Col. William Colville
At the climax of one of the most ferocious days of fighting in the history of our nation, 262 Minnesotans stood between an enemy nearly eight times its size and arguably the defeat of the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg.
When “Gettysburg” and “charge” are mentioned in the same breath, “Pickett’s Charge” is what usually comes to mind. But among other Gettysburg charges well-known to Civil War enthusiasts there’s a charge that we in Chautauqua County should take a moment to remember: The battle-saving charge of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, led by a man born and raised in Forestville, Colonel William Colville.
The Minnesotans’ charge on July 2, 1863, was not only a testament to courage, discipline, the bond of fellow soldiers and belief in their cause, but, I believe, to the leadership and mettle of Col. Colville.
GRIM, OBVIOUS OUTCOMES
History is too full, in fact, of examples of soldiers in battle following orders despite long odds moving forward despite the grim and seemingly obvious outcomes in front of them.
And it goes way back. Twenty-first century movie-goers were reminded of the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, thanks to the 2007 movie 300, in which King Leonidas and 300 Spartans held off a Persian army for two days before all were killed.
Also, many of us encountered Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” at some point in our schooling. This famous poem captures the heroic desperation of a British light horse brigade charge during the Crimean War Battle of Balaclava.
And for WWI buffs like me, the senseless slaughter of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, where four regiments charged Ottoman-Turkish lines knowing full well that most would either be killed or wounded, is remembered to this day.
Undiminished by the passage of time, Colonel Colville’s charge of the First Minnesota Regiment at Gettysburg 150 years ago surely deserves to be included on this or any list.
WHO WAS WILLIAM COLVILLE?
The Fenton Historical Society in Jamestown lists Col. Colville’s father, William Colville, as one of Chautauqua County’s pioneer settlers. Scottish by birth and a merchant by trade, Colville settled in Forestville in 1820.
Colville’s son, William Colville III (later Col. Colville), was born in Forestville in 1830. Colville attended Fredonia Academy and later taught school in northern Chautauqua County. He also studied law, even serving as a clerk for former president Millard Fillmore in Buffalo. After that experience, he practiced law in Forestville for three years.
In 1854, 11 years before New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley famously wrote “Go West Young Men,” Colville did just that by moving to Minnesota. He settled in the community of Red Wing and launched a successful law practice.
Civil War and Gettysburg enthusiasts would come to know William Colville and the story of his First Minnesota well not only for their famous charge at Gettysburg, but for their tenacity at Antietam in 1862 and for their valor at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.
‘NO PARALLEL IN ANY WAR’
Certainly there was some serendipity at work on that faithful day of July 2, 1863. Awake at 3 a.m., the First Minnesota was positioned on Cemetery Ridge with a valley between them and the bulk of their southern foes encamped on Seminary Ridge, a mile or so to their west.
Charged with protecting a Union gun battery, the Minnesotans had every expectation of battle at first light. This precarious position (near Union commanding General George G. Meade’s headquarters) was in cannon range of Confederate gunners, and instead of fighting, they ended up dodging incoming shells all day.
It wasn’t until after 4 p.m. that hot July afternoon that the Minnesotans heard the sounds of battle, and later watched the desperate fighting to their left.
That fierce fighting, in a peach orchard, a wheat field and around rocks and boulders that the locals called “Devil’s Den,” would become as famous – and historically analyzed – as any battlefield sites in American history, as would the smaller of two round hills to the Minnesotans’ left, Little Round Top. One-hundred-fifty years later, Little Round Top remains the most visited site on the Gettysburg battlefield.
‘MY GOD, ARE THESE ALL THE MEN WE HAVE HERE?’
As dark approached on that evening of July 2, no one had to tell Union Second Corp Commander, Maj. Gen. Winfred Hancock that his army was in trouble. Every Union solider on Cemetery Ridge who could peer through the combination of dusk and the smoke of battle could see and hear the enemy coming toward them.
Between the First Minnesota and the advancing waves of yelling, gray-coated Rebels were fellow blue-clad soldiers in full retreat. It was clear that General Robert E. Lee’s right flank (under the command of Gen. James Longstreet that day) had broken the Union lines somewhere out in the fields before them.
To make matters worse for Gen. Hancock, the enemy was converging on a lightly-defended part of the ridge – the precise part of the ridge held by the First Minnesota.
Gen. Hancock knew that he had reserves to plug the hole in his line, but it would take time for those reserves to come up … time he did not have as he watched the enemy come closer by the second.
