Monday, July 1, 2013

Minnesota Soldiers in the Civil War

This battle flag of the State of Virginia was captured by the 
First Minnesota Regiment during its charge at Gettysburg 
against the attack by Confederate General George Pickett
on July 3, 1863. It is cared for today in the museum of the 
Minnesota Historical Society. The flag was captured by a
private of the First Minnesota, Marshall Sherman, who later
received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his extraordinary
heroism for taking the flag at great danger to himself.   
(photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

Today begins a 3-day anniversary celebration of the Civil War battles at Gettysburg. Minnesota stands proudly today as one looks at the battle accounts from Gettysburg.
by Charlie Leck

Minnesota became a state – a member of the Union in 1858. It was a time of great political unrest in the Union. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, was still an incredibly popular and well-read book. It was much discussed among the white settlers who had come to Minnesota. Even then it was being called “the most popular book in America.” It had been carefully read by President Abraham Lincoln. Upon meeting Mrs. Stowe, Lincoln is said to have declared: “So this is the little lady who started this great war!” Popular opinion in Minnesota opposed the slavery and injustices depicted in the novel and favored slavery’s immediate abolishment.

The admired singing group, the Hutchinson Family Singers, had come to Minnesota a few years before statehood and the family founded the city of Hutchinson. Their intention was that it would become a utopian settlement with no sin, including no hard-drink and no gambling. Because the singers were a part of my wife’s family tree, we have personally learned a great deal about these troubadours who roamed across the border states singing harmonized abolitionist songs in churches and other community settings. They were often threatened and regularly run out of towns, but they were wildly popular with more liberal abolitionists. The singers were popularly and well-received in Minnesota and they kept on singing for another decade after the end of the Civil War.

The accepted opinion in Minnesota ran against the institution of slavery. The newly settled families of the state could sense that the nation was moving closer and closer to war. A significant divisional headquarters of the U.S. Army had been established here because of the threat of violence among the Native Americans. A significant facility, Fort Snelling, had been built by the Army along the Mississippi River at the point where it was joined by the Minnesota River. Troops were trained and billeted there.

When word came to Minnesota that southern secessionists had attacked a small U.S. military fort on a coastal South Carolina island and, with it, the announcement that President Lincoln was calling for volunteers to defend the union, Minnesota boys and men were quick to respond and to volunteer. Over the next four years, no state in the union would provide a higher percentage of its men than Minnesota. Many of them were young men, just out of boyhood, who came to Fort Snelling for training and then transportation to various hot spots of the war.

Minnesota’s record in the war between the North and the South is a proud one – even remarkable – even astounding.

Why Gettysburg?
Gettysburg is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Civil War. At Gettysburg, more than 30,000 soldiers were left dead or seriously wounded by the battles. The intense confrontations came at the hottest point of summer. During Pickett’s Charge on July 3 it was nearly 90 degrees.

There was no rain during the 3 days of the battle (July 1 through July 3); however, it rained heavily on the July 4, seeming to wash the battle fields of their horrible blood.

But, why did it happen in this area in the south central region of the massive state? Part of the answer has to do with the roads. It was a town on the rise and its population was growing rapidly. Three newspapers were published there and there were two major institutions of higher learning. The road system that led into and around Gettysburg was among the most modern in the young nation. Ten significant roads led the way into Gettysburg. It was inviting for the southern army.

Three days of battle!
For three days the two armies slugged each other with the best and hardest punches they had. The fighting began on July 1st at McPherson’s Ridge on the battlefields today called Oak Hill, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge and Barlow’s Knoll. It is difficult to imagine the size of the forces that encountered each other. Approximately 50,000 soldiers were involved and roughly 15,000 of them were killed, seriously wounded or captured.

The battles on July 2nd were the deadliest and costliest of the three. The battles took place at Devil’s Den, Little Roundtop, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery Ridge, Trostle’s Farm, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. The battles involved more than 100,000 soldiers and twenty percent of them were killed, wounded or captured.

Pickett’s Charge, so famous in Civil War history, involved more than 12,000 confederate soldiers.

More than 160,000 troops were present at Gettysburg.

See the battle through the eyes of one Minnesota soldier!
Sgt George Buckman, a soldier in the First Minnesota Regiment, kept a thorough daily diary of the three days of battle. Remarkably, it is possible to read the diary (thanks to the Minnesota History Society). You can even read it on-line because the StarTribune, our local newspaper, has published it at http// Buckman faithfully recorded his experiences nearly every day during the entire Civil War. For those deeply interested in the history of great war between the North and the South, these diaries are enormously important. They make fascinating reading and I was totally absorbed in them as I read.

The First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment
was made up of the first troops gathered, organized, trained and sent off to the war. This regiment saw action in most of the major battles of the war. It fought in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It had a remarkable reputation for toughness and for not backing down in the face of the most horrid possibilities. Yet, it was at Gettysburg that the Minnesota troops famously distinguished themselves and won such a reputation for enormous courage.

On the second day of battle at Gettysburg, the First Minnesota was assigned to General Winfield S. Hancock. They helped the general hold the Union line as Confederate troops advanced against them. The first Minnesota was outnumbered by more than three to one. On the open ground of Cemetery Ridge, the First Minnesota fought the Confederates at close range and they held their ground.

On the third day of battle the First Minnesota helped to repulse Pickett’s Charge and that essentially ended the Battle of Gettysburg and marked the beginning of the end of the ugly war between North and South. Hundreds of Minnesota soldiers died in the three days of battle and hundreds more were wounded. The regiment itself was nearly destroyed.

In February of 1964 the surviving officers and enlisted troops of the First Minnesota Regiment, then numbering only slightly more than 300, returned to Minnesota and were treated like conquering heroes in all the Minnesota towns along the way to Saint Paul. In April, this small representation of the huge regiment of volunteers that went off to the war assembled one last time at Fort Snelling. They held a final parade and then they were dismissed from service with the nation’s great thanks. Corporal Henry O’Brien and Private Marshall Sherman received Congressional Medals of Honor for their actions at Gettysburg on July 2, 1963. (See photo at opening of blog!)

No state sacrificed more than our state did in the effort to preserve the Union. In terms of numbers, that is documentable.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the great battles at Gettysburg, the Minnesota History Society has unveiled an enormous and remarkable display of historic items surrounding the activities of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. If you are a Minnesotan, it should not be missed. It will make you proud indeed!

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