SAINT PAUL, Minn. - On July 3rd, 1863, 262 Minnesotans engraved their names into the pantheon of military heroes. They were the men who saved the key battle that governed the outcome of the Civil War.
In the Battle of Gettysburg, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock gave the order that put the First Minnesota regiment in the path of history.
"He sent the First Minnesota on one of the greatest military charges in history, 350 yards downhill" saidHistorian and Documentarian Bill Semans. "They hit 1600 Alabamans coming up the hill. If the Alabamans had gotten to where they wanted to go, the Civil War would have been a different thing because the Battle of Gettysburg may well have been lost."
The Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee had mounted an offensive drive that threatened to plunge a dagger deep into the heart of Union territory. The farming village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania became the key battle, later to be immortalized in President Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address."
Semons is working on a documentary "No more gallant a deed" about the First Minnesota and its commander, Colonel William Colville.
"Who in my belief is the greatest Minnesotan of all time," said Semons. As for the First Minnesota, the first regiment of men to volunteer to Lincoln's call for soldiers, "Some could not speak English. They came from Prussia. They came from all over Ireland, Alsace Lorraine, Italy, Poland, everybody an immigrant."
Colville was remembered Tuesday evening with a redication of his gravesite and statue in Cannon Falls. Lieutenant Colonel Simon Schaefer of the Minnesota Army National Guard explained the heroism to those assembled.
"These were hard men, rough men of the west," said Schaefer. "They were skilled with the rifle. They carried chiseled muscle from clearing and working the land and were very familiar with the hardships that living on the frontier brought.
Confederate forces had broken through the Union lines and were about to fatally outflank General Handcock's forces. All would almost certainly be lost.
"When Hancock asked Colville if his regiment could hold the attacking Confederate brigades, Colville's response was 'To the last man'," explained Schaefer. It is still the motto of Minnesota Guardsmen and women. "The regiment (First Minnesota) was outnumbered 10-1. Colville and his men realized their only chance was to charge the enemy on the dead run with leveled bayonets to get in and among the Confederates so they could fight hand-to-hand until reinforcements arrived.
"The savage attack caused Wilcox's (Confederate General) men to turn and stumble back into Bargedale's (Confederate General) brigade. The ensuing confusion in the Confederate ranks provided just enough time for Hancock's reserve to arrive and charge past the dead and dying Minnesota troops.
"Of the 262 men who made the historic charge, 215 lay dead or wounded. The regiment was virtually destroyed suffering 82% casualties in 5 terrible minutes, but, as Hancock later said, those 5 precious minutes were made possible by the gallant charge of the First Minnesota."
The following day, July 3rd, the decimated First Minnesota was called on again, this time to repel Pickett's Charge, the last gasp of the Confederate offensive into Pennsylvania. The unit lost 15% of its remaining force that day, but they had turned the tide. The battle was won. The Union had been saved.
School children who visit the Minnesota State Capitol are shown the pictures and told the stories of Colonel Colville and the First Minnesota. The unit captured the battle flag of a Virginia infantry unit at Gettysburg. Virginia continues to petition Minnesota for its return, but Minnesota has refused. The flag resides, carefully preserved, in the Minnesota History Center archives.
William Colville survived the battle, though badly wounded in both legs, and the war. He spent a month recovering in Gettysburg before he could walk again. He died in Minnesota in 1894. There is a statue of Colville on the second floor of the State Capitol, in addition to his photo in a display on a wall in the Rotunda.
How significant was the heroism of the First Minnesota to soldiers since? Bill Semons put the sacrifice in perspective. "82% of the regiment (killed or wounded), the largest regimental losses in American military history. He (Colville) led the First Minnesota down that hill."