As the Confederates who broke through the III Corps‘ line pushed across the open fields toward Cemetery Ridge, a huge hole had opened up on the right flank of the II Corps. Troops from the III Corps were fleeing to the rear through this hole, and a Confederate brigade under the command of Brig. General Cadmus Wilcox was right behind them.
Maj. General Hancock was desperate to plug the gap. He looked around for a unit – any unit – that could delay the Confederate advance long enough to form a defensive line. The only men he could find were 8 companies of the 1st Minnesota Infantry.
The regiment had been split up to perform different duties across the Union line, and while the bulk of the men were at this point, it wasn’t the whole regiment – only 262 men. Maj. General Hancock rode up to Col. William Colville, pointed at the approaching Confederate brigade of 1,721 men, and said “Colonel, go take those colors!”.
Against worse than 6-to-1 odds, the men of the 1st Minnesota charged down the gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, 150 years ago right now. After less than 10 minutes of fighting – enough to allow the Union commanders to rally a defensive line behind them – the Minnesotans fell back.
There were only 47 of them left. The 262 men of the 1st Minnesota had taken 215 casualties – an 82% casualty rate. This is the highest percentage of casualties suffered by a surviving unit in American history.
The Confederate attack on the Union left was over.