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The Charge of the 1st Minnesota at the Battle of Gettysburg


On July 2, 1863, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were locked in a great power struggle on the fields around the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the sun was setting on that bloody day, the fight was far from over. The Union had overcome a crisis by funneling enough troops to stabilize the left of its line, but another emergency was quickly developing. Because so many troops had been moved, the whole area between the Round Tops and Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s position on the upper end of Cemetery Ridge was a no man’s land. As Hancock rode along the line, an Alabama brigade of 1,500 men emerged from a thicket 300 yards away and were streaming towards the Union line. Unless General Hancock found some help, the Alabamians were poised to strike a major blow.

“My God! Are these all the men we have here?” Hancock was horrified. The enemy was approaching and there were few Union troops standing in their way. Reinforcements were coming, but they could not arrive for ten minutes. To buy that much time, Hancock called on one of the army’s best regiments, the 1st Minnesota. He was lucky that they were around. The 1st Minnesota had fought in nearly every battle since First Bull Run in July 1861, suffering some 260 killed and wounded before Gettysburg. Now, at the battle that many thought might determine the war, the 1st Minnesota was asked to save the day.

The 1st Minnesota at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

General Hancock turned to Colonel William Colvill of the 1st Minnesota, pointed to the Alabamians and yelled, “Advance, Colonel, and take those colors.” Without hesitation, the 262 men of the regiment fixed bayonets and moved forward to take on 1,500 of the enemy. “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant-death or wounds to us all," wrote Colvill, who was wounded in the attack, “and every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.” The 1st Minnesota ferociously charged and tore into the Alabamians. The Confederates were stopped and Hancock got his ten minutes and more. The position was saved, but the 1st Minnesota would never be the same again.

Of the 262 soldiers who answered Hancock’s call, the 1st Minnesota suffered 70 killed and 145 wounded or missing. According to legendary Civil War historian James McPherson, “This casualty rate of 82 percent of those engaged was the highest of the war for any Union regiment in a single action.” Colonel Colvill and his men knew that they were being asked to sacrifice themselves, yet without hesitation, they went forward. The overwhelming sacrifices made by the men of the 1st Minnesota and so many others on July 2 were not in vain. Their efforts allowed the Army of the Potomac to ultimately prevail at the Battle of Gettysburg, and in a larger sense, helped to save the nation.

The main monument to the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Sources

Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson.

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