MN Remembers: Battle of Gettysburg

In July 2013, a state Civil War contingent traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to share Minnesota’s story for 150th anniversary commemoration.

The group, numbering 90, included State Representatives Dean Urdahl, Mike Benson, Mary Murphy, State Senator Roger Reinert, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum. Also attending were Major General Rick Nash of the Minnesota National Guard, Steve Elliott of the Minnesota Historical Society, and a number of artists, authors, educators, history buffs and four students selected from the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Dear President Lincoln” student writing contest were also present at the ceremony.

On July 2, 1863, everything was chaos as smoke filled air, explosions from artillery pieces and cracking of musketry was heard throughout Gettysburg, Pa., a small borough with a population of merely 2,400. When the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Federal Army of the Potomac descended upon the small town the day before, the population expanded greatly. Approximately 165,000 soldiers from both sides converged upon that small town and in just three days, around 50,000 of them would remain behind as casualties – either killed, wounded or missing in the battle’s aftermath.

As daylight was leaving the fields on the second day of the fight, a mile-long gap occurred in the Federal lines near Plum Run.

“Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, the Second Corps commander, known as ‘Hancock the Superb’, had only one aide left, Captain William Miller. Hancock and Miller looked to their left and saw troops coming this way. They thought that they were Union troops. Hancock and Miller rode out there and Captain Miller was wounded three times,” explained John D. Cox, a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide and Columbia Heights, Minn., resident.

“Hancock rode up into this area, saw a group of men with bayonets fixed and already in line helping to support a battery. He knew that he had to sacrifice them. Five minutes was all he needed because he knew that more reinforcements were already coming. He said he hated doing it but it had to be done,” Cox explained.

“Hancock rode up and yelled, ‘My God! Is this all the men we have? What regiment is this?’ Colonel William Colvill replied, ‘First Minnesota, general.’ Hancock then ordered, ‘Colonel! Charge and take those colors!” Cox said.

With that instruction, 262 soldiers of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry descended upon Plum Run in a bayonet charge against a brigade led by Confederate Brigadier General Cadmus M. Wilcox. While the charge only lasted less than a half hour, only 47 soldiers were able to make it safely back to Federal lines. The remainder remained on the battlefield either killed or wounded.

In his official report, General Wilcox wrote: “The stronghold of the enemy, together with his batteries, were almost won, when still another line of infantry descended the slop in our front at a double-quick, to the support of their fleeing comrades and for the defense of the batteries. Seeing this contest so unequal, I dispatched my adjutant-general to the division commander, to ask that support be sent to my men, but no support came. Three separate times did this last of the enemy’s lines attempt to drive my men back, and were as often repulsed. This struggle at the foot of the hill on which were the enemy’s batteries, though so unequal, was continued for some thirty minutes. With a second supporting line, the heights could have been carried. Without support on either my right or left, my men were withdrawn, to prevent their entire destruction or capture. The enemy did not pursue, but my men retired under a heavy artillery fire, and returned to their original position in line, and bivouacked for the night, pickets being left on the pike.”

Among those who were severely wounded were Colonel Colvill, Lieutenant Colonel Charles P. Adams and Major Mark W. Downie. Captains Joseph Periam and Louis Muller along with Lieutenant Waldo Farrar were among the killed. Of the remaining 47 men, seventeen were killed and wounded the next day during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge said of the charge, “Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.”

To commemorate the Charge of the 1st Minnesota for the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force sent a delegation to re-dedicate the monument on July 2, 2013.

Secretary Ritchie read a proclamation declaring July 2, 2013 as “Minnesota Courage at Gettysburg Recognition Day,” signed by Governor Mark Dayton. Task Force member Thomas Heffelfinger and his wife placed a wreath in front of the Minnesota monument. Heffelfinger is a descendant of 1st Minnesota Major Christopher Heffelfinger, who was slightly wounded during the Gettysburg battle.

Reenactors from the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry led the delegation down the path to Plum Run near the site of the charge, where Major General Rick Nash, Minnesota Adjutant General, exchanged gifts and pleasantries with Major General Perry Smith, his Alabama counterpart.

“The 1st Minnesota faced Wilcox’s Alabamans that fought valiantly that day. Major General Perry Smith was gracious enough to travel from Alabama to be here for this special day for us,” said Nash, who presented Smith with a framed portrait of the famous charge along with an original January 1863 Confederate dollar bill encased inside the frame.

“Plum Run and the 1st Minnesota is often overshadowed by the 20th Maine and Little Round Top, but if it wasn’t for the 1st Minnesota, I’m certain that we wouldn’t be standing here as citizens of the United States of America,” Smith said while presenting Nash with an eagle statue.

According to Task Force member Darryl Sannes, who planned the ceremony, a committee was appointed in the early 1880s for the purpose of selecting the site and designing the monument. The three-person committee consisted of William Lochren, Christopher Heffelfinger and Matthew Marvin, all veterans of the regiment.

In 1887, Heffelfinger traveled to Gettysburg to select the placement site of the monument and to glean ideas for its design. Four years later, the Minnesota legislature appropriated $20,000 for that monument, along with a smaller obelisk on Cemetery Ridge, the site of the regiment’s position the following day during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

Minneapolis sculptor Jacob Field was hired to sculpt the monument which adorned a 9-1/2 foot tall soldier with bayonet fixed in position to charge. Including the granite base, the monument stands 32 feet in height.

Though the monument was placed on the field in 1893, the 30th anniversary of the battle, it was not formally dedicated until 1897 when 200 members of the regiment arrived by a special train for the ceremony. The Minnesota Legislature appropriated $5,000 for travel expenses to the surviving members of the regiment who participated in the battle, could not participate in the battle because of sickness or wounds, and those who were discharged for disability from previous battles. Wives and family members were able to travel for $30 per person.

The official delegation in 1897 was comprised of Governor David Clough, U.S. Senators Cushman Davis and Knute Nelson and Congressman Loren Fletcher, along with the Minnesota Adjutant General and other state dignitaries. Lochren was the master of ceremonies for the July 2, 1897 ceremony, which began at 10 a.m., and Governor Clough gave the keynote address. Tillie Pierce Alleman, who attended to Colonel Colvill and other wounded 1st Minnesota soldiers, was introduced during the original ceremony. Additional ceremonies were held at the monument in 1913, 1963 and 1988.

“You read in all these history books about the heroism in the Battle of Gettysburg, but it’s really no hype with the 1st Minnesota. I firmly believe the Battle of Gettysburg was on the line and so was the nation if these guys didn’t do their duty,” said Cox.

Courtesy of Jeffrey S. Williams, Civil War Commemoration Task Force.

Photos by Doug Ohman of Pioneer Photography