The men of the 1st Minnesota Infantry quick-stepped into the breach at Gettysburg to save the Federal position—and maybe the Union itself.
As the sun set, the soldiers charged, rifles at the ready, sweat streaming down their faces in the sticky evening heat. Musket balls cracked overhead and artillery shells boomed around them, spraying dirt in all directions.
Beneath the sweat, dirt and gunpowder residue, their faces shone with determination, their eyes locked on the opponents ahead. Within minutes many men would lie dead or wounded. Still they charged, bayonets fixed. Men howled as they fell. Again and again the soldiers attacked, holding their line long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
At last the Confederates realized the fight was not worth the effort and pulled back. The 1st Minnesota Infantry had won the round, but at a bitter price. Of the regiment’s 262 men who were engaged, only 47 escaped injury or death.
The 1st Minnesota stood out long before heading into combat at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. They were the first troops to muster for three-year service following Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, and after drilling two months at Fort Snelling, some 900 men passed through Chicago—where a reporter noted, “They have enjoyed in their makeup the rare and excellent process of selection and culling from the older states, which has thrown in the van of civilization the hardy lumberman and first settlers in the wild. There are few regiments we have ever seen that can compare in brawn and muscle with these Minnesotans, used to the axe, the rifle, the oar, and the setting pole. They are unquestionably the finest body of troops that has yet appeared in our streets.”
At Antietam in September 1862, the men showed their colors by holding their ground until the odds against them were overwhelming. Still, could anyone have guessed that a state admitted to the Union just five years earlier—and nearly 1,000 miles from the contested heartland of the Confederacy—would produce soldiers so dedicated they charged Confederates outnumbering them 4 to 1? Or that their sacrifice would halt the Rebel advance just long enough for the Union to reinforce an exposed flank?
Their bravery might very well have saved the Union army— and conceivably the Union cause itself—from defeat at Gettysburg.
Neither the Union nor Confederate commanders planned to fight at Gettysburg in early July 1863. Following his victory at Chancellorsville,Va., Robert E. Lee chose to take the war to Union soil and ordered his troops into Pennsylvania, where fighting broke out on July 1. It happened by chance when a Confederate unit marching toward Gettysburg encountered Union cavalry outside of town.
As the sounds of artillery and musket shots shattered the quiet of the Pennsylvania countryside, Union Brig. Gen. John Buford and his men tried to hold the Confederates back while riders on each side sent calls for reinforcements. Buford knew the stakes were high. The many roads converging at Gettysburg offered rich opportunities for moving troops quickly—whether southeast to Baltimore and Washington or north to Harrisburg. Confederate troops numbering 75,000 were approaching from the north and west, while 90,000 Federal troops advanced from the south.
As each side assembled reinforcements, the fighting continued, turning the idyllic Pennsylvania landscape into a chaotic war zone. The Confederates, who closed in on Gettysburg first, moved the bulk of their forces into positions in and around the town. Union forces tried in vain to hold them off but eventually fell back to positions on Cemetery Hill, just south of town.
Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Union’s II Corps—including the 1st Minnesota—decided to fortify the hills and open, grassy ridgelines surrounding Gettysburg. When reinforcements finally arrived, Union forces arrayed in a line resembling a fishhook. The barbed end began at nearby Culp’s Hill and curved over Cemetery Hill, while the shank ran more than a mile along the low-lying Cemetery Ridge, ending with positions on the hills of Little Round Top and Big Round Top. Initially Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, newly named commander of the Army of the Potomac, did not like the plan; although perched on ridges and hills with a commanding view of the battlefields, Union troops were surrounded on three sides. Eventually he ordered his men to dig in for what would be one of the defining battles of the war.
Lacking the high ground, the Rebels were at a disadvantage. If Lee wanted to overrun the Union right flank, he would have to move his men over two well-defended hills. And if he wanted to attack the Union center or left, he would have to cross open fields within range of enemy artillery and small arms. Attacking the Federals entrenched along this highly defensible terrain would cost the Confederacy casualties it could scarcely afford. Nonetheless, Lee decided two of his corps would attack the Union flanks in the hope of collapsing them and creating panic. He ordered Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell to move against the Union right flank to the north along Culp’s Hill, and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to attack the Union left along Cemetery Ridge.
