I hope you all are enjoying time with your family and friends this holiday season. Most importantly I hope you are all spending time at the movie theater on Christmas day, experiencing all of the cinematic blockbuster goodness that Hollywood has to offer.
Being from Minnesota, with the exception of our WNBA team, the Lynx, we could possibly be one of the sorriest sports cities in all of the “US of A” right now. The Vikings love to annually break our hearts. The Wild really like to inspire hope that they will bring us Lord Stanley’s Cup during this time of year. The Twins are just hopeless, and who in the hell cares about the Timberwolves?
But, there is one thing that we can hang our head’s upon and stick our chest our proudly about because we are the state that produced one of the most significant volunteer regiments for the Union in the American Civil War.
Football, baseball, war; all the same thing right?
Here, I present to you a research paper that I wrote when I was 17 year’s old. It is about the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and how their efforts during the Battle of Gettysburg was the most crucial moment in the Union’s conquest to win the war. I believe that the basis of this paper would make one of the greatest war films of all time.
The Heroic Efforts of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment at The Battle of Gettysburg:
The American Civil War weighs on the hearts and minds of many Americans. There have been differing opinions by historians from the North and South. A lot has been written about the American Civil War, which took place during the mid 1860s. The general public knows about great battles and courageous heroes such as Colonel Samuel L. Chamberlain, General Ulysses Grant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, and General Robert E. Lee. Hardly anyone has heard of Colonel William Colvill of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. One of the biggest contributions during the American Civil War took place at the Battle of Gettysburg where the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry charged a broken line for about ten minutes, which prevented the Confederate army from breaking through the center of the battlefield. It prevented a quick and decisive end to the battle and perhaps the war. First Minnesota’s contribution at the Battle of Gettysburg was the most courageous effort in the American Civil War. It has been overlooked by many historians. Other heroic aspects of the battle such as Little Round Top receive more notoriety on a national level.
When the American Civil War broke out at Fort Sumter in 1860, Minnesota was just three years old as a state. When President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops in 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey just so happened to be in Washington D.C. at the time (Folwell 4). Governor Ramsey was committed to get as many troops as he could from the state of Minnesota. The regiment was organized at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on April 29. The First Minnesota Infantry Regiment was one of the first units organized after President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops. The regiment was quickly filled with enthusiastic men from all parts of Minnesota and was one of the few regiments that received training by a qualified officer. By April 30th, 1861, there were nine hundred volunteers that had been mustered into training at Fort Snelling. By June, one hundred more men joined the training at Fort Snelling increasing the number of volunteers to one thousand (Watts 195).
Military training at Fort Snelling was underfunded but very rigorous. The training was lead by Colonel Willis Arnold Gorman, a veteran of the Mexican War, who gave First Minnesota the knowledge and training that they needed (Folwell 4). Being a new state at the time, the training was poorly funded. There was a lack of food, equipment, and uniforms. Despite a lack of resources, Colonel Willis A. Gorman proceeded on with an extremely tough training program to get the volunteers ready to fight in the war on time. Daily drills went on at the fort in company, battalion, and regimental formations. Most officers and raw recruits weren’t really familiar with the fundamentals of drilling and military maneuvers. On route to Washington, they stopped in Chicago for a parade. The next day the Chicago Tribune wrote: “There are few regiments we have ever seen that can compare in brawn and muscle with theses Minnesotans, used to the axe, rifle, the oar and the setting pole. They are unquestionably the finest body of troops that has yet appeared in our streets.” (Folwell 6) The mighty lumberjacks from the Minnesota were ready for battle.
Minnesota’s regiment was involved in many key battles from Bull Run to Gettysburg. They did not have to wait long for its initial taste of fighting. They fought at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, and suffered heavier casualties (147 killed and wounded) than any other Northern regiments engaged in battle. Antietam was a lost cause because First Minnesota played a part in stopping the Confederacy from getting to Washington, but General McClellan wasted the opportunity to chase after the Confederates to win the battle decisively (Moe 189). McClellan didn’t realize that he had the South outnumbered. Antietam became an unnecessary draw.
