Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant and Joanne Eisen have a piece about General Winfield Scott Hancock, the "Hero of Gettysburg" in NRO. It is timely, being both the Fourth of July and the anniversary of that battle. Hancock is one of the really great Americans, without whom the Union may not have survived, yet many highly educated people have never heard of him.
The NRO article describes Hancock's heroics at the climatic moment of the three day battle, during Pickett's Charge. Unfortunately, the article doesn't detail Hancock's even more crucial activities during Gettysburg's second day, and his role in what was to become the Charge of the First Minnesota. This event was, in my own humble opinion, one of the most heroic and significant actions in the history of warfare, ranking easily with the Spartans at the Pass of Thermopylae, Commander "Cherokee" Evans of the U.S.S. Johnston at Leyte Gulf, the Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood, and Torpedo Eight at Midway. We can all well afford to be reminded of what happened that day.
The run-up to these events is well known. Lee, after a string of victories, invaded the North with his Army of Northern Virginia. His forces literally ran into the Army of the Potomic at the small town of Gettysburg, and most historians agree that a decisive Confederate victory there could easily have ended the Union cause. It was quite literally a tipping point in history, with the fate of the entire country in the balance.
And it was touch and go during the second day of the battle. The Union forces were arrayed along a fishhook shaped ridgeline, with Lee attempting to breach that line with one determined attack after another. One of the Union generals, Sickles, unwisely moved his corps forward, into a peach orchard. His forces were exposed, and eventually broke under the Confederate assault.
Hancock's corps held a neighboring portion of the line, and during the debacle was given overall command of the area. He showed considerable skill and courage, shifting units to fill the gaps left by Sickles' forces, all the while under fire. However he couldn't do everything at once, and just as he observed a large gap in the center of the Union position, he also saw three Confederate brigades heading directly for that gap.
Hancock ordered one of his generals, Gibbons, to "double time" his forces to the soft spot (leaving yet another position exposed, a problem he would worry about later), and rode on ahead, where he observed that the Confederates would reach the gap ahead of his own reinforcements. Hancock needed five minutes to set his defenses; five minutes that the Rebel brigades were not going to give him.
According to Shelby Foote, and his excellent The Civil War, a Narrative, here is what happened next:
Just then the lead regiment of Gibbbon's first brigade came over the crest in a column of fours, and Hancock saw a chance to gain those five minutes, though at a cruel price.
"What regiment is this?" he asked the officer at the head of the column moving toward him down the slope.
"First Minnisota," Colonel William Colvill replied.
Hancock nodded. "Colonel, do you see those colors?" As he spoke he pointed at the Alabama flag in the front rank of the charging rebels. Colvill said he did. "Then take them," Hancock told him.
Quickly, although scarcely a man among them could have failed to see what was being asked of him, the Minnesotans deployed on the slope--eight companies of them, at any rate; three others had been detached as skirmishers, leaving 262 men present for duty--and charging headlong down in, bayonets fixed, struck the center of the long grey line. Already in some disorder as a result of their run of nearly a mile over stony ground and against such resistance as Humphreys had managed to offer, the Confederates recoiled briefly, then came on again, yelling fiercely as they concentrated their fire on this one undersized blue regiment. The result was devastating. Colvill and all but three of his officers were killed or wounded, together with 215 of his men. A captain brought the 47 survivors back up the ridge, less than one fifth as many as had charged down it. They had not taken the Alabama flag, but they had held onto their own. And they had given Hancock his five minutes, plus five more for good measure.
Hancock made certain that the regiment's sacrifice was not in vain, and when the rebel assult reached the foot of the ridge they were driven back by heavy fire from the hastily organized defense. And because of this the Union forces lasted out the second day of the battle, and went on to win the field on the third.
The First Minnesota regiment is not entirely forgotten; visitors to Gettysburg will find a monument to its heroic charge. Not the usual general on a horse, but a single soldier of the ranks, resolutely moving foward with fixed bayonet, as each man of the regiment did that day.
Happy Fourth of July.