Last full measure

On this day 150 years ago, the Army of the Potomac prevailed over General Lee’s Confederate forces in the third and final day of battle at Gettysburg. With Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on the same following day, the tide of the war turned decisively in favor of the Union. Geoffrey Norman retells the story of Gettysburg in the Weekly Standard article “A great battlefield.” Over at NRO our friend Mac Owens retells the story in “The great battle of Gettysburg.” In the Weekly Standard Mac also recalls “Grant at Vicksburg.”

The men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment served with great heroism at Gettysburg. They saved the day in a crucial few minutes on the second day of the battle, 150 years ago yesterday. The memory of their heroism survives among ordinary Minnesotans such as Wayne Jorgenson, an amateur historian whose new book about the First Minnesota has been published under the title Every Man Did His Duty.

We have written several times about the First Minnesota, one of the Union’s most renowned Civil War units. Their story cannot be told too often. A small town newspaper, the Mankato Free Press, quoted Jorgenson:

“There was a mystique to the Minnesota men — the character they had compared to what I call the ‘city boys’ out east. The ones who came out here in the 1860s, they were farming, logging, surviving, shooting guns. All these pioneering traits made them stronger and better soldiers.”

Jorgenson said the 1st quickly attracted attention from the generals, who often dealt with high rates of desertion and panic during battle. The unit’s actions at Bull Run, which deteriorated into a haphazard retreat, particularly caught attention.

“It was how they carried themselves. At Bull Run they were one of the last ones pulled out of battle and they retreated orderly, not running off pell-mell. That impressed the generals. They never once lost their flag and they never broke and ran.”

That reputation for toughness was put to bloody use at Gettysburg. The 1st Minnesota was being held in reserve to fill gaps if trouble arose. When Confederate soldiers threatened to take Cemetery Ridge and break the Union line — perhaps turning the tide of the battle — some 260 1st Minnesota soldiers were sent into a force of 1,500 to 1,800 Confederates. The unit was decimated, but the time they bought allowed the Union to hold its lines.

That is an understated description of the most famous, and most important, suicide charge in the history of the United States Army. The men of the First Minnesota suffered an appalling 82 percent casualty rate in the charge, but they achieved their mission, stopping the Confederate attack on the center of the Union line in its tracks when the Battle of Gettysburg hung in the balance. Presdient Coolidge aptly observed: “Colonel Colvill [who commanded the regiment] and those eight companies of the 1st Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.”

Jorgenson tells the story of William Wikoff, a Mankato resident who enlisted in the First Minnesota:

Prior to the battle of Bull Run, a gravely ill Wikoff insisted on joining the fight. The battle went poorly for the North, leading the Federals into a chaotic retreat toward Washington.

William Wikoff

Wikoff, who suffered an unspecified injury in battle, didn’t arrive back in Washington for three days and was listed among those killed.

In a letter to a friend back home, Wikoff noted his obituary had been printed in the Mankato Independent: “Fortunate man what can read his own obituary.”

After being hospitalized following Bull Run, Wikoff was offered a medical discharge but refused. Prior to a battle at Winchester, Wikoff wrote: “If it should be my lot to die on the battlefield, it will be a consolation to my friends to know that I died serving my country in the darkest hour of history.”

While Wikoff survived that battle and others, he and the 1st were soon to take part in their bloodiest action — one that would enshrine them in Civil War history.

The 1st had suffered high casualties at the battles of First Bull Run (20 percent) and Antietam (28 percent). But it was at the Battle of Gettysburg where the 1st suffered a catastrophic 82 percent casualty rate.

The men of the 1st 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 be crucial in the battle.

In an attempt to gain time to hold the position, the 1st was ordered to charge into a situation that had them outmanned by at least 5 to 1.

In the assault 215 of the 1st were killed or wounded while 47 men survived and continued to fight — none turned in flight and the unit’s flag was not lost to the enemy.

During the July 2 charge, Wikoff was was on the regiment’s far left flank. During the ensuing fight, Wikoff was shot through the heart and died instantly.

On display this month at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul is a remnant of the regimental flag carried by the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Only a small fragment remains – a testament, as the MHS observes, to the intensity of the fighting, the casualties the regiment suffered in the battle, and its importance to the veterans of the regiment, who cut off pieces as souvenirs. It is our own version of a sacred relic.

PLEASE NOTE: This post is adapted from one John wrote this past December commenting on he Department of Education’s adoption of new K-12 educational standards for social studies.

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