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History of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Figure 1: The 262 men of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer infantry charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. [Source: en.wikipedia.org]
The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the most influential and brave regiments in the Civil Car. The men who served in the 1st Minnesota saw combat in almost all of the biggest battles of the Civil War; they were present at The First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, The Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, The Battle of Antietam in 1862, and The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The 1st Minnesota is particularly well known for their service and sacrifice at the Battle of Gettysburg. Several reports from generals and presidents exist which make note of the skill and heroic sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota Infantry.

The 1st Regiment infantry was organized originally at Fort Snelling in St. Paul, MN. The regiment mustered on April 29th, 1861 [3]. Here, they were stationed and trained for 3 months before the individual companies of the regiment were separated across the nation.

The 1st Battle of Bull Run:

Upon being called to McDowell’s Army of Northeast Virginia, the regiment saw the first major battle of the civil war. The 1st Minnesota was placed on the front lines of the conflict and, according to a report given by Colonel Willis A. Gorman, 1st Minnesota Infantry, was one of the first regiments to arrive on the scene [1]. Col. Gorman says in his report that “On arriving at Bull Run the battle began to rage with great warmth…”. Col. Gorman reports that one of the first orders the regiment received was from a Capt. Wright of the military engineers: “my regiment was needed to flank the enemy upon the extreme left; whereupon I moved forward at ‘quick’ and ‘double-quick’ time…”[1]. Gorman’s men moved quickly to out flank the confederate army. The 1st Minnesota kept their quick pace until coming to an “open field looking out upon the enemy’s lines”[1]. Moving from this position, the 1st Minnesota moved from the lookout over the field into some woods where they could get closer to the exposed side of the enemy lines. Col. Gorman reports that “Capt. Wright, by your direction, ordered my men through the woods to take position near the front and center of the enemy’s line, in an open field, where we came under the direct fire of the enemy’s batteries formed in ‘column by division.'”[1]. It seems as though the 1st Minnesota had been ordered to move into a very deadly position; exposed in an open field under the direct fire of confederate artillery installments, they had nowhere to go. The regiment was ordered to move from the center to the far left of the enemy’s line at “double-quick” time [1]. Many soldiers dropped haversacks, blankets, and most of their canteens to help the company move quickly into their critical position. Here is the true climax of the 1st Minnesota’s story in Bull Run.

Upon reaching their final location, they lay only fifty feet from the enemy. Col. Gorman reports that the enemy lie so close that they “could have conversed in an ordinary tone of voice.” [1]. Another Union Colonel, Col. Heintzelman, rode between the Union and Confederate lines, the sight of which confused both sides as to the identity of the other. Upon each side recognizing the Union and Rebel flags, “a blaze of fire was poured into the faces of the combatants, each producing terrible destruction owing to the close proximity” [1]. The Confederacy and the 1st Minnesota were within such close quarters that bullets rarely missed. The Union lines were cut to pieces, forcing the 1st Minnesota to make a full retreat. According to Col. Gorman’s report, the 1st Minnesota suffered a great number of casualties; They were one of the first to arrive and the last to leave the battle.

The Battle of Antietam:

The very same Col. Willis Gorman who delivered the report at Bull Run was promoted to Brigadier General by the time the Battle of Antietam broke out in 1862. After this battle, Brig. Gen. Gorman delivered a very similar report to his superiors which, again, makes note of the heroics of the 1st Minnesota Infantry. According to his report, he and the men of the fifteenth Massachusetts along with the 1st Minnesota led by a Col. Sully were toe-to-toe with the Confederate forces [2][4]. When the Confederate troops made an unseen and sudden attempt to flank Gorman, the 1st Minnesota turned to hold the line. Brig. Gen. Gorman reports the following:

“After moving a short distance farther, his forces were perceived moving to our right, when the First Minnesota faced toward him and delivered another fire, which again checked his movement. The position of the First Minnesota was more favorable, owing to the formation of the ground. The coolness and desperation with which the brigade fought could not be surpassed, and perhaps never was on this continent. The First Minnesota Regiment fired with so much coolness and accuracy that they brought down three several times one of the enemy’s flags, and finally cut the flag-staff in two.”[2].

The men of the 1st Minnesota were making a name for themselves. These men had already proven themselves at Bull Run in the previous year, and continued to fight with unmatched vigor. After the Battle of Antietam, their bravery had been proven by their performance in the bloodiest day of American history.

