Can the Greatest Generation save Historic Fort Snelling?

Is a benign historical interpretation possible for Historic Fort Snelling, one that ignores the events of 1862-63 and and other tragic aspects of the fort for Dakota people? For years the Minnesota Historical Society has been groping for such a possibility. The latest attempt to put this benign interpretation into effect is the effort to associate the Greatest Generation–the subject of a new exhibit at the History Center–with a site that was reconstructed in the 1960s to represent the fort as it existed in the late 1820s. ¬†Will it work to cloak and 1820s fort with the Greatest Generation? Not if the Historical Society wishes to carry out accurate interpretation. In fact, interpreting the Greatest Generation at Historic Fort Snelling in any consistent way would require nothing less than the removal of half of the current fort.

The schedule for the June 13-14 weekend at Historic Fort Snelling describes the re-enactment of an odd juxtaposition of historic periods at the 1820-period fort:

Travel back to the World War II era to learn about Minnesota’s role on battlefields and at home. Costumed staff, period displays, weapon firing demonstrations and an encampment of Allied reenactors occupy the historic fort during this special weekend devoted to “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” Participate in many hands-on WWII activities for families including crafts, games and obstacle course. Winning films from the 2008 Greatest Generation Film project will be shown in the Visitor Center. Learn more about the Greatest Generation from the exhibit “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom” at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

It is true that Fort Snelling as a whole did serve as the entry point and exit point for soldiers who entered the Army during World War II. But that had little to do with Historic Fort Snelling, the place first built in the 1820s and reconstructed in the 1960s. When soldiers entering the Army in the 1940s came to Fort Snelling, there were a few buildings standing from the original fort, including the Round Tower, the Commandant’s House and officers’ quarters. But these buildings had been greatly altered since the 19th century. The original walls of the fort and many other structures were long gone.

Apparently this did not prevent World War II soldiers from making associations with the original fort. As historian Stephen Osman states on the Minnesota Historical Society website:

Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling, designed as a military outpost when built in the early part of the 19th century, was called into active duty one last time during World War II. For 300,000 young men of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, the fort represented their gateway into military service. At the end of the war, it represented their ticket out.

What was Fort Snelling during World War II? Physically it was a vast complex of offices, warehouses, rail yards, barracks, parade grounds and classrooms sprawled over a 1,500-acre site above the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. It was buildings as old as 120 years Рsolid brick and stone structures on park like green lawns studded with mature elms Рand hundreds of tar paper and wood frame huts heated with coal stoves.

But more importantly, what was Fort Snelling to those who experienced it – over 600,000 men and women during the war years? To a regular army officer or enlisted man, the post’s historical character made a strong impression. The commander of the Reception Center wrote in 1943:

“When I stood at the commandant’s house overlooking the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers and gazed about me, I could hardly fail to realize that I was stationed at a post that was physically older than most of the other forts and posts in the Middle West. How far back in the nation’s history this Fort Snelling reached! I could turn and see two buildings that actually dated from the 1820s – the Round Tower, the oldest man-made structure in Minnesota, and the Hexagonal Tower still guarding the actual junction of the two rivers, though its gun ports are laughable now when one considers the size of modern artillery…. Fort Snelling took its place in the vision of a coast-to-coast United States–a picture, incidentally, that few men were capable of envisioning in the year of our Lord 1820!…the men who were responsible for erecting Fort Snelling were not ordinary bureaucrats, but patriots who dared to love their country well enough to think and plan for its future.”

It is not surprising that soldiers of later generations might view Historic Fort Snelling in this light, glossing over the unpleasant associations that might come from a more careful reading of the history of the fort, remembering only the service to their country of those who were stationed there in the 19th century. But historians have an important role to remind their fellow citizens of both the good and the bad in their history, including the fact that for much of the 19th century Fort Snelling, both the original fort and the expanded fort on the Upper Bluff, was associated with a longterm war against Indian people. And as stated before, associations aside, the bottom line is that if one were to commemorate Historic Fort Snelling as seen by World War II soldiers it would be the place before its reconstruction in the 1960s. So, if the connection of the Greatest Generation to Fort Snelling is to be one of the reasons for the Historical Society to continue to operate Historic Fort Snelling, accuracy requires the careful removal of all the changes made to restore the 1820s-era fort.

pf026814 wpa 1939 fort snelling Can the Greatest Generation save Historic Fort Snelling?

