A journal offers a glimpse of the horrors of that battle and the pivotal role played by the legendary First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.
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.