Skip to comments.The Suicide Charge of the First Minnesota, Gettysburg, Day 2, July 2nd, 1863
Posted on 07/01/2013 6:06:30 AM PDT by Rich P
The Suicide Charge of the First Minnesota, Gettysburg, Day 2, July 2nd, 1863
For historians, Gettysburg is one of the most fascinating of all battles. Though the participants did not know it at the time, it was a watershed event, three days that would echo throughout the rest of the war. Though it would go on for another two long years, the outcome of this battle laid the eventual groundwork for what some believe was its inevitable conclusion, the end of independence for the south.
It was Lees last viable opportunity to bring the North to its knees. He came within a hair's-breadth of succeeding at Gettysburg, but failed. This happened because he did not properly use cavalry in its traditional role as a reconnaissance tool, which initially caused him to make decisions based on the assumption he was facing two union corps, instead of the entire union army. He also had recently lost Stonewall Jackson, one of his best Generals, which caused a resultant reorganization of the Army, which forced him to promote numerous people into untested positions of command. Most importantly, though Longstreets first assault on Day 2 was pure genius, which came very near to breaking the union lines all together, Lee was plainly out-generaled by his opponents leadership. Generals John Reynolds, Buford, Howard, Winfield Scott Hancock, as well as a host of other union Generals throughout the battle, made crucial decisions on each of the three days, decisions that compelled the south to cede their won ground, and retreat back across the border after the battle.
Nevertheless, in every battle, there are moments of courage and self-sacrifice, where the future of the battle, the war, and the country, hangs in the balance. Gettysburg had many of these moments, from the sacrifices of the Irish Brigade in the wheat field to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top. However, none better exemplifies the nobility of sacrifice within that proverbial context of fear, blood, and death, than the suicide charge of the First Minnesota, 289 men that charged into two entire Confederate brigades, ten times their strength. The First Minnesotas charge took the wind out of the sails of Longstreets assault, just when his attack was bearing fruit.
General Longstreet was the best General Lee had in the wake of General Stonewall Jacksons death at Chancellorsville. Longstreets Day 2 assault at Gettysburg was an amazing act of generalship. If anyone came close to defeating the union, it was Longstreet on Day 2.
Longstreet was later pilloried by his peers after the war for this assault, as the cult of Lee subsequently took hold, making any criticism of Lee off limits. This was also helped by the control of Virginia officers over the southern historical societies, which didnt take too kindly to non-Virginia-bred generals like Longstreet, who could claim South Carolina and Georgia as home. Coupled with his friendship with General and President Grant pre and post-war, and his decision to join the Souths very unpopular Republican Party after the war, Longstreet made a very easy scapegoat. The reader needs to keep these facts in mind when reading other source conclusions that are many times based on these tainted histories from Longstreets contemporaries.
Nevertheless, when studying this battle, its good to get a good lay of the land. After Day 1, the north had been pushed back up on a ridge, bordered by two primary hills, Little Round Top and Culp. Their lines were three miles long, forming a large fish hook, or lower-case letter (r). The straight line of that fishhook pointed north, which bordered the southern side of Gettysburgs city limits. On the north-east side of that hook was Culps hill. At the southern end of the long line of that fishhook were the hills, Little Round Top and Big Round top, with Big Round Top the more southern of the two Round Top hills. Big Round Top was unmanned. Little Round Top and Culps hill formed the extreme positions held by the north. The southerners held the ridge opposite this fishhook, forming their own inverted fishhook, as well.
The genius of Longstreets attack is his use of attack, en echelon, which is when you send in one group of men at a time, instead of an entire army. The idea is to cause the enemy to send reinforcements from regiments and brigades neighbouring that point of attack, causing enough panic during reinforcement to make a part of the enemy line too week to hold eventually.
At 4:30 PM on Day 2, he sent in Hoods division, his right most division, against the Big and Little Round Tops, while holding back the rest of his divisions. This act forced the overwhelmed union at that point of contact to pull in reinforcements from their right, bleeding strength from neighbouring regiments and brigades.
