Meeting Stephen Miller: Exploring St. Cloud’s Civil War Hero and Minnesota’s Fourth Governor

By: Kaila Forster: Communications Intern at the Stearns History Museum

As the Communications Intern at the Stearns History Museum, I was working on writing a Facebook post on Adam, the Museum’s Curator of Collections and Artifacts. For his photo, I asked if there was an artifact that he would like to stand with. Adam thought for a moment and then said, “Follow me.” We went back into the Museum’s artifacts storage, where boxes of historic artifacts are stored. Pulling open a cabinet, Adam took out a sword.

“Whose sword is this?” I asked. Adam told me that it was Stephen Miller’s. As a student studying history, I thought I might have a clue who this was. Unfortunately, the name didn’t ring a bell. I asked the obvious question, “Who was Stephen Miller?” Adam proceeded to tell me that Miller was Minnesota’s fourth governor and was in the Civil War. He proudly stated, “I think this is the coolest artifact we have in the museum.”

Indeed, the sword is cool. When Miller became Lieutenant Colonel of the First Minnesota Infantry in 1861, the citizens of St. Cloud got together to purchase a sword to present to him. Adam pointed to the top of the cover of the sword (otherwise known as a Scabbard for sword enthusiasts), and showed me the inscription. Inscribed in cursive, it read, “Presented May 1861 by Citizens of St. Cloud to Lieut. Col. Stephen Miller 1st Minnesota Regt.” 

Another engraving is visible; the battles that Miller had fought in. From the battle of Peach Orchard on June 29th, 1862 to the Reserve 2nd Battle of Malvern Hills on Aug. 7th 1862, I could make out 12 battle dates. The sword’s handle is gold in color and says U.S. on the side. Adam took the scabbard off to show me the decorative markings on the blade. This whole experience got me wondering – who was Stephen Miller?

I decided to go over to the Museum’s research center to see if they had anything on Stephen Miller. Jessie, an archivist at the Research Center, handed me a manila folder full of newspaper clippings, a short biography, and articles, all on Stephen Miller. As I explored the contents, the following is what I learned.

Born in 1816 in Perry County, Pennsylvania, Miller’s family immigrated from Germany. As a young adult, Miller completed an apprenticeship at a milling firm. Later, he became a forwarding and commission merchant and next moved into public service as an appointed flour inspector in 1855.

Due to health concerns (his doctor said the Minnesota weather would be good for him), Miller moved to St. Cloud in 1858 where he started a grocery and commission business. In St. Cloud he took an interest in politics and became a delegate to the Republican National Convention. His leadership grew as he headed the Republication electoral ticket for Lincoln. The campaign brought the public’s attention to Miller throughout Minnesota and his prominence grew.

In 1861, Miller was offered a positon as captain in the U.S Army. In the same year he was also offered a position as receiver in the U.S. Land office in St. Cloud. Interestingly, he declined both positons.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Miller, the Civil War abruptly changed his path. Showing his humble nature, Miller decided to join the Civil War with his son, Wesley F. Miller, as private in the First Minnesota Regiment. Miller quickly rose through the ranks to colonel in Minnesota’s First Regiment of Volunteers. It was at this time that Miller was presented with the sword from his St. Cloud friends and family.

As the war dragged on, Minnesota was fighting an altogether different kind of battle with Native Americans. On December 4, 1862, Miller became commander of Mankato’s Camp Lincoln. This notorious site is where around 300 Dakota were condemned. On December 26, 1862, on the order of President Lincoln and under Miller’s command, 38 Native Americans were executed. An article by the St. Cloud Times stated, “Miller’s firm and decisive leadership prevented a dark chapter of Minnesota history from becoming darker.”

In 1863, Miller’s son, Wesley, was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. His youngest son, Stephen, became a major in the army and survived.

While still in the Union Army, Miller became elected as Minnesota’s fourth governor in January of 1864. During his administration he worked to recruit soldiers for the Union Army. An article published by St. Cloud Daily Times in 1952 stated, “Governor Miller tried to persuade the legislature to pass laws allowing negroes, Indians, and people of mixed blood to vote. Such laws were not passed until 1868, when Miller was no longer Governor, but he helped to prepare the way for them.” Miller served as governor for two years and the Civil War came to an end during his administration.

After his time as governor, Miller worked as a land agent for a railroad in Windom, MN and then later in Worthington, MN. Stephen Miller died in Worthington on August 18, 1881 at the age of 65. In a biography of Miller, P.J. Seberger states, “Governor Miller was a practical and successful businessman, a brave soldier, a loyal governor, and is gratefully remembered for his valuable service to the state and nation.”

Stephen Miller gave his only surviving son his sword and told him that if he did not have any children, to return the sword to St. Cloud. In December 1908, Kate Miller was childless and recently widowed. She send a letter to the city of St. Cloud, which stated, “I know this memento of a prominent citizen, a distinguished soldier, and a capable and efficient governor of our state will be thankfully received, fully appreciated, and carefully preserved by the residents of his home town.” It is with pleasure that the Stearns History Museum will continue to treasure and preserve Miller’s sword for generations to come.



Stearns History Museum • 235-33rd Avenue South • St. Cloud, MN  56301   

(320) 253-8424 •  info@stearns-museum.org