July 2, 1863: In the hills south of Gettysburg, Pa., Union Gen. Winfield Hancock is organizing a defensive position against the Confederate invaders. The Army of the Potomac is beginning to arrive, but Robert E. Lee's Army of Virginia is already there.
And now a Confederate brigade, some 1,600 soldiers, is advancing on the thin Union line.
Hancock eyes the 262-man regiment that has just arrived. "My God! Are these all the men we have here?"
The regiment was the First Minnesota Volunteers. They were indeed all the men the Union had on the scene. They would be barely enough.
Hancock bought the precious 15 minutes he needed by sending the First Minnesota on a suicide mission — a bayonet attack on the oncoming Confederates. The First Minnesota had 262 men at roll call that morning. After their desperate fight on July 2, they would be down to 47. Its 83 percent casualty rate is believed to be the highest in U.S. military history.
The three-day Gettysburg fight is the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on the North American continent, and may it never be challenged for that status. It — along with the Vicksburg campaign, which concluded on the same day in Mississippi — was the turning point of the Civil War.
History is full of what-ifs and might-have-beens, and detailed retellings of Gettysburg offer numerous opportunities for the battle to go the other way. The noble self-sacrifice of the First Minnesota is not the only reason the North won the battle, but it is certainly regarded as having staved off defeat.
A century and a half later, the gallantry of those 262 — including William Henry Wikoff, a Mankato resident killed in that July 2 fray — is worthy of our attention and admiration.
They were all the men the Union had. They gave all the Union needed.