THE FIRST MINNESOTA AT GETTYSBURG.
BY Lieutenant William Lochren,
First Minnesota Infantry, U. S. Volunteers.
(Read January 14,1890.)
I propose in this paper to give some of my own recollections of the Gettysburg campaign, and of the part taken in it by the First Minnesota Regiment. Although the tale has been told before, and often inaccurately, where the narrators have had to depend on information derived from others, it will bear repetition; and the recollections of any participant can scarcely fail to be of some interest and value.
After the battle of Chancellorsville the armies of Hooker and Lee rested quietly for a month, on opposite sides of the Rappahannock, at Fredericksburg. There seemed to be a tacit truce as far as any hostile demonstrations were concerned. Our division lay near the bank of the river a little below the Lacy House, in plain view of, and less than a mile away from, the enemy's artillery, which bristled on Marye's Heights; and Confederate infantry were encamped just opposite, and within musket range, and equally exposed to our artillery on the heights behind us. Pickets along the banks of the narrow, fordable stream stood and were relieved in full view and within a stone's-throw of each other, and by means of tiny boats whittled from juniper, rigged with paper sails, and rudders tied at the proper angle, kept up a daily interchange of newspapers, coffee, tobacco, and other articles.
But on June 6, 1863, it became evident that our quiet was not to last; for on that day Hooker, with but slight opposition, passed a part of Sedgwick's Sixth Corps, to the south side of the river at Franklin's old crossing, a couple of miles below us, and moved troops to that point and laid pontoons in readiness to cross in force. Although there was considerable artillery firing and some collision of infantry at this crossing, it did not disturb the peace of our front; and at the end of three days of comparative inaction on the part of Hooker, it became apparent that Lee, disregarding this demonstration, was sending a large force beyond our right in the direction of the Upper Potomac, or of the Shenandoah Valley. Hooker's wish to avail himself of the obvious advantage of striking the flank and rear of Lee's extended line was overruled by the ever baleful interference of Stanton and Halleck, in their morbid dread for the safety of Washington; and Hooker was required to move back to the vicinity of that place, leaving Lee to pursue his course at his leisure and unmolested.
We made long marches under a scorching sun till we reached Sangster's Station, within a march of Alexandria; when, upon the news that Lee's infantry was crossing the Potomac in the valley, and that his cavalry had penetrated into Pennsylvania, Hooker was allowed to advance by way of Centreville, and across the Bull Run battle-field to Thoroughfare Gap, as the rear of Longstreet's Corps was passing on the other side; and thence by Edwards Ferry into Maryland, carefully keeping between the enemy and Washington. On leaving Thoroughfare Gap our brigade was the rear-guard, preceded by a long train; and as we reached Haymarket, two or three miles on our way, we were suddenly subjected to a rapid artillery fire from a horse battery which the enemy had pushed through the Gap with a cavalry support as we left. There were several casualties, and Colonel Colvill's horse was killed under him. But the attack caught, at greatest disadvantage, a large body of non-combatants, who had loitered near the rear as the place of safety; and the tumultuous and disorderly flight of sutlers, surgeons, chaplains, and negro servants caused vociferous merriment among the men, which the rapid bursting of shells could not lessen. I was greatly amused by the antics of my own colored boy Tobe, a rather apish-looking young contraband, who carried in a large basket, usually on his head, the provisions and mess implements of Colvill, Heffelfinger, and myself. He was marching that morning in unusual pride, in a new pair of coarse cotton pants having up-and-down stripes of bright yellow, blue, and white. He started with the others at the first shot, but at the scream of every fresh shell would throw himself on the ground, grasping his load and running again after the explosion. A strong skirmish line soon drove off the artillery, and after going on three or four miles we found Tobe about the only darkey who had carried off his load. But his gaudy pants had given place to ragged blue. "Lieutenant," said he, "dem pants was too bright. De Rebs seed 'em, and didn't fire at nuffin else but just dem pants."
On June, 28 we reached the vicinity of Frederick City, Md., where Hooker, discouraged by constant interference from Washington, resigned, and Meade was placed in command. On the 29th we marched thirty-three miles, passing through Uniontown at dark, and halted near the Pennsylvania line. Early on that march we came to a creek crossed by a ford, the water being more than knee-deep. On each side of the road was a log across the stream, hewn on top for pedestrians. To cross the men on the logs would impede the march, and Colonel Charles H. Morgan, the very efficient inspector-general of the Second Corps, remained there giving orders to regimental commanders as they approached to march their men through the water. This order was given by Colvill, followed by his command, "Close order, march!"