At 5:00 PM, he sent in McLaws division against Sickles corps in the Peach Orchard, with each of its two brigades to attack, en echelon. This also did the same at the point of impact, pulling in reinforcements from the unions right flank, bleeding more and more strength from its centre.
What Longstreet did not know when formulating his plan was the fortuitous arrival of one of the largest union corps just when his attack was beginning to take shape. That union corps began to funnel in reinforcements, as did a union corps that had been held in reserve, along with reinforcements being fed in by General Hancocks union division, which was in line to the right of the on-going battle.
But even with these reinforcements, the union position was tenuous at best, since a pre-battle manoeuvre by their General Sickles had made the union position perilous, due to his repositioning of his corps. Against orders, he had moved his corps one mile in front of the rest of the union line, disengaging it from any support to any other union unit. His reasoning was that he liked a rise in the ground, which he thought would be beneficial to his cannon. By the time Meade had discovered what Sickles had done, Longstreets attack struck, making it too late to pull Sickles back.
At 6:00 PM, Richard Andersons division of A.P. Hills Corps, which had been temporarily assigned to Longstreet for this assault, was sent into the attack, with five brigades. The southern brigades of Wilcox (Alabama) and Lang (Florida) made the last of Sickles line break, and run to the rear. There were no soldiers left to repel them, none that hadnt already been sent to the union left to stem the attacks. This is when the First Minnesota entered the lore of the battle, and eventually lead President Calvin Coolidge to later claim that what they did has few, if any equals and no superiors in the history of warfare, entitling the Minnesotans to rank as the saviours of their country.
General Hancock who had been charged with plugging the holes in the union left had sent all he had to that sector of the battle. He needed time to bring in reinforcements from other quiet areas of the line. If the two southern brigades breached the northern line, as it appeared they were about to, all they had to do was to roll up the union right. The battle, and war, would end that night, as Washington would have then been wide open to Lee.
As Allen C. Guelzo in Gettysburg, The Last Invasion puts it,
As he (Hancock) turned to look backward, he saw a large body of troops with flags coming out of the battle fog .he twisted around to look for troops to throw into the path of the Alabamians, he saw absolutely no one---except for one regiment ..My God! Are these all the men we have here? The Alabamians, supported on their left by David Langs three Florida regiments, were looming up clearly now, in what looked like three long lines. Hancock spurred to where the regiment lay, calling out, What regiment is this. First Minnesota, replied the regiments colonel, William Colvill. Hancock, pointing toward the Alabamians, wasted no time in instructing Colvill, Charge those lines!
Every man realized in an instant what that order meant, but Colvill, without the slightest protest, called the First Minnesota to its feet, rifles at right-shoulder-shift, and down into the swale they went, toward the meagre margins of Plum Run, Where Wilcox and Lang had paused for a moment to reorder their lines Of all the moments of self-immolation that the Army of the Potomac performed that afternoon .nothing quite hit the bell of the sublime as deeply as the charge of the First Minnesota. With no hesitation, no stopping to fire, Colvill led them in a fast trot, breaking into a full-scale run as he shouted, Charge!
They were briefly concealed by a thick bank of smoke which had settled into the ravine formed by Plum Run, so that the Alabamians had no warning of their approach until the Minnesotans burst on top of them .The front rank of the Alabamians took one look at the levelled bayonets coming with such momentum and evident desperation and promptly broke, stumbling and tripping over their rear rank. Colvill pulled the Minnesotans up at the line .and we then poured in our first fire. It was as though the ferocity of our onset seemed to paralyze them. Worse than paralyze, it convinced David Lang that a heavy force had advanced upon General Wilcoxs brigade, and was forcing it back. Lang at once concluded that they had walked into a massive Federal trap, and Lang immediately ordered my men back to the road, some 300 yards to the rear.
The attack lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, which was exactly what Hancock needed to fill the empty union line with soldiers. Guelzo states that only 47 of the First Minnesotas 289 men made it back to roll call. But they bought, with their lives and limbs, the time Hancock needed. As a result, when the next southern brigade of Wright was sent in en echelon, momentarily breaking through to the right of the First Minnesotas battle a few moments later, they did so without the support of the two strong brigades turned back by the First Minnesota. Moreover, they did so without the two brigades to Wrights left, one of which spent too much time clearing a few farm buildings of annoying union skirmishers, and another brigade led by a commander that refused to get involved in the battle at all.
