One hundred and fifty years ago today, the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment performed a military action about which President Calvin Coolidge would later say, “In all the history of warfare this charge has few if any equals and no superiors. It was an exhibition of the most exalted heroism against an apparently insuperable antagonist.”
When they formed in 1861, the First Minnesota boasted 1,000 men — indeed, Minnesota had the highest percentage of volunteers of any state in the Union, with over half of the state’s eligible men enlisting. After six weeks of training, they loaded onto a barge, and then trains, to take them to war. They changed trains in Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune wrote,
But by 1863, their number had dwindled to 262.
“There are few regiments we have ever seen that can compare to the brawn and muscle with these Minnesotians, used to the axe, the rifle, the oar and the setting pole. They are unquestionably the finest body of troops that has yet to appear in our streets.”
On July 2, 1863, General Winfield Scott Hancock of the Union Army needed a mere five minutes to bolster his troops against the oncoming Confederate forces at Gettysburg. To buy himself time, he ordered the First Minnesota to charge 1,600 Alabaman soldiers. William Lochren, a soldier in the First Minnesota, later wrote,
“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes time and save the position, and probably the battlefield — and every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.”
The Confederate soldiers scattered, their attempt to break the Union forces in two failed, and the Battle of Gettysburg was subsequently won by the North.
According to reports, only 47 of the Minnesotans were left standing at the end of the charge. Of them, President Coolidge said that the Minnesotans “rank as saviors of their country.”