Dakota County men retrace steps of 1st Minnesota

Lakeville, Burnsville residents attend 150th anniversary of Gettysburg battle

To read the author’s Gettysburg blog, click here.

by Jonathan Young
Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

It was an open field they charged across, headlong into whistling balls of lead that cut men down as they ran. The soldiers of the 1st Minnesota knew the bayonet charge they were making was suicide.

Samuel Henderson, of Burnsville, shoots footage in Gettysburg on July 1. (Photo by Jonathan Young)

Samuel Henderson, of Burnsville, shoots footage in Gettysburg on July 1. (Photo by Jonathan Young)

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who gave the order, knew it, too, but he needed five minutes to bring reinforcements to plug a critical hole in the Union line.

He bought the time with Minnesotans’ lives.

“Advance, Colonel, and take those colors,” Hancock ordered Col. William Colvill Jr. of Red Wing, commander of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Although outnumbered more than five to one by the opposing Alabama regiments, Colvill and his men acted without hesitation.

According to tradition, 262 Minnesotans charged. After about 15 minutes fighting, only 47 soldiers returned to answer roll call. The rest were dead or wounded – an 82 percent casualty rate. But reinforcements had arrived, and the Union line was secure.

“No soldier, on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism,” Hancock later said of the 1st Minnesota.

Exactly 150 years after the charge, on the evening of July 2, 2013, a group of Minnesota soldiers, elected officials, history buffs and others stood at the top of the same slope as Colvill and his men.

Robert Hejkal Jr. (left) of Lakeville and Donald Nesheim of Robbinsdale lean against a fence in front of the McPherson barn, where heavy fighting took place at Gettysburg. (Photo by Jonathan Young)

Robert Hejkal Jr. (left) of Lakeville and Donald Nesheim of Robbinsdale lean against a fence in front of the McPherson barn, where heavy fighting took place at Gettysburg. (Photo by Jonathan Young)

Two Dakota County men were part of the Minnesota delegation marking the Gettysburg battle’s 150th anniversary July 1-3.

Robert Hejkal Jr. of Lakeville said walking the battlefield made the history seem more real.

“History has always been one of my things,” he said.

Hejkal partially credits his interest in history to the fact that his father was in World War II. His grandfather was also in the military. Hejkal continued the family trade with a 41-year career in the Army, and his son was in the 101st Airborne during the Gulf War.

Although Hejkal went to Gettysburg in 1992, he didn’t have a guide then. This trip offered him “the opportunity to get the scoop from people who know.”

Hejkal found out about the trip from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, co-chair of the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force, who was a high school classmate. He and Ritchie both attended their high school reunion in Iowa immediately before the trip to Gettysburg.

Samuel Henderson of Burnsville played a dual role in the Minnesota delegation that traveled to Gettysburg. He was a re-enactor and videographer.

A member of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry re-enactment group, Henderson left the week before the anniversary to participate in re-enactments near the battlefield June 27-30. But as he donned his uniform, he also picked up a video camera.

Henderson followed the official Minnesota delegation July 1-3, as well. As an intern with the Minnesota Historical Society, it was his task to capture the trip so those who couldn’t travel would still be able to “tag along.”

He hopes to turn the footage into short documentary pieces.

Through the pieces he is attempting to do more than simply record events. He’s trying to answer the question, “One hundred fifty years later, what kind of meaning does this hold for folks from all walks of life?”

It will take time to go through the footage and create the documentaries, but Henderson hopes to finish them by the middle of August. They will be posted on mnhs.org.

The official state delegation to Gettysburg rededicated the three Minnesota monuments on the battlefield.

Minnesotans laid a wreath at the foot of each monument and honored the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment’s role in the conflict.

Although it was the only Minnesota regiment to fight at Gettysburg, the unit played a critical role and suffered severe casualties. After seeing action on two of the three days of battle, approximately 70 percent of the 330 Minnesotans who fought were dead or wounded.

“Visiting the battlefield, where so many Minnesotans lost their lives or were injured, brings home the pivotal role these brave young men played in determining the outcome of the American Civil War and the future of the nation,” said Steve Elliott, director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Members of the Minnesota delegation also placed commemorative Civil War veteran flags at each of the 52 Minnesota graves at the national cemetery.

Email the author at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com.

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