1st Minnesota Regiment at Gettysburg
General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Union Second Corps was trying to avert a disaster on the Union center. The exposed Third Corps was overrun and fleeing the battlefield, with the victorious Confederates in pursuit. This breakthrough opened an avenue to the Union rear that threatened the whole army. Hancock needed men to buy him time to bring reinforcements up to plug the gap in the Federal line. The general observed a body of men lying in a slight hollow, just behind the crest of Cemetery Ridge, to the left of the cemetery. He spurred his horse to this position.
Hancock spied Colonel William Colvill's 1st Minnesota Infantry, 1st brigade, 2nd division, Second Corps. These men were in reserve, but they had been watching the battle unfold through the dense clouds of gunsmoke that clung to the ground on this sultry summer day. The 1st Minnesota was understrength, shouldering but 262 muskets this day. The regiment had been bloodied on every field, from First Bull Run through Chancellorsville, and was further weakened by detachments. This single, undermanned regiment was the only Union force at hand.
"My God!" exclaimed Hancock when he saw them, "Are these all the men we have here! What regiment is this?" he demanded. "First Minnesota," replied Colvill. "Charge those lines," Hancock ordered, pointing in the direction of the Peach Orchard and Plum Run.
Hancock and Colvill looked at each other, Hancock knowing what he had ordered and Colvill realizing both the necessity and the grim implications of it.
"Forward, double-quick," Colvill barked to his men. With bayonets fixed, and rifles at right-shoulder shift, the 1st Minnesota charged down the slope toward Cadmus Wilcox's Confederate brigade, which was then reforming its lines in the marshy terrain along Plum Run.
The Minnesotans advanced along a hundred yard front, with both flanks in the air. Losing men at every step, they continued forward. As the Federals neared the enemy, they leveled their bayonets and charged. The ferocity of this assault stunned the Confederates, driving back the first line of defenders, staggering their advance. Then, as both lines steadied, they exchanged volleys at a distance of thirty yards. Though his line continued to melt away, Colvill's Minnesotans traded their lives for the precious minutes Hancock required.
In just fifteen minutes it was over. Only 47 men, commanded by a sergeant, rallied to the 1st Minnesota's banner. Two hundred fifteen of their comrades, all of their officers, including Colvill, lay on the field.