But a few of the men and line officers (the writer among them) skurried across the timbers, losing no distance, and avoiding the danger of scalded feet, almost certain to result from such a wetting at the beginning of a long march. Morgan became very angry; and having further trouble with the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment, which followed us, and being groaned by that regiment as he passed our brigade, massed at a halt soon after, and believing that act of insubordination to have come from our regiment, he at once, placed Colonel Colvill under arrest. This act produced a strong feeling of resentment, as the men felt that Colvill was unfairly dealt with.
It was night when we halted, so weary that we dropped down for sleep without care for supper, Heffelfinger and I, as usual, doubling and sharing our blankets. We had just lain down when I heard my name called by the adjutant to go with the picket detail. It seemed impossible to move again, but there was no help for it; and I thought I could detect in Heffelfinger's profuse and sincere condolences an undertone of satisfaction that the lot had fallen on me rather than on him. I could not blame the feeling, and gathering the grumbling detail, of which Captain Thomas Sinclair took command, we went about three miles farther and posted pickets. Morning was long in coming, but brought in view a thrifty-looking farmhouse about eighty rods in front, where about sunrise I joined the family in a good breakfast, and filled my haversack with fresh bread, sweet butter, pies and cakes, and my canteen with new milk, enough to give Colvill and Heffelfinger a luxurious breakfast, when on returning early to the regiment I found them still sleeping. While eating it I fancied they became quite reconciled to the additional hardship that had been imposed on me. This day, June 30, we remained quiet, and made out the bimonthly muster-rolls, on which so many were fated never to draw pay.
On July 1, towards noon, the sound of distant heavy cannonading soon set us on the march towards it, retracing our steps to Uniontown, and there turning to the right. The heavy roar continued with brief intervals, growing in volume and intensity as we approached; and between four and five o'clock we began to meet the crowd of stragglers, cowards, and camp followers with their invariable tale of defeat and rout. As most of the soldiers wore the crescent badge of the Eleventh Corps, for which little respect had been felt since Chancellorsville, they met but taunts and jeers from the sturdy veterans of the Second Corps. Hancock had left us earlier and spurred on to the battle-field, where he assumed command, selecting the ground and making dispositions for the continuance of the battle. We bivouacked three or four miles south of Gettysburg, putting out a strong picket, and before daylight on July 2 marched to the battle-field, where the Second Corps was placed in position to the left of Cemetery Ridge, being joined on its left by Sickles's Third Corps, which extended to near Little Round Top. The First Minnesota was not placed in the line, but apparently in reserve, just behind it. Colvill was here released from arrest and assumed command, and Companies F and L were detached and sent to different places as skirmishers. Company C was also absent as provost-guard of the division. We lay quietly in a slight hollow, fairly secure from the enemy's shells, which came over us occasionally, killing one of our men and wounding another; and although there were some collisions of infantry in establishing positions, there was no protracted fighting during the forenoon.
Soon after noon Sickles advanced the line of the Third Corps more than half a mile, to a slight ridge near the Emmettsburg road, his left reaching the Devil's Den, near the base of Little Round Top; and the remaining eight companies of the First Minnesota, reduced by the casualties of war to two hundred and sixty-two men, were sent to the centre of the position just vacated by Sickles's advance, to support Battery C of the Fourth U. S. Artillery. No other troops were near us, and we stood in full view of Sickles's battle in the Peach Orchard, and witnessed with eager anxiety the varying fortunes of that sanguinary conflict, until at length, with gravest apprehension, we saw our men give way before the heavier forces of Longstreet and Hill, and come back, slowly at first and rallying at short intervals, but soon broken and in utter disorder, rushing down the slope, by the Trostle House, across the low ground, up the slope on our side, and past our position to the rear, followed by a heavy force of the Confederates, the large brigades of Wilcox and Barksdale, in regular lines, coming steadily on in the flush of victory, and firing on the fugitives. They reached the low ground, and in a few minutes would be at our position on the rear of the left flank of our army, which they could roll up as Jackson did the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville. There was no organized force to oppose them but our handful of two hundred and sixty-two men.
