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Sacrifice and the Flags of our Fathers: The 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg

1st Minnesota at Gettysburg

Editor’s Note: Since the original post in 2017, we have run this story every year on July 4th. This year I have updated it with a new section.


Heroism seldom occurs without a mistake, and it was no different around 4 pm on July 2nd, 1863. Union General Sickles, a political appointee without a military background, advanced his men without authorization to higher ground 1000 meters ahead of his original position, creating a gap in the Union lines. Cemetery Ridge was now vulnerable, and Confederate forces poured into the half-mile-wide opening.

The Union held the veteran troops in reserve. Green troops are in the front because green troops run instead of holding their lines. Veterans stand their ground; no regiment was more veteran than the 1st Minnesota. Alexander Ramsey had volunteered them on April 14th, 1861, shortly after the shelling of Fort Sumter. The men were loggers and farmers, big in stature and rugged by nature, used to wielding the ax, the rifle, and the setting pole. Since the beginning of the war, the regiment had seen lots of action. They had taken heavy casualties at Bull Run and more later at Antietam. On the afternoon of July 2nd—after beginning the war with over one thousand men—they stood midway between Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, just 262 strong.

As Sickles’s line collapsed under Confederate attack, it became apparent that the situation was dire. If the enemy managed to get through the gap, they would roll up the Union forces, devastating the Union Army and likely ending the war. Gray uniforms arrived in magnificent waves, hurling death and destruction from rifles and batteries. Union General Hancock had sent for reinforcements, but they would not come for at least five minutes. All he had to plug the gap stood before him. He looked at the regiment.

“My God,” said Hancock. “Are these all the men we have?” They were.

“What regiment is this?”

“The 1st Minnesota,” commanding officer Colonel William Colvill replied.

“Charge those lines,” ordered Hancock.

Outnumbered at least 5 to 1 by Confederate troops, the regiment was to be sacrificed for an uncertainty. Colonel Colvill turned to his men and ordered them to fix bayonets and “forward, double-quick.” Not a single man disobeyed the order. At first, they began moving in two lines, which the regiment held as long as possible under punishing fire before driving straight into the enemy’s center. Their flag fell five times, and each time was picked up again. By the time they reached the enemy, the 1st Minnesota was spread out, fighting individually or in small groups.

Hancock had asked them for five minutes. The 1st Minnesota gave him fifteen.

They lost 215 men, 82% of the regiment, including their commander and all but three captains. The General would later say, “No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.” Historians believe that the 1st Minnesota’s charge saved the Union at Gettysburg and, as a result, was one of the crucial moments in winning the Civil War. What remained of the 1st Minnesota was plugged into other units and found themselves at the focal point of Pickett’s Charge.

Each year on this day, I think of men that embarked on a suicide mission so that others may live without any guarantee of success and many reasons to expect failure. And to a man, they accepted and charged double time, once more unto the breach. More than a century and a half later, the nation they fought and died for remains deeply imperfect but still here. They make me proud to be from Minnesota. As Lincoln said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Prequel: Fort Snelling

When Alexander Ramsey pledged a regiment of 1,000 volunteers to the Union cause, the state of Minnesota reopened Fort Snelling to serve as a rendezvous point and training center. The Fort was essential in creating a unit that would be key in defeating the Confederacy at Gettysburg and, by extension, key in ending slavery.

Fort Snelling, like the duality of the U.S. more generally, was also home to Black people held in bondage. While the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise banned slavery in the North, officers in the U.S. Army regularly brought enslaved men and women to Fort Snelling. One of these enslaved women was a woman named Harriet Robinson, who was trafficked to Fort Snelling in or around 1835. In 1836, John Emerson, a U.S. Army surgeon, trafficked an enslaved man named Dred Scott to the Fort. Scott and Robinson married and had two children together. They were trafficked to St. Louis in the early 1840s, where Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson were trafficked to other people as a source of income for John Emerson and then later Emerson’s wife, Irene. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase their freedom, only to be refused by Irene Emerson. Both he and Harriet Robinson then sued for their freedom. Scott lost because of a hearsay claim that meant that Scott was ordered by the court to remain enslaved by Irene Emerson because he could not prove that Irene Emerson had previously enslaved him.