Lee would get unexpected help that day from the missteps of the Union’s III Corps commander Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, one of the war’s many “political” generals. Sickles was not a professional soldier, but rather a New York politician who was given a commission mainly to generate Democratic support for the war. Sickles’ orders were to position his troops on the southernmost part of the Union left on Cemetery Ridge, the area Lee had ordered Longstreet to attack. Sickles did not like his position, however, and moved to higher ground near the Emmitsburg Road, which ran nearly parallel to Cemetery Ridge. That put Sickles more than half a mile away from the rest of the Union lines, creating a gap between his corps and Hancock’s, and leaving Sickles’ flanks unsecured. It was an open invitation to the Rebels.
As dawn broke on the still, humid morning of July 2, eight of the 1st Minnesota’s 11 companies, under the command of Colonel William Colvill Jr., reached the battlefield and were sent in reserve of Hancock’s II Corps. The regiment—and the corps, for that matter—saw no real action until Longstreet finally made his move against the Union left around 4 p.m. As the attack began, Hancock sent some units to reinforce Sickles’ III Corps and eventually hurried the 1st Minnesota to the main lines. For a time, the Minnesotans remained out of the fighting. But through the smoke wafting across the battlefield they could see the encounter between Sickles’ and Longstreet’s men.
Shortly before Longstreet’s attack, Meade rode to the Peach Orchard and chided Sickles,“General, I am afraid you are too far out.” Sickles offered to withdraw his men, but a sudden Confederate artillery barrage made that option moot. “I wish to God you could,” Meade responded, “but those people will not permit it. If you need more artillery, call up the Reserve.”
Soon the fighting became too intense for Sickles’ corps. The men of the 1st Minnesota watched in horror as the corps broke and in a panic raced back to the main Union lines with the Confederates in hot pursuit, Rebel Yells splitting the air.
“The Rebs came in two splendid lines, firing as they advanced, capturing one of our batteries, which they turned against us, and gained the cover of the ravine,” Sergeant Alfred Carpenter later recalled. “The plain was strewed with dead and dying men. The Rebs had advanced their batteries and were hurling death and destruction into the ranks of our retreating men. They were nearing the hill, which if gained, the day was lost to us.”
Hancock called for reinforcements, but not enough would arrive before the hard-charging Confederates reached the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Looking for any way to slow the Confederate advance, even for just five minutes, Hancock turned to Colvill and exclaimed “My God! Are these all the men we have here? What regiment is this?”Colvill exclaimed,“First Minnesota!” Hancock then gave the order that would make the 1st famous: “Charge those lines!”
Colvill turned to his men and asked if anyone would follow him.
The regiment roared “Yes!”
“Forward, double-quick!” Colvill barked, and the Minnesotans began their legendary charge. The 262 men of the 1st Minnesota advanced toward the 1,600-strong Alabama brigade led by Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox and known for their murderously accurate fire. “Shells screeched over us; canister and grape fell about us,” Carpenter recalled. “Comrade after comrade dropped from the ranks; but on the line went. No one took a second look at his fallen companion. ‘We had no time to weep.’”
As they surged downhill toward the Confederate formation, a quarter of the Minnesotans were cut down by Rebel fire. Lieutenant William Lochren remembered that as they closed in on the Rebels, Colvill ordered his men to fire and then charge. From that point, the fight was confused and bloody—muskets firing, bayonets thrusting, men crying out as they fell. Soon the center of Wilcox’s brigade wavered and broke, but the Confederates on the flanks encircled the 1st, inflicting heavy casualties. The Minnesotans had managed to hold off the Confederate advance— but then the tide turned against them.
More Union reinforcements from the 82nd New York and 15th Massachusetts regiments came to relieve the Minnesotans. The Confederates started falling back as the undaunted 1st Minnesotans, now supported, kept shooting. Soon the fight was over.
