The Suicide Charge of the First Minnesota, Gettysburg, Day 2, July 2nd, 1863
(Originally published 06/30/13)
For many historians, Gettysburg is one of the most fascinating of all battles. It was a watershed event, three days that would echo throughout the rest of the war. Though the war would go on for another two long years, the outcome of this battle laid the eventual groundwork for what some believe was its inevitable conclusion, the loss of independence for the south.
It was Lee’s last viable opportunity to bring the North to its knees, and he came within a hair’s-breadth of succeeding. One of the reasons for his failure was his improper use of cavalry in its traditional role as a reconnaissance tool. Accordingly, it caused him to initially make decisions based on the faulty assumption he was facing two to three union corps, instead of the entire union army.
A second reason was his loss of Stonewall Jackson, one of his best Generals. The resultant reorganization of the Army his loss forced upon Lee led to the promotion of numerous people untested in positions of command.
Most importantly, though Longstreet’s first assault on Day 2 was pure genius, which came very near to breaking the union lines all together, Lee was plainly out-generaled by his opponent’s leadership. Generals Meade, Reynolds, Buford, Howard, and Hancock, as well as a host of other union Generals throughout the battle, made crucial decisions on each of the three days that eventually compelled Lee to cede his won ground, and retreat back across the border after the battle.
Nevertheless, in every battle, there are moments of courage and self-sacrifice, where the future of the battle, the war, and the country, hangs in the balance. Gettysburg had many of these moments, examples of which included the sacrifices of the First Brigade on Day 1 to those of the Irish Brigade in the wheat field on Day 2. That being said, none better exemplifies the nobility of sacrifice within that proverbial context of fear, blood, and death that war thoroughly brings, than the suicide charge of the First Minnesota. It’s 289 men charged into two entire Confederate brigades, ten times the regiment’s strength. Their sacrifice took the wind out of Longstreet’s sails, arresting his assault’s success just as his attack was beginning to bear fruit.
General Longstreet was the best General Lee had in the wake of General Stonewall Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville. Longstreet’s Day 2 assault at Gettysburg was an amazing act of generalship. It truly was brilliant. If anyone came close to defeating the union in this battle, it was Longstreet on Day 2, without question.
Longstreet was later pilloried by his peers after the war for this assault, as the cult of Lee subsequently took hold, making any criticism of Lee off limits. This was helped on by the control of Virginia officers over the southern historical societies, groups that didn’t take too kindly to non-Virginia-bred upstart generals like Longstreet. Coupled with his friendship with Ulysses S Grant pre and post-war, and his decision to join the North’s very unpopular Republican Party after the war, Longstreet made himself too easy a scapegoat for them. Many modern day sources have failed to credit Longstreet’s contributions, since some are based on the tainted histories of Longstreet’s prejudiced contemporaries.
Nevertheless, when studying this battle, it’s good to get a good lay of the land. After Day 1, the north had been pushed back up on a ridge, bordered by two primary hills, Little Round Top and Culp’s hill. Their lines were three miles long, forming a large fish hook, which faced the direction of a lower-case letter (r). The straight line of that fishhook pointed north, which bordered the southern side of Gettysburg’s city limits. On the north-east side of that hook was Culp’s hill. At the southern end of the long line of that fishhook were the hills, Little Round Top and Big Round top, with Big Round Top the more southern of the two Round Top hills. Big Round Top was unmanned. Little Round Top and Culp’s hill formed the extreme positions held by the north. The southerners held the ridge opposite this fishhook, forming their own inverted fishhook, as well.
The genius of Longstreet’s attack is in his use of attack, en echelon, which is when a military commander sends successive groups of men one at a time, generally one half-hour to hours apart, each hitting immediately next to the last point of attack. He does this instead of attacking along the entire front en masse. The idea is to cause the enemy to send reinforcements from regiments and brigades neighbouring the point of attack, causing enough panic during reinforcement to make a part of the enemy line too week to hold, as the next successive group attacks where the enemy has weakened himself beyond repair.
At 4:30 PM on Day 2, he sent in Hood’s division, his right most division, against the Big and Little Round Tops, while holding back the rest of his brigades and divisions. This action forced the overwhelmed union at that point of contact to pull in reinforcements from their right, bleeding strength from neighbouring regiments and brigades.
At 5:00 PM, he sent in McLaw’s division, immediately next to where Hood had originally started, against Sickle’s corps in the Peach Orchard. Each of its two brigades were sent in en echelon, which at the point of impact coerced local union commanders to pull in reinforcements from the union’s right flank, shedding more and more strength from the centre as successive southern assaults gained momentum.