Most soldiers, in the face of the near advance of such an overpowering force, which had just defeated the bulk of an army corps, would have caught the panic and joined the retreating forces. But the First Minnesota had never deserted any post, had never retired without orders; and, desperate as the situation seemed, and as it was, the regiment stood firm against whatever might come. Just then Hancock, with a single aide, rode up at full speed, and for a moment vainly endeavored to rally Sickles's retreating forces. Reserves had been sent for, but were too far away to hope to reach the critical position until it should be occupied by the enemy, unless that enemy were stopped. Quickly leaving the fugitives, Hancock spurred to where we stood, calling out as he reached us, "What regiment is this?" " First Minnesota," replied Colvill. " Charge those lines!" commanded Hancock. 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 every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice; and in a moment, responding to Colvilll's rapid orders, the regiment, in perfect line, with arms, at "right shoulder, shift," was sweeping down the slope directly upon the enemy's centre. No hesitation, no stopping to fire, though the men fell fast at every stride before the concentrated fire of the whole Confederate force, directed upon us as soon as the movement was observed. Silently, without orders, and almost from the start, "double-quick" had changed to utmost speed, for in utmost speed lay the only hope that any of us could pass through that storm of lead and strike the enemy. "Charge!" shouted Colvill as we neared the first line, and with leveled bayonets, at full speed, we rushed upon it, fortunately, as it was slightly disordered in crossing a dry brook. The men were never made who will stand against leveled bayonets coming with such momentum and evident desperation. The first line broke in our front as we reached it, and rushed back through the second line, stopping the whole advance. We then poured in our first fire, and availing ourselves of such shelter as the low bank of the dry brook afforded, held the entire force at bay for a considerable time, and until our reserves appeared on the ridge we had left. Had the enemy rallied quickly to a countercharge, its overwhelming numbers would have crushed us in a moment, and we would have effected but a slight pause in its advance. But the ferocity of our onset seemed to paralyze them for a time, and though they poured in a terrible and continuous fire from the front and enveloping flanks, they kept at a respectful distance from our bayonets, until, before the added fire of our fresh reserves, they began to retire and we were ordered back.
What Hancock had given us to do was done thoroughly. The regiment had stopped the enemy, held back its mighty force, and saved the position, and probably that battle-field. But at what a sacrifice! Nearly every officer was dead, or lay weltering with bloody wounds--our gallant colonel and every field-officer among them. Of the two hundred and sixty-two men who made the charge, two hundred and fifteen lay upon the field, struck down by Rebel bullets; forty-seven men were still in line, and not a man was missing. The annals of war contain no parallel to this charge. In its desperate valor, complete execution, successful result, and in its sacrifice of men in proportion to the number engaged, authentic history has no record with which it can be compared.
In the darkness following the wounded were gathered by their surviving comrades, and sent to field hospitals; and the fragment of the regiment, now commanded by Captain Nathan S. Messick, lay down for the night not far from where the charge was made. In the morning we were joined by Companies F and C, bringing up our aggregate to about one hundred and fifteen men.
The morning of July 3 opened bright and beautiful though its light was ushered in with heavy infantry firing near Culp's Hill on the right, where the Confederates were forced back from positions they had gained the previous evening. Soon after sunrise we were moved to our proper place in our brigade in the front line, passing Stannard's new brigade of Vermont troops as it was taking position on the left of our division, its full regiments and new uniforms making it noticeable by the side of the thinned regiments of dusty veterans of the Second Corps. Reaching our place in the line, we made a slight barricade, perhaps knee-high, of fence-rails and cobble-stones and knapsacks filled with dirt, and, lying down behind it, many were soon fast asleep. In the forenoon there was a slight skirmish in our front, and some buildings that had sheltered Rebel sharp-shooters were burned. But suddenly about one o'clock a tremendous artillery fire opened along the Rebel line on Seminary Ridge, for a mile or more in our front, all converging upon the position of the Second Corps, and mainly on our division. It was at once responded to by our artillery from a higher position just behind us. Not less than one hundred and fifty pieces on each side were firing with great rapidity, and the missiles from both directions passed over our heads, except such from the enemy as struck or burst at or in front of our line. We had been in many heavy battles and thought ourselves familiar with artillery, but nothing approaching this terrible cannonade had ever greeted our ears. In the perfect storm of shells screaming over our heads and striking and bursting among our artillery, where caissons were exploding every few minutes, it did not seem as if anything could live. But our own artillery was served as rapidly, and we had the satisfaction of detecting the sound of bursting caissons on the enemy's side as well. Though shells were dropping and bursting at our line continually, covering most of us with dirt, the casualties in the regiment were few; and as men will get accustomed to anything, before two hours of this cannonade had ended some of the most weary were sleeping soundly. We all knew what was to follow. At length our artillery ceased to reply. This surprised us, as we supposed we excelled the Confederates in this arm; but we could see that the situation of our artillery on the bare ridge behind us