Memorial to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. [Source: en.wikipedia.org]
The Battle of Gettysburg:

The greatest story of the 1st Minnesota is during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is possible that, without the 1st Minnesota’s bravery, sacrifice, and quick action, the Union would have lost the entire Battle of Gettysburg.

On July 2nd, 1862, the Union army was on the retreat from an attack by the Confederate leader Longstreet. The 1st Minnesota, being the only available organized troops at the time were ordered by Union General Hancock to turn and attack the pursuing Confederate army. Upon receiving the order to “Take those Colors!” (the Confederate flags) by General Hancock, all 262 men of the 1st Minnesota charged into the much larger Confederate brigade. This bold action bought the remaining Union Army enough time to gather and muster themselves into a defensible position. Of the 262 men who charged to meet the enemy, only 47 were left in condition enough to fight again (KIA or wounded). The casualty rate of the 1st Minnesota at the Battle of Gettysburg serves as the highest of any American fighting force in history, at 82% [7].

A memorial to the 1st Minnesota stands on the battlegrounds in Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The memorial features a description of this horrific scene.

“On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles Third Corps having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg road eight companies of the First Minnesota regiment numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery. Upon Sickles’ repulse as his men were passing here in confused retreat two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves and save this position General Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy. The order was instantly repeated by Col. Wm. Colville and the charge instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrate fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground. There the remnant of the eight companies nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time and till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved the position and probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed and wounded, more than 85 percent. 47 men were still in line and no missing. In self-sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett’s charge losing 17 more men killed and wounded.”[7]

After executing such a crippling and sacrificial order, the men of the 1st Minnesota were needed in battle the following day, and reinforced the Union lines during the infamous Pickett’s Charge. After the charge was repelled, the 1st Minnesota recovered the battle flag of the 28th Virginia regiment, and brought it all the way back to Minnesota as spoils of war, where the flag remains with the Minnesota Historical Society [5].

Conclusion:

The Civil War is an ugly, bloody scar in American History. There has never been a more deadly or horrific period for American soldiers. The war was fought by brave men in both the Union and Confederate armies. These men were brothers, fathers, and sons. While other wars and periods in American history are often romanticized, it is important to understand the severity and sacrificial nature of the Civil War above all other wars. We always learn about the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in grade school, but our nation’s recollection of the war on a personal level is unfortunately lacking. The story of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment is one to strike the hearts of anyone who reads it. While the 1st Minnesota provide an outlying example, it is important to recognize that all of the engagements of the Civil War can be described with a similar terror that the 1st Minnesota saw. Civil War battles took place in a period where warfare technology was becoming more sophisticated and deadly, but tactics and strategy were mostly unchanged from wars prior. Opposing forces would often line up to face each other in the field, which was an extremely dangerous and deadly tactic when paired with Civil War-Era armament. Remember the bravery of our ancestors, be thankful for their sacrifice, and pray that we won’t live to see the violence that they witnessed on American soil.

 

Primary Sources:

[1] Gorman, Willis A. “Report of Col. Willis A. Gorman, First Minnesota Infantry.” Camp Minnesota, 26 July 1861, Camp Minnesota. https://bullrunnings.wordpress.com/2008/09/25/44a-col-willis-a-gorman/

[2] Gorman, Willis A. “Report of Brig. Gen. Willis A. Gorman, U.S. Army, Commanding First Brigade, of the Battle of Antietam.” Received by Captain Whittelsey, Assistant Adjutant-General, Battlefield Near Sharpsburg, 20 Sept. 1862, Battlefield Near Sharpsburg. http://www.civilwarhome.com/gormanantietam.html

[3] Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars 1861-1865. Board of Commissioners, 1889, archive.org/stream/minnesotacivil01minnrich?ref=ol#page/n7/mode/2up.

Secondary Sources:

[5] Moe, Richard (1993). The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 63.

[6] “A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion” by Frederick H. Dyer (Part 3) (http://www.civilwararchive.com/Unreghst/unmninf1.htm)

[7] Hawks, Steve A. “1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.” The Civil War in the East, 2017, civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/minnesota/1st-minnesota-infantry-regiment/.

For more Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_Minnesota_Volunteer_Infantry

http://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/union-monuments/minnesota/1st-minnesota/