight against the country he belonged to.”
Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL, added in a statement that “the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of Minnesota’s brave soldiers helped turn the tide at Gettysburg. … We will not allow Donald Trump to divide us and insult our state’s proud legacy.”
Trump has vowed to flip Minnesota to the Republicans after a narrow 2016 loss here to Hillary Clinton.
State’s role at Gettysburg
It would be difficult for historians to know for sure that Lee would’ve won the Civil War had his troops succeeded at Gettysburg, but the Civil War’s bloodiest battle was certainly a “turning point” in the war, said Randal Dietrich, director of the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley in Little Falls.
Minnesota’s Alexander Ramsey was the first governor to offer troops to Lincoln after the South’s assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., setting the Civil War in motion in 1861.
Roughly 1,000 men from the new state were deployed as part of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, going on to play a vital role in several major battles, including Gettysburg.
On July 2, 1863, the outnumbered unit of about 262 Minnesotans charged at some 1,200 Confederate troops.
The action was meant to buy the Union time to get reinforcements to the area, preventing Confederate troops from breaking a mile-long gap in the line of Union troops in Pennsylvania, Dietrich said.
“It’s essentially suicidal to do that, and still Minnesota troops did that,” Dietrich said.
The sacrifice killed and wounded more than 200 Minnesotans, 82% of the unit.
“I would argue Minnesotans saved the day of July 2. … They arguably saved the battle of Gettysburg,” Dietrich said. “Their gallantry on that day is extraordinary and something that I think Minnesotans should be at least aware of and hopefully proud of.”
The Minnesota Historical Society still holds a Confederate flag captured by Pvt. Marshall Sherman of the Minnesota 1st Volunteer Regiment from the 28th Virginia Regiment at Gettysburg.
“In self-sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war,” a plaque on a monument to the troops at the battle site in Pennsylvania reads.
An estimated 626 Minnesotans died on Civil War battlefields.
“To think we were at odds and shooting at each other 150 years ago, the fact that the nation healed [afterward] … is terribly important,” Dietrich said, adding that Gettysburg provides “lessons for all Americans.”