An overview of the Civil War timeline of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, from 1861 leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg,
April 27, 1861 – Ten companies reported at Ft. Snelling. Opinions differ on where Minnesota stood in the slavery debate, and why the soldiers volunteered to take part in the conflict.
June 22, 1861 – The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry leaves for Washington D.C. arriving at midnight, June 26th.
July 21, 1861 – BATTLE OF BULL RUN
The 1st Minnesota fell in at 2:00 a.m. and started marching four hours later. The regiment was ordered to support Rickett’s Battery in an attack on Henry House Hill. Companies ‘A’ & ‘F’ led the attack, and were separated from the regiment to the right of the battery by the confusion in deploying the guns. Colonel Gorman ordered the men to hold fire on the attacking 33rd Virginia because he thought they were Yankees. Ricketts battery was lost and recaptured several times before finally falling to the rebels. In between the rebel attacks the regiment received grape and canister from a masked battery. Javan Irvine, a civilian attached to Co. A, captured the Lt. Col. of the 2nd Mississippi, the highest ranking Confederate taken that day. Sgt. John Merritt of Co. ‘K’ was awarded the Medal of Honor for taking brief possession of a rebel flag. After discovering that they were isolated, Lt. Col. Miller ordered the two companies to retreat. The regiment then covered the western flank of the Union retreat. The First Minnesota was one of the last regiments to leave the battlefield, and suffered the highest casualties of any northern regiment: 48 killed, 83 wounded, 23 wounded and missing, and 30 missing (the number of missing taken prisoner is uncertain – most returned to the unit).
October 21-22, 1861 – BATTLE OF BALL’S BLUFF (Goose Creek)
The First made a crossing and was lightly engaged at Edward’s Ferry, but was removed from the main fighting by several miles.
April 5-May 4, 1862 – SIEGE OF YORKTOWN
Uncomfortable in incessant rain without tents, the regiment did various duties, and was often called out on false alarms at night.
May 31-June 1, 1862 – BATTLE OF FAIR OAKS
Sent in as reinforcements, companies H, K, & D engaged the extreme left of the enemy while the remainder of the unit delivered an enfilading fire.
June 29, 1862 – BATTLE OF SAVAGE STATION
The First defended the Union left flank, almost as an independent unit, and didn’t leave the field until 10:00 p.m. George Burgess, Color Sergeant, is killed.
June 30, 1862 – BATTLE OF WHITE OAK SWAMP (GLENDALE)
The regiment crossed White Oak Swamp in early morning leaving the wounded behind, and marched to Brackett’s Ford, then to Glendale, where they fought until midnight. At Malvern Hill, the next day, the First was present but did not fight.
September 17, 1862 – BATTLE OF ANTIETAM
The regiment, only 435 men strong, was on the extreme right of the leading brigade (Gorman’s) as Sedgwick’s division charged through the West Woods. Bursting through the far side of the woods, the column was exposed to heavy fire from both flanks. While the First suffered less than regiments on their left, casualties in the action were: 15 killed, 79 wounded, and 21 missing. Unlike other regiments the First departed from the field in good military order, returning fire as they retreated. Color Sergeant Samuel Bloomer was left behind, wounded in the knee. He had saved away the First’s state colors in his shirt from the Confederates while they protected him from incoming shell bursts. He later returned with the colors and to have his leg amputated. The regiment remained camped on the stinking field, doing burial duty, until September 22nd, when they moved to Bolivar Heights overlooking Harper’s Ferry.
December 11-15, 1862 – BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG
December 11th the men marched to and captured the town of Fredericksburg, plundering the town through the night. The next day they did picket duty outside town. On the 13th, they were on the Union right and came under artillery fire, but were not sent against Marye’s Heights. On the evening of the 14th they took a forward picket post and dug in. All the next day they were under fire in this position, including an enfilading artillery fire that sent the three regiments on their right to the rear.
May 3-5, 1863 – BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE
The First was away from the main battle. On the 3rd, they crossed the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg, where they were shelled, and then returned to the north bank. The next two days the unit was split with part guarding the pontoon bridge near the Lacy House, part supporting a battery, and part digging entrenchments.
June 15-June 30, 1863 – Marched in bad dust and heat to Uniontown, P.A. On June 25th, they were attacked by J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry at Haymarket. On the 29th, Col. Colville was arrested for allowing the men to cross a river on logs. The march from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg had taken 14 days with travelling 11 of those, averaging over 14 miles a day. By the time they reached the small town they were exhausted.
July 2-3, 1863 – BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
We flash back the march from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg. 14 days with travelling 11 of those, averaging over 14 miles a day. By the time they reached the small town they were exhausted.
During the second day (July 2,1862), the Confederates had broken through Sickles’ position. With a failed attempt at rallying Sickles’ men, General Winfield S. Hancock had ordered the First that was held in reserve nearby to counterattack and fill the gap in the Union line until reinforcements could arrive. During the attack, three companies ‘C’, ‘F’, and 2nd Minnesota Sharpshooters Co. ‘L’, totaling some 73 men, had been detached.7 Out of the 262 men remaining that attacked to delay the rebs and restore the Union position, 215 were killed, wounded, or missing.
Earlier in the day, Col. Wm. Colville had been relieved of arrest and resumed command the regiment. Gen. W.S. Hancock whose order ìColonel, do you see those colors?î (pointing at the advancing Confederate forces) ìThen take them!î, later stated:
ìI 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 some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost. It was fortunate that I found there so grand a 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 (even) if I had known every man would be 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.
Bruce Catton wrote in Glory Road:
“The whole war had suddenly come to a focus in this smoky hollow, with a few score westerners trading their lives for the time the army needed. They had not captured the flag that Hancock had asked them to capture, but they still had their own flag and a great name”
Lt. Col. Joseph B. Mitchell in his Decisive Battles of the Civil War stated:
“There is no other unit in the history of warfare that ever made such as charge and then stood its ground sustaining such losses.”
The attacking Confederate forces consisted of Wilcox’s Brigade8, Anderson’s Division, A.P. Hill’s Corps. Wilcox had begun the days fighting with some 1,800 men in his unit although it is not known exactly how many were left at the time of the action with the First Minnesota. There are also indications that the 39th and 11th New York Regiments began the attack on the left of the First, while the 19th Mass. and 42nd New York were on the regiments right. In all these instances these supporting units fell back before completing the charge so that the First went in on its own. The First Minnesota has the distinction of sustaining the highest regimental losses in any battle, in proportion to the number engaged, in the Civil War.
On July 3rd the First found itself on the receiving end of Pickett’s charge. Co’s ‘C’ and ‘F’ had rejoined by this time and another 45 men became casualties. Thus by the end of the battle 64 men had been killed and 160 men wounded for a total of 224 casualties. By the end of July, Regimental strength stood at 175 men, but this included some of the slightly wounded who had returned to duty by this time. On top of such losses for the battle the First did manage to share in the glory of the Union Victory. Pvt. Marshall Sherman of Co. ‘C’ had captured the 28th Virginia’s colors and Cpl. Henry O’Brien spurred on the men with the colors and it’s shattered staff. Both would later receive the Medal of Honor for their feats.