Historic Fort Snelling looking east from the Fort Snelling Bridge, in 1939, during a Works Progress Administration project to restore some of the stone work of the outer wall below the fort. The structures in the background were substantially the same during World War II and little was done to restore the fort to the 1820s era until after the Minnesota Statehood Centennial, during the 1960s. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

pf120048 round tower 1942 Can the Greatest Generation save Historic Fort Snelling?

Fort Snelling's old Round Tower as it looked to the Greatest Generation in 1942, covered with ivy and surrounded by a grassy lawn. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

Here’s what the Historical Society has planned at Historic Fort Snelling in June 2009, according to a recent press release.

World War II Weekend
June 13 and 14, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Travel back to the World War II era to learn about Minnesota’s role on battlefields and at home. Costumed staff, period displays, weapon firing demonstrations and an encampment of Allied reenactors occupy the historic fort during this special weekend devoted to “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” Participate in many hands-on WWII activities for families including crafts, games and obstacle course. Winning films from the 2008 Greatest Generation Film project will be shown in the Visitor Center. Learn more about the Greatest Generation from the exhibit “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom” at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
Cost: Activities are included with regular admission fee of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and college students, $5 for children ages 6-17.

Historic Fort Snelling Craft Program
June 13, 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m.
Join in a free craft activity that helps participants learn about Minnesota’s role in World War II. This hour-long program is offered as part of Historic Fort Snelling’s World War II Weekend program. Space for the craft program is limited, but any child under 16 may register in person from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. for a chance to win a free American Girl doll. Craft sessions are held at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. The drawing will be held at 4:30 p.m.
Cost: Craft activity is included with regular admission fee of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and college students, $5 for children ages 6-17.

Blacksmith for a Day
June 21, 1 to 4 p.m.
Join the skilled tradesmen of the fort at blacksmithing. Select a project with the smith, work the forge, pound out the hot metal, and shape the iron using hammer and tongs as it was done two centuries ago. Bring the project home to impress family and friends. Children ages 12-17 must be accompanied by an adult. Groups of up to eight people can participate with advance reservations.
Cost: $33; $30 for MHS members. Reservations are required. Call call 612-726-1171 or register online at http://shop.mnhs.org/category.cfm?Category=190

Civil War Walking Tour
June 27, 10 a.m.
More than 24,000 troops trained for the Civil War at Fort Snelling, including the famous 1st Minnesota Regiment, which played a vital role in the victory at Gettysburg. In 1862-3, Minnesota volunteers were called upon to fight the Dakota in western Minnesota. After five weeks of fighting the Dakota were defeated, resulting in the tragic internment of over 1,600 Dakota in the river flats below the fort. This special walking tour will focus on the fort from 1858 to 1865, including the role President Lincoln played in the trials of the Dakota, and a walk down to the memorial located where the Dakota were held over the deadly winter of 1862-63. This tour does not include admission to Historic Fort Snelling.
Cost: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 6-17, with a $2 discount for MHS members.

Upper Post Walking Tour
June 28, noon
Fort Snelling served as an induction and training center during World War II with more than 300,000 members of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation beginning their military life there from 1941-1945. The Fort also trained several special groups, including military police, railroad engineers, and Japanese translators at the Military Intelligence Language School. During the special tour, start in the Visitor Center where a World War II map shows the Fort extending to include the National Cemetery. Then follow a guide on a two-mile loop to the Upper Post, where many World War II-era buildings still stand, including the old barracks, headquarters and other structures that were a part of the biggest military base in Minnesota. This tour does not include admission to Historic Fort Snelling.
Cost: The fee is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 6-17, with a $2 discount for MHS members.


Comments

Can the Greatest Generation save Historic Fort Snelling? — 1 Comment

  1. I’m glad they’re dealing with World War II –especially the walking tour of the non-Historic Fort areas and giving people a mental hook to hang some stuff on, but it’s not the reason we have Historic Fort Snelling.

    When the public input event was held at Historic Ft. Snelling to consider changes to the fort a couple years ago, I discussed with anyone who would listen my concerns:

    1) the launching of soldiers for WWII and their return there after the end of their duty is not a thing unique to Ft. Snelling; the same event could be celebrated legitimately in almost every community in Minnesota–the local railroad station or recruiting office would serve as well.

