The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 25, 2012

In Civil War, 1st Minnesota answered its call to duty

Mankato's Wikoff set the standard for valor

By Tim Krohn
The Free Press

— William Henry Wikoff arrived in Mankato in 1858, and three years later at age 26 enlisted into the Union Army shortly after the start of the Civil War, forever enshrining his name among the war's most vaunted and decimated units -- the 1st Minnesota Volunteers.

Prior to the battle of Bull Run, a gravely ill Wikoff insisted on joining the fight. The battle went poorly for the North, leading the Federals into a chaotic retreat toward Washington.

Wikoff, who suffered an unspecified injury in battle, didn't arrive back in Washington for three days and was listed among those killed, according to the book "Every Man Did His Duty." (See related story.)

In a letter to a friend back home, Wikoff noted his obituary had been printed in the Mankato Independent: "Fortunate man what can read his own obituary."

After being hospitalized following Bull Run, Wikoff was offered a medical discharge but refused. Prior to a battle at Winchester, Wikoff wrote: "If it should be my lot to die on the battlefield, it will be a consolation to my friends to know that I died serving my country in the darkest hour of history." 

While Wikoff survived that battle and others, he and the 1st were soon to take part in their bloodiest action -- one that would enshrine them in Civil War history.  

The 1st had suffered high casualties at the battles of First Bull Run (20 percent) and Antietam (28 percent). But it was at the Battle of Gettysburg where the 1st suffered a catastrophic 82 percent casualty rate.

The men of the 1st are most remembered for their actions on July 2, 1863, during the second day's fighting at Gettysburg, where the regiment prevented the Confederates from pushing the Federals off of Cemetery Ridge, a position that was to be crucial in the battle.

In an attempt to gain time to hold the position, the 1st was ordered to charge into a situation that had them outmanned by at least 5 to 1.

In the assault 215 of the 1st were killed or wounded while 47 men survived and continued to fight -- none turned in flight and the unit's flag was not lost to the enemy.

During the July 2 charge, Wikoff was was on the regiment's far left flank. During the ensuing fight, Wikoff was shot through the heart and died instantly. He was buried on the field at Gettysburg and in October 1863 his body was reinterred to a family vault in Easton Cemetery in Easton, Penn.

Of their staggering losses and bravery, President Calvin Coolidge said: "Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the 1st Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country."