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Remember the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment, and what it did at Gettysburg

On July 2, 1863, as Union troops were trying desperately to hold the line on Cemetery Ridge, a major hole opened up and nearly 1,200 Confederate troops marched forward. The only unit that could stop them was the grossly outnumbered 1st Minnesota.

A detail from the monument to the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
A detail from the monument to the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Wikimedia Commons

We are well into the season of summertime celebrations, community get-togethers that occur over the weekends in big cities and small towns across Minnesota. If you haven’t enjoyed one, especially some of the adorable small-town celebrations, I highly encourage a road trip. Explore Minnesota has a full rundown of festivals and events across Minnesota all summer long.

Sadly, there’s another unfortunate tradition that will occur across the state this Independence Day weekend and throughout the summer. While the United States’ Stars and Stripes is by far the most common flag you will see across the state, occasionally you’ll witness the flying of the Confederate flag as well, the flag of the enemy of the United States, an insurrectionist army that attacked the United States in an effort to continue slavery as a way of life.

Let me be very clear. As a veteran of the U.S. Army, I do understand the First Amendment, and if you so choose to express your freedom of speech by flying that flag, that’s your right. I won’t respect you, but I do respect your right to display the flag of an enemy of the United States (fact). I’ll proudly be flying the Stars and Stripes. The point of this essay is to express my concern over official vehicles (fire trucks, police cars, vehicles carrying local elected officials) that seem to pop up in some of these community celebrations/parades, proudly displaying the flag of the Confederacy.

In Minnesota, this is especially a heinous act when you look back at the bravery and sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

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Although this essay is about to become a history lesson, this isn’t about debating critical race theory, or whether we should even mention the traditional Native American name for Fort Snelling (Bdote, which is cool!). This isn’t about revisiting a white-centric cultural hero, like Christopher Columbus, whose undeniable negative checklist far outweighs his contributions. This is about whether the same people who claim to be proud Minnesotans can claim to be so if they embrace the flag of the Confederacy, and in turn ignore the near immeasurable sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota.

Just 262 men

In the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, little more than five years after Minnesota had become a state, the Union had a major hole in its line on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. The second day of fighting had been brutal, with the Confederacy looking to end the war once and for all by overrunning the Union line. As the Union troops were trying desperately to hold the hill, a major hole opened up and nearly 1,200 Confederate troops marched forward. The only unit that could stop them was the grossly outnumbered 1st Minnesota. They had 262 men.

They never hesitated. The 1st Minnesota charged into the fray. The chaos and insanity that unfolded in the next few minutes is hard to comprehend. Within five minutes, 215 of the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota fell. When the soldier carrying the Minnesota colors was killed, another dropped their weapon and grabbed the flag. Five times that happened IN FIVE MINUTES. Minnesota’s brave, courageous and desperate sacrifice held until reinforcements arrived. The 82% casualty rate still stands as the U.S. Army’s largest loss of life of any unit which still stood at the end of the battle. Minnesota’s colors never were captured, and are on display at the Capitol in the rotunda. Most important, the Union line held for the day.

‘Saviors of their country’

In case I’m burying the lead, Minnesota saved the Union from the traitorous Confederates on July 2, 1863. That’s not just an opinion. Maj. General Hancock, who had ordered the 1st Minnesota into the Confederate line, considered them to be entitled to the rank of “saviors of their country.” Minnesota has a large memorial in Gettysburg describing their sacrifice. I wept openly in its shadow.

Matthew McNeil
Matthew McNeil
There are a few books dedicated to that pivotal moment at Gettysburg, and that pivotal moment of the Civil War, which I encourage you to read. I don’t do the 1st Minnesota the justice they deserve.

When I’ve seen a Confederate flag on an official vehicle or on an official display at a Minnesota festival, I don’t go and try to rip in down. I don’t scream about how the people who put it up are racist. I simply ask if the people flying the flag know anything about the 1st Minnesota. They always say no. I then inform them of whose side they are taking by flying the Confederate flag, usually as they clearly get more and more uncomfortable with their decisions.

Now that you know about the 1st Minnesota’s history, it’s up to Minnesotans to determine if flying the Confederate flag is appropriate (although I can argue flying it around the United States’ Independence Day seems misguided). If you do fly a Confederate Flag in an official capacity in Minnesota, then do not tell me you’re a proud Minnesotan. A proud Minnesotan would know their history and would always put the 1st Minnesota First, well ahead of the enemies of Minnesota and the United States.

Matthew McNeil is the host of the Matt McNeil show, weekdays, 4 to 6 p.m., on AM950, KTNF.

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