Walking the steps of the 1st Minnesota

Official delegation commemorates regiment’s famous charge on the battlefield 150 years later—

Sun Newspapers’ news editor Jonathan Young is in Gettysburg this week, as the nation honors the 150th anniversary of the famous Civil War battle. He is traveling with Minnesota’s Civil War Commemorative Task Force, covering the events for ECM Publishers.

Minnesota Adjutant Gen. Richard Nash, left, shakes hands with Alabama Adjutant General Perry Smith at the approximate point on the battlefield where the 1st Minnesota regiment clashed with a much larger force of Alabama men July 2, 1863, during the 1st Minnesota’s charge. Photo by Jonathan Young

Minnesota Adjutant Gen. Richard Nash, left, shakes hands with Alabama Adjutant General Perry Smith at the approximate point on the battlefield where the 1st Minnesota regiment clashed with a much larger force of Alabama men July 2, 1863, during the 1st Minnesota’s charge. Photo by Jonathan Young

It was an open field they charged across, headlong into whistling balls of lead that cut men down as they ran. The soldiers of the 1st Minnesota knew the bayonet charge they were making was suicide.

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who gave the order, knew it, too, but he needed five minutes to bring reinforcements to plug a critical hole in the Union line.

He bought the time with Minnesotans’ lives.

“Advance, Colonel, and take those colors,” Hancock ordered Col. William Colvill, Jr., of Red Wing, commander of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Although outnumbered more than five to one by the opposing Alabama regiments, Colvill and his men acted without hesitation.

According to tradition, 262 Minnesotans charged. After about 15 minutes fighting, only 47 soldiers returned to answer roll call. The rest were dead or wounded – an 82 percent casualty rate. But reinforcements had arrived, and the Union line was secure.

“No soldier, on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism,” Hancock later said of the 1st Minnesota.

Exactly 150 years after the charge, on the evening of July 2, 2013, a group of Minnesota soldiers, elected officials, history buffs and others stood at the top of the same slope as Colvill and his men. Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, Minnesota’s adjutant general, played Colvill’s part and shouted the order to charge.

Led by members of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry re-enactors, the group walked solemnly down the slope to the point where the Minnesota regiment met the
Alabama troops.

1st Minnesota re-enactors give three cheers, first for “the great state of Alabama” and second for the original 1st Minnesota and what its men did. The cheers followed a friendly exchange between the two states’ adjutant generals on the battlefield. Photo by Jonathan Young

1st Minnesota re-enactors give three cheers, first for “the great state of Alabama” and second for the original 1st Minnesota and what its men did. The cheers followed a friendly exchange between the two states’ adjutant generals on the battlefield. Photo by Jonathan Young

Once again, men from Alabama waited there, but this time the two sides met with open hands instead of fixed bayonets. Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, Alabama’s adjutant general, shook hands with Nash, and the two exchanged gifts.

There were no hard feelings – in fact, Smith praised what the Minnesotans had done.

“If it wasn’t for the 1st Minnesota … I’m sure we wouldn’t be standing here as citizens of the United States of America,” Smith said.

The symbolic walk took place within hours of the actual time of the charge and was one of the highlights of the trip for many in the official Minnesota delegation to Gettysburg, which was sent by the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force and the Minnesota Historical Society to mark the battle’s anniversary July 1-3.

For 1st Minnesota re-enactor David Biren of Elk River, the walk was the most important event of the week. He carried the colors for the regiment.

“That’s once in a lifetime,” he said.

First Sgt. Jefferson Spilman of Richfield, the re-enactor who led the charge, agreed it was a moving experience but said it hadn’t fully sunk in yet.

“We were on sacred ground for the 1st Minnesota,” he said. “It was very special. And I think it will settle in a little more in the days and weeks to come about what it all meant. … Certainly the danger factor wasn’t as high as it was for them, and we were thankful for that. But all the same, we were on the ground at the same time that many years later.”

Photo by Jonathan Young

Photo by Jonathan Young

State Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City, who co-chairs the task force with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, also donned his old re-enacting uniform and joined the 1st Minnesota.

“To be on, essentially, what is hallowed ground, which is an important site in Minnesota history, I think was meaningful,” he said.

Many historians agree the charge was an important site not only for Minnesota, but also for the nation.

John Cox of Columbia Heights, who spent a decade as a Gettysburg battlefield guide and recently wrote a book about the battle, told those gathered for the commemorative charge that the Minnesotans’ valor came at a critical point in the war.

“I firmly believe that the battle of Gettysburg was on the line, and so was this nation, if these men didn’t do their duty,” he said.

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