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Heroes of Gettysburg: First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Battle of Gettysburg oil painting by Rufus Zogbaum, in the Governor's Reception Room at the Minnesota State Capitol.

The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment holds a special place in the history of Minnesota. It was the first body of troops raised by the state for Civil War service, and it was among the first regiments of any state offered for national service. As part of the Union Army of the Potomac, the First Minnesota saw action in most of the major battles in the war’s Eastern Theater, which included the states of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, among others. The First Minnesota won a reputation as a hard-fighting regiment, particularly after its dramatic, sacrificial action at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. After the war, the First Minnesota became legendary and a symbol of the Civil War service of all Minnesotans.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey made his tender of 1,000 men for national service on April 14, 1861, the day after the surrender of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Within two weeks, the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was filled with 1,009 men from St. Paul and nearby towns. Such was the patriotic fervor of Minnesota, which had become a state just a few years earlier, in 1858. The First Minnesota mustered for duty at Fort Snelling on April 29, 1861. By the Fourth of July, its soldiers were stationed in Alexandria, Virginia, where they continued their training under the command of Colonel Willis A. Gorman.

The First Minnesota participated in many of the Civil War’s early battles, since it was among the first regiments in service. During 1861, it was heavily engaged at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21) and took part in the Battle of Balls Bluff (October 21). In May through July of 1862, as part of the First Brigade, Second Division, Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the First Minnesota took part in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles near Richmond, Virginia. It also fought at Antietam in Maryland (September 16-17), suffering significant losses in that battle.

Although present at the battles of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862) and Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863) in Virginia, the First Minnesota was not actively involved in the fighting there. The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania was another story, however. That battle (July 1-3, 1863) proved to be the First Minnesota’s most noteworthy action.

On July 2, 1863, the second day of fighting at Gettysburg, the First Minnesota helped General Winfield S. Hancock hold the Union line against advancing Confederate soldiers. Outnumbered three or four to one, the First Minnesota fought the Confederates at close range over 300 yards of open ground near Cemetery Ridge. The next day, the First Minnesota contributed to the repulse of Pickett’s Charge, which effectively ended the Battle of Gettysburg and served as a turning point in the war. Two soldiers from the First Minnesota, Corporal Henry O’Brien and Private Marshall Sherman, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions that day. But the regiment’s fighting at Gettysburg came at a cost: hundreds of Minnesota soldiers died or were wounded, and the regiment was nearly destroyed.

Through the remaining months of 1863, the First Minnesota helped to quell the New York City Draft Riots (July 13-16) and spent a few restful weeks camped on Governors Island in Manhattan and in Washington Park in Brooklyn. In the fall, the regiment participated in its last fights: the Battle of Bristoe Station (October 14) and the Mine Run Campaign (November 27-December 2).

With reduced numbers and soldiers unwilling to reenlist under a new commanding officer, the First Minnesota was unable to continue as a reenlisted regiment of “veteran volunteers.” In February 1864, the First Minnesota headed home. Its surviving 16 officers and 309 enlisted men were treated as returning heroes in the towns along their way. They arrived in St. Paul on February 16 to a rousing reception. After a thirty-day furlough, the First Minnesota reassembled at Fort Snelling. On April 28, exactly three years after many of its men had enlisted, the First Minnesota held its final parade and was dismissed from service.

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