How did Greenwald become the first Union volunteer?

Aaron Greenwald of Anoka was the first Union volunteer in the Civil War in the nation.

Bob Kirchner
Bob Kirchner

But what were the odds that an Anokan would be first?

Let’s track the story and estimate.

We start with President Lincoln. Although a long series of events led to his election, we will only consider his several opponents and put his presidential odds at 3-1.

On Sunday, April 14, 1861, Fort Sumter fell to the rebels. This could have occurred right after Lincoln’s November 1860 election or well into his first term. Let’s put this timing at 10-1.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey was in Washington, D.C. on this day when the news arrived. What were the odds of that?

He was there seeking political appointments for his Republican cronies in Minnesota. They had pressured him to go earlier. A whole month had passed since the inauguration March 4. Ramsey arrived April 10. His odds of being there April 14 were slim. At best, let’s estimate 20-1.

On that day Ramsey walked into the War Department and happened to catch Secretary of War Simon Cameron on his way out the door to see the president. Let’s give Ramsey 5-1 for this fortuitous meeting.
Ramsey offered Cameron 1,000 Minnesota volunteers. Was this impulsive or premeditated? We don’t know.

On this action, let’s give him 3-1.

Cameron could have ignored the offer but, instead, requested it be put in writing. Let’s give his response 2-1.

Ramsey immediately wrote his offer. Again, 2-1.

Cameron gave the offer to the president. Little risk here.

Later that day Lincoln decided to call for 75,000 volunteers, but he did not publicly announce it until the next day, April 15. This delay would give Minnesota first place among volunteers. Let’s estimate delay at 2-1.

On that same day, Ramsey telegraphed his order to Minnesota Adjutant General William Acker in St. Paul, but not to Lt. Gov. Ignatius Donnelly, a Democrat. A dispute between the two produced a one-day delay in issuing Donnelly’s call and proved critical for the Anoka connection. Let’s estimate this delay at 5-1.

At the same time, Ramsey sent a second telegram to his personal secretary Samuel Jennison in St. Paul for delivery to Willis Gorman. Although a Democrat, Gorman was highly regarded by Ramsey for his military experience in the Mexican War. He was a proven leader who could command respect from a willing volunteer force. He would also provide political balance. Let’s estimate the second telegram at 5-1.

But Gorman was not in St. Paul. He was in Anoka in the Shuler Building representing a client in district court.

What were the odds on this? Gorman could have been anywhere in the state or beyond. One could consider this a long shot, perhaps 1,000-1. But, conservatively, let’s say 100-1.

By the way, the telegraph line to St. Paul, the end of the line, had been constructed only eight months earlier.

Although these telegrams went through without delay, service was often interrupted by downed poles or electrical storms. Let’s give these factors 5-1.

At Jennison’s direction, this second telegram was delivered “on horseback with all speed to Anoka.” But he could have waited for Gorman’s return or the rider could have failed to deliver it. Let’s set these risks at 4-1.

When Gorman received the telegram, court was suspended and he immediately called for volunteers. He could have waited until he got back to St. Paul. Let’s say 2-1.

At this point we can calculate the odds of a person in the Shuler building in Anoka becoming the first Union volunteer. It comes out to 7.2 billion to 1.

But what are the odds that Aaron Greenwald was first?

Greenwald was in the court room when the message arrived. We don’t know why. As a miller, he most likely would have been working at the mill on Monday morning. Anyway, his odds of being there at that moment were a long shot, perhaps 1,000-1. But conservatively, let’s say 100-1.

Further, there were other people in the room who could have volunteered first. At least six others followed Greenwald. At best, his odds were 7-1.

So the odds of Aaron Greenwald being the first Union volunteer in the nation are 5.04 trillion to 1.

As Anoka County historian Vickie Wendel wrote, “A fortuitous string of events put Greenwald in a critical place at a critical time.”

So was it fortune, fate or divine providence?

Hmmmm … a subject for another time.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and recently retired as Anoka’s community development director.

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