This action has been largely overlooked in most accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg. It is certainly drowned out by the ubiquitous accounts of the 20th Maine and Picketts Charge. As I recall, the charge of the already depleted 1st Minnesota against General Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade of five full regiments is not addressed in any of the Hollywood movies about Gettysburg.
The following account is from an opinion piece published today in the MinnPost. The opinion is not what’s important. The account of the engagement is.
“In the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, little more than five years after Minnesota had become a state, the Union had a major hole in its line on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. The second day of fighting had been brutal, with the Confederacy looking to end the war once and for all by overrunning the Union line. As the Union troops were trying desperately to hold the hill, a major hole opened up and nearly 1,200 Confederate troops marched forward. The only unit that could stop them was the grossly outnumbered 1st Minnesota. They had 262 men.”
“They never hesitated. The 1st Minnesota charged into the fray. The chaos and insanity that unfolded in the next few minutes is hard to comprehend. Within five minutes, 215 of the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota fell. When the soldier carrying the Minnesota colors was killed, another dropped their weapon and grabbed the flag. Five times that happened IN FIVE MINUTES. Minnesota’s brave, courageous and desperate sacrifice held until reinforcements arrived. The 82% casualty rate still stands as the U.S. Army’s largest loss of life of any unit which still stood at the end of the battle. Minnesota’s colors never were captured, and are on display at the Capitol in the rotunda. Most important, the Union line held for the day.”
A more detailed account of the action is in this animated battlefield video.
But this wasn’t the end of the 1st Minnesota’s action at Gettysburg. The remnants of the regiment were placed at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, a relatively safe place it was reasoned. It ended up being the thick of the action the next day when Pickett’s Charge breached the line at this exact point. The 1st Minnesota again fought fiercely. Private Marshall Sherman captured the regimental colors of the 28th Virginia Infantry, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his action. That flag sits in St. Paul to this day, property of the Minnesota Historical Society. Virginia has demanded its return repeatedly since them. In 2000 Governor Jesse Ventura replied, “Absolutely not. Why? We won.” In 2013 Governor Mark Dayton denied that request, saying that returning the battle flag would be “sacrilege” to Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. “It was something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it,” Dayton said. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a closed subject.” Even Governor Tim Pawlenty said, “It’s rightfully ours and we’re not giving it back.” Virginia is still trying to get that flag back. What’s that old saying about wishing in one hand?
So Minnesota politicians have come to agree with the Southern Democratic view that laws passed by the federal government don’t have to be obeyed?
I did a little reading on Virginia’s legal argument. It’s debatable at best. The 1905 Congressional resolution only referred to those Confederate battle flags that were in possession of the War Department at that time.
“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in conference assembled, That the Secretary of War be, and he is hereby, authorized to deliver to the proper authorities of the respective States in which the regiments which bore these col- ors were organized certain Union and Confederate battle flags now in the custody of the War Department, for such final disposition as the aforesaid proper authorities may determine.”
The flag of the 28th was given to the 1st Minnesota by SecWar Stanton in February 1864 and it remained in Minnesota since then. So it wasn’t in the custody of the War Department in 1905. It’s an interesting story chronicled in a Minnesota History Magazine story.
I don’t really care. The descendants of these brave men no longer care so why should I? The history archive attached to the USAWC at Carlisle has a color of the 2nd Virginia on display.
So, why was that color of the 2nd Virginia (of the Stonewall Brigade) not returned in 1905?
Don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t under custody of the War Department in 1905. The congressional resolution only applied to those items under the War Department’s custody in 1905. The USAWC should know how it got there and when and if they own it or it is on loan from some private or state institution.
Thats all nice and stuff but wasn’t the rationale of the two governors you quoted. I believe the 1905 reasoning was that to get some Southern participation in federal military actions some reconciliation was the order of the day. Now our politicians are in the history erasure business.
The 1st Minnesota Infantry was largely recruited from among the initial settlers of the state. These were mainly transplanted New Englanders unlike the masses of Germans and Scandinavians brought over after the war as sponsored immigrants
In re the 28th Virginia, “The regiment totaled 600 men in April, 1862, and reported 40 casualties at Williamsburg, and 47 at Seven Pines. It lost 12 killed and 52 wounded at Second Manassas, had 8 killed and 54 wounded during the Maryland Campaign, and, of the 333 engaged at Gettysburg, half were disabled. Many were captured at Sayler’s Creek, but 3 officers and 51 men survived to surrender on April 9, 1865.” wiki
Somewhat similar to the Battle of Chickamauga. Except there General Longstreet’s soldiers of ~12,000 men walked right through a huge hole in the Union line. The battle was over. Pure Luck.
Walked the grounds again a couple of weeks a go. Beautiful National Battlefield & Park. Spent a lot of time on Snodgrass Hill where the Rock of Chickamauga General Thomas did an admirable job rallying the Union troops to prevent a complete disaster and later a retreat to Chattanooga.
Most of the monuments there have the casualty rates as high as 45% I assume over the course of the whole battle. Several days accumulating in the Grand battle of September 20th, 1863.
Unfortunately, for about 800 Union troops they did not receive the withdrawal notice in the evening and were captured near Snodgrass Hill. Resulting in the common soldiers being transferred to the hellhole Andersonville Prison camp.
Our forefathers – or some of them anyway – and on both sides – had backbones of steel, hearts of oak, and humongous cojones.
Tru dat. I came to that realization while studying the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, especially when you see the kit those men carried. They were, indeed, hard sons of bitches. Fighting in the WBS called for even more courage since the weapons truly outpaced the tactics.
A good example was 2nd Corps ANV’s march from Carlisle, PA to Gettysburg when recalled by Lee for assembly of the army. They marched the distance with a one hour break in the middle, then went straight into action from the march and fought for three days. After the battle ended they marched straight back to Virginia.
I was in Savannah again, recently, with my 14-year-old daughter who likes ghost stories so we went to a ghost tour of the Sorrel Weed House during, of course, a nighttime lightning storm. Didn’t see any ghosts, but it was a fun and then the tour leader mentioned that Lee had been there many times for parties, right there in the parlor, and damn, for a long few moments, I felt like he was in the dang room, not as a ghost or anything, but as some sort of memory or vision floating in the humid air, as much in my mind as in the house itself. Gave me the damn chills, in a good way. I don’t like it when people say the War was inevitable. I don’t think that is true.