George Buckman was busy carving out a life for himself.
By day, the carpenter plied his trade in St. Mary, a thriving new town boasting a sawmill, shingle factory and flour mill.
In the evening, he fed his love of writing at St. Mary’s literary society, editing its journal and eagerly joining the debates. Buckman was 29, intelligent eyes set deep below his brow; his beard a long, brown thicket.
He could not have known how transient it all was. Or how long his writing about the extraordinary events ahead would survive. But forces already roiling far from the wheat fields of southern Minnesota in 1861 were about to sweep Buckman and thousands of other young men from Minnesota into history, profoundly altering their lives.
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the bloody three-day battle amid the peach orchards and plum trees near Gettysburg, Pa., a turning point in the Civil War. The many eyes squinting back through the gauze of history at those events will find at their heart a group of young Minnesotans who became legends for what they did.
At Gettysburg, the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment would suffer the highest percentage of casualties of any Union regiment in any Civil War battle.
President Calvin Coolidge would one day declare that what they did “has few, if any equals and no superiors in the history of warfare,” entitling the Minnesotans “to rank as the saviors of their country.”
A century and half later, one of Buckman’s two war diaries sits, brittle, in a box at the Minnesota History Center. The other has vanished. But his handwritten account of Gettysburg, culled by him in 1897 from the now-lost journal, is also in the box, offering intimate glimpses into the fate and heroism of the First Minnesota.
A rush to enlist
When word filtered north in April 1861 that Southerners had bombarded a small island fort off Charleston, S.C., Buckman did the same thing as half of the state’s eligible men.
He quickly heeded a call from President Lincoln and Gov. Alexander Ramsey for volunteer soldiers, joining the Faribault Guards, Company G of the First Minnesota — the first Union volunteers in the country. No other state would provide a higher percentage of its eligible men to the Union Army over the next four years.
They gathered that spring for drilling and training at Fort Snelling. Buckman and 618 others, many of them ox-strong lumbermen and farmers, spent six weeks whipping themselves into a precision fighting force.
A thousand of their fellow Minnesotans turned out at the fort’s parade ground in June to bid them farewell. They watched the governor’s wife, Anna Ramsey, present the young men with a blue silk state flag. Leaders strutted around bright bay horses, gifts from the citizenry, as the soldiers performed maneuvers.
Before dawn on June 22, 1861, the fledgling soldiers marched down from Fort Snelling to the Mississippi River and boarded a couple of steamboats, heading south for three years of nation-defining warfare.
The First Minnesota impressed onlookers even before reaching their first battle. As they passed through Chicago to change trains, the Chicago Tribune reported: “There are few regiments we have ever seen that can compare to the brawn and muscle with these Minnesotians, used to the axe, the rifle, the oar and the setting pole. They are unquestionably the finest body of troops that has yet to appear in our streets.”
Among them was George Buckman, a small, blank journal tucked in his pocket.
The road to Gettysburg
Two years later, as the First Minnesota marched toward Gettysburg in late June, they were no longer just Minnesota farm boys.
Fighting in many of the war’s bloodiest and most decisive battles — Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Fair Oaks — had toughened them. Buckman had nearly filled his first diary with his tiny handwriting.
Roads led to Gettysburg like a wheel’s spokes, and the rolling hillsides offered perfect defensive positions for what everyone anticipated would be the Civil War’s next major showdown — and its first big clash so far north.
The size of the armies flooding into the rocky terrain around the quaint town of 3,500 was staggering: 85,000 northern troops and 65,000 Confederates. It would be the largest battle ever fought in North America.
The First Minnesota and other Union reinforcements were being pushed hard toward their destiny. When their commanding officer let the men pause for five minutes to wash sand out of their socks after crossing a stream, he was placed under arrest by his superiors for allowing even that brief delay. Sgt. Buckman’s journal entries captured the frantic pace:
June 29: The march was then resumed in quick time, only one short halt being made before reaching the pleasant village of Liberty. The troops were not permitted to enter the town. The citizens were rejoiced to see the Union Troops. They had been in a state of alarm for some days as the Confederate Army was hovering in that vicinity.
Everything they had cooked was freely given to the troops along with their blessing for the success of the Union Army in the impending battle. In an hour we were on the road again passing Johnstown and going into camp a half mile beyond Uniontown, having marched a distance of thirty miles. As for myself I was pretty well used up and for the last mile before reaching camp could walk only with the greatest difficulty.
