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1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg


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Center of the American Experiment

John Phelan 

Spring 2023

The true, seldom told story of overwhelming sacrifice and heroism.

In June 1905, William J. Colvill traveled to the Soldiers Home in Minneapolis to attend a reunion of the veterans of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry regiment. He walked with a cane, a visible sign of the wounds which had plagued him for 42 years, since the evening of July 2, 1863. That was the day the 1st Minnesota saved the Union but was destroyed in the process.

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Gettysburg

Lincoln used the occasion of this “victory” to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in states then in rebellion against the federal government, but this brought no immediate military benefit. Lee defeated McClellan’s replacement, Ambrose Burnside, at Fredericksburg in December. In May 1863, he defeated Burnside’s replacement, Joseph Hooker, at Chancellorsville. Lee again sought to capitalize by invading the north, slipping past the Army of the Potomac in June. Hooker went in pursuit but was replaced on the way by George Meade.

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Veterans of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment gathered at a reunion in 1909.

(Snip)In desperation, Hancock galloped to Colvill and asked: “What regiment is this?”

“First Minnesota,” Colvill answered. “Colonel, do you see those colors?” Hancock asked, indicating the advancing Confederates. Colvill did, and Hancock ordered: “Then take them!”

The 1st were now some of the world’s most experienced soldiers: they knew the fate that awaited them. “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,” Lochren remembered, “And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.”

He recalled:

…in a moment…the regiment, in perfect line, with arms, at “right shoulder, shift,” was sweeping down the slope directly upon the enemy’s centre. No hesitation, no stopping to fire, though the men fell fast at every stride before the concentrated fire of the whole Confederate force, directed upon us as soon as the movement was observed. Silently, without orders, and almost from the start, “double- quick” had changed to utmost speed, for in utmost speed lay the only hope that any of us could pass through that storm of lead and strike the enemy. “Charge!” shouted Colvill as we neared the first line, and with leveled bayonets, at full speed, we rushed upon it, fortunately, as it was slightly disordered in crossing a dry brook. The men were never made who will stand against leveled bayonets coming with such momentum and evident desperation. The first line broke in our front as we reached it, and rushed back through the second line, stopping the whole advance. We then poured in our first fire, and availing ourselves of such shelter as the low bank of the dry brook afforded, held the entire force at bay for a considerable time, and until our reserves appeared on the ridge we had left. Had the enemy rallied quickly to a countercharge, its overwhelming numbers would have crushed us in a moment, and we would have effected but a slight pause in its advance. But the ferocity of our onset seemed to paralyze them for a time, and though they poured in a terrible and continuous fire from the front and enveloping flanks, they kept at a respectful distance from our bayonets, until, before the added fire of our fresh reserves, they began to retire and we were ordered back.

“The bloody field was in our possession,” Alfred Carpenter wrote, “but at what cost! The ground was strewed with dead and dying, whose groans and prayers and cries for help and water rent the air.” Colvill was hit in the back and leg; Goddard in the leg and shoulder. Marvin, his foot shattered, fainted twice crawling back to the Union lines. Among the dead was Isaac Taylor, “A shell struck him on the top of his head and passed out through his back, cutting his belt in two,” his brother wrote,

[We] buried him at 10 o’clock am, 350 paces west of a road which passes north and south by the house of Jacob Hummelbaugh and John Swisher (colored) and equi-distant from each, and by a stone wall where he fell, about a mile south of Gettysburg. I placed a board at his head on which I inscribed:

No useless coffin enclosed his breast, Nor in sheet nor in shroud we bound him, But he lay like a warrior taking his rest, With his shelter tent around him.

At twilight, just 47 men answered the regimental roll call. Of the 262 Minnesotans who charged the Confederates, 215 — 82 percent — were killed or wounded, the most severe losses suffered by a Union regiment in a single engagement during the Civil War. Some died later. Goddard, 15 on enlistment, died of complications from his wounds at 23. Colvill died in his sleep in 1905, the evening before the reunion, surrounded by his men.

“The superb gallantry of those men saved our line from being broken,” Hancock reported, “No soldiers, on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.” The regiment suffered a further 55 casualties the following day repulsing Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s last, desperate gamble, where Private Marshall Sherman captured the flag of the 28th Virginia and won the Medal of Honor. With that, the Confederacy lost the battle and, eventually, the war.

In 1864 their original three-year terms of enlistment expired, and the 1st Minnesota’s service came to an end. Some reenlisted, like Sherman who lost his leg the following year. In terms of percentage of total enrollment killed, it ranked 23rd out of 2,047 Union regiments.

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