Following Buford’s stand at McPherson’s Ridge, the infantry of I Corps continued the defense of the terrain west of Gettysburg. However, within a few hours, the rapidly growing strength of the converging Confederate forces forced them to retreat through Gettysburg to the hills southeast of the town. Earlier, shortly after the arrival of I Corps, General Reynolds was killed by enemy fire and, as the day wore on, the command situation for the Union forces became desperate. While General Doubleday took over command of I Corps and General Howard was soon on the scene with his XI Corps, neither man had the confidence of Meade nor, apparently, that of John Buford, who sent the following dispatch to General Pleasanton:
I am satisfied that Longstreet and Hill have made a junction. A tremendous battle has been raging since- 9.30 a.m., with varying success. At the present moment the battle is raging on the road to Cashtown, and within short cannon-range of this town. The enemy's line is a semicircle on the height, from north to west. General Reynolds was killed early this morning. In my opinion, there seems to be no directing person.
P. S.--We need help now.
However, Meade was thinking along the same lines as Buford and he took action over two hours before receiving the cavalryman’s dispatch. Upon hearing of Reynolds’ death, he directed Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to proceed immediately to Gettysburg and to assume command of all forces on the scene, despite the fact that General Howard was the more senior officer. When he arrived on Cemetery Hill, the energetic Hancock immediately saw the value of the ground Buford had fought so hard to maintain. Conferring quickly with Howard, Hancock commented that the ground was “the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw” and promptly stated that he was selecting it as the battlefield.
This was the kind of solid judgment Meade knew he could expect from Hancock. More than that, he probably knew Hancock’s arrival would have a positive effect on the men preparing to fight Lee’s army. Indeed, once Hancock arrived on Cemetery Hill, there was noticeable difference in the troops’ morale. Having seen Hancock that day, a soldier from the 5th Maine Artillery said he would never forget the “inspiration of his commanding presence, nor the fresh courage he imparted.” That was how it had always been with this Pennsylvania-born West Pointer. Hancock was not just a consummate tactician; he was also a fighter and a battlefield leader who inspired all around him when under fire. General Schurz commented that Hancock’s “mere presence was a reinforcement, and everybody on the field felt stronger for his being there.” Both his leadership and his tactical abilities would be called for at Gettysburg, particularly on the second day of battle.
With the end of the first day’s fighting and Meade’s arrival on the field, Hancock reassumed command of II Corps. When the fighting resumed on the afternoon of July 2, his men were positioned along Cemetery Ridge at the left-center of the Union line. Next to the II Corps was III Corps, commanded by the brave, mercurial, and somewhat incompetent General Daniel Sickles. While the Union lines were supposed to extend down the crest of Cemetery Ridge to the lower ground that lay between the ridge and Little Round Top to the south, Sickles decided to move his corps forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road. In doing so, he placed his men outside the line of battle Meade had organized and beyond the immediate support of the rest of the army. Worse, it created a large gap between the II and III Corps.
Hancock, observing the advance of Sickles men, could see the error immediately and predicted it would be disastrous. His adjutant, Colonel Francis Walker, recalled that Hancock turned to his staff and commented that the advance was “splendid” but added wryly, “those troops will be coming back again very soon.” Upon seeing what Sickles had done, Meade tried to order him back to the correct position, but before he could do so, Longstreet’s corps began a massive attack on the Union left. Sickles’ corps was soon engaged in vicious fighting in the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den. They were quickly pressed back and Sickles himself was badly wounded.
Upon hearing that Sickles was out of action, Meade again turned to Hancock. He ordered Hancock to take command of the entire left wing of the Army of the Potomac. Hancock galloped down the line to assess the situation and found things headed rapidly towards disaster. Sickles men were streaming towards the rear with Longstreet in close pursuit. Hancock quickly ordered Willard’s brigade from II Corps to move into position and counter the Confederate advance. Willard’s men held but there were still serious gaps in the line. Hancock had requested reinforcements from the Union reserves, many of which were just arriving on the field, but they were still not in sight. Then, to his dismay, Hancock saw one of the gaps in the line was about to be exploited by the rapidly advancing Alabamans of Wilcox’s Brigade. If successful, they would split the Union center and break the entire Federal defense.
