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Story of 1st Minnesota Infantry Who Lost 82% of Their Fighting Strength In One Day

1st Minnesota Infantry lost 82% of their fighting strength on July 2nd 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg. This stands as the largest loss by any surviving US military unit in a single days engagement.

The most famous day in the history of the 1st Minnesota is July 2, 1863. During the second day of fighting at Gettysburg, the regiment prevented the Confederates from dividing the Union line, forcing the Union off Cemetery Ridge and overrunning a battery that could have been turned against the North. The 1st Minnesota’s actions rescued the fight.

The commander of II Corps, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, could see two brigades of Southerners, led by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox, breaching the line in front of one of his cannons. “What unit is this?” he questioned Col. William Colvill as he rode up to the troops guarding the battery.

“The 1st Minnesota,” said Col. Colvill. “Attack that line,” said Gen. Hancock. The Minnesotans broke the initial lines with their bayonets levelled. The ferocity with which they charged halted the southern advance.

The ferocity with which they charged halted the southern advance. Support arrived just in time for the unit to make a fighting withdrawal as it was nearly encircled.

Their selfless charge bought the Union the time it needed to bring up reinforcements. Within five minutes of the charge, 215 of the 262 who took part became casualties. Col. William Colvill, the unit commander, and all but three of his commanders were among them.

Five of the 1st Minnesota’s flag bearers were killed, with each soldier laying down his weapon to continue carrying the flag. Captain Nathan S. Messick, the group’s senior surviving officer, led the 47 survivors back to General Hancock.

The 82 percent mortality rate is the highest ever for a single day’s fighting by any surviving US military unit. The colours of the unit are on display in the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol for public viewing.

Following the previous day’s devastating losses, the remaining soldiers of the 1st Minnesota were bolstered by detached Companies F and L. The reunited regiment was transferred to one of the few spots where Union defences were breached during Pickett’s Charge, a little north of the previous day’s battle.

They were forced to rush into oncoming Confederate troops once more, suffering further casualties. Capt. Messick was killed in action, and Capt. W. B. Farrell was mortally wounded, therefore Capt. Henry C. Coates was forced to assume command.

During this action, Private Marshall Sherman of Company C captured the 28th Virginia Infantry’s colors, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. As a war souvenir, the Confederate flag was returned to Minnesota.

28th Virginia Colors taken by St. Paulite. Private Marshall Sherman of Company C.

The state still owns it, and the Minnesota Historical Society is responsible for its appropriate care and preservation. Several organisations of Virginians vowed to sue the Society in the mid-1990s if the 28th Virginia’s battle flag was not returned to the Old Dominion. Such threats were unfounded, according to the Minnesota Attorney General, and the flag remained in the Society’s possession.

Various groups of Virginia officials requested that the flag be returned to (or at least loaned to) Virginia in future years, only to be met with identical denials by Minnesota authorities. “We declined the invitation,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton once said.

It was taken in a battle with the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans. It would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It’s something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of the men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it… …As far as I’m concerned it is a closed subject.” Some years earlier, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura had been more succinct: “We won… We took it. That makes it our heritage.”

Later years

The 1st Minnesota remained with the Army of the Potomac, taking part in the Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns later in 1863. It was mustered out of duty on April 29, 1864, at Fort Snelling, after completing its enlistment.

Enough veterans from the regiment reenlisted to establish the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Battalion, which returned to Virginia and served until the war’s end. Colonel Colville was one of those who volunteered to join the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.