    Turning Historic Ft. Snelling into a WWII shrine makes no sense.

    [My father was carpenter foreman at the Veteran’s Hosp. in Mpls. in the 1950s-70s and worked at “the Fort” as a part of the work, esp whenever one of the old Officer’s Row houses needed work, since those houses were part of the federal maintenance crew at that time. Then the federal gov’t let it all go and the State became a neglectful caretaker. He bemoaned the loss of care when the houses were no longer occupied by veterans hospital doctors. THAT was the time when the neglected 20th century military compound needed attention and had a legitimate connection to the “greatest generation.” But–the federal gov’t and the state gov’t made a conscious choice NOT to preserve that historic WWI and II site.]

    The rebuilding of the “Historic Fort” is, as Bruce has pointed out, a place that tells a very different story. It’s a unique story that can best be told _at that site_–the frontier outpost that lay at the junction of two strategic waterways built by the U.S. gov’t to 1) keep the British out, 2) protect and regulate the fur trade, and 3) enforce peace between Ojibwe and Dakota. Corollary to that is a lot of native history, the story of the fur trade, and the rise of Mendota, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and St. Anthony as communities of white settlers. There is more than enough to talk about and Yes, it is a 19th century story.

    2) The attempt to turn Historic Fort Snelling into a shrine to Dred and Harriet Scott demeans a much larger story of the tearing apart of the nation by factions and politics in the antebellum period [and the role of Minnesota’s statehood in this larger chess game] and does little to tell us about the real lives of these two people. Yeah, we _should_ be thinking about black history and the Scotts and we should relate Minnesota to the outside world, but we could do so in many other ways just as easily, starting with the pro- and anti-slavery thinkers here and elsewhere. And visitors need some real hard facts about demographics of the area in the 1820s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s.

    When I ask the interpreters at the Fort about the financial and legal backers who helped Dred Scott make a federal case of his situation, they cannot answer; it would require much more information that is non-Minnesota in its aspect. The few documented anecdotes we have about the Scotts in Minnesota require us to create a story almost out of whole cloth when trying to tell it. If another community built a historic program on such a thin pile of info, we would giggle and say they were reaching creatively. The Scott story is not an unimportant one, but it’s hardly the major story of the Fort.

    3) The rise of “folkways” kinds of scheduled, publicized activities related to typical behaviors of past times–school room practices, tea parties, etc.–also trivializes the site. If the public thinks it needs to go to Historic Fort Snelling to learn about pouring tea and conducting spelling bees, we are in trouble as a state. The real history of Ft. Snelling is so important to Minnesota’s identity as a real place that ignoring or trivializing it is a dereliction of duty by MHS.

    4) Fort staff and displays should talk at greater length about why we have the “Twin Cities” as opposed to one. That is a major theme of the Historic Ft. Snelling story and one that very few people living around here actually understand. Again, that is the story that can be best told at the Fort, looking down at the conjunction of the two rivers. I challenge you to approach ten people and ask them why there are two cities instead of one. If you get one correct answer, you will be scoring a better average than I have done when working as a volunteer at the Fort and at Mendota.

    The story of sheep grazing at the place–then a suburb of the infant Minneapolis– when it was decommissioned as a fort in 1850s is a real piece of Minnesota history, not a trivial factlet. Cronyism and political corruption caused the fort to be decommissioned and then inopportunely and quickly repurchased at a cute price and relaunched back into service. Meanwhile, the Indian Agency was detached from the Fort, the institutional memory was lost, the St. Paul politicians and Washington honchos were preoccupied with other matters, and an insurrection was brewing along the Minnesota River. Now there’s a dramatic story! And the subsequent Dakota compound belongs to that narrative as well, another part of a story that is best told at that site.

    5) Historic Ft. Snelling needs to be better oriented to the water. The trees on the cliff are a barrier to understanding and there is very little attempt at dealing with transportation history in any other way, unless something has been added in since I griped. Having paddled numerous times in a freight canoe in costume to and from the Fort, I cannot help dubbing in this experience as an integral part of the nature of the place when I am standing anywhere on the Fort grounds. But for most people, the integration of the river landing–canoes, steamboats, flatboats, ferry–and the first military compound is almost entirely nonexistent. What’s wrong with this picture?

    –Linda Bryan

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