The Minnesotans suffered a seldom-rivaled number of casualties. Most officers were killed or wounded, including their 31- year-old commander, Colvill. Of the 262 men who started the day with the 1st Minnesota, a reported 215 lay killed or wounded on the battlefield.
“There is no more gallant deed recorded in history,” Hancock later observed.“I ordered these men in there because I saw I must gain five minutes’ time. Reinforcements were coming on the run, but I knew that before they could reach the threatened point the Confederates, unless checked, would seize the position. I would have ordered that regiment in if I had known that every man would be killed. It had to be done, and I was glad to find such a gallant body of men at hand willing to make the terrible sacrifice that the occasion demanded.”
The 1st Minnesota’s tenacity did not end there. Though nearly wiped out as a fighting unit July 2, those who were left headed the next day into one of the war’s most notorious events, bolstered by Minnesotans returning from other duties.
Lee planned to attack the Union center, mistakenly believing the previous day’s combat had demoralized the Union troops and forced Meade to send men from the center of his line to protect his flanks. Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s recently arrived troops would be the main weapon in the new assault.
He would not make the first move, however. In the morning, the Union attacked Culp’s Hill to regain ground lost the previous day. Around noon the shots stopped, and as clouds of smoke drifted off the battlefield, the Confederates left the hill. An hour later, Lee’s main attack began.
Longstreet unleashed his 143-gun artillery in a deafening barrage, hoping to weaken the Union center before he sent in his troops. “The enemy’s line of artillery was soon marked by banks of white vapor, from beneath which tongues of fire were incessantly darting,” Carpenter recalled. “The ground was torn up, fences and trees knocked to splinters, rocks and small stones were flying in the air, ammunition boxes and caissons were exploded….We had been badly scared many times before this but never quite so badly as then.”
Union artillery responded in kind, but after about an hour the guns fell silent. Meade hoped to trick the Confederates into thinking the Union troops had been destroyed. The ruse worked. Within a short time, Rebel Yells pierced the air. Nearly 15,000 Confederates rushed toward Cemetery Ridge in the advance we know as Pickett’s Charge. With the Rebels starting across the wide, open field, Union artillery and infantry opened up at close range, with devastating results. As the Confederate advance slowed, Union forces, including the remnants of the 1st Minnesota, were ordered to charge.
According to Colonel Lochren’s account, Corporal Henry D. O’Brien grabbed the 1st’s battle flag and charged toward the Rebels. “My feeling at the instant blamed his rashness in so risking its [the regimental flag] capture. But the effect was electrical. Every man of the First Minnesota sprang to protect its flag.” O’Brien later received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.
The close-range fighting was vicious. “Men fell about us unheeded, unnoticed,” wrote Carpenter. “Our muskets became so heated we could no longer handle them. We dropped them and picked up those of the wounded.” When the smoke cleared, the regiment counted 55 more fallen Minnesotans.
That night Lee had his men drop back three-quarters of a mile to Seminary Ridge, which ran parallel to Cemetery Ridge, and later issued orders to retreat all the way to the Potomac River near Williamsport, Md. With the help of the 1st Minnesota, the Union had achieved a great victory. But no one could have predicted the toll: 23,000 Federals and 28,000 Confederates wounded or dead over the course of the three-day battle.
Many historians contend Lee’s loss at Gettysburg was the turning point in the war, but just how crucial was the 1st Minnesota to the outcome?
Had the 1st not held back the Confederate charge July 2, the Rebels might have split the Union lines and taken the high ground on Cemetery Ridge, enabling them to rake Meade’s army with their guns. Meade would have been forced to retreat, giving the Confederates a major victory on Union soil. The Union had plenty of money, men and supplies, but such a defeat could have crippled Northern morale—already low after a series of defeats in the fall of 1862 and the winter and spring of 1863. The political fallout would likely have carried over to the 1864 election and sent Lincoln and his administration packing. Without a doubt Lincoln would have kept fighting in the meantime, but a new administration would likely have ended the war, leaving the nation forever divided.
Jeffrey Maciejewski is a 2009 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in military history. He is from Avon, Minn.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.