The portion of Maryland passed through is the most fertile of any in the state and strangely in contrast with the desolated country of Virginia. Here there were rich fields of grain, comfortable homes, thrift and prosperity, but the people were in fear and trembling for they knew not what the morrow might bring forth. I said to myself, this is the most beautiful country I have seen since leaving the fair State of Minnesota.
July 1: As we approached the State line of Pa. we could see clouds of smoke and distinctly hear the roar of artillery. The people along our route were simply terror stricken. Anxious and enquiring looks at the troops as they passed rapidly along seemingly to read, if they could, the kind of stuff they were made of. Some more thoughtful than the rest had placed tubs of water by the road side from which the men snatched a cup full and continued on their way.
By the time the First Minnesota made camp that night, all George Buckman really wanted was dry feet and hot coffee. But a twist of fate would conspire against his plans for even those small comforts as a thick fog descended over the camp.
July 1: Went into camp late in the evening about three miles from Gettysburg and formed line of battle. The roads passed over during the day were bad from late rains and blistered feet added to my discomfort. After the line was formed search was made for water to make coffee. It was found after a tedious tramp and preparations at once made for a royal supper which consisted of hard tack in addition to the coffee. The hard tack was considered to be very choice as it came from a box marked 2,000 B.C. This was interpreted by the boys to mean 2,000 years before Christ. Indeed its appearance confirmed the interpretation.
But I digress from my coffee. It is doing nicely but as it commenced to boil the orderly came along with orders to move. The line had to be changed. Over went the coffee & my expectations with it. Well, the line is reformed and a new cup of solace prepared. It is almost ready when that confounded orderly shows up again and I am detailed with twenty men and ordered to report to Surg. Genl. Hammond’s Hdqrs. That fixed the coffee business, and if I remember correctly, my temper too. It was now twelve o’clock.
I got my detail together and started out to find the Surgeon Genls. Hdqrs. It was a foggy dismal night and after wandering around for some time at last found Hdqrs and reported. All right said the Genl. lie down and make yourselves comfortable. Comfortable! Gracious me. Wet grass for a bed and a delicious hard tack thrown in. I unslung my knapsack for a pillow, unrolled my blanket and rolled up in it, and slept all unconscious of the impending morrow until the guns first streak of daylight awoke the echoes of the morning.
Later, Buckman would realize that being dispatched to the field hospital was a stroke of luck. It would save him from the front lines. Instead, he would be a mile back in a barn between a peach orchard and the gravestones of Cemetery Ridge, behind a rocky mound known as Little Round Top.
It would afford him a vantage point to observe the coming battle, without “an excellent opportunity of having to wear a wooden arm or being knocked into eternity.”
‘Charge those lines!’
The white canvas tents of the Second Corps Hospital to which Buckman was detailed were the Civil War equivalent of a modern M.A.S.H. unit.
Antiseptic practices were not yet part of medicine, so filth made field hospitals nearly as deadly as the battlefield. Disease and infection spread quickly. The ammunition of choice — lead minie balls — hit soldiers with devastating impact, shattering bone, ripping muscle and severing arteries beyond repair. Amputation was the most common surgery, with chloroform relieving the pain but sometimes leaving the patient vaguely aware of what was happening.
July 2: Heavy skirmishing and cannonading soon commenced and by the middle of the afternoon the battle began in earnest.
From the crackling fire of musketry it increased to a roar of thunder augmented by the artillery fire and exploding shell. The earth fairly shook with the concussion, not only for the moment but for two solid hours.
The field to the right of the Hospital looked as though a hurricane was passing over it. Solid shot that struck the ground in front of our line ricochet and plowed great furrows in the earth to our right.
Wounded men began to pour into the hospital, hobbling along, using their muskets for walking sticks, while the more seriously hurt were brought in on stretchers, mangled and torn, bleeding, groaning, dying. Everything in our power was done to relieve the suffering. What could we do except to bring them water and receive their last messages to friends and home.
When the attack upon Round Top was made the shell and musket balls poured into our hospital from a new direction. The wounded in the barn were frantic to be removed fearing they would be burned alive if it should take fire from the shelling. I removed them with the assistance of some of the detail. … It soon became evident that we must get away from that locality and we pressed every man into the service who had one hand to use and could walk. Holes were knocked in ambulances as they were being filled.
