From farms and shops, they eagerly joined the Union Army in 1861 and marched into history.
Arnold, George, wounded at Gettysburg; Aucker, Wm. H., wounded at Gettysburg; Bates, Wm. F., killed at Gettysburg; Blanchard, Rufus G., wounded at Gettysburg; Caplazi, Albert, wounded at Gettysburg …
In a few words of summary, the roster of Company B, First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, bears testament to the awful sacrifice that fateful midsummer day in a Pennsylvania field made by a group of about 100 men from Washington County. That sacrifice 150 years ago was celebrated this past week with thoughtful fanfare.
The First Minnesota’s act of desperate valor at Gettysburg to charge a vastly larger regiment of Alabama soldiers to buy a few moments for Union reinforcements to gather on July 2, 1863, has been lionized in verse, monuments and paintings, and parsed and retold in several books. The precise numbers have been debated by historians, but the charge that began with about 260 soldiers ended with more than 80 percent of them dead or wounded.
It was a pivotal moment in the battle, and for the state — and for the men of Company B, who were from the lumber camps, shops and farms of a young Washington County. Many were immigrants, like Adam Marty, who had come from Switzerland. A house painter by trade, his cousin, Sam Bloomer, also was a member of Company B and would lose his leg at Antietam.
“If you think about it, Gettysburg really solidified Minnesota’s role and reputation in the Civil War. You have to remember, Minnesota had only been a state for three years when the war broke out,” said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, which has amassed an impressive collection of materials from the veterans. It also solidified the state as a member of the Union. “We weren’t just newbies anymore.”
Ten companies comprised the First Minnesota, lettered A-K, each primarily comprised, in turn, from different communities — places like St. Paul, Hastings and Faribault. Company B was from Washington County, specifically, from the Stillwater Guards, a local militia that had been formed in 1858, Peterson said.
When the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, things turned serious very quickly.
Minnesota leapt to the first call for volunteers, and Washington County was no different. Minnesota sent 25,000 men, or about half of the state’s eligible male population, to war. The county sent hundreds of men to the war in other regiments of infantry, cavalry, artillery and sharpshooters.
Some of them ended up with Gen. Ulysses Grant in laying siege to Vicksburg — another pivotal battle coinciding with Gettysburg. Others were first diverted to fight the Dakota Indians closer to home in 1862 before making their way to the South.
Only the First Minnesota became part of the Army of the Potomac, taking part in battles like Bull Run, Fredricksburg and Antietam.
By the time the men of Company B arrived at Gettysburg, they were hardened and combat-tested, Peterson said. “They had seen it all.”
The ranks of the regiment were also severely depleted after more than two years of fighting. And after the charge, Company B, like the rest of the unit, was decimated.
“Of the 100 strong and stouthearted sons of Washington County who bade farewell to home and friends at the head of Lake St. Croix on that April morning over two years before, by reason of sickness, shot and shell only 35 answered to the roll-call on the eve of that battle, and of these, 22 of the bravest were laid low in the first 15 minutes,” reads an 1881 history of the county.
When what was left of the diminished company gathered the next day to help repulse Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle, it adds, “but one sergeant, two corporals and three privates were fit for duty.”
Among those who fell that day was Marty, a musket ball tearing a hole in his right thigh.
Marty’s letters are archived at the Minnesota Historical Society, and are part of a book published in 2011 by the Washington County Historical Society: “In Their Own Words: The Civil War as Seen by Washington County Soldiers.” Bloomer also wrote extensively of his wartime experiences.
As Marty recovered at a Philadelphia hospital, he and Bloomer corresponded on their respective recuperation.