The 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg
Given the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, I thought I'd share one of the many incredible stories of valor from Gettysburg. If you've watched the movie 'Gettysburg' or if you've watched Ken Burns' 'Civil War' documentary series (which I highly recommend) then you know the big stories from Gettysburg... Pickett's Charge, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top, and so on... but for every big story there are dozens of little stories. For this one, I chose the 1st Minnesota.
The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was made up of officers and men who had joined in 1861 and had seen action at First Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. On the morning of 2 July 1863 the regiment mustered 262 hardened veterans under command of Col. William Colvill. They were in reserve as part of the 2nd Corps when the Confederate attack fell onto Dan Sickle's exposed 3rd Corps and crushed it in battles we still remember for their ferocity; the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, and so on.
Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the 2nd Corps, was on top of Cemetery Ridge as the Confederates broke through the shattered 3rd Corps. Advancing rapidly on Cemetery Ridge was Wilcox's Alabama Brigade, some 1,500-1,800 men. Nothing stood between the Alabama men and the rear of the Union Army, nothing except for the 1st Minnesota.
Hancock knew what had to be done. He rode to Col. Colvill and ordered his men to attack. Hancock needed time to find and bring up more troops or the Union line would be split in two and Gettysburg would turn into yet another Southern victory. The Minnesotans looked behind them at the unprotected supply wagons, field hospitals, and mess tents then looked in front of them at the 1,500-plus advancing rebels. The 1st Minnesota were not green troops. They had seen the killing fields of Northern Virginia. They knew both what needed to be done and what the cost would be... and they attacked. After the war, Lt. William Lochren would remember, "“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 every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice."
Wilcox's Alabamans were stunned by the sudden ferocity of their charge. The Alabamans were forced to give battle, unequal as it was. Wilcox would later write, "Three several times did this last of the enemy's lines attempt to drive my men back, and were as often repulsed. This struggle at the foot of the hill on which were the enemy's batteries, though so unequal, was continued for some thirty minutes."
Those thirty minutes, paid for in blood by the men of 1st Minnesota, gave Hancock enough time to bring up additional troops and force the Alabamans to retreat. When the smoke cleared, only forty seven Minnesotans were still standing. All of the senior officers had been killed or wounded and the surviving men were under command of Captain Nathan Messick. Depending on which historical records you believe, between 215 and 240 Minnesotans were killed or wounded. No other unit in the history of United States Armed Forces has lost a higher percentage of its men in a single battle.
As if that wasn't enough story for a lifetime... Hancock gathered the remnants of the 1st Minnesota, the survivors of the day, plus 86 men who had been previously sent to other parts of the Union line. He gathered them and placed them at the center of his Corps where he thought they would be safe. That spot turned out to be the center of the Union line where Pickett's charge would land on July 3rd.
Other men might have broken. No one would begrudge the 1st Minnesota if they did. They did not. They fought the 28th Virginia hand-to-hand, capturing their regimental colors. Captain Messick was killed in the fighting, as was their next commander, Captain Farrell. When the fighting was done on July 3rd, seventeen additional men had been killed or wounded. For their actions on the 3rd, two soldiers of the 1st Minnesota, Corporal Henry D. O’Brien and Private Marshall Sherman would both receive the Medal of Honor.
In an ironic postscript, in the 1990s a group of Virginian descendants of the 28th Virginia asked for their regimental battle flag back. The Minnesota Historical Society, who still have that flag today, politely refused. When the Virginia group threatened to sue, the Attorney General of Minnesota stepped in and essentially said that if anyone wanted that flag back, they would need to go through the State of Minnesota to get it. The request was quietly withdrawn.