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“Every man did his whole duty”

Reading the story of any unit that served at Gettysburg brings home the meaning of Memorial Day, as well as the meaning of the words that Lincoln spoke four months later on the hallowed battlefield ground. In Minnesota, we remember the men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. When the war broke out in April 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey happened to be in Wahsington to meet with President Lincoln. Governor Ramsey was among the first (if not the first) to answer Lincoln’s call for volunteers to fight the rebellion, committing a regiment of 1,000 Minnesotans. The men of the First Minnesota fulfilled Governor Ramsey’s commitment.

They served in every battle of the Army of the Potomac, from Bull Run to Gettysburg. By the time they reached Gettysburg, their number had been reduced to some 300 men. At a crucial moment during the battle on July 2, 1863, General Hancock ordered what amounted to a suicide charge into Wilcox’s onrusing Alabama brigade that threatened to exploit a momentary breach in the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Staving off the collapse of the line for a few mintutes, they suffered enormous casualties. Yet they were not done.

On July 3 came Pickett’s charge on the Union line. The First Minnesota’s Company C had been held in reserve on July 2 and fortuitously met up with the First Minnesota’s survivors. Richard Moe writes in his history of the First Minnesota:

As the surviving rebels hit the Union line at the clump of trees they had been using for their aiming point — the spot would soon become known as the “high-water mark” of the rebellion — the First Minnesota and the other regiments in Harrow’s brigade received orders to leave their positions and charge headlong into the Confederate flank.

Describing the charge, Lieutenant William Lochren wrote:

Corp. Dehn, the last of our color guard, then carrying our tattered flag, was here shot through the hand, and the flagstaff cut in two. Corp. Henry D. O’Brien of Company E. instantly seized the flag by the remnant of the staff. Whether the command to charge was given by a general officer I do not know. My impression then was that it came as a spontaneous outburst from the men, and instantly the line precipitated itself upon the enemy. O’Brien, who then had the broken staff and tatters of our battle flag, with his characteristic bravery and impetuosity sprang with it to the front at the first sound of the word charge, and rushed right up to the enemy’s line, keeping it noticeably in advance of every other color. My feeling at the instant blamed his rashness in so risking its capture. But the effect was electrical. Every man of the First Minnesota sprang to protect its flag, and the rest rushed with them upon the enemy. The bayonet was used for a few minutes, and cobble stones, with which the ground was well covered, filled the air, being thrown by those in the rear over the heads of their comrades.

Moe reminds us that for his bravery in leading Minnesotans into the fray, O’Brien was awarded the Medal of Honor.

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At the end of the battle, the First Minnesota had sustained seventy percent casualties. Its colors, however, had survived the unbelievably grueling combat of July 2 and 3. Having survived, the colors emerged as a kind of sacred relic, now on permanent display in the rotunda of the state Capitol in St. Paul. Above is a photo of Sergeant William Irvine holding the regimental flag shortly after the battle.

Today’s Star Tribune briefly notes the story of the First Minnesota’s color sergeant, Ellet Perkins:

As Ellet Perkins lay dying in his Minneapolis home in 1903, he whispered a request to friends at his side.

“The flag,” he said.

Someone was sent to contact Gov. Samuel Van Sant, like Perkins a Civil War veteran. The governor himself brought from its place of honor at the Capitol the flag of the First Minnesota Volunteers, whose color sergeant Perkins had been at Gettysburg until he was wounded — carrying the regimental banner — on July 2, 1863.

Handed the colors again, Perkins kissed the tattered flag and held it as he died.

The after-action report of Captain Henry Coates is accessible online here. Subsequent research has slightly revised the casualty numbers reported by Captain Coates, though he perfectly captures the spirit of the First Minnesota:

Several acts of heroic daring occurred in this battle; I cannot now attempt to enumerate them. The bearing of Colonel Colvill and Lieutenant Colonel Adams in the fight of Thursday [July 2] was conspicuously gallant. Heroically urging on the attack they fell nearly at the same moment (their wounds completely disabling them), so far in the advance that some time elapsed before they were got off the field. Major Downie received two bullets through the arm before he turned over the command to Captain Messick. Color Sergt. E. P. Perkins, and two of the color guard successively bearing the flag, were wounded in Thursday’s fight. On Friday Corporal Dehn, of Company A (the last of the color guard), when close upon the enemy, was shot through the hand, and the flag staff cut in two; Corp. Henry D. O’Brien, of Company E, instantly seized the flag by the remnant of the staff and waving it over his head rushed right up to the muzzles of the enemy’s muskets. Nearly at the moment of victory he too was wounded in the hand, but the flag was instantly grasped by Corp. W. N. Irvine, of Company D, who still carries its tattered remnants. Company L, Captain Berger, supported Kirby’s battery throughout the battle, and did very effective service. Every man in the regiment did his whole duty.

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