The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment mustered for a three-year term (1861-1864) in the Union Army at the outset of the American Civil War when the prevailing enlistment period was three months. During offensive movements, it sustained high percentages of casualties at the Battles of First Bull Run (20%) and Antietam (28%) and a catastrophic 82% at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is most noted for its service on the second day at Gettysburg.
At a pivotal moment in the 1863 struggle at Gettysburg, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of II Corps, ordered the First Minnesota to charge into a situation where it would be outnumbered by at least 5 to 1. The general's purpose was to buy minutes of delay with human lives, and one survivor spoke afterward that he expected the advance to result in "death or wounds to [every single one of the attackers]." The regiment fully and instantly obeyed the order, suffering at least 82% casualties among those making the attack; this action contributed significantly to the preservation of a key Union defensive position on the heights of Cemetery Ridge.
When given the opportunity to speak about the regiment after the war, both General Hancock and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge were unrestrained in their praise. Hancock placed its heroism highest in the known annals of war and ascribed unsurpassed gallantry to the famed attack. Emphasizing the critical nature of the circumstances on July 2 at Gettysburg, President Coolidge considered, "Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country."
On April 14, 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, visiting Washington shortly after the bombing of Fort Sumter, tendered the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry to the Federal government under Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops. It was organized at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on April 29 and remustered for three years service on May 10.
On July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia, the regiment fought in the first major battle of the Civil War: the First Battle of Bull Run. While straddling Rickett's Battery in support, it saw heavy fighting on Henry House Hill in close proximity to the enemy. The 1st Minnesota was one of the last regiments to leave the battlefield and suffered among the highest casualties of any northern regiment: 49 killed, 107 wounded and 34 missing.
During the 1st Minnesota Infantry's initiation to combat, its honorable conduct was readily distinguishable from that of the other regiments in its brigade:
"The First Minnesota Regiment moved from its position on the left of the field to the support of Ricketts' battery, and gallantly engaged the enemy at that point. It was so near the enemy's lines that friends and foes were for a time confounded. The regiment behaved exceedingly well, and finally retired from the field in good order. The other two regiments of the brigade retired in confusion, and no efforts of myself or staff were successful in rallying them. I respectfully refer you to Colonel Gorman's report for the account of his regiment's behavior and of the good conduct of his officers and men."
During General John Sedgwick's ill-fated assault on the West Woods, the regiment suffered significant casualties (1 officer killed, 3 officers wounded, 15 enlisted killed, 79 enlisted wounded, 24 enlisted missing, for at total of 122 [28%] of 435 engaged) as Union forces were routed on that part of the field. The brigade commander noted, "The First Minnesota Regiment fired with so much coolness and accuracy that they brought down [three times one] of the enemy's flags, and finally cut the flag-staff in two."
The men of the 1st Minnesota are most remembered for their actions on July 2, 1863, during the second day's fighting at Gettysburg, where the regiment prevented the Confederates from pushing the Federals off of Cemetery Ridge, a position that was to prove crucial in the battle.
Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of II Corps, ordered the regiment to assault a much larger enemy force (a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox), telling Col. William Colvill to take the enemy's colors. The fateful charge bought the time needed for other forces to be brought up. During the charge, 215 members of the 262 men who were present at the time became casualties in five minutes, including the regimental commander, Col. William Colvill, and all but three of his captains.
The unit's flag fell five times and was raised again each time. The 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock under the senior surviving officer, Captain Nathan S. Messick. The 82% casualty rate stands to this day as the largest loss by any surviving military unit in U.S. history during a single day's engagement, allegedly equaled only by the 82% casualties suffered by the 33rd Alabama Infantry during the Battle of Perryville (though that second figure is questioned by some historians). The unit's flag is now in the Minnesota Capitol's rotunda.
The more majestic of two monuments to the 1st Minnesota at the Gettysburg National Military Park bears the following inscription:
In his official report, Confederate Brigadier General Cadmus M. Wilcox perceived the inequality of the fight differently (bold emphasis likely refers to the First Minnesota):
"This stronghold of the enemy [i.e., Cemetery Ridge], together with his batteries, were almost won, when still another line of infantry descended the slope in our front at a double-quick
, to the support of their fleeing comrades and for the defense of the batteries.
Seeing this contest so unequal, I dispatched my adjutant-general to the division commander, to ask that support be sent to my men, but no support came. Three several times did this last of the enemy's lines attempt to drive my men back, and were as often repulsed.
This struggle at the foot of the hill on which were the enemy's batteries, though so unequal, was continued for some thirty minutes. With a second supporting line, the heights could have been carried. Without support on either my right or left, my men were withdrawn, to prevent their entire destruction or capture. The enemy did not pursue, but my men retired under a heavy artillery fire, and returned to their original position in line, and bivouacked for the night, pickets being left on the pike."
Rebounding from the horrendous casualties of the previous day, the survivors were reinforced by detached Company F, and the reunited regiment was moved slightly northward on Cemetery Ridge. Destiny placed the remaining Minnesotans at one of the few places where Union lines were breached during Pickett's Charge and required them to charge advancing Confederate troops once again. It is here that Capt. Messick was killed and Capt. W. B. Farrell mortally wounded, and then command fell to Capt. Henry C. Coates.
During the desperate and chaotic fighting, Private Marshall Sherman of Company C captured the colors of the 28th Virginia Infantry and received the Medal of Honor for this exploit. The Confederate flag was taken back to Minnesota as a prize of war and is kept but not publicly displayed at the Minnesota Historical Society. In the mid-1990s, several groups of Virginians threatened to sue the Society to return the 28th Virginia's battle flag to the Old Dominion. The Minnesota Attorney General advised that such threats were without a legal basis, and the flag remains in the possession of the Society.
After being knocked out by a bullet to the head and later shot in the hand, Corporal Henry O'Brien repeatedly picked up the fallen colors of the 1st Minnesota and carried a wounded comrade back to the Union lines. He was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
The 1st Minnesota continued to serve in the Army of the Potomac, participating later in 1863 in the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. It was mustered out of service upon completion of its enlistment on April 29, 1864, at Fort Snelling. Enough of the regiment's veterans reenlisted to form the nucleus of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Battalion, which returned to Virginia and served through the end of the war. Other veterans provided officers for the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.
The 1st Minnesota Infantry suffered the loss of 10 officers and 177 enlisted men killed in action or who later died of their wounds, plus another 2 officers and 97 enlisted men who died of disease, for a total of 286 fatalities. and 609 wounded.
The 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division (Minnesota Army National Guard) traces its roots back to the historic 1st Minnesota Volunteers.