The split-second decision that helped win at Gettysburg

John Bull
John Bull
Dec 20, 2017 · 6 min read
Painting by Don Troiani. Courtesy of The National Guard

It’s the 2nd July 1863 and the Battle of Gettysburg is entering its second day. For perhaps the only time in the entire war the Confederates seem to be winning.

Major-General Meade, in overall command of the Union forces, has placed his III Corps on the extreme left of his line. He’s ordered General Dan Sickles, its commander, to hold a position on Cemetery Ridge, the key to his left flank.

Meade has made his reasons for this clear — he intends to face Lee on the defensive because they cannot afford to lose this battle. Lose and nothing will stand between General Lee and Washington D.C. As goes Gettysburg, so — in all likelihood — goes the whole American Civil War.

Perhaps it is the weight of this thought that leads Sickles to do what he does next. The position picked out for his men isn’t great and directly ahead of him he can see a better one — Peach Orchard roughly half a mile ahead. Ignoring Meade’s orders, he pushes his men forward.

Sickles’ action places his men far out in front of the rest of Meade’s army and thins out III Corps as they spread out to cover the extra terrain. A dangerous salient now exists in Meade’s line and, suddenly, into that salient, smash the Confederate forces of General James Longstreet, one of Lee’s finest commanders.

Sickles’ men are broken, the General himself seriously wounded, and they begin to flee.

Watching in horror as this unfolds is General Wilfred Hancock, the man Meade has placed in overall command of the various Corps that taken together form the Union left. Just 39 years old, Hancock has been in command for barely 24 hours following the death of his predecessor in the fighting yesterday. He is not the most senior commander available, and his appointment has already caused some complaint.

As III Corps’ retreat turns into a full-on rout it becomes clear why Meade put Hancock in charge. Hancock is a career soldier with a strong, tactical understanding. He spurs his horse forward through Sickles’ collapsing forces and realises what is about to happen. Unless he can plug the hole in his line, Longstreet’s attack will likely roll the whole line, forcing the Union army back in on itself until the whole army, and the battle, is lost.

As soon as he spots the danger Hancock orders reinforcements forward, but even though they are just minutes away, Longstreet’s men are closer. The Confederates will get to the top of the ridge first and he will be overrun.

Hancock casts his eyes frantically around the field, looking for anyone in a blue uniform not in full flight. Then he sees them — a tiny pocket of blue men guarding a small battery nearby.

He races over.

“What unit is this?!” Hancock shouts at the officer in charge.

Colonel William J. Colvill looks up at him. Until that morning Colvill was under arrest. At the end of their brutal,14 day forced march towards Gettysburg he had disobeyed orders and allowed his exhausted men to cross a nearby river on rafts rather than by wading through. It was only the outbreak of the battle that had resulted in his release.

“First Minnesota, sir.” Colvill replies.

Without hesitation, Hancock points at the two full brigades of grey-uniformed Alabaman soldiers advancing in order up the slope. Perhaps 1,800 men in total.

“Charge that line!”

Hancock and Colvill lock eyes. The First Minnesota are volunteers. In fact they were the very first state volunteer regiment to form when President Lincoln put out the call in April 1861. Colvill is a veteran of First Bull Run, Antietam, Fredricksburg and more, and so are most of his men. They have bled and died for the Union for over two years now. Yesterday they lost almost half of their remaining strength yet again. Colvill began Gettysburg with 420 men. At this morning’s roll call, he discovered about 260 were left.

The two commanders know what Hancock is asking the First Minnesota to do, and so do the men. Perhaps more than any other general on the field, Hancock appreciates the brutal role soldiers sometimes have to play in battle. Tomorrow he will face down Pickett’s charge, sitting high on his horse in the thick of the fighting to spur on his men. “There are times when a Corps commander’s life does not count” he will tell his aides as the bullets fly and they plead with him to take cover.

That’s tomorrow though. Today it’s the turn of the First Minnesota. Hancock needs time. Time to rally what’s left of III Corps. Time for his reinforcements to arrive. And to get that, he needs the First Minnesota to die.

“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant” Lieutenant William Lochran, standing nearby, writes later. “Death or wounds to us all.”

With calm deliberation the First Minnesota dress their lines, fix bayonets and form into a tight unit barely 100 men wide.

And then they begin to run.

They charge down the slope, over the stubble of an abandoned wheat field, and catch the vanguard of the Confederate forces just as they are crossing a dried up stream. Colonel Colvill, leading from the front, falls almost instantly, but the Confederate forces are checked. Shaken, they quickly regroup and begin to counterattack, the weight of their numbers pushing round the Union men whose world contracts to a small pocket of smoke, fire and death.

The fractured landscape is largely free of natural cover, but as they begin to fall the men of the First Minnesota scramble behind whatever protection they can find, crouching low as the bullets zip through the air. Soon their pocket of resistance is so small that the surrounding Confederate forces are starting to fire on themselves. The Minnesotan colours fall and they are picked up. They fall again and, again, they are picked up. Fall. Picked up. Fall. Picked up. Fall. Picked up.

Despite the growing risk of envelopment the men of the First Minnesota don’t waiver. Even though every officer is either wounded or dead they fight and they hold, whilst above them Hancock desperately races to reform his lines.

After what seems an age Major Downie, injured through both arms but the most senior surviving officer, orders them to fall back. Only 47 men of the First Minnesota make it.

If you have reached the end of this article then it has likely taken you about five minutes to read. This is roughly the same amount of time that it took for all of this to happen. Five minutes for Hancock to redress his lines. Five minutes for the First Minnesota to die. Five minutes, perhaps, to help win a battle and save a nation.

The exact figures are disputed, and the overall impact that the actions of Sickle and Hancock had (and indeed Gettysburg itself) will forever be argued over by historians. What can never be disputed, however, is the bravery and sacrifice of those men from Minnesota.

At over 80% loses, it is likely the largest percentage of casualties suffered by any surviving unit in the history of American warfare.

Like what I write? Then help me do more of it. Back London Reconnections, my transport site on Patreon. Every little helps tell a story.

A further note: This article is inspired by something similar I saw online many years ago, but have never been able to track down again. Whoever, and wherever, that was, you have my thanks.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.

John Bull

Written by

John Bull

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.

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