He’s filling a gap in history knowledgePaul von Goertz remembers what got him hooked on the Civil War. The novel “The Red Badge of Courage” catapulted him into a lifelong interest that eventually turned into a need for serious study.
By: Christine Holm, Lake County News Chronicle
Paul von Goertz remembers what got him hooked on the Civil War. The novel “The Red Badge of Courage” catapulted him into a lifelong interest that eventually turned into a need for serious study. But what really got him going was the fact that he kept encountering young people who knew very little about the war.
Von Goertz, who has had a 30-year career in the advertising business, recalled bringing the subject up to some of his younger employees at work one day. “I was talking about Custer at Big Horn, and they looked at me blankly,” he said last week at the Knife River Recreation Center just before one of his many presentations on Civil War facts and artifacts. “None of them had ever heard about this classic confrontation between cultures. These young people at the time were in their mid-20s and were all college graduates. It bothered me. I wondered what they were being taught. And I remember thinking: ‘We’re losing my heroes if these kids don’t know about them.’”
He decided to learn more himself. After traveling to Gettysburg and getting a guided tour from a retired Mayo Clinic surgeon, he found himself on the internet looking for information on the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment – one of the first organized after Lincoln’s 1861 call for troops. He started attending re-enactment groups in St. Paul. “The first one I went to was great,” he says. “I walked up to the group, they handed me a musket, and said ‘Fall in’ and I didn’t have the sense to say no.”
He says he had the sense to realize that if he wanted to present what he’d learned over the years he’d need a gimmick. “The Minnesota First Volunteers are extremely accurate in everything they do. I got the uniform and leathers through suppliers they endorse. They’re authentic reproductions.”
When kids see him and fellow presenter, Jason Grim – a history graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth – in full dress, they sit up and pay attention. They listen.
And that’s a good thing. “I think it’s important to understand the Civil War,” von Goertz says. “The values and the culture at that time were different than ours. The idea of Manifest Destiny was brought into it, into everything. There were resources, it was thought at the time, that were to be used by white men. If you bought into the concept then, as so many did, it justified such horrible things as owning people. But it’s what some believed then. Children today are hard on our forefathers,” he said.
Apart from the fact that some children aren’t being taught – or just aren’t paying attention to those history classes – about the Civil War, von Goertz says that there are important lessons to learn from the time, and that information about Minnesota’s role in the war is sometimes distorted or not even accurate.
Take, for instance, the recent announcement, made by St. Cloud State University professor Christopher Lehman, that there were documented slaves and slaveholders in five counties in Minnesota prior to the Civil War. The news doesn’t surprise von Goertz. “Much of what has been written and taught in decades previous,” he said, “was written by Easterners. They wrote Minnesota out of the script.”
Few know just how big a role the Minnesota First Volunteers played in the battle at Gettysburg, he said, that they probably “probably saved the day,” as von Goertz puts it, in the face of five-to-one odds.
It’s all part of why he keeps presenting to communities and classrooms, sharing the history and the glory, the little-known facts and the heroes who gave their lives to keep the country whole. “I’m trying to find out who we are as Americans,” von Goertz said. “I’m trying to get kids to think about what are our core beliefs, which leads to questions about what are we doing in Afghanistan and so on.”
“The Civil War is a part of our culture, and there were real people who lived and died then to get us here today,” he said. “I’m just doing what I can to make my own world a little better.”