General Winfield Scott Hancock
Gettysburg, July 2, 1863
That was the command given 150 years ago to Colonel William Colvill of the First Minnesota Volunteers Regiment in the midst of the second day of fighting outside of the previously unknown sleepy hamlet of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Colvill was in command of the famed First Minnesota Regiment and had arrived at a critical time with 262 of his men, only the leading portion of the Regiment. They had just accomplished an arduous 20-mile march toward the sound of the developing battle. Upon their arrival on the scene, Union forces were in chaos along the soon to become hallowed grounds known as Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg. 1600 Confederates from Alabama under the command of General Cadmus Wilcox were moving quickly to take the high ground at this important place on the battlefield.
The men of the First Minnesota were seasoned veterans of the Civil War, having the distinction of being the first unit to volunteer for the Union cause back in 1861. They had seen action from the first major battle at Bull Run to one of the bloodiest at Fredericksburg. Therefore, when the command to charge into the oncoming Alabamans was given, they knew full well the order meant the highest sacrifice. Without hesitation, the 262 Minnesotans with big 6 foot 5 William Colvill in the lead rushed down Cemetery Ridge, which looks more like a casual hill at this place on the field, to clash with the advancing Confederates. The ensuing bloody encounter slowed the Confederate advance for only a few minutes, but they were precious minutes. While the Minnesotans were holding off the advancing Confederates, General Hancock was able to move Union reserves into good positions up on Cemetery Ridge, saving the high ground.
It is well established by historians that without the sacrifices of the Maine 20th on the far southern flank of the Union forces and the First Minnesota on Cemetery Ridge on the second day of battle, the Battle of Gettysburg would have been a Union loss.
As a result, the First Minnesota experienced the highest casualty rate of any military unit in American history with 88% of those charging down that hill either killed or wounded. Colvill would lay on the battlefield into the night, wounded in the shoulder and leg in the no man’s land between the opposing lines until one of his comrades was able to rescue him under the cover of darkness. His service to Minnesota during the Civil War was so respected his statute is one of the four Minnesota Civil War veterans in our State Capitol’s Rotunda.
Colvill would eventually recover from his wounds and return to Minnesota to serve in the Legislature and as Minnesota’s Attorney General. He practiced law in the Red Wing area and was a newspaper editor. Despite his bravery in battle he would later go on to question war as a pacifist and would never talk about his role in the Civil War except with the members of the First Minnesota.
A little-known fact about Colvill’s life following the Civil War is that he served a short time as the federal land agent in Duluth. In 1893 he became a homesteader on a 167-acre parcel 6 miles northeast of Grand Marais. After his death in 1905, the fellow homesteaders in the area renamed the fledgling town Covill in his honor. The town would die by the Great Depression, but the township still bears this name.
After the war Minnesota’s great hero Colvill gained a reputation of questioning the political powers of his day. The political establishment would quietly replace him from Attorney General as they realized the hero was not afraid to question their actions. On this 150th anniversary of the great battle at Gettysburg to honor the memory of Colvill’s sacrifice that day, it might be a good idea to follow his example by asking some of the tough questions of our present day political leaders regarding sulfide mining.
As a former resident of the North Shore, I think Colvill would not have cowered away from asking some of the tough questions of the mining companies wanting to exploit our resources in the North. The team at Mining Truth has put together four tough questions that Minnesota’s political leaders need to answer regarding this a dangerous new mining:
1) Will Minnesota’s water stay safe and clean?
2) Are there safeguards in place for when things go wrong?
3) Will these foreign companies leave the site clean and maintenance-free when the exit Minnesota?
4) Will Minnesota’s taxpayers be protected?
Unless Governor Dayton and the mining companies are each able to demonstrate to the people of Minnesota that the answer to these four questions is an unqualified yes, then the mines should not be allowed to move forward.
To learn more about the impact of this new mining in our beautiful lakes region go to the Mining Truth Website.