Storming Fredericksburg with the 1st Minnesota

 “It was an awful slaughter and I believe God will punish those who were responsible for it.” ~ Unknown soldier, 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry

 

This hat emblem worn by a soldier in Co. C of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry features the trefoil design of the Second Army Corps. During the Fredericksburg campaign, the 1st Minnesota was part of General Alfred Sully's First Brigade of General Oliver O. Howard's Second Division along with the 19th Maine, 15th Massachusetts, two companies of Minnesota sharpshooters, and the 34th and 82nd New York regiments. The regiment would nearly be annihilated six months later at Gettysburg.
(Minnesota Historical Society) 

The soldiers of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, the only Minnesota regiment in the Army of the Potomac, drew the honor of being among the first Federal units to cross the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg in December 1862. One soldier readily admitted that the “boys then commenced to plunder, and no attempt was made to stop us. About midnight we went back. It was a rich scene. There was a dirty soldier dressed in the choicest silks, escorted by other soldiers dressed in long tailcoats and plug hats. Some were loaded down with tobacco, whiskey, wines, silver, chinaware, and the finest kind of bed clothing. One of the boys picked up a violin and a soldier was soon found who could play it, so they took positions for a cotillion. Between sets, the ladies would sit on the curbstones and the gentlemen would do the honors. But I cannot do justice to the scene.”

The regiment would be spared the horror of charging Marye’s Heights themselves but witnessed the repeated charges of the Federal. “I saw the Irish brigade go into the fight- they went in with colors flying on the double quick,” one wrote. “Before they got within musket-shot of the enemy, they had lost half their men in killed and wounded. They fell back three times and reformed, and three times did they charge the enemy’s works when every private in the ranks knew it was impossible to take them by storm. Our troops would charge until they got within a few yards of the works when they were compelled to give way before the murderous fire of the enemy. As far as the eye could see, our dead were in heaps upon the ground, the wounded crawling away and crying for help and water. It was an awful slaughter and I believe God will punish those who were responsible for it.”

The following account written by an unknown private in the 1st Minnesota was published in the January 2, 1863, edition of the Weekly Pioneer & Democrat from St. Paul, Minnesota.

This Kurz & Allison print depicts the Federal army crossing the Rappahannock under fire. The 1st Minnesota was chosen as one of the first units to cross the newly built pontoon bridge and soon found itself plundering the homes of Fredericksburg. An end of the year ordnance report showed that the 1st Minnesota utilized a mix of muskets during the Fredericksburg campaign, 83 of the men being armed with .69 caliber Model 1842 Springfield rifled muskets while the remaining 415 men carried .58 caliber Springfield rifle muskets dated 1855 or later. 

 Old camp at Falmouth, Virginia

December 17, 1862

          At 4 o’clock last Thursday morning we had breakfast, fell in, and started for the river and had not proceeded over three-quarters of a mile when we heard the rattle of musketry. It was the sharpshooters of the enemy driving our sharpshooters away from the bridge which they had commenced to build. Our division was marched to the riverbank and massed behind a large hill where we were ordered to “load at will.” General Oliver O. Howard, who commands our division, rode through our lines and informed us that we had been selected to fill the post of honor and charge across the bridge as soon as it was finished, and take the town by storm.

          It was impossible for the engineers to work on the bridge as they were picked off as soon as they showed themselves, so it was concluded to take the town by a flank movement. General [Colonel] Norman J. Hall, who has command of N.J.T. Dana’s old brigade, volunteered to cross the river in boats about a half mile below town and charge into the center of the place while a small party were to cross under the fire of our artillery in front and drive the enemy from the buildings which commanded the crossing. This bridge was built and the 1st Minnesota was ordered to cross. Away we went at the double quick. As the head of the column came on the bridge, the enemy who still held the right of the town, opened a scattering fire upon us which did but little damage. We were then formed on the first street from the river, but the Rebels soon fell back to the rear of town.

          The boys then commenced to plunder, and no attempt was made to stop us. About midnight we went back. It was a rich scene. There was a dirty soldier dressed in the choicest silks, escorted by other soldiers dressed in long tailcoats and plug hats. Some were loaded down with tobacco, whiskey, wines, silver, chinaware, and the finest kind of bed clothing. One of the boys picked up a violin and a soldier was soon found who could play it, so they took positions for a cotillion. Between sets, the ladies would sit on the curbstones and the gentlemen would do the honors. But I cannot do justice to the scene.

          On Friday at daylight, we took a position on a street near the back of the town within 1,500 yards of the enemy’s batteries. Our company was sent out as skirmishers, but the enemy kept very quiet and the boys had another opportunity for “confiscating Rebel property.” General Alfred Sully ordered us to lay flat in the street and not to provoke the fire of the enemy. They shelled us for an hour or two and then ceased. Friday night we went on picket.

