One hundred and forty-five years ago, theater and war unexpectedly collided. Albert Colgrave, a scenic artist for St. Paul theatres, carried his illustration pencils, paints and chalks as a soldier in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. In April 2006, the Minnesota Historical Society acquired six, singular, carte de visite photographs that show Albert Colgrave as both artist and soldier. In three of the images, the young artist stands with his easel, palette or painted canvas. A fourth image shows the artist in the Federal uniform of the Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. The remaining two images are portraits. These photographs are an outstanding complement to the Society’s sixty-three, original Colgrave drawings (twenty-four of which are fist-hand views drawn during his participation in the U.S.-Dakota War).
Born in England in 1839, Albert Colgrave immigrated with his father and brother to Columbus, Ohio. When only 18 years old, he moved in with his brother’s family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Colgrave applied his artistic skills by painting sets for several local theaters. An advertisement which he placed in a local newspaper boasted that he was capable of producing “Banners, Transparencies, Flags, Emblems, Decorations, &c. on short notice for Processions, Parades, &c.”
After the United States erupted in civil war, Colgrave joined a group of young men from the printing industry to organize a unit called “The Young Men’s Guard.” In July 1862, the unit mustered in as Company G of the Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Rather than being sent to battle the Confederate army, though, Company G was rushed to St. Peter, Minnesota, to assist in quelling the outbreak of hostilities between government troops and Dakota soldiers. Company G participated in the actions at Birch Coulee, Fort Ridgely and finally, Wood Lake and Camp Release. Following the conclusion of hostilities, they moved on to the Lower Sioux Agency, Mankato and lastly, Fort Snelling. Colgrave sketched scenic views of the people, camps and battles. Many of these were made in collaboration with photographer, Adrian Ebell, also a soldier participating in the campaign. Together, their sketches and photographs formed the basis of engravings illustrating Ebell’s 1863 article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, “The Indian Massacres and War of 1862.”
Albert Colgrave did not leave Minnesota when Company G was transferred with the rest of the Sixth Minnesota to the southern theater of war. While on march with his unit, he contracted typhoid fever and, upon reaching Glencoe, Minnesota, died on March 4, 1863. Colgrave’s remains were carried to St. Paul, where a large funeral was held and his body interred, in Oakland Cemetery.
In 1981, the Society learned of a cache of Colgrave’s original drawings held by a local resident. In 2006, these cartes de visite were located in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Society was fortunate to acquire both the drawings and photographs. Together, the two collections preserve part of Minnesota’s social, artistic and military history. By making them accessible to the public for further research and study, we will enjoy an enhanced understanding of one man’s efforts to document one of the most turbulent episodes in Minnesota’s history.
The drawings and photographs are available at the History Center Library and online at the Society’s Visual Resource Database at http://collections.mnhs.org/visualresources/. For an in-depth review of Albert Colgrave (from which most of this information was gathered) and Adrian J. Ebell, see Camera and Sketchbook, Witnesses to the Sioux Uprising of 1862, compiled and edited by Alan R. Woolworth and Mary H. Bakeman, Park Genealogical Books, Roseville, MN, 2004.
Diane Adams-Graf, Curator of Sound and Visual Collections