1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment

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The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment was the very first group of volunteers the Union received in response to the South's assault of Fort Sumter at the beginning of the United States Civil War. Minnesota's Governor Ramsey offered 1000 men to Lincoln immediately upon learning of the attack on the fort. He just happened to be in Washington when the news broke. Those men volunteered for a three-year commitment (1861-64) which was much longer than other states. During combat actions, the 1st Minnesota sustained substantial casualties at the battles of First Bull Run 20%[1] and Antietam (28%)[1] and a staggering 82%[1]at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is most noted for its actions on the second day there.

1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment
ActiveApril 29, 1861, to April 28, 1864
Country United States
EquipmentM1861 Springfield .58 Rifle-musket
M1842 Springfield .69 Smoothbore
M1842 Springfield .69 Rifle-musket
Sharps .52 Rifle
EngagementsFirst Bull Run
Ball's Bluff
Seven Pines
Savage's Station
Malvern Hill
Second Bull Run
Second Fredericksburg
Bristoe Station
Mine Run Campaign
Colonel Willis A. Gorman
Colonel Napoleon J.T. Dana
Colonel Alfred Sully
Colonel George N. Morgan
Colonel William J. Colvill

At a dire moment, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of II Corps ordered the First Minnesota to charge into a Southern brigade. They were outnumbered by at least 5 to 1, but it was Gen. Hancock's only option to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. One survivor stated afterward that he expected the advance to result in "death or wounds to us all..."[2] The regiment immediately obeyed the order. Gen. Hancock was amazed at the unit discipline, valor, and the tremendous casualties taken in carrying out his order. This action preserved the Union's position on the Ridge exactly as he had hoped.

Post war, both General Hancock and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge were unrestrained in their praise for the actions of the 1st Minnesota. Gen. Hancock, who witnessed the action firsthand, placed its heroism highest in the annals of war:[3] "No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country ever displayed grander heroism". Gen. Hancock ascribed unsurpassed gallantry to the famed assault stating: "There is no more gallant deed recorded in history".[4] Emphasizing the critical nature of the circumstances on July 2 at Gettysburg, President Coolidge considered: "Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country".[5]


Organization and early serviceEdit

Plain brass First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry badge worn on the kepi. It was worn by Sergeant Chesley Billings Tirrell of Company C. The officers version was nickel plated. The trefoil was the Corps emblem of the II Corps that the 1st Minn. was attached to.Minnesota Historical Society.

On April 14, 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey was visiting Washington DC. Upon hearing of the attack on Fort Sumter Governor Ramsey immediately offered President Lincoln 1000 men to fight the South. Word of the Governor's offer spread and communities back in Minnesota quickly raised groups of volunteers in support of Ramsey. The abandoned Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, was reactivated. The men raised by the communities were sent there and mustered into the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment on April 29. They were the first troops offered by any state to meet Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 men to assist the Federal Government deal with the secession. On May 10 they were remustered "officially" for three years service. From Fort Snelling they boarded river boats to go South to a rail line so they could head east.

Company Earliest Moniker Primary Location of Recruitment Earliest Captain
A Pioneer Guard St. Paul Alexander Wilkin
B Stillwater Guard Stillwater Carlyle A. Bromley
C St. Paul Volunteers St. Paul William H. Acker
D Lincoln Guards Minneapolis Henry R. Putnam
E St. Anthony Zouaves St. Anthony George N. Morgan
F Red Wing Volunteers
or Goodhue County Volunteers
Red Wing William J. Colvill, Jr.
G Faribault Guards Faribault William H. Dike
H Dakota County Volunteers Hastings Charles Powell Adams
I Wabasha Volunteers Wabasha John H. Pell
K Winona Volunteers Winona Henry C. Lester
L Sharpshooters Rice & Steele Counties William Russell

First Bull RunEdit

On July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia, the regiment fought in the first major battle of the Civil War: the First Battle of Bull Run. While straddling Rickett's Battery in support, it saw heavy fighting on Henry House Hill in close proximity to the enemy. The 1st Minnesota was one of the last regiments to leave the battlefield and suffered among the highest casualties of any northern regiment: 49 killed, 107 wounded and 34 missing.[6]

During the 1st Minnesota Infantry's initiation to combat, its honorable conduct was readily distinguishable from that of the other regiments in its brigade:

The First Minnesota Regiment moved from its position on the left of the field to the support of Ricketts' battery, and gallantly engaged the enemy at that point. It was so near the enemy's lines that friends and foes were for a time confounded. The regiment behaved exceedingly well, and finally retired from the field in good order. The other two regiments of the brigade retired in confusion, and no efforts of myself or staff were successful in rallying them. I respectfully refer you to Colonel Gorman's report for the account of his regiment's behavior and of the good conduct of his officers and men.[7]


During General John Sedgwick's ill-fated assault on the West Woods,[8] the regiment suffered significant casualties (1 officer killed, 3 officers wounded, 15 enlisted killed, 79 enlisted wounded, 24 enlisted missing, for at total of 122 [28%] of 435 engaged)[9] as Union forces were routed on that part of the field. The brigade commander noted, "The First Minnesota Regiment fired with so much coolness and accuracy that they brought down [three times one] of the enemy's flags, and finally cut the flag-staff in two."[10]

Gettysburg, July 2Edit

Monument to the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, located on Cemetery Ridge, off South Hancock Avenue.

