July 2, 1863: When 262 Minnesotans Saved The United States Of America

Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment

Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment

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.


30 thoughts on “July 2, 1863: When 262 Minnesotans Saved The United States Of America

  1. Perhaps a nod to the 20th Maine as well? The Union line ended with their position on Little Round Top, and had they fallen back or given up, the South could have flanked the line and then what? Time and time again they repulsed the Southern advances, until their ammunition was almost gone. In an act of half courage, half desperation, their commander, the illustrious Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, drew his sword and ordered a baonet charge, which finally broke the last Confederate rally and ended the threat in that quarter and perhaps saved the Union cause.

    • Yes, their action was absolutely brave, necessary and decisive.

      It is also much extolled. Everyone knows about it.

      This is honestly the first I’d heard of the action by the Minnesota regiment. By all military accounts equally valorous and possibly more gutsy than Chamberlain’s action (though if it is, not by much).

      • Dunno about everyone, an ex-friend used to pass over the Joshua Chamberlain Memorial Bridge every day and had no clue what he was all about other than something not relevant to her, but I do agree with your point that this isn’t as well known – in fact this was the first I heard details of it. At least when Little Round Top was over and done with there still WAS a 20th Maine, it sounds like this unit basically sacrificed themselves.

        • I shoul clarify. When I said everyone, I meant everyone who cares, I don’t give consideration to people who forget the lessons of history and the examples of heroes.

          So, in that light, everyone who knows about the civil war (really knows about it, not vaguely the 4-5 paragraphs from their textbooks devoted to it followed by the 50 paragraphs devoted to the Ku Klux Klan) does know about the initiative and bold attack by Joshua Chanberlain and the 20th Maine. But even knowledgable civil war buffs would e hard pressed to recount this action.

          I would submit that one reason they are lesser known is that they were ordered into the suicidal fray, whereas chamberlain, although ordered to hold the left flank took the initiative to attack when all options were gone. That consideration, among a few others, is why I tempered my comment that the Minnesota attack may only be slightly, if at all, gutsiest than Chamberlain’s move.

          I imagine there were alot of stop gap charges like that at Gettysburg as each side sought every way to gain and retain the all powerful initiative in battle.

          What is truly sucky about hind sight, is many second guessers could claim, why sacrifice all those men for just a delay of the enemy forces?

          Except they don’t know how many more men would be lost trying to stop the enemy force that may have plowed into a defensive position unhindered by the disruption attack of the Minnesotans.

    • As I noted in an earlier post, Chamberlain’s stand was rescued from obscurity by “The Killer Angels,” and he the 2oth Maine is one of the key stories told in the film. The point is that the Minnesota regiment’s sacrifice was just as crucial, arguably even more courageous, and is virtually unknown to the general public.

  2. “Excellent film Gettysburg”

    Really?? While I enjoy that film it is inconsistent across the board. The facial hair ranges from Berengers ridiculous beard to Daniels superb mustache. The cinematography is stunning at times and then descends to what was obviously shot from the back of truck driving across an open field.

    The one saving grace is the performances. While Berengers is sub par the rest are top notch with Daniels as Chamberlain and Lang as Picket to be singled out.

    • I’m sorry, but any war film or documentary depicting historic events has to be enjoyed on their own merits. Accuracy is never part of the screenplay….. With the exception of Sergeant York, which apparently was very faithful, with the exception of the title, since is was Cpl York..

      • 1. And accuracy is one of the merits. Gettysburg is very accurate in its details, and also impressively fair to both sides. Obviously, such a chaotic battle can’t be truly depicted in any film.
        2. Recently uncovered documents suggest that Sgt. York’s exploits were greatly exaggerated, though the movie had no way of knowing that.

      • Its not a question of accuracy. Its a question of the beards looking fake and them being lazy when shooting some of the scenes.

    • It’s also largely accurate, as are the beards, though I agree with you on that—Jeb Stuart’s is hilarious.

      I think Richard Jordan, in his final performance, is terrific and moving.

      • Actually Tom Berenger plays James Longstreet, Stuart does appear briefly however (and has a pretty intense scene with Lee), played by Joseph Fuqua.

        • I know that. I was noting that Jeb’s facial hair was laugh out loud ridiculous. Longstreet’s beard was accurate, and there was no alternative to fake whiskers, when we’re talking a foot long beard. I thought Berenger was fine, if unrecognizable.

  3. Sam Elliott was also very good as John Buford, who unfortunately you don’t see after the first third of the movie.

  4. Thanks for publishing this, Jack. Every July 4 I read the Declaration, published as a full page reproduction in the NY Times. And now every July 2 I can read your piece about the First Minnesota. I’ve long been a fan of Joshua Chamberlain and the First Maine. Now they’ll have to share credit with the Minnesotans.

    • Echoing Bob. So many pivotal moments, so much sacrifice by precious and daring few, for the benefit of so many. It causes ever greater wonder and humble gratitude that any of us have made it as far as we have.

  5. Pingback: These heroes saved the Union 150 years ago today | Ethics Bob

  6. I read your post on this last year (or the year before?). I was volunteering at a Boy Scout camp over the week of the 4th and one of the staffers spoke briefly at each daily flag ceremony about some of the events that happened on that day during the battle- on my recommendation based on your information, he included the charge of the First Minnesota. Thank you.

  7. I was wondering if you have the names of the officers in the pictures? My uncle Waldo Farrar was killed in the battle, I know he was an officer…. I would love to know what he looked liked.Thanks!

  8. Thank you very much for writing this article. The flag and staff of the 1st MN are actually on display at the MN state capitol rotunda. There’s not much left of the flag though – pretty much just the strip of reinforced cloth that was closest to the staff. They also keep the full flag of the 28th Virginia in the building, but not on display. The 1st MN captured the 28th’s flag as the lines clashed during Pickett’s charge on the 3rd day, near the “copse” of trees. My daughter and I left MN 2 weeks ago to visit the battlefield. We walked across the field in front of the MN monument, down to the creekbed where the lines clashed on the 2nd day. There’s an excellent book called “Last Full Measure” (Richard Moe) detailing the history of the 1st MN, culminating at their actions at Gettysburg.

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