Thousands of visitors to Gettysburg this weekend will hear of the charge of the 1st Minnesota Infantry in the late afternoon of July 2, 1863. Tens of thousands of other visitors have heard the story and seen the three monuments to the regiment on the battlefield. Their guides will tell the story of how II Corps commander General Winfield Hancock, seeing a breach in his line, ordered the regiment to charge against a brigade of Alabama infantry under Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox. Outnumbered nearly 5:1, the gallant regiment plunged into the fray without hesitation, buying Hancock the time necessary for other units to reach the breach and shore up the line. In the process, the regiment suffered nearly 82% casualties, the highest rate suffered by any American unit in combat (yes, cavalry afficionados, higher than the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Little Big Horn).
It’s a great story and one that should be told. It was one of the bravest acts of the war. The regiment knew what would happen if it charged, and plunged in anyway. And it wasn’t the first time they’d been in certain peril. After adjacent units fled near Henry House at First Bull Run, they suffered nearly 20% casualties and were among the last units to leave the field. The previous fall at Antietam, they suffered 28% casualties in fighting near the West Woods under General Sedgwick.
What the guides probably won’t tell the visitors is that more of the men who enlisted in the 1st Minnesota in 1861 were also on the field for the battle. Following the battle of Antietam, 64 transferred to regular army regiments. They came from across the regiment, with only Companies B and D not losing any men. Company I had the most with 12, followed by Company A with 10 and several with 8 or 9. Seven of them had been wounded in previous battles, three at Bull Run, two at Savage Station and two at Antietam.
Just over half joined cavalry units, 30 to the 1st U.S. Cavalry, 14 to the 6th U.S. Cavalry and one to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. They fought the next day, on the Army of the Potomac’s left flank and at Fairfield. The others transferred primarily to artillery batteries, and a handful to engineer companies.
Several of them had already been killed in fighting at Beverly Ford and Upperville. Two more, former corporals James E. Seely and Lucius F. Walden of Company A, were killed in battle within the week. One died while a prisoner of war at Belle Isle and another at Andersonville. And these men definitely understood duty. Of those who didn’t die in battle, only three didn’t finish their enlistment, and one of those was discharged for disability. Only two deserted, a very low percentage for the time. Three even re-enlisted to see the war to its finish.
Here’s to the rest of the 1st Minnesota Infantry soldiers who served at Gettysburg.