Ethics Quote Of This Day, July 2: The Inscription On the Monument To The First Minnesota Regiment At Gettysburg National Battlefield Park


 “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.”

On July 2, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 262 Union soldiers in the First Minnesota Regiment rushed—which apparently specialized in desperate fighting-–to throw themselves into a breach in the Union line at Cemetery against a greatly superior force, knowing that they were almost surely to die. 215 of them did, but the regiment bought crucial minutes that allowed reinforcements to arrive.

It is perhaps one of the most inspiring of the many acts of courage that day, the second day of the battle that changed the course of the Civil War. I first wrote about the sacrifice of the First Minnesota five years ago, here.

Let’s try to remember.

(A recommendation: Sometime between July 1 and the Fourth ever year, we always watch Ted Turner’s excellent film, which also has one of my favorite film scores.  It  helps.)

21 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of This Day, July 2: The Inscription On the Monument To The First Minnesota Regiment At Gettysburg National Battlefield Park

  1. I have cold shivers every time I try to imagine what the world would be like right now, had the South won the Civil War. There’s a relatively good alternate history author who writes about this frequently and it’ll send goose-bumps up your spine. Had the South won at Gettysburg, all bets were off.

    • But the south was not going to win at Gettysburg barring an incredibly lucky break. It’s forces were too scattered, too ill informed, and detached from its line of supply.

      The union army was massed, well scouted, well supplied and in friendly territory.

      Nerp. Any alternate history based on the south winning is wild fancy at best.

      • But, as you know better than most, battles are all about incredibly lucky breaks, If Lee had followed Longstreet’s recommendation to dig in between the town and Washington, and make the Union attack…if a classics professor hadn’t been holding down the Union flank on Little Round Top…If Warren hadn’t been alert…if Custer hadn’t been on hand to stop Stuart…if the Gray artillery hadn’t aimed too high before The Charge. The Union managed to lose many battles that it should have won. Gettysburg, like the war itself, was ultimately chaos, and a lot of butterfly wings were flapping.

  2. Always be one of my favorite movies. Just say “Free State Of Jones” about some Confederate deserters who were tired of fighting a rich man’s war and wound up in a swamp in Mississippi along with some black slaves and repulsed Confederate troops numerous times with a little Union help and established a free state. It makes it clear that the Democrats in the South were responsible for the bitter aftermath of Reconstruction.

    • A shame that isn’t how the thing in Jones County went down…

      And at the time, it was call The Kingdom of Jones. They couldn’t even be bothered to get the name right for the title.

    • As I understand it the movie really blows the truth out of proportion. As romantic as it sounds I don’t think it was anywhere near what the movie purports.

      Something like some dissatisfied confederate deserters avoiding confederate authorities is what it boiled down to…

  3. I want to second Jack’s suggestion to watch the Ted Turner “Gettysburg” movie/miniseries. It might not be the most factually accurate “history” of the battle, but the overall feeling of the movie conveys what was at stake and what made the sacrifices meaningful. Great acting, and yes, gorgeous soundtrack. I try to watch this every year at this time. Indeed, let us try to remember.

  4. Phenomenal story of self sacrifice for the greater good. And knowingly going into likely fatal odds to boot. The entire regiment should’ve received MOH’s. Not just the commander.

  5. I find Patrice’s comment interesting, and troubling: We might not actually see or understand ‘reality’ in truthful and factual terms, but what is important is to make the *right* false-interpretation, and the one that accords with an a posteriori, retrofitted interpretation, the righteous interpretation. As long as one does that, one will somehow end up in the right, even if one has skewed history in fact.

    From the introduction to ‘The Southern Tradition at Bay—A History of Post-bellum Thought’ (1968) by Richard M. Weaver:

    “All studies of American civilization must recognize the strong polarity existing since early times between North and South. The government of the United States was founded on abstract propositons: the facts of varying topography, climate, and race made regional development inevitable; the regions arriving at their own interpretations of the propositions produced, on the political level, sectionalism. These circumstances have posed problems for writers who sought to characterize the United States, and the problem has been solved in the only way possible: that is, by taking the mentality and the institutions of the majority section as best entitled to the name American. I expect to speak of the South therefor as a minority within the nation, whose claim to attention lies not in its success in impressing its ideals upon the nation od the world, but in something I shall insist is higher—an ethical claim which can be described only in terms of the mandate of civilization. In its battle for survival the South has lost ground, but it has kept from extinction some things whose value is emphasised by the disintegration of the modern world.”

    Woudl it be considered ethical to develop a lie (or a distortion of truth) and to teach it as an absolute truth because it seems to support a truth that is upheld and deemed all-important or necessary in our present?

    It is nearly a religious tenet — and article of faith — that to be patriotic one must deneounce the South and through denunciation thus subscribe to a particular, and yet a questionable, interpretation of history that is foundational to the modern republic. To take a contrary stand, or a questioning stand, is immediately noted as unpatriotic and, in this case and in general terms, evil. Even the proposition, which is a question, of suggesting ‘Let’s examine this in more depth, let’s examine ‘patriotic axioms’ as a philosophical endeavor, has the tint of evil.