Judge Alexander Hamilton did not formally submit Harriet Robinson’s case to jurors. The judge “corrected” this fact by simply recopying the details of Dred Scott’s case for Harriet Robinson, denying her a day in court. The exclusion of Robinson was not merely because she was Black but because she was also a woman. To borrow a line from Kimberle Crenshaw, Robinson’s exclusion was a problematic consequence baked into the American experience of the “tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.”

After multiple appeals and reversals of the ruling for both sides, Robinson and Scott’s case (joined with others) arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for a 7-2 majority Roger Taney, a virulent racist, and Chief Justice, wrote:

The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied [sic] by that instrument to the citizen?

Taney and the other justices in the majority concluded wrongly that Black people could never possess American citizenship and thus could not take part in the privileges given to Americans. One thousand, five hundred, and one day later, Alexander Ramsey pledged 1,000 troops to the Union cause. Two years later, the 262 remaining would rush forward to prevent the Confederacy from winning at Gettysburg.

It is more common than it should be to imagine that my home state and hometown are untouched by the problems of other places. Perhaps on July 4th, when considering the heroism and sacrifice of 262 men, we should also consider what brought them to that point and how we have so much more to go to honor that last full measure of devotion.

Coda: Flags and Monuments

In the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection lies a scarred piece of cloth, primarily red, with a blue St. Andrew’s Cross and thirteen white stars. The cloth started its journey in Lynchburg, Virginia, in June 1861, flew at Manassas and throughout the Peninsula Campaign, and on July 1st, 1863, made its way to Gettysburg. The cross on the flag has no historical meaning, chosen only to avoid a potential objection to an upright cross, and the colors are plagiarized.

Marshall Sherman was a house painter by trade and had come to Minnesota in 1849 when the state was still a territory. He was a quiet man and had mustered into the 1st Minnesota at age 37. On July 2nd, Sherman had been stationed on detached duty as a division provost guard and did not see action. On July 3rd, he and the rest of his unit were placed in the middle of the Union line.

The piece of cloth led men who followed a bankrupt idea. Throughout the war, that number had been up to 600. On July 3rd, the cloth led considerably less of them on a charge up a ridge.

Marshall Sherman was not the first man over the wall. If it was a Minnesotan, the man was Henry D. O’Brien, who held the colors of the First Minnesota on a staff nearly broken in two by a bullet. O’Brien rushed forward toward the Confederate chargers. His Lieutenant ordered him to come back, but as O’Brien later said with a smile, ”I didn’t.” The Minnesotans reacted on instinct and followed the colors. The two unequivocal facts from that day are the failure of Pickett’s charge and that Marshall Sherman was awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing the 28th Virginia’s colors.

In 1905, Congress passed an act that declared flags in possession of the War Department at the time be returned to the respective states from which they came. However, the 28th Virginia battle flag was not in the War Department’s possession. That does not mean the flag was missing. Since 1867 the flag was almost certainly owned by Marshall Sherman. Eventually, Sherman transferred the flag to the Minnesota Historical Society, which has held it to the present. The flag resides in a museum where such symbols belong, a relic of history.

Every so often, the flag appears on display in the State Capitol Building, usually in response to Virginia asking for its return. In this capacity, the flag serves as a monument. Monuments are structures created to memorialize a person or an event. What then does this flag represent when displayed outside a museum? What is the monument? I can tell you what the monument is not. It does not represent the heroism of both sides of the war, nor some shared heritage or a plea to lost causes. Instead, the flag represents the spoils of victory over an evil idea. Showing off the 28th Virginia battle flag is never a push to emulate the flag’s original meaning but a warning to those who might.