What did Aaron Greenwald really do at Gettysburg?

Two weeks ago we marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

Bob Kirchner

Bob Kirchner

Anoka has a special connection with Gettysburg through Aaron Greenwald.

And, through extensive research, Anoka County historian Vickie Wendel corrected a long-standing myth about Greenwald at Gettysburg.

Here’s the story.

On May 30, 1963, Memorial Day, 50 years ago, the Anoka County Historical Society dedicated a historical marker near the Main and Ferry intersection. It is there today.

It reads: “Dedicated to Aaron Greenwald and his comrades, who near this spot shortly after 10 a.m. on April 15, 1861, were the first Union Civil War Volunteers in the Nation. Aaron Greenwald was killed at Gettysburg July 2, 1863, in the ‘Famous Charge That Saved The Union.’ The First Volunteers were: Aaron Greenwald, James W. Groat and five others.”

But Wendel proved this marker is partially wrong. Greenwald did not die on July 2 and, more significantly, he did not participate in the “Famous Charge That Saved The Union” that day.

Instead, on July 2, Greenwald’s Company C was detached as provost guards at division headquarters behind the battle front.

But what happened the next day was singularly momentous.

Although the costly charge of the First Minnesota pre-empted a likely Confederate assault on the Union position on July 2, Union commanders still expected a Confederate charge. To prepare, they moved reinforcements into place.

Greenwald’s Company C rejoined the First Minnesota companies on the Cemetery Ridge front line.

As expected, on July 3, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee assembled nine brigades of 12,500 troops. After an hour long artillery barrage, at about 2 p.m., Lee ordered a massive charge designed to split Union forces and win the battle.

Beginning as a deliberate march across a mile of open undulating terrain, Confederates repeatedly appeared and disappeared as they advanced. Within a few hundred yards of the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge, they broke into a running charge.

The point of the charge turned toward the position of the First Minnesota and Aaron Greenwald.

At the point of engagement a pandemic melee ensued as men “struggled and fought, grappled in hand-to-hand fight, threw stones, clubbed their muskets, kicked, yelled and hurrahed.”

Some Confederates broke through the Union lines.

But the First Minnesota, along with other Union companies, defended their position, counter charged retreating Confederates, took prisoners and, in the confusion, captured the Confederate Virginia 28th Infantry flag which is currently on display at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Later, historians called Pickett’s Charge the “high tide of the confederacy” – the closest the rebels came to winning the war.

But what if the Union line had not held on July 3? Would we still commemorate the “Charge That Saved The Union” on July 2? Probably not.

The First Minnesota casualties on July 2-3 were proportionally unprecedented and remain unmatched in U.S. military history. According to the Adjutant General’s report, 232 of 330 Minnesota men were wounded or killed.

Aaron Greenwald was one of them.

A letter to his widow described his action at Gettysburg: “He was wounded by a musket ball while in a laying position after a charge. The ball entered his head and lodged in his shoulder. He was so wounded on the 3rd of July and remained unprotected on the battlefield until Saturday the 4th when he was brought into a hospital and his wounds helped. He died on Sunday the 5th of July and was buried and 19 days afterward taken up by his father and brought home…”

After a funeral attended by many people, Greenwald was buried near his birthplace in Berks County, Pa.

So the marker is wrong about what Greenwald did and when he died. But Greenwald gave his last full measure of devotion along with thousands of others. Indeed, he and his comrades saved the Union on July 3.

Two days after the battle, First Minnesota Capt. Coates wrote a letter to Gov. Ramsey telling him that “our loss of so many brave men is heartrending and will carry mourning into all parts of the state. But they have fallen in a holy cause and their memory will not soon perish.”

And so it is here in Anoka. We still remember.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and the former community development director for the city of Anoka.

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