It was an open field they charged across, headlong into whistling balls of lead that cut men down as they ran. The soldiers of the 1st Minnesota knew the bayonet charge they were making was suicide – Gen. Hancock, who gave the order, knew it, too, but he needed to buy five minutes to bring reinforcements to plug a critical hole in the Union line.
He paid for the time with Minnesotans’ lives.
According to tradition, the number of Minnesotans who charged was 262. After about 15 minutes fighting a larger Alabama force, only 47 soldiers returned. The rest were dead or wounded – an 82 percent casualty rate.
Around 6:30 p.m. July 2, 2013, 150 years later, I stared down the same hill and couldn’t imagine flinging myself across the open space into enemy fire. I don’t know if I would have done it. But historical accounts say the 1st Minnesota acted without hesitation.
Along with the Minnesota delegation to Gettysburg and others who gathered to commemorate the charge, I walked down the hill in safety to the point where the Minnesota regiment met the Alabama troops. Men from Alabama were also waiting there for us.
This time we met with open hands instead of lowered bayonets. Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, Alabama’s adjutant general, shook hands with Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, his Minnesota counterpart.
There were no hard feelings – in fact, Smith praised what the Minnesotans had done.
“If it wasn’t for the 1st Minnesota … I’m sure we wouldn’t be standing here as citizens of the United States of America,” Smith said.
After the meeting, members of the Minnesota delegation rededicated the 32-foot-tall monument in honor of 1st Minnesota’s charge.
Retracing the route of the charge was the most poignant moment of a day that began with our bus leaving the hotel at 7:30 a.m. and not returning us there until after 10 p.m. In addition to the rededication ceremony and re-creation of the charge, the delegation visited took a battlefield tour, stopped at the visitor center and spent time in the brand new Seminary Ridge Museum, which opened this week.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, July 3, is the final day of the battle’s anniversary and our final day here. It has the potential to be as powerful as today. I especially look forward to seeing thousands of people walk the path of Pickett’s charge in the afternoon. I hope to stand where Minnesotans might have stood, to watch the mass of humanity streaming toward me and to try to imagine how the soldiers would have felt. Check back for photos and more.
Here are some pictures from Tuesday, July 2: