Minnesota History Vignettes- The First Minnesota Regiment
"Charge those lines!"
General Winfield Scott Hancock
Gettysburg, July 2, 1863
That was the command given 150 years ago to Colonel William Colvill of the First Minnesota Volunteers Regiment in the midst of the second day of fighting outside of the previously unknown sleepy hamlet of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Colvill was in command of the famed First Minnesota Regiment and had arrived at a critical time with 262 of his men, only the leading portion of the Regiment. They had just accomplished an arduous 20-mile march toward the sound of the developing battle. Upon their arrival on the scene, Union forces were in chaos along the soon to become hallowed grounds known as Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg. 1600 Confederates from Alabama under the command of General Cadmus Wilcox were moving quickly to take the high ground at this important place on the battlefield.
The men of the First Minnesota were seasoned veterans of the Civil War, having the distinction of being the first unit to volunteer for the Union cause back in 1861. They had seen action from the first major battle at Bull Run to one of the bloodiest at Fredericksburg. Therefore, when the command to charge into the oncoming Alabamans was given, they knew full well the order meant the highest sacrifice. Without hesitation the 262 Minnesotans rushed down Cemetery Ridge, which looks more like a casual hill at this place on the field, to clash with the advancing Confederates. The ensuing bloody encounter slowed the Confederate advance for only a few minutes. As a result, the First Minnesota experienced the highest casualty rate of any military unit in American history with 88% of those charging down that hill either killed or wounded.
To casual observers, this seemingly senseless sacrifice to buy only a few minutes in this field outside Gettysburg would seem foolish. What was little known to those brave Minnesota soldiers was that this spot would mark the furthest advance by Confederate forces into Union territory. It is well established by historians that without the sacrifices of the Maine 20th on the far southern flank of the Union forces and the First Minnesota on Cemetery Ridge on the second day of battle, the Battle of Gettysburg would have been a Union loss. The charge of the First Minnesota bought only a few minutes, but they were precious minutes. While the Minnesotans were holding off the advancing Confederates, General Hancock was able to move Union reserves into good positions up on Cemetery Ridge, saving the high ground.
Without the Minnesotans’ sacrifice, Confederate forces would have split the forming Union lines, requiring Union forces to fall back even closer to the nation's capitol. Because of the great sacrifice of the First Minnesota, Cemetery Ridge was held to become the central point of the greatest Union victory in the war the next day on July 3rd, the third day of battle, in the famed failed Confederate attack known as Pickett's Charge.
To read more in depth about this famous Minnesota Regiment, one of the best sources is the book The Last Full Measure: The life and death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. By Richard Moore, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993. This is good resource for high school research.
For a good overview of Minnesota's role in the Civil War, read Kenneth Carley's book, Minnesota in the Civil War: An Illustrated History. from Minnesota Historical Society Press. This is a lavishly illustrated, richly detailed book that is an excellent survey for those wanting a first time comprehensive picture of Minnesota's involvement in the Civil War.
The Minnesota Historical Society has several exhibits and events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There is a new exhibit running through Sept. 8, 2013, and the MHS has several events throughout the year. Visit the Minnesota Historical Society events calendar to find more Civil War events at our historic sites throughout the state.