The Heroic Charge of the First Minnesota at the Battle of Gettysburg
On July 2, 1863, the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment made an overwhelming sacrifice to protect the Union line at the Battle of Gettysburg. With a daring charge, 262 Minnesotans thwarted a potential breakthrough by Confederate troops. These Union saviors are honored with three monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park. The most recognized monument to the First Minnesota features a soldier atop a high pedestal, running forward in the direction of those who threatened the Union line during the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War.
A closeup of the Union Soldier on top of the main monument to the First Minnesota at Gettysburg.
In his book, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, James McPherson writes that at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, “The First Minnesota had been in service longer than almost any other regiment in the Army of the Potomac.” These Minnesotans were hardened from experience, serving in almost every battle since First Bull Run in 1861.
Panic struck Union General Winfield Hancock as the sun was setting on July 2. Three hundred yards away from him, a line of Alabama troops were pressing forward. To Hancock’s horror, all other Union Infantry in the sector had been redeployed to another area earlier. Unless someone could stop them, the Alabamians were poised to secure a major breakthrough for the Confederacy. Hancock needed to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. He had to put his faith in the First Minnesota, which was in line supporting an artillery battery near the spot where its monument stands today.
The main monument to the First Minnesota for its actions on July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg.
General Hancock turned to Colonel William Colvill of the First Minnesota, pointed at the Alabamians and yelled, “Advance, colonel, and take those colors.” Colvill later wrote that, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant-death or wounds to us all.” Despite whatever anxieties they felt, the First Minnesota did not hesitate once given their orders. In Colvill’s words, “every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.” With fixed bayonets, 262 Minnesotans moved forward and engaged the enemy in a brutal slugfest. The carnage was vicious, but the Confederates were stopped. Hancock had received the time that he so desperately needed to reinforce the area.
The attack came at a tremendous cost to the First Minnesota. Of the 262 men engaged, the regiment suffered an 82 percent casualty rate. McPherson writes that it was the highest percentage “of the war for any union regiment in a single action.” Seventy Minnesotans were killed in the charge and another 145 were wounded or missing. The wounded included Colonel Colvill, who believed that his men understood and accepted the sacrifice that was asked of them. They did their duty and helped to hold the Union line on the pivotal second day at Gettysburg.
A bronze bas-relief depicting the First Minnesota during its heroic charge at Gettysburg.
At the height of the panic on July 2, General Hancock shouted, “My God! Are these all the men we have here?” He didn't have much to repulse the Alabamians, but he did have the First Minnesota. The Minnesotans answered the call, endured horrific losses, and emerged as the saviors that Hancock and the Army of the Potomac needed. Their sacrifices will live on forever through the hallowed ground at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James McPherson.