The 1st Minnesota Infantry was organized at Fort Snelling in April of 1861 and mustered in on the 29th of the month. The regiment went into action at the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21st, 1861, and sustained 180 total casualties, including 48 men killed or mortally wounded. In 1862, the 1st Minnesota fought in the Peninsular Campaign and at South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. The regiment’s most famous action took place on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2nd, 1863. The 1st Minnesota was on Cemetery Ridge that afternoon providing support for Battery C of the 4th U.S. Artillery, and from that vantage point the infantrymen watched in growing alarm as the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 14th Alabama regiments of Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade broke through the forward Union position along the Emmitsburg Road. Major General Winfield Hancock, the commanding officer of Second Corps, rode up to the 1st Minnesota’s position looking for troops to stop Wilcox’s advance before the Confederates overran the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and rolled up the Federal left flank. The only infantry available was the 1st Minnesota, and three of its companies were detached on other service, leaving eight companies with a total of 262 men. The 1st Minnesota would have to slow the Confederate advance to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.
Hancock ordered the 1st Minnesota’s commanding officer, Colonel William Colvill, to charge the enemy line. “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” recalled Lieutenant William Lochren adding “And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”. The 1st Minnesota stepped off quickly, and with a sense of urgency, began running at full speed towards the advancing Confederates. The Minnesotans began taking casualties immediately but continued on full speed without stopping to fire. As they neared the first line of Confederates, Colvill ordered “Charge!” and the Federals did so with bayonets leveled at the enemy. The bayonet charge stunned the Confederate line and the Alabamians quickly fell back and reformed with their support line. When the 1st Minnesota reached the dry bed of a stream called Plum Run, they stopped and poured in fire. Colvill ordered his men to take cover along Plum Run. Wilcox’s Brigade greatly outnumbered the Minnesotans, and Colvill expected a counterattack. But none was forthcoming, and both sides exchanged fire while holding their positions. Gradually, Confederates moved into position on the 1st Minnesota’s right flank and delivered enfilade fire. But Union artillery fire from batteries on Cemetery Ridge began taking a toll on Wilcox’s men, and reinforcements from the 111th New York Infantry arrived. Wilcox called for his own reinforcements, but none were forthcoming. Wilcox concluded he could not carry Cemetery Ridge and broke off his attack. As the pressure eased, the 1st Minnesota returned to Cemetery Ridge.
The fight had lasted about 15 minutes, but that bought the time necessary for Hancock to get reinforcements in place and stop the Confederate assault. Of the 262 men that made the charge, only 47 came out of the fight unscathed; 40 were killed and 175 wounded. The 1st Minnesota was engaged again on July 3rd, helping to repel the Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge. The regiment had 17 more killed and wounded in this decisive action of the battle. The 1st Minnesota Infantry was the only Minnesota unit at Gettysburg. It’s action on July 2nd secured it’s place in history. Perhaps Lt. Lochren summed it up best when he wrote that the 1st Minnesota charged “with nothing but death to look for, and no chance for any other success than to gain the brief time needed to save that battlefield. And not a man wavered.”
Today, a monument to the 1st Minnesota Infantry stands on Cemetery Ridge. Appropriately, it is a figure of an infantryman with rifle and bayonet hurrying forward.
Sources: “The First Minnesota at Gettysburg” by William Lochren. In Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Minnesota Commandery, 3rd Series.
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage by Noah Andre Trudeau
Gettysburg–The Second Day (Civil War America) by Harry W. Pfanz History of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry 1861-1864 by R.I. Holcombe
The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 13, 1863 by Bradley M. Gottfried