They played another big role in the battle of Fredricksburg. On May 3rd and 4th, 1863, they fought courageously with lots of heart and helped force the confederate army to “skedaddle” (Folwell 23). When General Howard commented that Minnesota’s troops held firm, General Alfred Sully replied, “The First Minnesota never runs” (Folwell 23).
The Union was unable to win a significant battle on the Eastern front, like Bull Run, Battle of Seven Days, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Antietam was considered only a hollow victory because the Union army stopped the Confederates from advancing to Washington D.C. but they did not pursue the Confederates when they had a chance to win decisively. The Union Army was later given the command to follow the Confederate Army, who marched north along the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains for protection. William Colvill, the First Minnesota Colonel, did not fully follow orders. As he was marching First Minnesota up the Monocacy River, they ran into some congestion that slowed the regiment down (Holcombe 349). He decided to let some of his men march around the river near Frederick, Maryland. The next day, the regiment experienced the embarrassment of having its Colonel arrested (Folwell 8). This decision produced strong feelings of resentment from the men who felt that their Colonel was dealt with unfairly. In the summer of 1863, the Union was in desperate need for a victory as the Confederacy was getting farther and farther into Union territory on route to Washington DC. For the Confederate army to get to Washington D.C., they had to go through Gettysburg where the Union Army was standing in the way. Luckily, General John Buford arrived at Gettysburg, days before the battle began to survey the land (Moe 258). Buford took command of the high ground because it would give the Union a huge advantage. Buford’s strategic concept of taking the high ground led the Union to victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (Moe 259).
Awakened at 3:00 a.m. on July 2, First Minnesota arrived on Cemetery Ridge at 5:45 a.m. and soon welcomed Colonel Colvill, who had just been released from his arrest and reinstated into the army. Sergeant James A. Wright wrote about how the regiment responded. When Colvill showed up, “He was received with a spontaneous outburst of cheering and clapping of hands,” said Wright (Leehan 34). This rallied the troops and gave them a morale boost.
First Minnesota was instructed that they had to sit out in reserve. Light cannon fire shot throughout the day, killing one soldier and wounding another. First Minnesota had to sit and watch in frustration seeing, the Union Army losing yet another battle due to poor leadership and unwise battle tactics. An example of poor leadership that day came from General Daniel Sickles (Moe 264). His lack of military training became evident when he concluded that he didn’t like the ground he had been ordered to defend. Sickle decided to do something about it. He ordered his troops to break ahead near Plum Run, which left a hole in the right side. Sickles had found the higher ground he was looking for, but in doing so, he had left both of his flanks hanging in the air, and it dangerously exposed a hole for the Confederate Army. Sitting there and watching in frustration was the First Minnesota regiment, awaiting their chance to do something about this erroneous decision. Sergeant John W. Plummer wrote about their frustration: “We all felt very bad, but resolved when our chance to do our best to retrieve the fortunes of the day, hardly expecting to come out of the conflict unharmed.” (Moe 266)
Most soldiers in the face of the near advance of such an overpowering Confederate force would have panicked and retreated. But First Minnesota had never yet deserted any post and had never retired without orders. At 7:00 pm, General Hancock, rode up his horse at full speed, calling out as he reached First Minnesota: “What regiment is this?” he shouted (Kunz 38). Colvill responded, “First Minnesota.” “Charge those lines,” commanded General Hancock (Kunz 38). The soldiers of First Minnesota realized in an instant what the order meant; they needed to stop Confederate General Wilcox’s advancing brigade. This sacrifice of First Minnesota’s regiment was to gain a few minutes of time and save the position and probably the battlefield. Every man accepted the necessity for sacrifice because they knew that without them, a clear road to Washington D.C. for the Confederate Army (Kunz 39).
