1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry

The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment mustered for a three-year term (1861-1864) in the Union Army at the outset of the American Civil War when the prevailing enlistment period was three months. During offensive movements, it sustained high percentages of casualties at the Battles of First Bull Run (20%[1]) and Antietam (28%) and a catastrophic 82% at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is most noted for its service on the second day at Gettysburg.

1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry regiment
Flag of Minnesota in 1893
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 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 pivotal moment in the 1863 struggle at Gettysburg, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of II Corps, ordered the First Minnesota to charge into a situation where it would be outnumbered by at least 5 to 1. The general's purpose was to buy minutes of delay with human lives, and one survivor spoke afterward that he expected the advance to result in "death or wounds to [every single one of the attackers]."[2] The regiment fully and instantly obeyed the order, suffering at least 82% casualties among those making the attack; this action contributed significantly to the preservation of a key Union defensive position on the heights of Cemetery Ridge.

When given the opportunity to speak about the regiment after the war, both General Hancock and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge were unrestrained in their praise. Hancock placed its heroism highest in the known annals of war[3] and ascribed unsurpassed gallantry to the famed attack.[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 service

On April 14, 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, visiting Washington shortly after the bombing of Fort Sumter, tendered the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry to the Federal government under Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops. It was organized at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on April 29 and remustered for three years service on May 10.

CompanyEarliest MonikerPrimary Location of RecruitmentEarliest Captain
APioneer GuardSt. PaulAlexander Wilkin
BStillwater GuardStillwaterCarlyle A. Bromley
CSt. Paul VolunteersSt. PaulWilliam H. Acker
DLincoln GuardsMinneapolisHenry R. Putnam
ESt. Anthony ZouavesSt. AnthonyGeorge N. Morgan
FRed Wing Volunteers
or Goodhue County Volunteers
Red WingWilliam J. Colvill, Jr.
GFaribault GuardsFaribaultWilliam H. Dike
HDakota County VolunteersHastingsCharles Powell Adams
IWabasha VolunteersWabashaJohn H. Pell
KWinona VolunteersWinonaHenry C. Lester

First Bull Run

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]


July 2

The men of the 1st Minnesota are most remembered for their actions on July 2, 1863, during the second day's fighting at Gettysburg, where the regiment prevented the Confederates from pushing the Federals off of Cemetery Ridge, a position that was to prove crucial in the battle.

Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of II Corps, ordered the regiment to assault a much larger enemy force (a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox), telling Col. William Colvill to take the enemy's colors. The fateful charge bought the time needed for other forces to be brought up. During the charge, 215[nb 1] members of the 262 men who were present at the time became casualties in five minutes, including the regimental commander, Col. William Colvill, and all but three of his captains.

The unit's flag fell five times and was raised again each time. The 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock under the senior surviving officer, Captain Nathan S. Messick. The 82% casualty rate stands to this day as the largest loss by any surviving military unit in U.S. history during a single day's engagement, allegedly equaled only by the 82% casualties suffered by the 1st Texas Infantry at the battle of Antietam in Millers cornfield and by the 33rd Alabama Infantry during the Battle of Perryville (though that second figure is questioned by some historians),[14][15] .[16] The unit's flag is now in the Minnesota Capitol's rotunda.

The more majestic of two monuments to the 1st Minnesota at the Gettysburg National Military Park bears the following 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.[17]

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.[18]

July 3

Rebounding from the horrendous casualties of the previous day, the survivors were reinforced by detached Company F, and the reunited regiment was moved slightly northward on Cemetery Ridge. Destiny placed the remaining Minnesotans at one of the few places where Union lines were breached during Pickett's Charge and required them to charge advancing Confederate troops once again. It is here that Capt. Messick was killed and Capt. W. B. Farrell mortally wounded, and then command fell to Capt. Henry C. Coates.

During the desperate and chaotic fighting, Private Marshall Sherman of Company C captured the colors of the 28th Virginia Infantry[19] and received the Medal of Honor for this exploit. The Confederate flag was taken back to Minnesota as a war trophy and is kept but not publicly displayed at the Minnesota Historical Society. 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 remains in the possession of the Society.[20]

After being knocked out by a bullet to the head and later shot in the hand, Corporal Henry 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 service

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.[21] Other veterans provided officers for the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.[22]


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.[21] and 609 wounded.
Bull Run

Continued lineage

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

See also

  • List of Minnesota Civil War Units


  1. The 215 casualty figure is disputed. Morning muster on July 2 for the eight companies (A, B, D, E, G, H, I & K) involved in the suicidal attack was 262, and evening muster on the same day was 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] Presumably, Meinhard's and Lochren's conclusions are each based upon the same handwritten records from the regiment; accounting for the disputed 36 (=215-179) soldiers is the prerogative of the reader.


  • 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.


  1. 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. p. 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. p. 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. 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. History of the First Regiment Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864. Stillwater, MN: Easton & Masterman. p. 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. National Park Service: 33rd Alabama Infantry. Some historians have questioned the accuracy of this figure; see Note 63 in the Wikipedia article "Battle of Perryville" for further information. Archived February 22, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  15. 33rd Alabama Infantry Regiment Archived February 21, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  16. Otott Jr., George E. "First Texas Infantry - A History[Link broken]Archived 2012-03-14 at the Wayback Machine
  17. DCMemorials.com
  18. Wilcox, Brig. Gen Cadmus M. "Official Report, The Gettysburg Campaign". Home of the American Civil War. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  19. research file (MOLLUS at Gettysburg Discussion Group website)
  20. A disputed legacy Archived 2012-09-11 at Archive.today ; July 4, 2000; By Michael Hemphill, The Roanoke Times
  21. Civil War Archive website regimental history
  22. Andrews, p. 612.

Further reading

  • 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.
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