Pandemonium reigned. I ran over a stretcher with one leg knocked off which I took and looking about to see who I would take first discovered my comrade L.J. Mosher lying on his back with the hot sun pouring into his face, badly wounded. He greeted me with a welcome I shall never forget. The wounded were all moved back about a mile to Rock Creek during the night. A large number of the wounded died in the orchard.
About 4 p.m. on July 2, Southern forces mounted a ferocious attack on Union soldiers under the command of Gen. Daniel Sickles, who shifted his men to higher ground near some peach trees west of Little Round Top, a move that left his flanks vulnerable.
Soldiers, their guns too hot to hold, resorted to hand-to-hand combat. Some even threw cobblestones at their enemy as control of a nearby wheat field changed hands a half-dozen times during two hours of relentless fighting.
Confederates swarming in from three sides finally broke Sickles’ line and his soldiers retreated in panic past the First Minnesota, standing by on the crest of a ridge.
Gen. Winfield Hancock, overseeing a corps that included the First Minnesota, moved his men a quarter-mile to fill the gap on Cemetery Ridge. The Minnesotans looked down the gently sloping pastureland to a marshy swale known as Plum Run.
About 262 Minnesotans on the ridge were all that stood between more than a thousand Confederate soldiers and the disaster they would cause if they managed to pour over the ridge and split the Union line.
With dead bodies punctuating the field, Hancock needed reinforcements. But first, he had to plug the collapsing line for five minutes to delay the Confederate advance until help could arrive.
“What regiment is this?” Hancock asked. Col. William Colvill, a lawyer and publisher from Red Wing, responded: “First Minnesota.”
“Charge those lines!” Hancock ordered. “Take them!”
William Lochren, an Irish-born soldier who would become a federal judge in Minnesota, heard 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 — and every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.”
Marching at double-quick time with bayonets fixed, the First Minnesota charged down the incline into the whistling bullets, screeching shells and dense smoke unleashed by some 1,600 Alabamians.
“Bullets were coming like hailstones,” Sgt. John Wesley Plummer wrote to his brother back home, “whittling our boys like grain before the sickle.”
Stunned by the Minnesotans rushing toward them, the Confederate soldiers grew disorganized in the Plum Run bog. The five-minute charge had indeed thwarted the Southerners’ advance and saved the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.
“We had no time to weep,” Cpl. Alfred Carpenter wrote in a letter home. “The bloody field was in our possession, but at what cost? The ground was strewn with dead and dying, whose groans and prayers and cries for help and water rent the air.”
About three-quarters of the First Minnesota had been killed or wounded. As with almost everything about the famed regiment, historians continue to debate precise numbers. Lochren, who witnessed the carnage, put the toll at 82 percent; historians have since estimated that closer to 68 percent were sprawled on the battlefield when the thick smoke lifted.
At the hospital tent along Rock Creek, Buckman’s work was just beginning.
July 3: Many of the wounded were uncared for for several days and exposed to a drenching rain in the night of the 3d. We were in a deplorable condition without supplies and scant medical attendance. Nearly four thousand men, many entirely helpless lay scattered over the ground, Union and Confederate intermingled.
July 4: The wounded continue to be brought in. Some are dreadfully mangled and suffering excruciating pain. It is truly heart rending to witness the condition in which the men are in when brought from the field to the hospital covered with blood and dirt and without care or attention. The matter of hospital tents or means of alleviating the suffering seems to have been entirely neglected. Language fails to describe the scene.
Surgeons are busy with amputations. One young fellow, a Confederate, was taken up in the arms of one of the surgeons and carried to the amputation table, pleading all the way to have the surgeon save him. Putting his arms around his neck and telling him of his home, his mother, and his sister that he wanted to see again. His appeal was so pathetic and earnest that I could not endure it and turned away. The poor lad did not survive.
Unbearable stench of death
Buckman remained at Gettysburg for five weeks, caring for the wounded, chronicling daily those who died and burying body after body.
The Gettysburg Cemetery includes 52 First Minnesota graves, 13 of whom died weeks later when amputations festered into infections.
July 6: The wounded still continued to be brought in. After being ordered by the surgeon in charge I went over the hospital ground and picked up hands, feet, legs and arms enough to make a heap as high as a common table and then buried them. But the most sickening duty was yet to come. In spite of all we could do many of the dead were left unburied for three and four days. We had great difficulty in finding spades and shovels to work with but the dead must be buried. I took four men out of my detail one afternoon and went just across the creek and buried forty five men.
Buckman’s days would be consumed with the grim logistics of burying so many dead, experimenting with the best ways to heave bodies decomposing quickly in the heat of summer into mass graves.