According to Colville after the war, Hancock looked at the 262 men of the First Minnesota and exclaimed, “My God, are these all the men we have here?” Clearly they were, and Hancock turned to Colville and asked “what regiment is this?” “First Minnesota,” Colville replied. “Charge those lines,” Hancock commanded.
Like the light brigades at Balaclava before them, and Gallipoli after them every Minnesotan immediately knew what the order meant: likely death or wounds to them all. And yet, without hesitation, the men stepped forward, understanding the situation confronting them and knowing that the battle, at that crucial moment, required their sacrifice.
No wonder the battlefield monument to the Minnesota volunteers is one of the best-known monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The inscription at the bottom of the monument concludes: “In self-sacrificing desperate valor their charge has no parallel in any war.”
MEMORIES OF THE SURVIVORS
One postwar survivor recalled Colville stepping in front of the regiment and saying, “Will we go alongand we answered yes.”
“I immediately gave the order ‘Forward, double, quick,’ Colville said after the war, “and under a galling fire from the enemy we advanced.”
Quickly spreading out over 100 yards, and with bayonets fixed, the officers and men of the First Minnesota swept down the gentle slope toward a dry creek bed at the bottom of a swale (the now-famous Plum Run) and into the teeth of approximately 1600 advancing Alabamians, combat veterans who now had the Minnesotans squarely in their sights.
As musket balls and cannon fire poured into the charging Minnesotans, one-by-one they fell, wounded or killed – yet the First Minnesota did not stop until they reached the dry creek bed below. There, the surviving Minnesota bluecoats fired their first volley, which took down much of the first line of Rebel attackers.
By now, the superior numbers of gray-clad Alabamians had worked around the Minnesotans, and the men of the First Minnesota were taking heavy fire from both their front and their flank. More Minnesotans fell, including their commander, William Colville.
With battle smoke so thick that he would later say he could only make out individuals in front of and beside him, Col. Colville was right behind the regimental flag at the bottom of the slope when he was hit in the back between the shoulders. Almost immediately, he was struck again in the foot.
Hitting the ground, Colville fortuitously spied a small gully, which he forced himself to roll into. This action likely saved his life as the battle raged above him.
Severely wounded, Col. Colville was pulled from the gully later that night. He would survive the battle and the war, but he would not walk for months. His Gettysburg injuries would force him to use canes for the rest of his life.
A HEAVY PRICE
The First Minnesota’s gallant and bloody charge down Cemetery Ridge momentarily stunned the Rebels, stopped their advance and bought 15 minutes of precious time for help to arrive on both their right and left flanks. Without question, the First Minnesota had accomplished everything Gen. Hancock had ordered them to do.
The reinforced Union lines – as well as the darkness – forced the Alabamians to retire and, arguably, General Lee’s best chance for victory on the second day of this country’s most famous battle vanished.
But the First Minnesota paid an extraordinarily heavy price for their quarter-hour of combat. Of the 262 men who charged down that hill, 215 (including Colville) lay scattered upon what Lincoln months later would famously call “hallow” ground. Only 47 Minnesotans remained in the line.
When one considers the number of casualties versus the number of men engaged, the history of war in America up until that time reveals no comparative level of sacrifice. At 82 percent, it was the highest percentage of causalities suffered by any Union regiment in a single engagement in the entire war.
I do not know whether Colville ever returned to Forestville or not, the village where he spent his formative, first 24 years of life. However I do know that he died in Minnesota in 1905 at the age of 78.
A hero of immense proportions in Minnesota, as the symbol of the historic charge, the state of Minnesota unveiled a large statue of Col. Colville in the rotunda of their new state capitol in 1909 – a statue that remains to this day.
Over the years, thanks in large part to the dedicated local historical community, many of us have become familiar with the remarkable courage Fredonia resident Lt. Alonzo Cushing exhibited at the Battle of Gettysburg, before and during Confederate General George Pickett’s famous charge on July 3, 1863.
Although more than 14 decades in the making, Cushing finally, and rightfully, received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2010, nearly 147 years after his death.
It’s all-together fitting that school children in Chautauqua County now know of Lt. Cushing’s heroic actions and ultimate sacrifice at Gettysburg. If anything, it’s my hope that this article will spur further discussion of Col. William Colville, too – the Forestville native and Gettysburg legend who, 150 years ago, led one of the most famous charges in the history of our nation.
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