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Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota…

Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburg

by Brian Leehan

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“And I looked, and behold a pale horse,
And its rider’s name was Death,
And Hell followed with Him”

Revelation 6:8

This quote, which opens the book, sets the tone for the description of the participation of the First Minnesota Volunteers on July 2-3, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg has a hold on the American imagination in a way that no other military engagement has, not even Pearl Harbor. Much of its appeal is due to the best-selling novel by Michael Shaara, Killer Angels and the equally successful film of that book, Gettysburg. In both works, one of the dramatic highlights, along with Pickett’s Charge, is the heroic stand of the 20th Maine led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top. The beauty of fiction is that the author can choose to focus on whatever aspect catches his or her imagination and by skillful use of various literary devices, can ignore other aspects. There’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly Klller Angels is great entertainment, and thanks to Shaara, many more people have become interested in the US Civil War than would have been the case had the novel never been published.

But there is a tendency to believe that the 20th Maine “saved” the battle, the Union Army and won the war practically single-handed by its stand at Gettysburg. While that engagement was critical, it was by no means the only one that “saved” the Battle of Gettysburg. Equally important was the charge to near-certain death by 8 companies of the First Minnesota on the same day at the same time that the 20th Maine was fighting to preserve the Union left flank.

Due to the shattering of the Union 3rd Corps, there was a gap in the Union line at Plum Run that, had it been taken by the Confederates, would have split the Union defense in two, much the same as happened at Chickamauga and probably with the same result--the defeat of the Union army. But unlike Chickamauga, arguably the Union’s finest general, Winfield Scott Hancock, was present at Gettysburg and in charge of the Union center.

“Reinforcements were coming on the run, but I knew that before they could reach the threatened point the confederates, unless checked, would seize the position. I would have ordered that regiment in if I had known that every man would be killed. It had to be done.” Hancock, after the battle.

The regiment was the First Minnesota. Hancock ordered Colonel Colville to “take those colors” (Wilcox’s brigade). Knowing perfectly well what that meant--something like 332 men against about 1400--the First Minnesota charged--and stopped Wilcox’s brigade cold.
That was not the only contribution of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. About 100 men survived the charge at Plum Run. Reunited with its other two companies, the First was also involved in the charge the next day that stopped those elements of Pickett’s Charge that breached the stone wall of the Union line.

While Gettysburg is the most dramatic section of the book, Leehan describes how the unit was first formed (possibly the first Union volunteer was from the First Minnesota) and a brief description of other battles in which the First Minnesota participated. he has a very fine section on myths--their formation, their necessity, and how the myth of the First Minnesota’s charge at plum Run was established. According to most accounts, 232 men charged, and 47 survived. Not so, says Leehan: more like 332 in the charge and 100 survivors. Leehan also has small but good sections on weaponry and tactics.

While not in the league of McPherson, Catton, Foote, Coddington, or others, Leehan is still a good enough writer to engage and keep the reader’s attention. This is a very fine little book, that brings to the fore the actions and courage of a small group of relatively unknown men who helped shape the history of the United States.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote Joycepa | Jul 21, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0873515110, Paperback)

Minnesota Book Award Winner! Now in paperback. The smoke had just cleared from the last volley of musketry at Gettysburg. Nearly 70 percent of the First Minnesota regiment lay dead or dying on the field--one of the greatest losses of any unit engaged in the Civil War. The significance of this July 2, 1863, battle at Gettysburg is widely known, but the harrowing details of the First's heroic stand that stopped a furious rebel assault have long been buried. In Pale Horse at Plum Run Brian Leehan brings the full story of the First at Gettysburg to light as he examines personal accounts, eyewitness reports, and official records to construct a remarkably detailed and compelling narrative. "Brian Leehan's account of the First Minnesota on Cemetery Ridge is the most detailed and complete I have read. His exhaustive research and compelling narrative are impressive and offer a much fuller understanding of the regiment?s extraordinary feats." -- Richard Moe, author of The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:49 -0400)

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