James Cannon and William Henry Wickoff were two Mankato residents who enlisted in the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.
Cannon enlisted as a private April 29, 1861, in “I” Company of the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment.
Mankato’s deputy sheriff — 26-year-old William Henry Wickoff — soon joined Cannon in the regiment.
Members of the 1,000-member military company were volunteers from Mankato and surrounding communities who had responded to President Lincoln’s call for 175,000 men to “put down the Rebellion,” as the American Civil War was known in its infancy.
Cannon, a native of New York City, had prior experience serving in the New York state militia. At age 42, he was one of the First Minnesota’s oldest volunteers.
Shortly after his enlistment, Cannon was appointed the captain of “I” Company and put in charge of drilling the new recruits.
Pennsylvania native Wickoff enlisted as a private into “H” Company of the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment. He was gravely ill by the time the entire First Minnesota had arrived in the Eastern Theater of the war. As the soldiers prepared for their first major military engagement along the banks of a sluggish stream in Virginia known as Bull Run, Wickoff insisted on joining the fight.
In doing so, he was responsible for saving Cannon’s life during the Battle of First Bull Run, also known as Manassas. During the fighting, a bullet entered Cannon’s right leg and shattered the bone.
The battle went poorly for Union troops. Cannon was shot about noon July 21 and he lay on the ground until the night of July 22 when Wickoff carried him from the main battlefield.
Cannon was among the wounded left behind when the First Minnesota Regiment moved on. He was picked up by the Confederates and taken to the nearby town of Manassas Junction.
Cannon was placed on the ground where he had to stay for several days until he and the other prisoners were loaded on a cattle car and sent to Libby Prison.
The prison was in the Confederate capital Richmond, Virginia. During Cannon’s one-year incarceration there, bone fragments from his injury worked their way out of his wound.
After a prisoner exchange, he was sent to a hospital in Philadelphia. Four months passed before his wounds healed sufficiently enough for him to rejoin the First Minnesota Regiment.
Cannon returned to “I” Company, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, on June 2, 1862. He was back in camp for about half-hour when he was struck by a shell fragment.
He remained with his company until after the Seven Days battles; however, his wounds worsened.
When the company reached Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, Cannon was ordered to go to Annapolis, Maryland, for rest.
After he received a discharge for disability Nov. 27, 1862, he returned to Mankato to recover.
He later re-enlisted in the 11th Minnesota Regiment and was promoted to the rank of 2nd lieutenant on Sept. 4, 1864.
Cannon remained in “C” Company of the 11th Minnesota Regiment until he was mustered out of military service June 26, 1865.
He then returned to Mankato, where he lived for almost another 30 years.
Cannon died Sept. 8, 1892. He was buried at Mankato’s Glenwood Cemetery.
Wickoff wasn’t as fortunate. He died at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
By the time the First Minnesota distinguished itself at the Battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863, Wickoff had been promoted as a sergeant.
The majority of the First Minnesota Regiment had been ordered to plug a dangerous gap in the Union line. If left exposed, the weak point would have resulted in the Confederates breaking through and likely winning the entire Battle of Gettysburg.
Outnumbered by perhaps 4 to 1, the First Minnesota fought the Confederates at close range over 300 yards of open ground near Cemetery Ridge.
Of the 262 men who made the charge, only 47 of them returned unscathed.
Altogether, the First Minnesota suffered 82% casualties — one of the highest percentages of any regiment in the entire Civil War.
Wickoff’s Company H was in line next to Company G on the right flank. The rest of the regiment was to their left as they moved forward, toward the enemy.
During the ensuing fight, Wickoff was shot through the heart and died instantly.
He was buried by his comrades on the Gettysburg battlefield. In October 1863, Wickoff’s remains were removed as part of an effort to identify and re-inter the bodies of Union soldiers killed in the battle.
The effort culminated in the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery Nov. 19, 1863. That’s where President Lincoln delivered his now famous “Gettysburg Address.”
Wickoff’s remains were re-interred in the family vault at Easton Cemetery in Pennsylvania.
His name, along with Cannon’s and 676 other men from Blue Earth County, are inscribed on the recently re-created Boy in Blue Civil War Veterans Memorial in Mankato’s historic Lincoln Park.
The Mankato Area Community Band performed a concert of patriotic music Tuesday, July 2, the 156th anniversary of the Charge of the First Minnesota and the death of Wickoff.
(Stenzel is a native of Mankato, where he earned his master’s in history at Minnesota State University. An educator, costumed historical interpreter and author, Stenzel serves as chairman of the Boy in Blue Committee and as secretary of the New Ulm Battery.)