was more exposed than that of the enemy, which had a screen of wood in front of it. The Confederate fire seemed to increase, if possible, for a brief time, when it also ceased. Instantly every man was alert, straining his eyes towards the wood, three-quarters of a mile distant, from which the Confederate infantry began to emerge in heavy force, forming three strong lines, with a supporting force in rear of each flank. We then estimated the number at about twenty thousand men, though Confederate accounts reduce it to fifteen thousand. Moving directly for our position with firm step and in perfect order, our artillery soon opened on them with considerable effect, but without halting them in the slightest; and we could not repress our feelings and expressions of admiration at the steady and resolute manner in which they came on, breasting that storm of shell and grape, and closing up their thinning ranks. When about sixty rods from our line, our corps opened with musketry, and the slaughter became terrible; but instead of hesitating, their step changed to double-quick, and they rushed to the charge. But whether because Hancock here wheeled Stannard's Vermont Brigade to enfilade their right flank, or from some other cause, their front opened at this time, and perhaps one-quarter of Pickett's force on his right turned more to the right, and were met and disposed of by the Vermonters. The main body of the Confederates here diverged more to their left, passing our front diagonally, under our own fire, and charged the position held by Webb's Second Brigade of our division, forcing back the Seventy-first and Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania Regiments, and capturing Cushing's Battery. But as soon as the Confederates had passed our front, our brigade (Harrow's) ran to the right for the threatened point, while Hall's Brigade, of our division, to our right and next to Webb, as soon as uncovered wheeled to the right to take the enemy in flank. By the time the enemy had captured Cushing's guns, our brigade, mixed with Webb's Brigade, was in a strong though confused line in his front, pouring in a heavy fire at four or five rods' distance; the fire here from both sides was most deadly. It lasted, however, but a few moments. Whether the command "Charge!" was given by any general officer I do not know; it seemed to me to come in a spontaneous yell from the men, and instantly our line precipitated itself on the enemy. Henry D. O'Brien, who then carried the few tatters of our regimental flag, with his characteristic impetuosity sprang with it towards the enemy on the first sound of the word "Charge," and kept it noticeably in advance of every other color in the rush then made. My impulse on the instant was to blame him for imperiling the flag, which every man of the First Minnesota ran forward to protect. With them went the whole line, and the bayonet was freely used for a few minutes, and cobble-stones, with which the ground was covered, filled the air, thrown by men in the rear over the heads of their comrades in front. Such a struggle was necessarily soon finished. The high-water mark of the Confederacy had been reached, but could not be held; and most of the remaining Confederates threw down their arms and surrendered, a very few escaping. Marshall Sherman of Company C, who afterwards lost a leg in the service, and now resides in St. Paul, here captured the colors of the Twenty-eighth Virginia Regiment.
Our men, though elated with their success, were most kind to the three or four thousand captured Confederates, and in a few minutes were sharing the contents of their haversacks and canteens with them. A sadder duty was the gathering up of our dead and wounded, who numbered seventeen on this last day. Among the killed were Captain Nathan S. Messick, our commander, and Captain Wilson B. Farrell of Company C. This ended the serious fighting of the battle of Gettysburg. Some have censured General Meade for not following the repulse of Pickett's charge by a countercharge with the Sixth Corps, which was one of our best, and which had not been engaged. This would have been a repetition of the mistake, just then demonstrated, which Lee had made in ordering Pickett's charge. Our troops in a countercharge would have been obliged to pass over the same three-quarters of a mile of open fields so fatal to Pickett, in the face of all the enemy's artillery, then known to be in position to sweep it, as it had just before hammered our lines across this space; and if any of such charging force should reach Seminary Ridge, it would be certain to find itself confronted by a strong line of steady veterans, probably protected by field defenses, for Lee always used the spade more than was done by any of our generals before the latter part of the Wilderness campaign. It would have resulted in fruitless butchery, and might have hazarded the advantages already gained. That the failure of Pickett's charge and loss of so many troops may have caused some depression in Lee's army is very probable; but the thought that any such disaster would cause any panic or demoralization in either of those armies in 1863, or cause them to fight with any less vigor or tenacity, will be entertained only by those not familiar with their discipline and fighting qualities at that time.
But whatever may be the verdict of history as to Meade's conduct under the circumstances, there
can be no question that the First Minnesota Regiment in that battle displayed such heroism and
unselfish soldierly devotion as has not been shown, in equal degree, by any body of soldiers since
Leonidas stood oil the pass at Thermopylve--perhaps not there, for the Spartans held such
advantage in position that their assailants would reach them only by disproportionate sacrifice;
and a few of the Spartans sought safety in flight. The First Minnesota rushed through the storm
of bullets coming from the direct fire of two brigades, into the midst and centre of this
overwhelming force, with nothing but death to look for, and no hope or chance; for any other
success than to gain the brief time needed to save that battle-field. And not a man wavered.
(Source: Glimpses of the Nation's Struggle, Minnesota MOLLUS, Vol. 3, pp.42-56)