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?