When done we laid the corpse over and proceed to dig for the next, throwing the earth over the first man and so on for a few times when the stench became so unbearable that we were obliged to adopt different tactics. I returned to the hospital steward and procured some brandy in which we washed our faces. Took a swallow inside. All were unanimous that we could not continue the excavations.
July 7: The Sanitary Commission arrived with wagon loads of supplies and immediately began to distribute soft bread and butter, oranges, lemons, clean clothes and a great many delicacies sorely needed. The situation of the hospital at that time was deplorable in the extreme. I can not describe — there is no language that can describe — no pen picture, or work painting that can or ever will illustrate the scenes that transpired in the 2d Army Corps hospital at Gettysburg. The wounded numbered about three thousand. …
July 8: The wounded of the enemy presented a pitiable sight on the morning of the 8th as they lay shivering in the rain. We could not do much though ever so willing for the reason that we had nothing to do with. Many died during the storm of last night. The creek overflowed its banks and washed away several wounded and dead.
Buckman’s diary goes on almost matter-of-factly, detailing the death all around him:
July 8: I pulled one man out of the creek who belonged to the 106th Pa. Buried 14 men, mostly Confederates. This recital is only a hundredth part of my experience at Gettysburg.
On July 20th, he buried 15 men. The next day, “14 men have been consigned to the earth today.” He buried 20 more July 22 and 23.
Then a neighbor from back home, Silas Newcomb of Faribault, interrupted Buckman as he was putting his carpentry skills to work building bunks for the wounded. Together, they went to the graves of their fellow Minnesotans and walked the battlefield for the first time.
July 24: Everything bore testimony to the terrible struggle. The stench of buried horses and of half buried men in some instances was nearly suffocating. … A person must see for himself to have any idea of the sad appearance of a great battlefield. Language must fail to describe the scene.
Parted with friend N[ewcomb] at the Cemetery and made my way to the Hosp’l. with sad feelings. After sundown — at the request of a young man whose brother died from wounds received at the late battle — took up the remains by moonlight — placed them in a coffin — and buried them again.
By mid-August, Buckman rejoined the surviving First Minnesota, which was sent to Baltimore and New York to quell draft riots.
As the small band marched through Brooklyn, a woman who remembered seeing them on parade at Fort Snelling two years earlier was so struck by the change that she wrote in a St. Paul newspaper:
“As I saw this little fragment of the once splendid Minnesota First march by me, carrying their stained and tattered flag, scarcely a shred of which is left … I absolutely shivered with emotion. … Their bronzed faces look so composed and serious. There was history written on every one of them.”
They were honored at a banquet in Washington on Feb. 6, 1864, and the next day boarded trains for home. Buckman’s diaries were in his pocket, along with a remnant of the First Minnesota’s flag, a single ragged star he would keep for the rest of his life.
The once-thriving community of St. Mary that Buckman had left nearly three years earlier was now a ghost town.
“When the war broke out, its best blood enlisted in the Army and its business men, one after another, deserted it,” Buckman told authors of the 1887 Waseca County history.
Buckman married and raised a family, moving to nearby Waseca. He built a blond brick house that still sits at the corner of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue and is being restored. He was elected county treasurer four times before going into real estate and founding the People’s Bank, where he served as cashier.
Like all First Minnesota veterans, Buckman was trumpeted as a hero as his long beard grew stringy and gray. Bronze sculptures of the regiment’s leaders were erected at the Capitol and in a park in front of the Cathedral of St. Paul. Reunions were held each year around the state.
In the 1890s, Buckman’s bank fell prey to a swindling Minneapolis money-loaning outfit. Waseca journalist and historian James Erwin Child speculated concerns about how the bank’s problems might be viewed by the town contributed to Buckman’s death from heart problems in 1899, at age 66. He is buried in Woodville Cemetery in Waseca.
But two years before he died, Buckman paged through his two little journals from the Civil War and wrote his memoirs, looking back on the moment when fate robbed him of his hot coffee, but likely saved his life:
1897: I have always maintained and still maintain that my being detailed on that night before the second day’s battle saved my life. Providence interfered and I am here in the year of our Lord 1897 to relate a little of unwritten history. When I ascertained how my comrades had fared I said “I never will complain again happen what may.” I was very much out of temper when I had to spill my coffee a second time and to go out in the darkness and mist, weary and footsore, to hunt up headquarters but the sequel taught me a lesson.”