Amid debate over Civil War statues, Minn. restores monument to first volunteer soldier

A statue of Josias King looks over St. Paul.
A statue of Josias King, erected in 1903, looks out over St. Paul through scaffolding on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As debate rages about whether to remove Confederate statues across the South and in the U.S. Capitol, work has been quietly underway in St. Paul to restore Minnesota's best-known Civil War monument. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial has stood at the foot of Summit Avenue since 1903, but more than a century of Minnesota weather has taken its toll.

Unlike the countless war monuments that feature military brass, the statue atop a pedestal in St. Paul's Summit Park depicts an average soldier, Josias King, standing at attention in green bronze patina.

Minnesota Historical Society senior curator Adam Scher said evidence from the era indicates King was the first from the state to volunteer with the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That was the first military outfit offered for national service when the Civil War started in 1861.

"He's really the first of the first. So I think there's a legitimate reason for him being atop that monument," Scher said.

The St. Paul's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial was installed amid a flurry of monument building around the turn of the 20th century, as veterans reached their twilight years.

"These veterans are beginning to reflect on their lives, on their experiences, and how they're going to be remembered," Scher said. "So this is an opportunity for them to create a national collective memory of their experiences in the Civil War and really encapsulate what they were fighting for."

A plaque at the base spells that out. Among other things it says the victories the First Minnesota helped achieve preserved the union of the states, abolished human slavery and advanced liberty.

Scaffolding surrounds the statue of Josias King.
Scaffolding surrounds the statue of the Josias King with the Minnesota State Capitol in the background.
Evan Frost | MPR News

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Minnesota had been a state for barely three years, and around 170,000 people lived here. Twenty-four thousand enlisted, or 1 in 7 Minnesotans.

Dean Urdahl, a Republican state representative from Grove City and a retired history teacher, said King's likeness needs to be preserved for future generations.

"This wasn't some great general or great man," Urdahl said. "This was just a regular person from Minnesota who decided to step forward when he didn't need to fight to preserve the union and end slavery."

For the last month, the monument's 55-foot stone column has been ensconced in scaffolding, though King's likeness remains visible from the street.

While the statue's green patina gives it character, Colleen Sheehy, executive director of the nonprofit Public Art Saint Paul, said allowing oxidation to continue unchecked will cause irreversible damage. Sculpture conservator Kristin Cheronis and her assistant are removing the flaky rust while keeping much of the green intact. The final step is to seal it from the elements.

"They put a lacquer over it, and that helps to keep the moisture out and keeps the corrosion down, and then they put a wax over that," she said. "It does have to be waxed every once in a while, and that will prevent it from needing complete restoration in 100 years."

The Minnesota Historical Society has contributed $60,000 toward the project. Public Art Saint Paul is covering the other half.

Once King's statue is cleaned up — likely by next week — another crew will come in and restore the marble pedestal beneath him. Sheehy said a rededication ceremony likely will be sometime next year.

Correction (Aug. 18, 2017): An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed how much the Minnesota Historical Society is contributing toward the project. The story has been updated.

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