2 July 1863, second day of Gettysburg
. Sickles has pulled his III Corps -- without orders -- off of Cemetery Ridge and positioned it a half mile in front of the rest of the Union lines. Longstreet smashes the hapless III Corps and its men are in full flight. Hancock rides back and forth inside the gaping hole left by Sickles. Below him, almost 2000 men of Wilcox's brigade are charging up the slope. They will gain a foothold on the ridge and be reinforced by Lee. As Longstreet pins down the Union left, Lee will roll up the center and right of the Northern army and chase them from the field. He will then march on and take Washington before turning north along the eastern seaboard. Lee will capture and burn Philadelphia and Boston in his March Along the Sea, chasing the Northern government from city to city until Lincoln finally sues for peace and the union is no more.
Suddenly, a line of blue-coated soldiers comes into Hancock's view. "My God, is this all the men here? Who are you?" "1st Minnesota
, sir." "See those colors?", says Hancock, pointing at the flags of the oncoming Confederates, "Take them."
The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry
was the first state volunteer regiment to answer President Lincoln's 1861 call for troops. At First Bull Run, they sustained the heaviest casualties of any Union regiment on the field in a portent of things to come. They were in the front lines at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. They are veterans and realize what Hancock asks of them. They quickly dress their lines into a front of less than 100 yards. Led by Colonel William Colvill, who had resumed command earlier that day after being relieved of arrest, they step off down towards Plum Run
Valley. At first they stride down the slope with arms at right shoulder. Already the fire from the enemy is taking its toll and double-quick changes into a full speed assault. "...no man wavers, every gap is closed up... bringing down their bayonets, the boys press forward in unbroken line."
They smash into the oncoming lines and stop the Southern charge, but their success proves their undoing. As they push the center of the rebel lines back, the wings enfold them and they are soon caught in a sack. For every Minnesotan fighting, there are 6 Alabamans trying to kill him, sometimes from the distance of a handshake. The rebels are so thick around the 1st Minnesota that many Southerners are injured by friendly fire. The Minnesotans take cover behind trees and boulders as their world is reduced to smoke and screams, the ssszzz of bullets passing and the thock of bullets hitting home. Colvill is struck in the shoulder and foot. LTC Adams is hit six times. Maj. Downie is shot through both arms. Cpts. Muller and Periam, along with Lt. Farr, are all killed. Every officer is a casualty. The flag of the 1st Minnesota falls 5 times and is picked up 5 times. They fail to capture the enemy colors. They have stopped the charge, but they cannot retreat because they know that Hancock's implicit orders were to hold the rebels until he can patch the hole in the lines above them. So they stand and die.
As the 1st Minnesota melts on the slope below him, Hancock
plugs the hole with new units arriving at the front and with men retreating from Sickles'
debacle. The next day, during the largest artillery duel ever seen on the North American continent, he rides his horse back and forth on the ridge to encourage his soldiers. When his aides plead with him to get down, he answers, "There are times when a corps commander's life does not count", proving he understands the expendability of any soldier of any rank. As the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge storms against the Union lines, Hancock notices but does not recognize a gray-haired Confederate officer
leading a penetration of the northern position, black hat riding on the point of his sword. Hancock orders a counterattack ("You better get over there goddam quick!") that kills his old friend Lo Armistead. A few minutes later, Hancock is badly wounded, but refuses to be removed from the field until the battle is over.
Eight companies of the 1st Minnesota -- 262 men -- charged down the hill. 47 men return, among them Cpl Henry O'Brien, carrying a wounded soldier on his back. No man ran away and none were taken prisoner. The 215 men left behind represent the largest percentage (82%) of casualties suffered in a single battle by any surviving unit in the history of the United States armed forces. "There is no other unit in the history of warfare that ever made such a charge and then stood its ground sustaining such losses." -- Lt. Colonel Joseph B. Mitchell, Decisive Battles of the Civil War
The next day, the survivors of the 1st Minnesota are reunited with 3 companies of the regiment that had been previously detached and are placed in the center of the Union lines to receive Pickett's Charge. The 28th Virginia pierces the Union lines at The Angle
and are thrown back by a charge from the 1st Minnesota. Cpl Henry O'Brien
earns a Medal of Honor for taking up the fallen colors and rallying the men around him despite being wounded twice. Another survivor from the previous day in Plum Run Valley -- Pvt Marshall Sherman
-- also earns a Medal of Honor for taking the flag of the 28th Virginia. (They still won't give the flag back. When Virginia petitioned for its return in 2001, Governor Ventura said, "Why? We won.")
This is a very long post, but I wanted to illustrate something. If you're an average reader, it took you 5 minutes to read this far. Hancock threw that regiment into the jaws of the Confederate charge expecting 5 minutes respite. His intention was to trade their lives for time -- time to save the battlefield, his army, and quite possibly his country. Some histories
don't even mention the 1st Minnesota, but they gave Hancock his 5 minutes (and more, so you may want to click on a link or two.)