Responding quickly to Colvill’s orders, the regiment quickly got into a perfect line. With muskets on their right shoulders a shift was in a moment sweeping down the slope directly upon the charging Confederate army. First Minnesota, moving at double time, not stopping to fire, although the enemy fired immediately, began to thin the ranks. “Charge,” shouted Colvill, and with leveled bayonets at a full run the Minnesota men rushed upon the rebel lines (Kunz 39). They charged up the ravine near Plum Run. Each of the soldiers attacked with their bayonets and then fired their muskets at a point blank range, creating a one-two punch impact (Leehan 63). They momentarily pushed back and confused Wilcox’s troops who outnumbered Minnesota by 4 to 1.
First Minnesota did their job and held that line for about ten minutes so reinforcements could come to close the line and provide support. Once reinforcements came from the 19th of Maine, the 111th of New York Regiments and other New York Regiments, Hancock eventually ordered the diminishing First Minnesota to fall back. Their efforts helped the Union Army maintain a solid position to prevent the Union from losing the battle on day two. Some soldiers thought that falling back was more frightening than the charge itself. Private John Plummer wrote, “We dreaded to go back for the danger of it… We fell back and it was then I had the first feeling of fear during the fight. I felt almost sure I would be hit and I saw many wounded going back.” (Leehan 74)
With twilight approaching rapidly, the second day of battle ended. Only 47 of the 262 men were left standing to answer the regimental roll call. Of those 262 men, 215 were dead or severely wounded (Kunz 39). It was the most severe loss suffered by a Union regiment during the American Civil War. Of all those men, none of them were reported missing. First Minnesota’s brave and gallant men were sacrificed to save the Union Army from devastation. They lost 82 percent of their men.
The third and final day of the battle awaited another ordeal for the Minnesota survivors: Pickett’s Charge. First Minnesota rejoined their brigade. They were placed on the front line of the Second Division, Second Corps, whose position later was to become the new objective of the Confederate General Lee. After two hours of continuous cannon fire, the guns suddenly stopped. Later, lines of gray uniforms emerged from the woods as 15,000 Confederate soldiers headed directly towards the Second Division’s position. First Minnesota, with only 47 men, rushed to join other regiments to stop “General Pickett’s Charge.” When the South was defeated, General Robert E. Lee began his retreat southward. First Minnesota’s participation on the third day resulted in seventeen more deaths in the regiment (Kunz 40).
The Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the American Civil War because it prevented the Confederacy from marching into Washington D.C. and win the war. It also gave the Union lots of confidence that they could win the war. Gettysburg was the first major defeat suffered by Lee. It repelled his second invasion of the North and inflicted serious casualties on the Army of Northern Virginia. From this point forward, Lee attempted no more strategic offensives.
Two men from Minnesota, Henry D. O’Brien, a corporal from St. Anthony Falls (Minneapolis) and Marshall Sherman, a private from St. Paul were awarded the Congressional Medal of honor, established in 1862, for bravery in action at Gettysburg (Kunz 40). O’Brien received the award for his cited gallantry in action on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg (Kunz 40). Sherman won the award for capturing the flag of the 58th Virginia Infantry, which was also on the last day of the battle (Kunz 40). The flag of the 58th Virginia Infantry lies in the Minnesota Historical Society to this very day.
For such a courageous effort to hold the line so that reinforcements could come along, First Minnesota receives little recognition on a national level. Little Round Top, a similar heroic effort, gets more attention than First Minnesota. Little Round Top, lead by Colonel Chamberlain, and First Minnesota, led by Colonel Colvill were extremely similar because they both had to hold their lines in order to prevent the Confederate army from winning the battle. But there were many key differences that set’s First Minnesota apart.
