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Minnesota has a Confederate symbol -- and it's going to keep it

This Virginia Confederate battle flag was captured by Pvt. Marshall Sherman of the First Minnesota Regiment at the bloody and brutal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL — Minnesota has a Confederate symbol in its possession. It has long caused controversy. And Minnesota is not moving it.

The Confederate icon—a scarred and hole-worn Virginia battle flag—was captured by the First Minnesota Pvt. Marshall Sherman at the bloody and brutal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Many of the First Minnesota Regiment, a volunteer force, died in the Union battle against the South and Sherman won the Medal of Honor for his role.

"We just rushed in like wild beasts. Men swore and cursed and struggled and fought, grappled in hand-to-hand fight, threw stones, clubbed their muskets, kicked, yelled, and hurrahed," said Minnesota soldier William Harmon, according to a Minnesota Historical Society account of the battle.

"The scene brought before the imagination that great day when men shall call upon the mountains and the rock to fall upon and hide them," Sgt. James Wright, a Minnesota soldier, said another one account of the battle, reported much later by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

For more than 100 years Virginia has asked for return of the flag—and each time Minnesota has refused to return its hard-won symbol of victory. A president demanded return of Confederate flags, Congress passed a resolution ordering return of the flags, Virginians even threatened suit to get their flag back. And the answer has been the same: No.

In 1961, Virginia asked for the flag back to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, according to a Roanoke Times article. Minnesota said no.

In 1998, Virginia Civil War re-enactors asked for the flag and eventually threatened legal action. A Minnesota historian said: "Blood has been shed for that flag. ...Who are we to return it?" And Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III said, despite a 1905 order that Civil War relics be returned, Virginia had no right to it.

In 2000, when Virginia legislators requested the Southern Cross flag back again, Gov. Jesse Ventura said: "Why? We won. ... We took it. That makes it our heritage."

In 2002, the U.S. Army United States Army's chief of military history even decided the wool flag should be housed in a Virginia military history museum. But the flag remained in Minnesota.

Again in 2003, Virginia officials — including Democratic Gov. Mark Warner — demanded the flag . Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in response: "They're not getting it. ... We believe it's rightfully ours and we're not giving it back to Virginia."

A decade later — and 150 years after 80 percent of First Minnesota Regiment died at Gettysburg — Virginia's governor asked to borrow the flag. Again, the same refrain came from Minnesota.

"We declined that invitation. ...It was taken in a battle with the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans. It would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It's something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of the men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it," Dayton said. "As far as I'm concerned it is a closed subject."

The flag, still blood-stained according to some reports, and still embattled, according to history, is now housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. If Minnesota's history predicts its future, there it will remain.

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