Walking the steps of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg

by Jonathan Young
ECM Sun Newspapers

It was an open field they charged across, headlong into whistling balls of lead that cut men down as they ran. The soldiers of the 1st Minnesota knew the bayonet charge they were making was suicide.

First Minnesota re-enactors lead the way as the delegation follows the footsteps of the regiment’s famous July 2 charge. Sun Post staff photo by Jonathan Young

First Minnesota re-enactors lead the way as the delegation follows the footsteps of the regiment’s famous July 2 charge. Sun Post staff photo by Jonathan Young

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who gave the order, knew it, too, but he needed five minutes to bring reinforcements to plug a critical hole in the Union line.

He bought the time with Minnesotans’ lives.

“Advance, colonel, and take those colors,” Hancock ordered Col. William Colvill, Jr., of Red Wing, commander of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Although outnumbered more than five to one by the opposing Alabama regiments, Colvill and his men acted without hesitation.

According to tradition, 262 Minnesotans charged. After about 15 minutes fighting, only 47 soldiers returned to answer roll call. The rest were dead or wounded – an 82 percent casualty rate. But reinforcements had arrived and the Union line was secure.

“No soldier, on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism,” Hancock later said of the 1st Minnesota.

Exactly 150 years after the charge, on the evening of July 2, a group of Minnesota soldiers, elected officials, history buffs and others stood at the top of the same slope as Colvill and his men. Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, Minnesota’s adjutant general, played Colvill’s part and shouted the order to charge.

Minnesota Adjutant Gen. Richard Nash, left, shakes hands with Alabama Adjutant Gen. Perry Smith at the approximate point on the battlefield where the 1st Minnesota regiment clashed with a much larger force of Alabama men July 2, 1863, during the 1st Minnesota’s charge.

Minnesota Adjutant Gen. Richard Nash, left, shakes hands with Alabama Adjutant Gen. Perry Smith at the approximate point on the battlefield where the 1st Minnesota regiment clashed with a much larger force of Alabama men July 2, 1863, during the 1st Minnesota’s charge.

Led by members of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry re-enactors, the group walked solemnly down the slope to the point where the Minnesota regiment met the Alabama troops.

Once again, men from Alabama waited there, but this time the two sides met with open hands instead of fixed bayonets. Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, Alabama’s adjutant general, shook hands with Nash and the two exchanged gifts.

There were no hard feelings – in fact, Smith praised what the Minnesotans had done.

“If it wasn’t for the 1st Minnesota … I’m sure we wouldn’t be standing here as citizens of the United States of America,” Smith said.

The symbolic walk took place within hours of the actual time of the charge and was one of the highlights of the trip for many in the official Minnesota delegation to Gettysburg, which was sent by the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force and the Minnesota Historical Society to mark the battle’s anniversary July 1-3.

For 1st Minnesota re-enactor David Biren of Elk River, the walk was the most important event of the week. He carried the colors for the regiment.

“That’s once in a lifetime,” he said.

First Sgt. Jefferson Spilman of Richfield, the re-enactor who led the charge, agreed it was a moving experience but said it hadn’t fully sunk in yet.

“We were on sacred ground for the 1st Minnesota,” he said. “It was very special. And I think it will settle in a little more in the days and weeks to come about what it all meant. … Certainly the danger factor wasn’t as high as it was for them, and we were thankful for that. But all the same, we were on the ground at the same time that many years later.”

First Minnesota re-enactors give three cheers, first for “the great state of Alabama” and second for the original 1st Minnesota and what its men did. The cheers followed a friendly exchange between the two states’ adjutant generals on the battlefield.

First Minnesota re-enactors give three cheers, first for “the great state of Alabama” and second for the original 1st Minnesota and what its men did. The cheers followed a friendly exchange between the two states’ adjutant generals on the battlefield.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City, who co-chairs the task force with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, also donned his old re-enacting uniform and joined the 1st Minnesota.

“To be on, essentially, what is hallowed ground, which is an important site in Minnesota history, I think was meaningful,” he said.

Many historians agree the charge was an important site not only for Minnesota, but also for the nation.

John Cox of Columbia Heights, who spent a decade as a Gettysburg battlefield guide and recently wrote a book about the battle, told those gathered for the commemorative charge that the Minnesotans’ valor came at a critical point in the war.

“I firmly believe that the battle of Gettysburg was on the line, and so was this nation, if these men didn’t do their duty,” he said.

The following information are facts taken from 1stMinnesota.net by historian and author Wayne Jorgenson of Eden Prairie.

Oak Grove lumberman fought at Gettysburg

Whether or not Paul Bunyan really trounced the forests of Minnesota, at least one lumberman from the state became a hero, albeit of a different breed. William E. Cundy, a lumberman from Oak Grove, enlisted with Company E of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment in 1861 and would served three years in the company until it was mustered out (discharged) in May 1864.

Cundy was born in New Brunswick and grew up in Baring, Maine. His family moved to the Oak Grove area in 1854. Cundy began working at the local saw mills in Anoka and quickly learned the trade of a lumberman.

Cundy chose to set his lumber expertise aside when he enlisted with the 1st Minnesota in May 1861. He was 22 years old. At the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Cundy was wounded and captured by rebel forces. He was released in December of that year.

He went on to fight in the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and took part in the 1st Minnesota’s famous charge July 2, 1863.

Cundy returned Anoka County after the war and found work in the mills around Anoka. He married to Alice Frost in September 1864 and raised five children.

Cundy lived out his days in the Oak Grove area and was buried in the Anoka Cemetery on West Main Street.

Anoka soldier died of hand wound at Gettysburg

War stories often don’t have happy endings, and Charles H. Mason of Anoka did not have a happy ending to his story.

Mason was 25 when he was mustered into D company of the 1st Minnesota regiment in April 1861. He must have been a good soldier, as he quickly advanced through the ranks to corporal, sergeant and then to second lieutenant by September 1862.

Mason was severely wounded on his left hand at Gettysburg and was taken to the hospital in Harrisburg, Pa. He would not recover and died in the hospital only six weeks after the battle.

While he was in the hospital, he requested his nurse to send a letter to Capt. Dewitt Smith of D company.

Mason suspected that Smith thought Mason felt he was passed up for a deserved promotion when he was a corporal. Mason wanted Smith to know he didn’t feel that way. Mason also asked Smith to write back to him when he had the chance and said would be expecting his letter every day.

Whether or not Mason ever received a reply is unknown.

Jonathan Young is at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com

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