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Bloody deeds done well

June 13, 2011 - Lee Smith
Are you a good Minnesotan? Do you know about the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry regiment?

As the nation looks back 150 years to the start of the Civil War this year, Minnesotans can take some added pride in the 1st Regiment, which distinguished itself in several important ways.

The First was the first state volunteer regiment offered to the federal government following President Abraham Lincoln's call for troops as the war began in 1861. But that is only the beginning of the story. The unit fought on many battlefields in the eastern theater of operations.

The Civil War's pivotal battle was at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1-3, 1863. On the second day of fighting, the First Minnesota held a crucial position in the center of the union line. Had the position been taken, the battle's outcome, the war and American history could have been quite different. The regiment, numbering 262 men, was ordered to charge a Confederate brigade — a much larger force — to buy time so reserves could be brought up to save the position. During the First Minnesota's charge, 215 of its men were killed or wounded. That 83 percent casualty rate stands to this day as the largest loss by any surviving military unit in American history during a single engagement.

But the charge succeeded in delaying the Confederates and saving the line.

The next day, the 47 able-bodied members of the regiment helped repulse the iconic event of the Civil War — Pickett's Charge. In doing so, they captured the colors of the 28th Virginia Infantry. (The captured flag remains in the possession of the Minnesota Historical Society, but is not publicly displayed. In the 1990s, some Virginians threatened a lawsuit to regain the flag and — God bless 'em — Minnesota officials told these groups to go to blazes.)

You can see the unit flag of the First Minnesota Regiment, which is on display in the Capitol rotunda in St. Paul.

There is a fine monument to the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. If you're ever in southern Pennsylvania, pay your respects.


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