General Alfred Sully

          On Saturday morning, we were marched into town, cooked coffee, and commenced to get ready for the battle, or slaughter I should call it. To give you an idea of the ground on which the battle was fought, I will place our troops in the city of St. Paul and the enemy in possession of the hills, they had deep rifle pits and entrenchments. On top of the hill, they had thrown up large earthworks to protect their artillery. About halfway between the town and the gill there is a large canal with four feet of water. This canal ran the whole length of the battlefield and our troops had to cross it and reform on the other side in point-blank range of the enemy’s artillery. The battle commenced on the left of the line (we were on the extreme right) about 7 o’clock and in less than an hour, the whole line was engaged. We were ordered to take the entrenchments on our left (our right) by storm and went in with a yell and were soon under fire. General Sully came up and ordered us back to a position behind a brick wall of a graveyard and ordered up artillery to drive the enemy from their works and at the same time engage their guns before a fierce charge was ordered. The regiment supported the batteries. I believe that God protected us in that hour of peril. Men fell all around us, but we met with no serious loss. The artillery had three pieces dismounted.

 

“What a terrible sight!  I was one of the advance pickets and had to lie flat on the ground which was quite wet and muddy. I could hear the groans of the wounded and the dying who lay between the two lines and the ground was thickly strewn with the dead of both armies. The dead were lying all around me. I could distinctly hear the enemy at work burying their dead and could hear them talk and relieve their outposts.” ~unknown soldier, 1st Minnesota Infantry

 

          In the meantime the battle was raging furiously on our left, but as our company was not actively engaged, I got a position that commanded a view of the whole field. I saw the Irish brigade go into the fight- they went in with colors flying on the double quick. Before they got within musket-shot of the enemy, they had lost half their men in killed and wounded. They fell back three times and reformed, and three times did they charge the enemy’s works when every private in the ranks knew it was impossible to take them by storm. Our troops would charge until they got within a few yards of the works when they were compelled to give way before the murderous fire of the enemy. As far as the eye could see, our dead were in heaps upon the ground, the wounded crawling away and crying for help and water. It was an awful slaughter and I believe God will punish those who were responsible for it.

          But to return to our own regiment; our regiment was ordered into town about 8 o’clock and spent the night on the sidewalks. On Sunday morning, we were ordered to the right and spent the day dodging shells and that night, for the first time since crossing the river, we got comfortable quarters. But at 9 o’clock, we were ordered to the front to picket within 200 yards of the enemy’s line with five other regiments to relieve Sykes’ division. This commander informed us that he had lost 300 men that day while on picket. He said it was the hottest hole he had ever been stuck into. We could hear the Rebels talk very plainly and one of our corporals walked into their lines by mistake and was taken prisoner.

Sergeant James Ackers, Co. H, 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry
Killed in action July 2, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg

          During the night, we dug rifle pits for our videttes and trenches for the men to get into and it was very lucky for the first that it was done, for at daylight the enemy’s sharpshooters commenced to drive in our whole picket line by opening four batteries upon them. I am sorry to say they partially succeeded. The five regiments on our right broke and ran, but our boys from their rifle pits played so lively on the enemy that they soon fell back. They then opened on us with their batteries, but we took to our holes and kept low. The batteries kept at work until almost dark. In the meantime, an aides of General Howard’s came out and thanked us for saving the credit of the division and told us to accept his tearful thanks. General Sully sent word out to “give them hell if they tried it again.” After their batteries ceased playing, the enemy came out and formed a line about 300 yards from our position. The men came to a ready and waited for them, but for some reason they did not advance. I think the regiment would have been a thing of the past if they had done it, for all the men had made upon their minds to fight to the last.

          We were relived from picket at 9 o’clock and camped on the sidewalk, and at noon we fell in and started for this side of the Rappahannock and arrived at our old camping ground at 2:30. The regiment has won honors, not in lists of killed and wounded, but in conducting themselves like soldiers. They performed more hard and dangerous duty than any other regiment that crossed the river, and they did it willingly and to the satisfaction of everyone interested.

General Oliver Otis Howard


          On Wednesday afternoon, General Howard had the regiment called out and made a very neat speech to us. He said he had heard it remarked by the officers in the army that the Minnesota regiment was the best volunteer regiment in the service, and now he was willing to confess they were right. He thanked us for saving the division from disgrace. He said he was sitting and talking with General Sully when the messenger arrived and informed him that the whole picket line was running. Sully jumped up and exclaimed, “You lie sir, the Minnesota First will never run.” Three cheers and a whoop for Sully, and three for Howard!

 

Chaplain F.A. Canwell reported that the regiment suffered casualties of eight wounded and two missing during the Battle of Fredericksburg.


Source:

Letter from “Private,” 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Pioneer & Democrat (Minnesota), January 2, 1863, pg. 4

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