John Christgau is author of numerous books, including Enemies: World War II Alien Internment and Birch Coulie: The Epic Battle of the Dakota War. His most recent book, Incident at the Otterville Station: A Civil War Story of Slavery and Rescue, will be available December 1. An excerpt is available here.
A layer of clouds hung over the platform that had been erected at the highest point of the Gettysburg battlefield on the morning of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech 150 years ago. Fifteen thousand people had gathered to hear a speech they feared would be as long as the address that the famous orator Edward Everett had delivered. Some of those who had gathered had become so restless during Everett’s speech that they wandered among the gravestones marking where thirteen hundred Union soldiers were buried two feet apart beneath tombstones laid out in long, graceful rows.
When Lincoln finally spoke, his two-minute speech came and went quickly. As he said, neither he with his short speech nor the citizens who had gathered to hear it could consecrate the battlefield. The ground had already been consecrated by the men who had fought and died there.
None had fought and died more bravely than the men of the First Regiment Minnesota Volunteers, some of whom had responded to Lincoln’s first call for 75,000 troops in April of 1861, which he thought, mistakenly, would quickly put down the rebellion.
Eventually the regiment of ten companies, drawn from men from all over the state, had been part of the gallant but hopeless charge in July of 1861 against impregnable Rebel lines at Bull Run. A year later at Chancellorsville they had sent messages in boats whittled from red cedar across a quiet stream to Rebel troops, whom they respected. Despite the prohibitions against it from their commanders, the two opposing armies had engaged in what one Minnesota soldier called “good natured badinage.”
In July of 1863 at Gettysburg, whatever goodwill the Minnesota soldiers might have held briefly for Rebel troops was gone. The Minnesota soldiers had arrived at Gettysburg and been placed in reserve behind Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. Then, in the early morning of the second day of the battle, 262 Minnesota men in eight companies had moved up to the center of the Union line. From their position they heard the battle cries and watched the clash between Union and Rebel forces in the Peach Orchard, half a mile from the front.
Union forces soon retreated from the Peach Orchard. Broken and in utter disorder, they fled through the line of Minnesota soldiers, pursued by Rebels troops in the flush of victory. There was nobody to oppose them but the 262 men of the First Minnesota.
“What regiment is this?” one of the Union generals shouted to them.
The answer was quick: “The First Minnesota!”
“Charge those lines!” the general ordered.
The Minnesota troops, at full speed and with bayonets leveled, swept down the slope straight at the attacking Rebels.
Now the Rebel lines turned and fled and kept what was described as a “respectable distance” from the bayonets. What might have been a break in the Union lines at Gettysburg had been avoided. The cost to the Minnesota troops was enormous: 215 of the 262 men dead or wounded. Nearly every officer was dead. Only 47 infantry were still in the line.
Subsequent historians wrote that there had never been another battle in history in which so much had been sacrificed by one unit. The First Minnesota lost 80 percent of its men. Nothing in the annals of modern warfare could be compared to it.
The platform from which Lincoln delivered his brief but moving address overlooked the gravestones of those Minnesota men who had plugged the gap in the Union lines at Gettysburg. They were among the men whom Lincoln felt had already consecrated and hallowed the Gettysburg Battlefield, far beyond his meager power to do so.