That was the casualty rate of Winona’s Company K of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry regiment at the battle of Gettysburg, with 25 of the 31 soldiers in the battle killed or wounded.
Many of those casualties happened 150 years ago today, when the Union line faltered on the second day of the battle. The regiment was ordered on a suicide charge of the Confederate lines in order to buy the Union forces precious minutes to regroup.
“I had no alternative but to order the regiment in,” Gen. Winfield Hancock wrote about the battle. “Troops had been ordered up and were coming on the run, but I saw that in some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost … I would have done it if I had known every man would be killed.”
Even before it entered battle, Company K served with distinction. The Civil War was only 16 days old when 78 Winona volunteers, the first of 856 Winona County men to serve, answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers.
Assigned to the Army of the Potomac, men from Company K fell at Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, and fought and died at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredricksburg. But it was Gettysburg where the company and the regiment showed their true patriotism.
According to “Every Man did his Duty,” a history of the First Minnesota by Wayne Jorgenson, the regiment made it to the battlefield early in the morning on July 2. The depleted companies, sporting 20 to 40 men out of their original 100, spent the morning building fires to brew coffee as their assignments came in.
During the day’s fighting, the bulk of the regiment was stationed on Cemetery Hill to support an artillery battery. Behind a slight rise, the regiment could only tell the course of the battle from the intensity of musket fire and the direction the sounds came from, Jorgenson wrote.
The soldiers had a better vantage point later on when they were ordered forward, and watched the battle in the peach orchard between General Daniel Sickles’ forces and a much stronger force of Confederate men. The battle turned to a rout as Sickles’ men ran past the 1st Minnesota.
The 1st Minnesota stood firm when Gen. Hancock rode up, failed to rally Sickles’ troops and surveyed the situation. Reserves were running to fill the gaps in the line, but time was needed to halt the Confederate advance.
“My God, are these all the men I have here?” Hancock asked after surveying the situation, then turned
to the regiment’s leader, Col. William Colvill. “Advance, Colonel, and take those colors.”
In his account of the battle, Jorgenson wrote that every man in the unit must have known his fate. In his report afterward, Capt. Henry Coates of the First Minnesota wrote:
“To check them, we were ordered to advance, which we did, moving at double quick down the slope of the hill, right upon the rebel line. The fire we encountered here was terrible, and although we inflicted severe punishment upon the enemy and checked his advance, it was with the loss in killed and wounded of more than two-thirds of our men who were engaged.”
The charge of the Minnesota soldiers stopped the Confederate advance and the regiment opened fire, taking cover in a brook’s low banks and brush. Taking heavy casualties from Confederate bullets, Company K and the 1st Minnesota held the line until reinforcements pushed the Confederates back.
“And they had given Hancock his five minutes, plus five more for good measure,” Civil War historian Shelby Foote wrote in his book “Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863.”
But the casualties were staggering.
Of the 330 men at Gettysburg, more than 70 percent were killed or wounded, with Company K seeing even heavier casualties.
“Every man in the regiment did his whole duty,” Coates’ report said. “The accompanying list of the killed and wounded shows the severity of our loss.”
The unit would contribute in battles after Gettysburg and would also keep order during the draft riots in New York City later that summer. The following winter, the regiment was honored at a banquet in Washington, D.C., before departing for home.
No fewer than three battlefield monuments honor the 1st Minnesota. An urn placed in the National Cemetery in 1867 was the first memorial to Gettysburg. In 1893, the main monument to the regiment was placed on Hancock Avenue and a smaller monument is less than a mile north.
But some of the most enduring testaments to the men of the unit came from those who were there.
“The superb gallantry of those men saved our line from being broken,” Hancock wrote. “No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.”