Colonel William Colvill

During a critical time on the second day in the Battle of Gettysburg (July 2, 1863), the Union center line along Cemetery Ridge was under direct assault by a force of 1500 Confederate troops. Union General Winfield Scott Hancock saw the situation was grave. Unless he found someone to plug the hole in the Union line, the Confederates would flow through, undoubtedly collapsing the Union center. All General Hancock saw to send against the charging Confederates was a group of 250 men from the 1st Minnesota. He ordered their commander, Colonel Colvill, to have the men charge into the oncoming Confederates, and hold them off for five minutes, enough time for Hancock to bring up reserves and shore up the line.

Immediately, the Minnesotans under Colvill charged across open ground right into the fury of the oncoming Confederates. Colonel Colvill and his men stopped the Confederates despite the odds, giving General Hancock not the five minutes he required, but ten, enough time for Union reinforcements to come up and force the Confederates to withdraw their charge.

The Minnesotans, for their gallantry, suffered a heavy toll. In their tenacious stand, they suffered 82% casualties, one of the highest casualty rates of any one unit in the history of the United States Military. General Hancock later wrote the charge of the 1st Minnesota has no equal in all of modern warfare. Their action undoubtedly saved the day for the Union, likely the whole battle, and possibly the entire war.

William Colvill survived the battle, and the war, becoming a prominent newspaper editor, serving as Minnesota Attorney General from 1866 to 1868 and serving in the Minnesota State Legislature. He continued to practice law and in 1887 he was appointed Register of the Duluth Land Office by president Cleveland. In 1895, he abandoned his professional career, his wife having died a few months before, and moved to his homestead in Cook County. From 1896 to 1905 Colonel Colvill spent intermittently about six and a half years on his Cook County homestead and about three and a half years on his farm near Red Wing.

Colonel Colvill died in his sleep, June 14, 1905, in the Soldier’s Home in Minneapolis, where he had come from Red Wing to attend a reunion of his old regiment. A bronze statue of Colonel Colvill was dedicated by president Calvin Coolidge in 1928 at his gravesite in Cannon Falls, MN.

Below is a scanned image of a document signed by President Andrew Johnson in May of 1866 bestowing the rank of Brevetted Brigadier General upon Colonel Colvill. This document is in our collection but currently is only available for viewing online. View image below.