By Clay Schuldt
Seven score and ten years ago and several hundred miles away from here one of the most famous battles in American History took place. The Battle of Gettysburg was considered a major turning point in the Civil War. Fought from July 1 to July 3 of 1863, the battle would sustain close to 60,000 casualties. Four months later in November President Lincoln would give his famous address dedicating a cemetery in the honor of those that had fallen.
On this 150 anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg it is important to remember the men who fought for their country — soldiers who came from all corners of the Union. Even the relatively young Houston County had representation.
At the outset of the Civil War, Minnesota’s Governor Alexander Ramsey was the first to offer up troops to President Lincoln. Houston County was quick to begin forming a regiment, but Ramsey refused to accept the regiment for political reasons. Recruits in Houston County wishing to volunteer needed to join regiments. The bulk of Houston County recruits joined the Second Wisconsin Infantry, some joined Company K of the First Minnesota, and still others joined the 82rd Illinois. These regiments would each be present at the battle of Gettysburg that occurred two years later.
The Battle of Gettysburg began when Confederates, led by Robert Lee, invaded the North in attempt to draw troops away from the siege at Vicksburg. A group of Confederates came to Gettysburg in attempt to liberate a rumored supply of shoes for the Southern Army. After encountering a regiment of Union forces in Gettysburg, this small skirmish soon turned into an all-out battle. The Confederates were able to force the Union into a retreat toward Cemetery Hill on the first day. For the next two days the Confederates attempted to take the Union’s position, but the lines held. The defeat of a massive Confederate charge on July 3 forced the rebels to retreat to Virginia. The Confederates were forced to fight a defensive war until their eventual surrender in the spring of 1865.
The Second Wisconsin
Most of Houston County volunteers served in the Second Wisconsin, which enlisted recruits out of La Crosse. The Second Wisconsin would have a part of the famous “Iron Brigade.” The Iron Brigade was respected in both the North and South and was named for the soldiers’ “iron” discipline.
The Iron Brigade was easy to identify thanks to the unique black hats they wore.
Along with the Iron Brigade the Second Wisconsin would be involved in several of early Civil War battles, including Bull Run and Antietam.
During the first day of Gettysburg the Second Wisconsin led the Iron Brigade into the fight. Outnumbered by the Confederates, the Iron Brigade still managed to hold off the South’s approach but was forced to retreat to Cemetery Hill, suffering 64 percent casualties. Gettysburg would mark the end of the Iron Brigade.
Money Creek resident Samuel Nickels was with the Second Wisconsin and was wounded at Gettysburg but was fortunate enough to recover. Nickels was a unique recruit, as most Money Creek volunteers joined Company K of the First Minnesota, as the Company was recruited out of Winona.
Caledonia resident William H. Harries was also with the Second Wisconsin from the very beginning and fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. Harries was fortunate to survive the War – in one engagement was severely wounded in the left breast. Even today this wound is often fatal, but Harries somehow survived. While not originally from Houston County, Harries would move to the area after the war, first living in Hokah and eventually moved to Caledonia. Harries is buried in Caledonia’s Evergreen Cemetery.
The First Minnesota
Of the handful of Houston County soldiers serving in the First Minnesota, few made it to Gettysburg. In the first battle at Bull Run Company K suffered heavy casualties due to a misunderstanding — they were wearing gray uniforms instead of blue and many were wounded not only by the Confederates but by friendly fire. Company K never wore the grey uniforms again.
One of the few men to make it to Gettysburg was John LeBlond from Brownsville who served as a surgeon for the First Minnesota. LeBlond would serve as field surgeon to the wounded during the Gettysburg Campaign. No Union regiment suffered more casualties at Gettysburg than the First Minnesota. Conservative estimates put the regiment’s total casualties at 82 percent.
One Money Creek recruit, James Babcock, served with Company K until December of 1863 before transferring to the Invalid Core due to an injury. It is unclear at as to which battle Babcock was injured; however, based on the regiments casualties, it is probable Babcock was wounded at Gettysburg.
The First Minnesota earned its place in history on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg. On the second day of the Battle the Confederates broke through the Union line. General Winfield Scott Hancock needed to stall the Confederate advance until more reserves could arrive to fill the gap in the line. The First Minnesota was stationed on Cemetery Hill in a reserve position, but would not be enough to hold the line. General Hancock ordered the First Minnesota to charge the Confederates in order to delay their advance. The men involved in the charge new their fate but followed orders. Of the 262 Union soldiers in the charge, 215 were killed or wounded.
Later General Hancock would say of the First Minnesota: “The superb gallantry of those men saved our line form being broken. No soldiers on any field in this or any other county ever displayed grander heroism.”
The 82 Illinois
While The 82 Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment was present at Gettysburg, few casualties were sustained compared other regiments; however, a large number of soldiers were captured during the initial retreat on the first day of the battle. The 82 Illinois was a unique regiment as the majority of the recruits were immigrants from several countries, the majority, about two-thirds, was made up of German immigrants.
Peter Steenstrup of Caledonia served in three Companies in the Regiment. Steenstrup was originally from Norway and ultimately ending up in Company I, which was an all Scandinavian company. Steenstrup is buried in Caledonia’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Houston County sent hundreds of young met to fight in the Civil War. The War Memorial that stands in front of the Courthouse contains only a fraction of the men who fought and died in the War Between the States. While Gettysburg remains the most famous Civil War battle fields, Houston County soldiers were involved in nearly every major battle throughout the Civil War.
At the same time as the Battle at Gettysburg, the Union had been struggling to take the Fortress City of Vicksburg, Miss. After months of laying siege Vicksburg fell to the Union on July 4, 1863, giving the North control of the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy in two.
Spring Grove resident John Penergast was part of 83rd Indiana Infantry Company B at Vicksburg, while Mark Hargeaves from Hokah also served with the First Wisconsin Light Artillery at the siege, and Peter Tuper of Money Creek served in the First Minnesota Battery at Vicksburg and would join Sherman in his march to the sea.
Houston County had its highest representation at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862 with over 50 men from 12 regiments, though none were Minnesota-based regiments. In terms of casualties, the Battle of Nashville was the worst for Houston County with around 15 soldiers killed in action and many more wounded.
Prior to Gettysburg, the Union’s goal had simply been to reunite the Nation. Gettysburg was the victory Lincoln needed to establish the goal to end slavery, an idea that at the time was considered controversial. For 87 years our Nation consented to allow humans to be used as property, until the Civil War gave America a new birth of freedom.
Houston County may take pride in that fact that citizens from this community contributed to this new freedom.