The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first in the nation to answer President Abraham Lincoln's call for troops in 1861, and they courageously served with great distinction. The 262 men of the First Minnesota played a heroic but tragic role at the Battle of Gettysburg. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James McPherson wrote, "The 20th Maine and the 1st Minnesota achieved lasting fame by throwing back Confederate attacks that came dangerously close to breakthroughs. . . . The Minnesotans did the job, but only 47 of them came back."
The day was July 2, 1863. More than 160,000 Union (North against slavery) and Confederate (South favoring slavery) soldiers converged at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Confederate forces had achieved a series of victories and may have advanced to Washington, D.C., if they won this battle.
The men of the First Minnesota were positioned near Union artillery batteries on Cemetery Ridge. "We began to hear musketry which soon became one continuous roar. . . . Then shells fell uncomfortably near us," wrote Sergeant Alfred Carpenter in a letter on file with the Minnesota Historical Society. Then disaster struck.
Confederate Rebels infiltrated the Union line. "The Rebs came in two splendid lines, firing as they advanced, capturing one of our batteries, which they turned against us, and gained the cover of the ravine," Carpenter wrote. "The plain was strewed with dead and dying men."
Union general Winfield Scott Hancock desperately ordered the 262 men of the First Minnesota to charge the 1,600 advancing Alabama Rebels. Carpenter recalled, "We advanced down the slope. . . . Comrade after comrade dropped from the ranks; but the line went. No one took a second look at his fallen companion. We had no time to weep."
The next day, 15,000 Confederates charged Cemetery Ridge--the legendary Pickett's Charge--but were repelled by a devastating artillery barrage. Because the Minnesotans had saved the artillery the day before, the Rebels were repelled--but at a great sacrifice. 82 percent of the First Minnesota men were killed or wounded at Gettysburg--the highest casualty rate of the war.
On July 4, Lieutenant William Lochren wrote a letter to his hometown Winona Republican newspaper. "We are in the midst of a terrible battle," he wrote. "Two thirds of the regiment are killed or wounded. We got the better of the enemy in the fight, and our regiment captured one stand of colors."
The Union and Confederacy suffered 45,000 casualties at Gettysburg. Over 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln honored the great sacrifices made and gave meaning to the war in his Gettysburg Address:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. . . . From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . ."
And so we did. Some historians call the Civil War "the Second American Revolution." Following the Union victory, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified, transforming the Constitution and America.
The importance that Minnesotans attributed to the Civil War can be seen in the numerous great paintings of the Civil War at the Minnesota State Capitol, including Rufus F. Zogbaum's Battle of Gettysburg. The Civil War deeply shaped the new state of Minnesota, and the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment played a pivotal role.
~Todd Carlsen, Eden Prairie, MN