We missed our opportunity yesterday to pay tribute to the heroes of Gettysburg Day 2, the decisive day of the battle. Among the heroes who saved the Union on July 2, 1863 were the 282 men of the First Minnesota Volunteers. Their story cannot be told often enough, and Mackubin Thomas Owens made it the centerpiece of his terrific 2003 “Reflections on Memorial Day.”
As John has previously observed here:
The pivot of American history turns on the second day at Gettysburg, and, while thousands of men fought gallantly on both sides that day, there were two points where the fate of the world, really, hung in the balance. The first was at Little Round Top, where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine held off Confederate attacks throughout the day. The second came late in the afternoon, when the Confederates attacked the center of the Union line, which had been stripped almost bare as Union generals sent more and more troops to defend the southern part of the line. It was in the center that the First Minnesota made its famous suicide charge, attacking onrushing Confederates who outnumbered the Minnesotans fifteen to one in a desperate effort to gain time to reinforce the Union line. The regiment suffered a casualty rate exceeding 80 percent, but succeeded beyond General Hancock’s expectations, as they not only purchased with their lives the critical minutes needed to reinforce the Union line, but stopped the Confederate advance in its tracks. No unit of the United States Army has ever exceeded the First Minnesota for gallantry and courage.
As John noted, Chamberlain’s moment also came at Gettysburg on July 2. John summarized Chamberlain’s heroics and those of the Maine volunteers under his command:
An excellent scholar, Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin when the war broke out. Considered a little old for military service, he took a “sabbatical” from Bowdoin and enlisted. His most famous moment came, of course, at Gettysburg, where he and his Maine volunteers held Little Round Top against heavy odds. At the height of the battle, with Chamberlain wounded and his men running out of ammunition, Chamberlain–who had been ordered to hold the position, which anchored the Union line, at all costs–responded not by withdrawing but by ordering a bayonet charge that broke the Confederate attack. By the end of the war he was a Major General (brevet). Chamberlain was widely regarded as the toughest man in the Union Army. He was wounded six times, and left for dead on the battlefield at least once. Grant chose him to lead the Army of the Potomac in the Grand Review of the Union Armies in Washington at the close of the war. After the war, Chamberlain was elected Governor of Maine four times. His Civil War wounds finally killed him, but not until 1914.
As word reached Washington that Vicksburg as well as Gettysburg had ended with a Union victory, many sensed that a turning point had been passed. Lincoln spoke to the crowd that gathered outside the White House on the evening of July 7. (See the text of Lincoln’s July 7 remarks here; see Professor Donald Miller’s comments here). He warmed to a theme he would not develop fully until the following November. “How long ago is it?” he asked. “Eighty odd years, since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'”
The war, he noted, was a “gigantic rebellion…precisely at the bottom of which [was] an effort to subvert that principle.” Now the rebels had suffered two staggering defeats on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “Gentlemen,” he added, “this is a glorious theme, and a glorious occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the theme and worthy of the occasion.” Lincoln concluded:
Recent events bring up certain names, gallantly prominent, but I do not want to particularly name them at the expense of others, who are as justly entitled to our gratitude as they. I therefore do not upon this occasion name a single man. And now I have said about as much as I ought to say in this impromptu manner, and if you please, I’ll take the music.
UPDATE: Reader Andrew Wharton directs us to Bill Whittle’s retelling of Little Round Top in the essay “History” at Eject! Eject! Eject! Whittle’s post tells the story in the context of our current war. Wharton notes that Whittle’s essay is from his book Silent America: Essays from a Democracy at War.
UPDATE 2: Reader Stephen Terry points out that the Washington Times remembered the significance of July 2 yesterday with a terrific column on the First Minnesota by Francis P. Sempa, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvia: “15 minutes of fury on Cemetery Ridge.” So many fine books on Gettysburg and the Civil War have been written that it’s difficult to single one out, but the best on the First Minnesota Volunteers is without question Richard Moe’s 1994 book Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers, back in print thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society.
JOHN adds: The Sempa piece is excellent, but it contains one error: Colonel Colville was wounded in the charge, but survived and later wrote an account of the battle. The FIrst Minnesota’s history would have been glorious even without Gettysburg; the regiment is said to have been the first to volunteer after Lincoln issued his request for troops following, as I recall, Fort Sumter. This is why the First Minnesota fought in the east, with the Army of the Potomac; they enlisted before the system of assigning western soldiers to the western armies was in place. The First Minnesota fought valiantly in many of the major battles of the eastern theater. Still, when the survivors gathered for their reunions after the war, they were always proudest of the fact that, when ordered down the ridge by General Hancock, not a single man of the regiment hesitated to join what they all could see was a suicide charge.