    When the general current of understanding and belief moves strongly in one direction, and it is determined that this interpretation is the right direction, one moves in a mass current. So far so good. But what if that current has a coercive understructure? What if you were to draw a comparison, say, to Soviet interpretation of history, or Communist Chinese? And then make a reference to ‘thought reform’ and ‘thought control’? The psychological coercion which —does it or does it not? — exists as a real thing, a thing that can be looked at, analysed?

    OK, so what if a whole mass of different beliefs, interpretations, righteous sentiments, ‘necessary’ but not precisely exact and not completely historical views, are cobbled together into an ‘understanding of the present’ which demands (or seems to demand) that you come along with it? That you accept those tenets? That instead of ‘piping up’ (saying something or thinking something) instead you ‘pipe down’ and keep your mouth closed? What about the ethics involved there? Is ‘ethics’ then, at some level, or perhaps at a foundational level, simply an acceptance of a given and yet an arbitrary interpretation? Is ethics then a form of coercion? Does ethics have a *religious* or as I say a *metaphysical* platform? And to be ethical, and to gain acceptance among peers, and to be seen as ethical and upright, must I accept what appear to me to be a distortion?

    And so, by turning against a current I necessarily become ‘counter-currential’ (a contracorriente) to a specific idea or proposition, but to a larger and more vast interpretaive project which is modernity. Must that counter-currential tendency be curtailed? Resisted? Repressed even? Those are certainly the questions that come to the fore.

    This blog post is one that celebrates a type of sacrifice which, from the earliest days, has been recognized as the very core of value. From Homer and through to Shakespeare. An attitude, a religiosity in fact:

    ‘Religiosity is the maturing of the hero in the face of Destiny’.

    ‘The heart’s wave would not have foamed upwards so beautifully and become spirit if the old silent rock, destiny, had not faced it’ (Holderlin).

    Magnitudo animi

    All words that indicate Great Soul or lofy-heartedness. On any side of battle, and if Homer is a reference, greatness is recognized in any warrior who displays great-heartedness. So to honor that spirit makes all the sense in the world to me and from my perspective.

    Is this the value I am to remember? To live in accord with? To model myself to live in accord with? Then what about the defense of truth? What if seeing and describing truth leads to the shattering of certainties? What if it directly produces a deep cynicism that spreads into the fibres like a disease? What if such cynicism is a necessary state or stage in order to be able to 1) define a more important truth? Or 2) reinitiate projects of truth-seeking? What role does coercive dissuasion have then? How is it to be seen?

    Click to access gayner.pdf

  6. Great post. I was unaware of this act of Homeric heroism; the last time I visited Gettysburg was in 1983. This is very moving. Of course, another, more well-known act of valor that day was the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge down Little Round Top: “Stand tall, ye boys from Maine.” The Maine boys enjoyed a much happier ending than the Minnesota boys, however.

    • And the heroism of the Maine boys is one reason the First Minnesota doesn’t get its due. So much was happening, and so much valor, on the chaotic second day of the battle that it is impossible to tell all the great stories at once.

      • When I was studying at a Div School [I’m not religious, though I appreciate the importance of religiosity–I went to the U of C Div School primarily for an MA in ethics], I found the most compelling [though still non-rational] concept of the divine being was “that to whom all things matter.” All things, great, small, trivial, contemporaneously occurring — all human thoughts, etc. Everything: the entire universe of conceivable things. That god notices and reacts to everything [but is not omnipotent, and cannot affect anything directly, but only through human agency]. Under that conception of god, god noticed all the thousands of acts of individual and group heroism that day, on both sides, and at other battles, like Antietam, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

        As a side note, it is a curious thing that, when this Chicago boy schlepped his kids down to Vicksburg [a family roots trip — my grandmother was born just outside of it] during a Memorial Day weekend about 10 years ago, I saw that the Union Cemetery is maintained meticulously, flowers on every grave, funded by the US government. The battlefield itself has hundreds of monuments, grand and small [the Illinois monument, one of the biggest, tells the story of a modern-day Mulan, Sarah Cashman, who disguised herself as a man to fight, and was killed there, but her family was denied military benefits because of the deception], all in the grand style of the 1890s. The Confederate cemetery is up the road and up a hill, and receives no government funding, and is privately maintained. I understand that, to a point, but it still was slightly bothersome, since the vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves.

        • One reason I like the Turner movie is that it portrays all participants as Americans and heroes. Thanks to political correctness and historical ignorance, the Confederate soldiers are no officially regarded as traitors and racists.

          • I will watch it, and I appreciate your post very much. Isn’t is curious that the July 4 holiday is surrounded by anniversaries of horrible military battles — the ceaseless tragedy/heroism of young people fighting wars: The Somme, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Minsk. It helps put Independence Day in the proper perspective, doesn’t it? How precious and delicate are the things we celebrate on July 4.

            • I would mention Vicksburg in that. I am quite cynical about many things, but military heroism isn’t one of them.

              • Yes, Vicksburg for sure. Funny you mention this. As my message above says, I have family roots in Vicksburg, and took a really interesting family road trip there years ago. A cataclysmic battle, and a moving battlefield as well. And quite large, say, compared to Shiloh. It’s interesting that, in the 1890’s, large Civil War battle memorials were quite the thing. It’s also curious that Grant spared Natchez, which is also an interesting Southern Mississipipi river town.

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