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The First Minnesota Infantry Lost 82% of Their Fighting Strength at the Battle of Gettysburg

The First Minnesota Infantry Regiment was the first group of volunteers received by the Union in response to the South’s assault on Fort Sumter at the start of the American Civil War. After learning of the fort’s attack, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey immediately offered Lincoln 1000 men. But do you know the story of the First Minnesota Infantry? 

The First Minnesota Infantry, lost 82 percent of their fighting strength at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. This is the most significant loss any surviving US military unit suffered in a single day of combat.

The History of The First Minnesota Infantry

The Union had a significant role in its line on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg in the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, just over five years after Minnesota became a state. The Confederacy attempted to end the war once and for all by overrunning the Union line on the second day of fighting. A significant hole opened up in the Union troops’ desperate attempt to hold the hill, and nearly 1,200 Confederate troops marched forward. The only unit capable of stopping them was the vastly outnumbered 1st Minnesota. There were 262 men.

They were never hesitant. The First Minnesota charge was launched into the fray. The chaos and insanity that ensued in the following minutes are difficult to comprehend. Two hundred fifteen of the 1st Minnesota’s 262 men were killed within five minutes. When the soldier carrying the Minnesota flag was killed, another soldier dropped their weapon and took the flag. Minnesota’s brave, courageous, and desperate sacrifice held until reinforcements arrived five times in five minutes. The United States still has an 82 percent casualty rate. The Army suffered the most casualties of any unit that remained at the end of the battle. Minnesota’s colors were never captured and are now displayed in the Capitol Rotunda. Most importantly, the Union line held for the day.

Were They Outnumbered?

The First Minnesota was outnumbered by at least six to one. The regiment was to be sacrificed in exchange for uncertainty. Colonel Colvill turned to face his men and ordered them to forward, double quick. Not a single man disobeyed the order. They initially moved in two lines, which they held for as long as possible under punishing fire before driving straight into the enemy’s heart. Their flag fell five times and was picked up each time. By the time they arrived at the enemy, the 1st Minnesota was dispersed, fighting in small groups or individually. Nonetheless, they held their ground and prevented the Confederates from advancing further.

Hancock had requested five minutes. The First Minnesota gave him fifteen points. In a single day of battle, they lost 215 men, or 82 percent of the regiment, which remains the highest loss of life by any U.S. regiment. The General later stated that no soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism. What remained of the 1st Minnesota was plugged into other units and found themselves at the center of Pickett’s Charge, where they once again performed admirably. Historians believe that the 1st Minnesota’s charge at Gettysburg saved the Union and was thus one of the pivotal moments in winning the Civil War. (Source: The Minn Post)

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