July 2nd, 1863 was perhaps the single day in the Civil War when more troops from both sides were engaged than on any other day. The casualties on July 2nd would, if accurate records had been kept, probably eclipse those of the Battle of Antietam, generally recognized as the bloodiest single day in American History. Casualties in the Wheatfield alone were horrendous.
Late in the afternoon, Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia launched an assault on the Union left with two of his three division, those of Major Generals John Bell Hood on the right, and Lafayette McLaws on the left. Originally the assault was designed by General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, to attack en echelon (a staggered attack with one force ahead of, and mostly to one side of another) oriented on an angle up the Emmitsburg Road from south to north, and gradually angling in toward Cemetery Ridge. The main objective was a location on Cemetery Ridge, not far from the Pennsylvania Memorial, where Lee believed the left flank of the Union Army to be located. Ultimately, Lee desired to push the Union left flank in from the side, and roll it up onto Cemetery Hill. Once underway, the assault would be joined on its left by brigades from Major General Richard H. Anderson’s Division of Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill’s Corps. Anderson’s Division would join in on the left of McLaws as his men marched past, one or two brigades at a time. First came Perry’s Florida Brigade under Colonel David Lang, then the proud Alabamans of Cadmus Wilcox. Farther up would come Ambrose Wright’s Georgians, Carnot Posey’s Mississippi Brigade, and finally Brigadier General William “Fightin’ Billy” Mahone’s Virginia Brigade. Added to the eight brigades under Longstreet, the force total of 17 brigades was an overwhelming force.
As things turned out, the Union forces were much farther south on Cemetery Ridge, eventually manning a line that extended to the south slope of Little Round Top, with elements even farther south. Further, Major General Daniel Sickles had taken it upon himself to move his Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac forward almost a mile from where he was ordered to locate, and he was spread out over a long, broken line from the top of the southern end of Houck’s Ridge (Devil’s Den) to the Peach Orchard, and then up the Emmitsburg Road almost to the Codori Farm.
It was an enormous attack, and to complement it, Lee had ordered his other Corps Commander, Richard S. Ewell to attack on the Confederate left against the Union right defenses on East Cemetery Hill, and Culp’s Hill. In short, Lee had sent forward his entire force, with the exceptions of Heth’s Division, which had been seriously hurt the day before in the fight west of town, and Major General Isaac Trimble’s Division, which saw light action on the first, both of Hill’s Third Corps, and Pickett’s Division of Longstreet’s Corps. Lee was risking much, and he had misunderstood the Union’s dispositions. Nevertheless, at his insistence, and over the objections of Longstreet and Hood, the attack commenced about 5 PM. Almost from the start things went wrong.
Because of Sickles’ advanced position, Hood was required to veer to his right to make room for McLaws Division, which, with Sickles directly in his front, was required to change the orientation of his attack almost 90 degrees to confront Sickles. The fight was on, starting south of the Peach Orchard. McLaws right fought through a line of woods and into the Wheatfield, while his left, delayed on the orders of Longstreet, finally started straight across the Emmitsburg Road from Pitzer’s Woods. First Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade and finally Wofford’s Georgia Brigade surged across the Emmitsburg Road and assaulted the brigades of Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys’ Division of Sickles’ Third Corps. Humphreys men were stretched along the east side of the road between the Peach Orchard and the Codori Farm.
Much has been written of the attack and defense of Little Round Top, of the sterling service given by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine, and the rest of Strong Vincent’s Brigade, as well as the brigade of Brigadier General Stephen Weed. Much has been made of Sickles’ negligent and flagrant disobedience of orders, and the resulting piecemeal and cacophonic assembly of regiments, brigades and divisions thrown into the gaps created by Sickles' advance from his assigned position. And in the noise of that controversy, something frequently is missed.
After Wofford and Barksdale broke through north of the Peach Orchard, they began chasing the remnants of Graham’s Brigade from the Peach Orchard, and the left of Humphreys’ Division from its positions along the Emmitsburg Road, and the Artillery units with which Sickles had attempted to plug the gaps in his own line, back toward Cemetery Ridge. Moving forward on their left were the brigades of David Lang and Cadmus Wilcox. Crossing from the lower part of Seminary Ridge, and moving across the Emmitsburg Road just below the Codori Farm, Wilcox and Lang presented a fresh threat to the main portion of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge – mostly troops from Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps. Wilcox and Lang’s lines disappeared in a deep ravine where Plum Run flows between Cemetery Ridge and the Emmitsburg Road. Wofford and Barksdale had veered back to the south after coming under fire from Union artillery under Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery of the Artillery Reserve’s First Volunteer Brigade, and the brave New Yorkers of Colonel George Willard’s Infantry Brigade from Second Corps, who counter-attacked in what is now called Excelsior Field. A second counterstroke went forward from the north end of Little Round Top when Brigadier General Samuel Wiley Crawford led two divisions of the Pennsylvania Reserves forward through Plum Run Valley and drove the exhausted Confederates back through the Wheatfield for the night.