Hancock later said that he knew he needed to buy five minutes so that the reinforcements could come up — five vitally precious minutes. He anxiously looked about him and, he spotted a Union regiment in a nearby swale, advancing in column by fours. Perhaps this was his answer. He galloped up to the colonel leading the regiment and asked, “What regiment is this?” The colonel, William Colvill, replied, “1st Minnesota.”
The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment was a veteran unit, having been mustered in on April 29, 1861. The regiment, which had fought at First Manassas, Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Antietam, and Chancellorsville, arrived at Gettysburg late in the evening of July 1. On the morning of July 2, the men were aroused at daybreak, and formed on the east side of Cemetery Ridge where they could not see any of the fighting. Rather, they listened intently to the sounds of artillery and rifle fire throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, however, they were ordered forward and a short distance to their left, which placed them on higher ground. From this vantage point, they had a full view of the fighting in the Peach Orchard, which one member of the regiment described as a “terrible, magnificent scene,” and the sight of Federal troops scrambling in retreat.
When Hancock rode up to them that afternoon, this group of veterans totaled only 262 men. At first, Hancock was shocked the regiment was so small. He exclaimed aloud, “My God! Are these all the men we have here?” Then, however, he seemingly regained his composure and made a quick, fateful decision: These men alone would have to buy him his precious five minutes. Hancock knew what it would cost. He later stated that he “would have ordered that regiment in if I had known that every man would be killed”-the Army of the Potomac had to have those five minutes. After requesting the name of the regiment and hearing Colonel Colvill’s response, Hancock simply pointed at Wilcox’s advancing brigade and told Colvill “Charge those lines!”
Private William Lochren later recalled that, upon hearing Hancock’s order, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant, - death or wounds to us all; the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes time and save the position and probably the battlefield.” Within moments, the tiny regiment was sweeping down the hill, first at a double-quick, then at full speed with bayonets leveled. Wilcox’s Alabamans saw the charge coming and opened a murderous fire, but the Minnesotans kept coming at them. Their assault was so ferocious, Wilcox thought he was being attacked by a much larger body and immediately requested more support, stating that the contest was “unequal.”
As the Minnesotans approached, man after man went down to the withering fire, but they kept running at full speed and, as one soldier would write home, “no one took a second look at his fallen companion.” Then, as they closed on the Confederates, the first line of Wilcox’s men broke for the rear, stampeding into the second line and bringing the entire Confederate attack to a halt. The men of the 1st Minnesota quickly took what cover was available and fired a volley into the staggered and surprised Confederates. They exchanged fire for some minutes and Wilcox actually ordered his men to fall back. Upon seeing the Confederates retreat, the Minnesotans fell back as Hancock’s reinforcements filled the gap in the Union line.
Of the 262 men from the regiment who had gone down the hill, only 47 were not listed as casualties. Nearly every officer had gone down, including Colonel Colvill, who was badly wounded. The regiment suffered a casualty rate of 82 percent in the assault—the highest any Union unit would suffer in the entire war. However, the regiment had bought Hancock his five minutes, with ten more to spare.
In discussing this critical part of the second day at Gettysburg, historians have naturally focused on the bravery and sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota, as well they should. However, at the same time, Hancock’s quick thinking and grim determination in ordering the attack also deserves praise. He made what he apparently knew was a necessary but terrible order, and never flinched. In his professional judgment, the situation was grave and a desperate order was required in order to buy those five minutes. It might be argued that no five minutes at Gettysburg could have been more important. III Corps was shattered and retreating, and Union forces were desperately fighting to hold Little Round Top. In essence, the entire Federal left was being assailed and the pressure on that sector of the line was tremendous. Had the 1st Minnesota not been ordered forward to counter the Confederate thrust, Wilcox probably would have penetrated the Union center, split the Army of the Potomac, and rolled up its flanks. The result would have been disastrous. Hancock saw this danger but, unlike John Buford, he had no time to contemplate, to plan, or to weigh the cost of his decision. As with Buford, however, there was also an easier decision. He could have simply kept the 1st Minnesota in-place and tried to hurry the reinforcements up to the line. It would have been the easy course, but Hancock knew it would fail. Instead, he asked men to pay a high price, but one he knew might determine victory or defeat.