For the last two years, I have posted here about the courage and sacrifice of the men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg. There was more than enough of those qualities, on both sides, to go around that day, and unless you are in the vicinity of that lovely and unbearably sad little Pennsylvania town, it isn’t just the brave Minnesotans who are neglected, but all of the participants. Yesterday was July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of the battle in 1863, and there was scant mention of it in the media. After all, there is the Zimmerman trial, and outrage over Jennifer Lopez accepting a million dollars to sing “Happy Birthday” for a brutal dictator, and whether movie viewers will flock to see Johnny Depp play Tonto. One of the few excellent acknowledgements of the date and its significance was by CBS, which also featured the famous feature on the battle published years ago by the Saturday Evening Post.
In an ambitious mood, I once resolved to find a different group of battlefield heroes from that day to feature every July 2, the messiest, most important pivotal of the battle that itself has been overshadowed by the tragedy of suicidal Pickett’s Charge on July 3. But I have neither the historical research skills nor time to do justice to such a task, though the injustice of so many forgotten heroes is great. It is best to allow the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, who obeyed a desperate order to fill a breach in the Union line, knowing that it meant almost certain death, “to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position and probably the battlefield,” to stand for all of them.
As for me, I’m going to watch, once again, Ted Turner’s excellent film Gettysburg, and play its soaring score in my home and my car. We have a duty to remember, and honor, every moment of those three days in July, 150 years ago.
If you know anyone from Minnesota, today would be a good day to say “thank you.”
July 2 was the second day of the decisive Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the most complicated and wide-ranging day in the conflict. So much was going on at Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, on Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den and a half dozen other key features on the battle field that whether an instance of heroism was recorded or forgotten is as much a matter of chance as anything else. Even determining what was the turning point in the day’s conflict, which ultimately was won by the forces of the North, is an exercise in searching for order in chaos.
There is no question, however, that the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment’s astonishing heroics stand out even among the many other examples of gallantry on that day. The battlefield monument to the First Minnesota is the one of the largest erected to any Union regiment, and yet it has not guaranteed our cultural memory of the epic sacrifice those soldiers made. Other second day exploits, due to sometimes arbitrary choices made by historians and film makers, have taken up the limited space available in the public’s attention to the details of the Civil War.
This is an injustice. As the battle raged for Cemetery Ridge, crucial high ground occupied by Union forces, General Winfield Hancock saw a serious breach in the Union line, and realized that Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade had to be opposed and stopped in their advance until he could round up reinforcements. He ordered the First Minnesota to charge the brigade and hold the position, even though its 262 men would be outnumbered by a force of more than 1200. “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant; death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment, to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position and probably the battlefield,” wrote Lt. William Lochren, one of the regiment’s survivors. The Minnesotans charged over 100 yards over open ground to meet the Alabama Confederates, holding them off them off for 10 minutes of furious hand-to-hand fighting, during which the regiment’s flag fell five times only to rise again each time. The ten minutes were more than enough time for Hancock to find his reinforcements to seal the breach. The Confederates retreated.
Of the 262 Minnesotans who made the desperate charge, 215 fell, including the regiment’s commander, Colonel Colville. The 83% casualty rate is believed to be the largest loss by any surviving military unit in American history during a single engagement. General Hancock wrote:
“I had no alternative but to order the regiment in. We had no force on hand to meet the sudden emergency. Troops had been ordered up and were coming on the run, but I saw that in some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost. It was fortunate that I found there so grand a body of men as the First Minnesota. I knew they must lose heavily and it caused me pain to give the order for them to advance, but I would have done it [even] if I had known every man would be killed. It was a sacrifice that must be made. The superb gallantry of those men saved our line from being broken. No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.”
The monument to the 1st Minnesota at the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park bears the following inscription:
“On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles’ Third Corps, having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg Road, eight companies of the First Minnesota Regiment, numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery upon Sickles repulse. As his men were passing here in confused retreat, two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves and save this position, Gen Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy. The order was instantly repeated by Col Wm Colvill. And the charge as instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there the remnant of the eight companies, nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time and till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position and probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 83% percent. 47 men were still in line and no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. Among the severely wounded were Col Wm Colvill, Lt Col Chas P Adams & Maj Mark W. Downie. Among the killed Capt Joseph Periam, Capt Louis Muller & Lt Waldo Farrar. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett’s charge losing 17 more men killed and wounded.”
The flag of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment now hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
That’s a nice honor. A better one would be for more Americans to recognize, remember and honor the 267 courageous patriots from Minnesota who may have saved the United States of America on this date in 1863.