What Longstreet did not know when formulating his plan was of the fortuitous arrival of one of the largest union corps upon the scene, just as his attack was beginning to take shape. That union corps began to funnel in reinforcements, stemming what would have been an immediate route of union forces. This help was coupled by reinforcements made by a union corps held in reserve, along with reinforcements from General Hancock’s union division immediately in line next to the cauldron of battle.
But even with these reinforcements, the union position was tenuous at best. Against orders, union General Sickles had made a foolish pre-battle manoeuvre. He had repositioned his corps one mile in front of the rest of the union line, disengaging it from any kind of support from other union units. Having faced a similar assigned position in his most recent battle, where his corps suffered inordinately at the hands of the south, this politically appointed general took it upon himself to act independently. Regardless, by the time Meade had discovered what Sickles had done, Longstreet’s attack struck, making it too late to correct Sickles’ imprudence.
At 6:00 PM, Richard Anderson’s division of A.P. Hill’s Corps, which had been temporarily assigned to Longstreet for this assault, was sent into the attack, with five brigades. The first two southern brigades of Wilcox (Alabama) and Lang (Florida) to hit the union lines made the last of Sickle’s line break, and run to the rear. There were no soldiers left to repel them, none that hadn’t already been sent to the union left to stem the attacks. This is when the First Minnesota entered the lore of the battle, and eventually led President Calvin Coolidge to later claim that what they did “has few, if any equals and no superiors in the history of warfare,” entitling the Minnesotans “to rank as the saviours of their country.”
General Hancock who had been charged with plugging the holes in the union left had sent all he had to that sector of the battle. He needed time to bring in reinforcements from other quiet areas of the line. If the two southern brigades breached the northern line, as it appeared they were about to do, all that was left was to “cross the T” and roll up the union right. The battle, and war, would have ended that night, as Washington would have then been wide open to Lee.
As Allen C. Guelzo in “Gettysburg, The Last Invasion” outlines the charge of the 1st Minnesota,
“As he (Hancock) turned to look backward, he saw a large body of troops with flags coming out of the battle fog….he twisted around to look for troops to throw into the path of the Alabamians, he saw absolutely no one—except for one regiment…..’My God! Are these all the men we have here?’ The Alabamians, supported on their left by David Lang’s three Florida regiments, were looming up clearly now, in what looked like ‘three long lines.’ Hancock ‘spurred to where’ the regiment lay, calling out, ‘What regiment is this.’ First Minnesota, replied the regiment’s colonel, William Colvill. Hancock, pointing toward the Alabamians, wasted no time in instructing Colvill, ‘Charge those lines!’
Every man realized in an instant what that order meant, ‘but Colvill, without the slightest protest, called the First Minnesota to its feet, rifles at right-shoulder-shift, and down into the swale they went, toward the meagre margins of Plum Run, where Wilcox and Lang had paused for a moment to reorder their lines……Of all the moments of self-immolation that the Army of the Potomac performed that afternoon….nothing quite hit the bell of the sublime as deeply as the charge of the First Minnesota. With ‘no hesitation, no stopping to fire,‘ Colvill led them in a fast trot, breaking into a full-scale run as he shouted, ‘Charge!’
They were briefly concealed by a thick bank of smoke which ‘had settled into the ravine’ formed by Plum Run, so that the Alabamians had no warning of their approach until the Minnesotans burst on top of them….The front rank of the Alabamians took one look at the ‘levelled bayonets coming with such momentum and evident desperation’ and promptly broke, stumbling and tripping over their rear rank. Colvill pulled the Minnesotans up at the line….and ‘we then poured in our first fire.’ It was as though ‘the ferocity of our onset seemed to paralyze them.’ Worse than paralyze, it convinced David Lang that ‘a heavy force had advanced upon General Wilcox’s brigade, and was forcing it back.’ Lang at once concluded that they had walked into a massive Federal trap, and Lang ‘immediately ordered my men back to the road, some 300 yards to the rear.’”
The attack lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, which was exactly what Hancock needed to fill the empty union line with soldiers. Guelzo states that only 47 of the First Minnesota’s 289 men made it back to roll call. But they bought with their lives and limbs the time Hancock needed. So when the next southern brigade of Wright later showed up, momentarily breaking through the union lines to the right of where Minnesota fought it’s last breath, they did so without the support of the two strong brigades turned back by the First Minnesota. Moreover, they did so without the two brigades to Wright’s left, as well. One spent too much time clearing a few farm buildings of annoying union skirmishers, while the other southern brigade’s commander refused to get involved in the battle at all.
The what-ifs of this world can fill volumes. But had the First Minnesota not caused those two brigades to retreat, Wright would have most likely arrived exploiting an inevitable breakthrough of Wilcox and Lang along an unprepared union line. The south may have won that night, causing America to irrevocably split into two countries.