July 2: A Good Day to Thank Minnesota For Saving The Country

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.

Thank you, Minnesota.

7 thoughts on “July 2: A Good Day to Thank Minnesota For Saving The Country

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s a reminder of the amazing acts of heroism that Americans accomplished in wars. Would that they never be wasted.

    Reading “Killer Angels” just before visiting the battlefield was a rewarding experience. I asked the Ranger at the visitor center where Col Chamberlin held the end of the Union line. He got very excited at my question, and responded with total enthusiasm. As a former fed I’ve ever since held Park Rangers out as examples of the best in American Civil Service.

    • What the First Minnesota needs is a good novel. Had it not been for “Killer Angels,” Chamberlain and the 10th Maine would be forgotten too—at the battlefield, the site of their stand is pretty well hidden even now.
      I love the rangers at the battlefield. They do a marvelous, passionate job.

  2. You find quite a few stories like that in the annals of the War Between The States… and on both sides. It’s also notable that the 1st Minnesota was also the first state militia regiment to form and join the Union colors. It should also be noted that a full strength regiment in those days generally numbered 600-800 men. That this regiment started the battle with only 262 effectives is indicative not only of the poor replacement system, but of the level of casualties involved for units of that time.

    Disease was still the biggest killer, but combat mortality was also significant given the weapons and the state of medical care. That’s why, only a decade before Gettysburg, a unit called the Light Brigade charged Balaclava with only 680 men; four regiments with the strength of one. It was tough to be a soldier in the 19th Century.

  3. Side note on park rangers: if you’re at any park and get a chance for one-on-one interaction, always ask what their favorite bit about the place is. Our Seward, AK, day-cruise trip was luckily spent with a very cool ranger who REALLY KNEW all the stuff about all the things not covered in books. I got to chat with her about all sorts of things NOT on the agenda, and she was a fascinating compendium of details and things. And she was interesting before, but when it was all the cool stuff she knew and didn’t get to talk about much, fascinating. She was pointing to specific Dall sheep on the rocks and talking about their history for the summer.

  4. Nice article. This past weekend I was fortunate enough to take part in a Union encampment on the Gettysburg battlefield. As part of our activities, the battalion reenacted (albeit slowly and carefully given that we were on the National Park) the charge of the 1st Minnesota on the ground where it happened. The colonel distributed cards to those who would survive so that the “casualty” rate would be proportionally correct. After the advance and retreat were completed, it was absolutely chilling to see the number of men down and the tiny size of the battalion that remained. It is a heroic episode indeed and certainly worthy of more attention.

  5. Thank you very much for this great piece.

    According to the book, “The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers” by Richard Moe, the regiment had three companies detached that day for other duties. One was guarding the command HQ, one was supporting an artillery position and one was a company of sharpshooters posted elsewhere on the field.

    The First Minnesota was available because it was in the rear, and I suspect that it was placed in the rear because it wasn’t a full-strength company. And that’s why they were available.

    I live in Stillwater, Minnesota, which is home of Company B of this regiment. For the next 60 or so years after the war, Stillwater’s school athletic teams were called the ‘Red and Black,’ in honor of the men of this company that marched off to war in red wool shirts and black wool trousers.

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