July 2, 1863

An account of one incident on Gettysburg’s second day from Shelby Foote, who died earlier this week (Slate published this analysis of his complex place in Civil War lore and historiography on Friday):

“[Union General Winfield Scott Hancock] ordered Gibbon and Hays to double-time southward along the ridge and use what was left of their commands to plug the gap the rebels were about to strike.

“He hurried in that direction, ahead of his troops, and arrived in time to witness the final rout of Humphreys, whose men were in full flight by now, with Wilcox close on their heels and driving hard for the scantily defended ridge beyond. As he himself climbed back up the slope on horseback, under heavy fire from the attackers, Hancock wondered how he was going to stop or even delay them long enough for a substantial line of defense to be formed on the high ground. Gibbon and Hays ‘had been ordered up and were coming on the run,’ he later explained, ‘but I saw that in some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost.’ Just then the lead regiment of Gibbon’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 Minnesota,’ 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, though scarcely a man among them could have failed to see what was being asked of him, the Minnesotans deployed on the slope … 262 men present for duty … and charging headlong down it, bayonets fixed, struck the center of the long gray line. … 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 had held onto their own. And they had given Hancock his five minutes, plus five more for good measure.”

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