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John B. Lundstrom uncovers one more Civil War story

“One Drop in a Sea of Blue: The Liberators of the Ninth Minnesota” is richly described, and includes maps, photos and numerous eyewitness accounts.

John B. Lundstrum
John B. Lundstrum

Military historian John B. Lundstrom thought there were enough books about the Civil War. Amazon notes more than 67,000 titles, from the sublime “Lincoln at Gettysburg” to graphic novels and bodice rippers (a 2008 title, “Shades of Gray,” has seen a recent resurgence). But then, as he was doing a bit of personal genealogy, he uncovered one more Civil War story that had to be told.

In November of 1863, a group of 38 soldiers from the Ninth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment heard the agonized pleas of a slave, a father whose wife and children were about to be sold off and separated, and set off to rescue the family — in defiance of orders. As a result, the liberators were charged with mutiny, imprisoned under brutal circumstance, and starred in a case that caught national attention.

Lundstrom meticulously researched the liberators and their stories, from the war and to the end of their lives. His account, “One Drop in a Sea of Blue: The Liberators of the Ninth Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), is richly described, and includes maps, photos and numerous eyewitness accounts, bringing this previously unexplored story to light and illuminating Union attitudes toward slavery from a multitude of perspectives.

‘This history is still alive’

“This was one of the most central and divisive events of our nation’s history,” says Lundstrom. “Romantic images of the Civil War are still perpetuated, but this is not the ancient world — it happened here, it’s all around us, many of us have ancestors who served in the war, and you can drive around and see the battlegrounds. And we talk about the reasons — was this war about slavery or states’ rights? I believe it was absolutely fought over slavery, but this history is still alive in our culture and politics.”

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Minnesota’s Ninth is a regiment that has not been covered much. It was not glamourous — Lundstrom refers to it as the “hard-luck regiment” — but he found there was an important story to be told, and descendants of these soldiers were eager to get it out. Ordinary men performed extraordinary heroics, and he thought their story needed to be told.

“This was a new period for me,” says Lundstrom, who has written five books about World War II. “It started out as an article for the Minnesota Historical Society, but I kept finding more and more information on these men. I started in local historical societies and visited the areas in Minnesota where these men were from, and ended up amassing a wealth of information.”

Ten years in the making

And so the article became a book. It took more than 10 years to research and write, in part because Lundstrom had to follow every lead to the end, whether that be to a photograph kept by a descendant or a diary stored in a museum archive. For his World War II books, Lundstrom relied in part on “attic chasing” of personal memorabilia and hundreds of hours of interviews he conducted with veterans during the early 1970s, when there were still many fresh memories. However, he says, “the dust has entirely settled” on the Civil War, which made research more difficult in some ways.

In other ways, however, it was easier.  

“This book was incredibly helped by the Internet. I found ancestors of these men online, and other very valuable information,” he said. “It is remarkable how much has appeared, thanks to the Internet. Personal papers, diaries, battle accounts. The war affected just about everyone, and many people recorded their thoughts and experiences. led me to the families of several men, and I was able to obtain correspondence and photographs from their descendants.”

Curator at Milwaukee Museum for 30 years

Lundstrom, whose interest in military history sprang from watching World War II movies such as “Victory at Sea” on television as a child in the years after the war, worked as a curator of history at the Milwaukee Museum for 30 years. Now retired, he worries that historians of recent wars will not have the rich and accurate materials to work with that he relies on.

“I’m an old fashioned kind of guy, and I like to see written accounts on paper. So I am very much worried about our future historical record. In fact, I pity people from the future. New media is so manipulatable. When you have sources that are handwritten or have been published, they are accurate to their time. They show bias, but they are accurate to their source and time. But today, photos and email sources can be changed,” he warns.

“People used to say real history ended when the telephone was invented, and it didn’t have to be written down. But I’d be very worried about doing contemporary history. The digital record is both easily lost and easily changed.”