The two heroic parts of the battle were fought on different terrain. Little Round Top was fought on significantly high ground and behind trees and rocks for cover. Colonel Chamberlain, alongside nine regiments, was on top of a steep hill. The Confederates had a long climb to the top. Chamberlain had an advantage that eventually propelled him to victory, whereas, First Minnesota was at a disadvantage because they had to fight uphill in a ravine. They also had to fight out in the open, not behind any trees and rocks. Moreover, they were shot at from three different directions and still managed to stop the Confederate advance for those ten minutes. Thus, First Minnesota had to fight on more difficult terrain than the regiments on Little Round Top.
Little Round Top had a better ratio of troops versus the Confederates than First Minnesota did. Colonel Chamberlain and the regiments of Little Round Top had 2,996 soldiers versus 4,864 Confederate soldiers. On the other hand, First Minnesota had only 262 men versus an approximate 1,100 men or more. In essence, the regiments of Little Round Top were out numbered by 38 percent versus First Minnesota who outnumbered by over 4 to 1.
First Minnesota suffered a greater percentage of casualties than the regiments of Little Round Top. The regiments of Little Round Top suffered 565 casualties who were killed or wounded. This is a 19 percent loss. First Minnesota suffered a greater loss of 82 percent consisting of 215 casualties killed or wounded. Remarkably not a man from First Minnesota was missing. It was the most severe loss of a Union regiment during the American Civil War.
First Minnesota’s battle position served a greater strategic importance. The regiments of Little Round Top needed to defend the left flank of the Union Army, the bottom of the famous Fish Hook. The Confederate army of General Longstreet wanted to go around the left flank of the Union army. Had they been successful, they would have been able to eventually advance behind Union lines for an eventual and probable victory. First Minnesota had to defend a broken line created by General Sickle. Had the Confederate Army broken through that line the battle would have been lost immediately. It is very similar to football. If you can run the ball up the middle versus around the end, you will score more touchdowns. Battlefield tactics follow a similar principle.
General Hancock, who is credited for his keen strategic battle decisions at Gettysburg, recognized the exploits of both parts of the battle on July 2nd. But he stated the following about First Minnesota:
I had no alternative but to order the regiment in. We had no force on hand to meet the sudden emergency. Troops had been ordered up and were coming on the run, but I saw that in someway five minutes must be gained or we were lost. It was fortunate that I found there so grand body of men as the First Minnesota. I knew they must lose heavily and it caused me pain to give the order for them to advance, but I would have done it if I had known every man would have been killed. It was a sacrifice that must be made. The superb gallantry of those men saved our line from being broken. No soldiers, on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.
The American Civil War still weighs on the hearts and minds of many Americans across the country; especially in the South. It is agreed by most historians that the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the war. It is now clear that First Minnesota played the most heroic and significant part of the battle and consequently the war. Those ten minutes were critical. They fought uphill. They were outnumbered. They defended a broken line and sustained high casualties. One cannot dispute the accomplishments of Little Round Top, but First Minnesota’s achievement was clearly more difficult and significant. On July 2, 1897, a statue sculpted by Jacob Fjelde was dedicated and unveiled at Gettysburg in the exact spot where the charge began. Although the exact numbers may have been slightly embellished through the years due to inaccurate battle records, we still need to recognize this monumental feat by the brave men from Minnesota.
May their heroic sacrifice never be forgotten.
General Hancock, who is credited for his keen strategic battle decisions at Gettysburg, recognized the exploits of both parts of the battle on July 2nd. But he stated the following about First Minnesota:
Army of Northern Virginia battle flag. [between 1861 and 1863].
Minnesota Historical Society Museum Object 6421
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Anyway, if I were to change one thing about this research paper it would be the thesis:
“The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry would make a kick-ass Christmas movie that should open on Christmas day.”
Now that is an A+ thesis.
This is a story that should be made into a film. If our city can’t produce championships, we should produce a film about our most winning team; The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
Yes, and I do have that much pride as a Minnesotan that I am confident that this would make a historically significant film.
Happy Holiday’s and remember,
“The Zos Knows”.
The Cat of Cinema