July 2, 1863 is the day the 1st Minnesota is most remembered for. During the second day's fighting at Gettysburg, the regiment stopped the Confederates from splitting the Union line, pushing the Union off of Cemetery Ridge and over running the battery there that could have been then turned on the North. The actions of the 1st Minnesota saved the battle.

Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of II Corps, could see two brigades of Southerners commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox breaching the line in front of one of his batteries. He quickly rode up to the troops guarding the battery and asked Col. William Colvill " What Unit is this? " Col. Colvill responded " the 1st Minnesota ". Gen. Hancock responded " Attack that line ". With their bayonets leveled the Minnesotans broke the first lines. The intensity of their charge impeded the Southern Advance for some time. With the unit nearly encircled, support arrived in time for the men to fight their way back to security. Their selfless charge bought the Union the time needed for reinforcements to be brought up. During the charge, 215[nb 1] of the 262 who made the charge became casualties within five minutes. That included the unit commander, Col. William Colvill, and all but three of his captains.

The 1st Minnesota's flag lost five men carrying it. Every time another man dropped his weapon to carry it on. The 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock under the command of their senior surviving officer, Captain Nathan S. Messick. The 82% casualty rate stands as the largest loss by any surviving U.S military unit in a single day's engagement ever. The unit's colors are displayed in the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol for public appreciation.

Minnesota has two monuments at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The more grand of the two bears the inscription:

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles' Third Corps, having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg Road, eight companies of the First Minnesota Regiment, numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery upon Sickles repulse.

As his men were passing here in confused retreat, two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves & save this position, Gen Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy.

The order was instantly repeated by Col Wm Colvill. And the charge as instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy's front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there the remnant of the eight companies, nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time & till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position & probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 82% percent. 47 men were still in line & no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. Among the severely wounded were Col Wm Colvill, Lt Col Chas P Adams & Maj Mark W. Downie. Among the killed Capt Joseph Periam, Capt Louis Muller & Lt Waldo Farrar. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett's charge losing 17 more men killed & wounded.[14]

In his official report, Confederate Brigadier General Cadmus M. Wilcox perceived the inequality of the fight differently (bold emphasis likely refers to the First Minnesota):

This stronghold of the enemy [i.e., Cemetery Ridge], together with his batteries, were almost won, when still another line of infantry descended the slope in our front at a double-quick, to the support of their fleeing comrades and for the defense of the batteries. Seeing this contest so unequal, I dispatched my adjutant-general to the division commander, to ask that support be sent to my men, but no support came. Three several times did this last of the enemy's lines attempt to drive my men back, and were as often repulsed. This struggle at the foot of the hill on which were the enemy's batteries, though so unequal, was continued for some thirty minutes. With a second supporting line, the heights could have been carried. Without support on either my right or left, my men were withdrawn, to prevent their entire destruction or capture. The enemy did not pursue, but my men retired under a heavy artillery fire, and returned to their original position in line, and bivouacked for the night, pickets being left on the pike.[15]

Gettysburg July 3Edit

July 3 Monument to the 1st Minn. Reg., the Codori farmstead behind

Carrying on from the heavy losses of the previous day, the remaining men of the 1st Minn. were reinforced by detached Companies F and L. The reunited regiment was moved a bit north of the previous days fight to one of the few places where Union lines were breached during Pickett's Charge. They again had to charge into advancing Confederate troops with more losses. Capt. Messick was killed and Capt. W. B. Farrell mortally wounded, and Capt. Henry C. Coates had to take command. During this charge, Private Marshall Sherman of Company C captured the colors of the 28th Virginia Infantry[16] and received the Medal of Honor for this exploit. The Confederate flag was taken back to Minnesota as a war trophy. The State retains possession to this day with the Minnesota Historical Society ensuring its proper preservation. In the mid-1990s, several groups of Virginians threatened to sue the Society to return the 28th Virginia's battle flag to the Old Dominion. The Minnesota Attorney General advised that such threats were without a legal basis, and the flag remained in the possession of the Society.[17] In subsequent years, various groups of Virginia officials asked for the flag to be returned to (or at least be loaned to) Virginia, always to be met with similar declinations from Minnesota authorities. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton once explained "We declined that invitation... It was taken in a battle with the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans. It would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It's something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of the men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it... ...As far as I'm concerned it is a closed subject." Some years earlier, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura had been more succinct: "We won... We took it. That makes it our heritage.".[18]

After being knocked out by a bullet to the head and later shot in the hand, Corporal Henry D. O'Brien repeatedly picked up the fallen colors of the 1st Minnesota and carried a wounded comrade back to the Union lines. He was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.