The what-ifs of this world can fill up volumes of books. But had the First Minnesota not caused those two brigades to retreat, Wright would have arrived exploiting the inevitable breakthrough of those two brigades. The south might have won that night, causing America to split into two different countries.
At Gettysburg the North had the advantage of higher ground.
In retrospect the South needed to have a quicker victory before the North was resupplied and more deeply entrenched.
Picketts charge over that hilly terrain to the other side was
the last hurrah for the South in that battle but they got slaughtered in the process charging up the small hill and a barrage of gunfire to decimate them.
Nobody then or now ever thought that was possible. Maybe to the peace table.
If Gettysburg was lost, their was nothing to keep Lee out of DC. The Notrth would be forced to sue for pease otherwise DC would go up in flames again.
From a military/industrial point of view if the war was fought today the north would lose ... just a thought.
General Douglas MacArthur’s father fought there.
Lee was not Sherman, there would have been a brief occupation but no burning, like Atlanta. Urban warfare was rare back then. Looking back nothing was going to make the Goon come to the table and the South did not have the strength to hold any Northern territories. Mr Lincoln’s War would have no negotiated ending. The butchery would continue, actually it picked up speed after G-burg.
No mention of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who commanded the 20th Maine on Little Round Top.
Joshua’s bayonet charge down the hill saved the day.
God bless can you imagine being part of that battle and fixing your bayonet?
"The Last Full Measure"; the charge of the First Minnesota Volunteers.
I've been to Gettysburg twice and have taken the march path of those volunteers from near the center of the battlefield to Plum Run. The route of Pickett's Charge from the Virginia Memorial to the stone wall is mowed and trimmed: the path of the First Minnesota is not.
That is as it should be. Once you get done snagging your clothing on brambles and thistles in the summer heat and scrambling over and through split-rail fences, you can't help but imagine doing it in wool clothing, knowing what the real volunteers faced at the march's end.
The First Minnesota, which was the first regiment offered to Lincoln after Fort Sumter, suffered the highest percentage of casualties in a single engagement that day than any formation in the United States Army during the Civil War.
Or, as the text of the Minnesota memorial at Gettysburg states:
"The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 83% percent. 47 men were still in line & no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war."
The next day, the remnants of the First Minnesota Volunteers helped repulse Pickett's Charge, losing another seventeen men.
That's because this was an article about the First Minnesota Volunteers, not the 20th Maine. Two distinct acts of heroism on two different parts of the battlefield.
No offense but it surprises me why there were 8 companies with only 262 men in the regiment. The ideal company size then was 100. Yankee infantry units baffle me.....
Wish I could have seen you re-enact their brave and tragic charge! :)
Certainly no offense taken. A quick look at the Wiki for the unit mentions that the unit had about 313 present for duty after Antietam, but that had been so long previous that it appears that the regiment was never reinforced.
Another history notes that the regiment actually was so depleted that it fought as a skirmish line at the Battle of Bristow Station before being mustered out in 1864. Some of its members formed the cadre for the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery and others formed a battalion, which fought at Petersburg among other places.
However, whittling a unit down to the nub is not unheard of in military history. The Germans did the same in World War II for some of their formations and simply created new formations with their “welles”, or draft calls.
And I must say, one of my favorite places on the battlefield happens to be the Virginia Memorial. The statue of General Lee astride Traveller is a wonderful image.
I’ve not heard of a corps of that small size, though I suppose outside of the Army of the Potomac they may well have existed.
But you’re quite right. In World War II The U.S. Army opted for the policy you describe for the South, through its replacement policy.
I just think that the idea of fighting a regiment as a skirmish line due to combat casualties is odd. But evidently that is how they did it.
There were also lots of woodticks. :P
Seems to me if you have all of these odd sized units around it would get confusing to command and make good decisions.....When you got brigades the size of regiments something is wrong....
The union fielded 8 corps of various sizes at Gettysburg. The South 3 traditional corps of roughly 30,000 each.