“I would have ordered that regiment in if I had known that every man would be killed. It had to be done.” — Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock
Fifteen minutes. Just a quarter of an hour tells the tale of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg and how 252 average citizens held off nearly 1,500 charging Confederate soldiers to preserve the precarious Union position in a battle generally regarded as the turning point of the Civil War.
The overwhelming odds and horrific casualties from a three-year-old state eager to show its loyalty to a country on the brink of self-destruction continue to fascinate 150 years later.
This year, the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, a Fort Snelling-based group of Civil War re-enactors, is celebrating 40 years of honoring the memories of their fellow Minnesoans who gave the ultimate sacrifice 150 years ago.
“It’s like getting into a time bubble and experiencing some of what these men must have been going through on a daily basis,” says Arn Kind, an elementary school teacher from Mankato who has been involved with the group since 1981.
The First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment will be participating in events throughout the summer to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.
The group’s next event is on Memorial Day at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis where they will be participating in the morning ceremony and leading tours in the afternoon. (To view the regiment’s complete schedule or learn more about the group, go here.)
Through “living history” talks, period demonstrations and re-enactments on the anniversaries of the famous battle, the approximately 60 active members tell the stories of the First Minnesota, whose charge at Gettysburg resulted in nearly 80 percent casualties, the highest proportional loss of any regiment in the entire war.
“It’s hard to imagine how difficult their day-to-day existence was and, of course, there is no way to re-create the abject fear these men must have experienced,” says Kind.
About 13 percent of the state’s total population, or 21,982 Minnesotans, served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
The battle known as the high-water mark of the Confederacy took place July 1-3, 1863, and much has been made of the sweltering heat and humidity — temperatures were in the low 90s, and uniforms at the time were wool.
“You could smell the men before you saw them,” describes Kind. “And that’s one of the most frequently asked questions we receive as well — ‘Aren’t those uniforms hot?’” (He also relates his favorite question from a young student after one of his school presentations — “Were you really in the war?”)
Period uniforms and equipment are sold by various sutlers (merchants who followed the troops during the war) at re-enactment events, and outfitting oneself has gotten exponentially easier with the advent of the Internet.
Authentic as possible
It is not a cheap hobby, though. Even a basic infantryman’s outfit (uniform, cap, boots, belt, haversack, rifle, uniform and cartridge box) can cost more than $1,000. Overall, participants try to avoid anything “farby,” a Civil War re-enactment term for anything not typical of the period.
“We try to be as authentic as possible — for example, the shoes they wore have absolutely no support at all,” explains Kind. “But some guys take it to another level and look down on others for what they perceive to be ‘imperfections’ like machine stitching versus hand stitching on the uniforms. We refer to them as ‘stitch Nazis,’ and it’s really a shame because it turns people off when it’s supposed to be about honoring those who have gone before us.”
Authenticity has its limits, of course. The group tries to be safety-oriented. They’ve learned to leave the ramrods behind, for example, lest someone forget it’s in their rifle and see it go flying through the air. The No. 1 rule might be “Don’t aim at anyone’s face.”
The First Minnesota re-enactors are not a ragtag group of overgrown Boy Scouts.
This eclectic unit has gained such an impressive reputation for authenticity that members were contacted to play extras in several movies, including 1993’s “Gettysburg,” starring Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen, and the ABC miniseries “North and South.” Kevin Costner also took advantage of the serious research the group has done for the Civil War scenes in “Dances With Wolves.”
Researching the lives of these men is made easier because the Civil War was the first in which most participants were literate, so letters home were frequent.
“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant, death or wounds to us all,” wrote William Lochren in a letter home after the battle at Gettysburg. “The sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes time and save the position, and possibly the battlefield…the men were never made who will stand against leveled bayonets coming with such momentum.” Lochren was a First Minnesota Volunteer infantryman.
“They were comrades together, often men from the same town,” explains Kind. “You wanted to fight for the man on your right and the man on your left, and you didn’t want to do anything to disgrace yourself.” Kind says that the re-enactment gives him a sense of what those battles must have been like for those soliders.
“Seeing thousands of men marching forward in a straight line is an amazing visual and gives you a small sense of what it must have been like … you just don’t get that from reading a book,” he said.
Kind relayed one scene from the regiment’s Gettysburg charge for the 125th anniversary that gives him a sense that these men — half of the eligible male population of Minnesota at the time of the war — are in a way still on that battlefield.
Amid the smoke and confusion, it was often hard to tell soldiers apart solely by their uniforms. Regimental flags played a crucial role in helping disoriented soldiers figure out where they were supposed to be and, as a result, there was a tremendous amount of pride in carrying the flag.
In 1988, while re-enacting the regimental charge, the group’s flagstaff broke in half exactly like the First Minnesota’s did during the actual battle 125 years earlier.
“It was in perfect working condition before that so there is no reason it should have done that,” he says. “It was spooky … like they were there with us.”
Sarah Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in St. Louis Park.