Later serviceEdit

The 1st Minnesota continued to serve in the Army of the Potomac, participating later in 1863 in the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. It was mustered out of service upon completion of its enlistment on April 29, 1864, at Fort Snelling. Enough of the regiment's veterans reenlisted to form the nucleus of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Battalion, which returned to Virginia and served through the end of the war.[19] Other veterans provided officers for the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.[20]


First Minnesota Civil War drum, 1861

The 1st Minnesota Infantry suffered the loss of 10 officers and 177 enlisted men killed in action or who later died of their wounds, plus another 2 officers and 97 enlisted men who died of disease, for a total of 286 fatalities[19] and 609 wounded.[1]
Bull Run

Continued lineageEdit

The 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division (Minnesota Army National Guard) traces its roots back to the historic 1st Minnesota Volunteers.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The 215 casualty figure is disputed. Morning muster on July 2 for companies A, B, D, E, G, H, I & K, involved in the assault, was 262 with the evening muster 47. To arrive at the casualty figure of 215, the Regimental Historian (Lt. Wm. Lochren) subtracted the muster figures (262-47=215)(82.1%) and asserted that "[every one of the] 215 [missing men] lay upon the field."[11] Conducting an enumeration by individual names in 1982, Robert W. Meinhard of Winona State University accounted for only 179 (68.3%) casualties for the single day of July 2, 1863.[12][13] Whether Meinhard's and Lochren's conclusions are based upon the exact same records is unknown; accounting for the disputed 36 (=215-179) men remains unresolved.


  • Andrews, C. C., ed. (1891). Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars 1861-1865. St. Paul, Minn: Printed for the state by the Pioneer Press Co. OL 7088819M.


  1. ^ a b c Moe, Richard (1993). The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-087351406-4.
  2. ^ Lochren, Lieutenant William (July 2, 1897). "Dedicatory Address, First Minnesota Monument". Gettysburg National Military Park. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) Cited in Colvill Commission (1916). History of the First Regiment Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864. Stillwater, MN: Easton & Masterman. pp. 344. Every man realized in an instant what that order meant. Death or wounds to us all—the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes time and save the position and probably the battlefield, and every man saw and accepted the necessity for that sacrifice, and responding to Colvill's rapid orders the regiment in perfect line, with arms at right shoulder shift was in a moment down that slope directly upon the enemy's center.
  3. ^ Tucker, Glenn (1960). Hancock the Superb. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. pp. 145. No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.
  4. ^ Folwell, William Watts (1961). A History of Minnesota, Vol II. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society. p. 311. There is no more gallant a deed recorded in history.
  5. ^ The American Presidency Project. "Address Dedicating a Memorial to Col. William Colvill, Cannon Falls, Minn. July 29, 1928". Retrieved 2012-09-10.
  6. ^ "Report of Col. Willis A. Gorman, First Minnesota Infantry; O.R.–SERIES I–VOLUME 51 Part 1 [S# 107]". Bull Runnings. 2008-09-25. pp. 20–23. Retrieved 2011-09-26.
  7. ^ Franklin, Col. William B. "Report of Col. William B. Franklin, Twelfth U. S. Infantry, Commanding First Brigade, Third Division". Civil War Reference. Archived from the original on 2016-03-12. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  8. ^ Antietam on the Web. "Gorman's Brigade, Sedgwick's Division". Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  9. ^ Antietam on the Web. "Col Alfred Sully's Official Report". Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  10. ^ Gorman, Brigadier General Willis A. "Report of Brig. Gen. Willis A. Gorman, U.S. Army, Commanding First Brigade, of the Battle of Antietam SEPTEMBER 3-20, 1862.-The Maryland Campaign. O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XIX/1 [S# 27]". Civil War Home. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  11. ^ Colville Commission (1916). History of the First Regiment Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864. Stillwater, MN: Easton & Masterman. pp. 345.
  12. ^ Maciejewski, Jeffrey (July 2011). "Buying Time". America's Civil War: 50.
  13. ^ Meinhard, Robert W. (20 May 1982). "Letter to Tom Harrison, Chief Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park". Cite journal requires |journal= (help) cited in Moe, Richard (1993). The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 275. ISBN 978-087351406-4.
  14. ^ DCMemorials.com
  15. ^ Wilcox, Brig. Gen Cadmus M. "Official Report, The Gettysburg Campaign". Home of the American Civil War. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  16. ^ research file (MOLLUS at Gettysburg Discussion Group website)
  17. ^ A disputed legacy Archived 2012-09-11 at Archive.today ; July 4, 2000; By Michael Hemphill, The Roanoke Times
  18. ^ Stassen-Berger, Rachel E. (August 20, 2017). "Minnesota has a Confederate symbol — and it is going to keep it". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved May 10, 2020.
  19. ^ a b Civil War Archive website regimental history
  20. ^ Andrews, p. 612.

Further readingEdit

  • Imholte, John Q., The First Volunteers: History of the first Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, 1861-1865. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1963. Out of print.
  • Moe, Richard, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993, ISBN 978-087351406-4.

External linksEdit