A Prairie Home Historian
One hundred and fifty-five years ago tomorrow, one of the most remarkable stories from the Civil War occurred. “But wait,” my historian friends are saying, “Pickett’s Charge was on July 3.” Yes, that’s right, it was… This post isn’t about that.
At 6:00 PM, the situation was growing dire on the Pennsylvania fields. Dan Sickles’s reckless repositioning of the III Corps left his formations shattered and the Union line exposed. As they withdrew in disorder, General Winfield Hancock saw that they would be unable to resist the Confederates hot on their heels, and that his reserves would not arrive in time to stem the tide. In desperation, riding up the line in search of some available soldiers to plug the gap, he did the unthinkable. Turning to Col. William Colvill, standing close at hand, he gave the fateful order: Pointing over the field at the approaching brigade, he said, “Advance, Colonel, and take those colors!”
Colvill didn’t hesitate even for a moment. Turning to the 261 men who had come with him, who had left their homes in the midst of the Sioux War to come and fight the Confederacy, he told them to fix their bayonets. And so the smallest regiment in the Union Army charged down the ridge and into the annals of history, meeting the significantly larger Confederate force and compelling them to withdraw - at the cost of Col. Colvill’s life, that of 39 other men, and 175 wounded, a casualty figure of 82% that stands as a US Army record to this day. The 47 remaining men withdrew in good order to the Union lines, but their story doesn’t end there.
The next day, July 3, is the day most often remembered in Gettysburg history. 12,500 Confederate soldiers left the woods on Seminary Ridge and marched into the waiting guns of the Union soldiers behind the wall on Cemetery Ridge. Among them were the 47 surviving soldiers of the 1st Minnesota, reinforced with additional soldiers. As the charge broke over the center lines, the Minnesotans answered, defending desperately with bayonets and hand-to-hand fighting. At the cost of 17 more lives, they came away with a trophy - the regimental colors of the 28th Virginia Volunteer Infantry, captured by a young private who earned the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. The Minnesotans’ flag hangs in our state Senate to this day; the Virginians’ flag is kept in our historical society.