But the danger had moved closer to the center of the Union line with the attack by Wilcox and Lang. Seeing the two brigades entering the Plum Run ravine, Major General Hancock rode to his left and found a regiment standing firm in the midst of retreating Third Corps men from Humphreys’ Division. These were men from his own Second Corps, members of Harrow’s Brigade, in Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Division.
Unable to make them out in the smoke and confusion, Hancock shouted out a question, “What regiment it this?”
Colonel William Colvill responded, “1st Minnesota, sir!”
Hancock exploded, “My God! Are these all the men we have here?
Hancock pointed at the colors of Wilcox’s Brigade of 1600 men just disappearing into the ravine. “Advance, Colonel, and take those colors! Charge those lines!” yelled Hancock, as he spurred his horse away. Hancock dashed to the rear to find more troops to send against the Alabama and Florida troops. He hoped the suicide mission he had just ordered for his men from Minnesota would slow Wilcox enough to give him time to bring fresh troops forward.
200 yards to the east rim of the ravine, and 262 Minnesotans surged ahead with fixed bayonets, leveled and ready for action. Rising out of the ravine, the first ranks of Alabama troops from Wilcox’s Brigade were caught completely off guard by the charging Minnesotans. A wild melee ensued, with hand to hand fighting. Artillery support roared from behind and to the left of the Minnesotans as they struggled while being surrounded. Eventually, Wilcox ordered his men to withdraw, mainly because of the artillery fire, but in large part because of the valiant little band of Midwesterners who stood their ground like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae under King Leonidas. 262 Minnesota men went forward. That night there were but 47 able to answer the muster. Hancock later said of the charge of the 1st Minnesota, “There is no more gallant deed recorded in history."
Where do we get such men? It is such men to whom President Lincoln referred when making his dedicatory speech at the National Cemetery several hundred yards from the site of Colvill’s brave band of brothers feat.
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for hose who here gave their lives that that nation might live… The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract… from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
How can we not honor them? In their sacrifice, they honored all who went before them, and all who have followed after them. How can we allow them, and their sacrifice to be dishonored?
William Colvill was taken to the home of the James Pierce family at 303 Baltimore Street for recovery. It took months before Colvill could return to Minnesota to finish his recuperation from being shot in both hips. Pierce's daughter, 15 at the time of the battle, remembered in her reminiscence "At Gettysburg: What a Young Girl Saw":
"About three years after the battle, I was standing on the front pavement one day, when a carriage suddenly stopped at the front door. A gentleman alighted, and kissed me without saying a word. I knew it was the Colonel by his tall, manly form.
"He ran up the front porch, rang the bell, and on meeting the rest of the family, heartily shook hands, and greeted mother and sister with a kiss.
"We were all glad to meet each other again, and we earnestly desired him to stay. He however said his time was limited, and his friends were waiting in the carriage to go over the battlefield. So we were forced to again say farewell.
"The officer of whom I have just written, was Colonel William Colvill, of the First Minnesota Regiment. At the present writing his residence is in the city of Duluth, Michigan.
"It was during the terrible struggle out by the Wheat Field, toward the close of the second day, when the confusion of the battle was confounding; when the contending columns had become mixed with each other on account of the dense smoke, when one of Wilcox' Regiments came unnoticed in contact with Humphrey's left, that General Hancock orders Colonel Colvill to "Forward" with his regiment.
"The encounter is a desperate one. Many of the brave First Minnesota are slain in the hand to hand struggle; but the enemy is driven back with losses equally severe. During this engagement the Colonel received the wounds to which I have referred.
"I have since learned, that out of 262 men comprising this regiment at Gettysburg, but 47 remained after this daring charge."
Where do we get such men? What was it that drove the men who fought here, and survived, to come back every five, or ten years on the anniversary of the great Battle? And it was not just the victorious Union veterans, but Confederates, too. Usually, they would erect monuments, and the “Johnnies” would march across Pickett’s Charge once again, only this time to reach across the wall at the Angle and shake hands with a Yankee in friendship.
There was a common bond to the men when they first met here -- they were, indeed, all Americans. As the years rolled by, and the reunion attendance began to shrink, it became clear that indeed, they were still, all Americans. What possessed them to come to Gettysburg for almost a century, until the last veteran of the battle died, is not really open to anyone’s guess. It is simple and clear, and present for all to see.
Gettysburg is “hallowed ground”. No one, no thing, should ever defile the name, or despoil the memory, the history, the honor and the very sacred national essence of these fields at Gettysburg. Certainly, no casino.
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