Of about 1,000 men when the war started, it's massive losses saw only 262 stepping forth on day 2 of the 3 day slaughter known as the Battle of Gettysburg. At day's end that number would be reduced by almost 85% to an incredible 47 left still on their feet.
If the approaching Southerners from the west could breach that gap and turn either left or right they would instantly gain the advantage and could mow down the Union men just as if they were back home at the bowling alley. They'd first get the first two, then the next two and on and on and on.
While reinforcements were en-route to aid the general, he needed ten or more minutes to hold the ground till they arrived. He therefore gave his famous command to the First Minnesota.
He ordered the Regiment's Colonel to immediately charge down the slopping grade at the Southerners. He well knew, as did the Colonel..and every man... that the order was nothing short of a suicide mission. Few were expected to survive. But the sacrifice had to be made to hold the line.
At the top of the sketch above you can see the small village of Gettysburg. If you follow the main route called the Tanneytown Road south bound, you can see it runs almost parallel to the Cemetery Ridge. The sketch shows the First Mn. at the top of three dots, early in the morning. By mid day the regiment was further south, and by late afternoon it was at the bottom dot when the order to charge was issued.
The men formed up in two files and started moving, then doubling...without first firing... but just moving on to their target as quickly as possible. Soon they would be in full charge and firing as they went.
The slaughter was horrific. The 262 man regiment was advancing on well over 1000 men from several units. The men and officers of the First dropped like flies some moaning from wounds, others having taken the last breath of life, as their brothers just charged on with no time to stop and try to give any aid.
The Colonel would drop from wounds, then the Lt. Colonel, then the command was taken over by Major Mark Downie, a Canadian, but within 50 steps or so, he too would be knocked off his feet from two wounds to the arm, a bullet through his foot, and a wound to the chest. The adjutant fell and was joined by several other captains and Lieutenants and most of the men.
It was no doubt when the unit fixed bayonets for the final charge that those left standing terrified the Southerners who soon went into retreat. The First, or should I say what was left of them, then moved back to regroup and prepare for an expected counter-charge, but it did not come that night.
As noted in past blogs, the carrying of the colours is a very high honour awarded to any member of the guard. The job is to use this as an identifier in an otherwise perhaps very crowned battlefield. It tells all where THEIR regiment is if and men get separated. It is also used to give various directions or signals and is a cherished possession of the unit. It is a great morale booster to capture the enemy's and most destructive if your own is lost.
And it is a very dangerous job. The carrier is front and center and is a major target for the enemy. If a flag is downed, this could confuse the men about the where they are and where they are supposed to be. It could cause delays and confusion that could well result in the enemy catching the men stumbling about, off guard and thus easier targets.
To kill the carrier, or to capture his flag is usually awarded with a Medal of Honor. About 700 I do believe where so awarded over the entire 150 plus years of the medal's existence.
From the various sources consulted, I have calculated that there were 64 Medals of Honor awarded for actions during the 3 day Battle of Gettysburg. Of these, 29 were for the saving of the soldier's own unit flag, retrieving one captured earlier by the enemy, or planting it on enemy territory. defending the flag.
On 2 July, 12 medals where awarded for capturing an enemy flag. Two for retrieving the unit's own flag and only 1 for defending the unit's own flag.
Looking closer at these numbers, NOT ONE OF THE FIRST MINNESOTTA soldiers was awarded a Medal of Honor for their actions during the horrendous charge of 2 July. Not one!
They lost 85% of their enlisted and commissioned members, and saw their colours knocked down five times on that day alone, retrieved and carried on till the next day's battle were yet more incredible bravery finally resulted in ONE Medal of Honor for saving the colours and another for capturing an enemy's colours.
It was just a few days less than a full year earlier that the Army Medal of Honor was born. Eligibility called for..."gallantry in action and other soldier like qualities." The award was for men, not officers, but the latter were included with changes by March of 1863.
Since none were awarded for the 2 July actions, are we to assume that no one in the entire regiment that day was involved in any gallantry in action? Had no one shown any soldier like qualities?
You and I were not there. But I found some folks who were! Let's see what they had to say.
Lt. Lochren, who fought with the unit on the 2nd wrote that... "every man realized in an instant what the 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 the sacrifice."
Captain Henry Coates, one of the company commanders in the battle wrote that... "Every man in the regiment did his whole duty. The accompanying loss of the killed and wounded shows the severity of our loss."
Major General Winfield S Hancock, would later write that...
"the superb gallantry of the men saved our line from being broken. No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism." This from a man who would be a Presidential nominee some 15 years later.
And some 48 years after that, a fellow named Calvin Coolidge, while not a Presidential Nominee... but in fact the President of the United States... attended the dedication of a monument for Colonel Colvill. And in front of an audience of some 20,000 he commented about the historic First Minnesota.
Among his words of praise can be found the line that..."In all the history of warfare, this charge has few, if any equals and no superiors. By holding the Confederate forces in check until other forces came up, it probably saved the Union Army from defeat."
He would continue with... " It was an exhibition of the most exalted heroism on apparently insuperable antagonist." He then added that when Colonel Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, who's unit also showed incredible heroism that very same day... at Little Round Top, was later revisiting the site, ... and that the First Minnesota "had it much tougher." Chamberlain later received the Medal of Honor. Collvill did not.
I have more, but you get the point. Many of the members of the First Mn. showed all of the prerequisites, and perhaps more during many of the actions taken during that charge.
Yet, while all above show that a Medal of Honor surely must have been earned by many, it is nothing short of a travesty to the unit, the medal and all that wear one today, that not a single medal, was awarded to them for their actions on July 2nd.
By Wednesday I shall return with more in this very point.