I have different fare again this issue. The summer brought about a family vacation, and the family vacation brought about a Gettysburg visit, and the latter brought forth this column. I’m a Civil War buff—need I say more. With the Civil War experiencing its 150th anniversary, and after revisiting Gettysburg, I chose to wander off topic in this column to feature exceptional examples of courage. These stories have been told many times—but need retelling to benefit younger generations. Perhaps in upcoming months you can reflect on these examples of courage when facing seemingly impossible odds at your business or workplace. That said, buckle your seat belts and away we go….
In 1983-84, I was a fledgling General Mills sales representative covering 60 retail and headquarter accounts and had but one account outside Maryland—in Littlestown, Penn., just south of Gettysburg. I often rearranged my “Littlestown” days to include a noon bag lunch on Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain preserved the Union.
You may already know Chamberlain, especially if you have read Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Killer Angels or seen the movie Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, Chamberlain’s 20th Maine over a four-hour period repeatedly beat back hordes of howling Confederates trying to turn the Union left flank. He had orders not to retreat. When the 20th Maine ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain courageously ordered a daring bayonet assault—unlike anything attempted in American history—directly into the teeth of the charging Confederates. Incredibly, the Rebs surrendered en masse, unaware their enemy didn’t have ammunition. Chamberlain’s charge stopped the Rebs from taking Little Round Top and being able to lob artillery fire onto the entire Union line. It also saved us Minnesotans from having to eat grits and watch Hee Haw reruns.
What I remember most about Little Round Top this year was walking with my son down the path to the 20th Maine monument. Under a maple and oak canopy, a woman in her 30s was solemnly contemplating poems, personal stories, pieces of jewelry, and thank you notes left there by other tourists. Here, I saw physical evidence of modern-day Americans appreciating the fact that Americans from another era had bravely faced what seemed certain death for our benefit. Some causes really are worth dying for. Thank you, Col. Chamberlain.
The next two examples involved Minnesotans. On the same day as Chamberlain’s charge, the First Minnesota was ordered to stall a rapid Confederate advance. Their impeccable bravery kept the Confederates from winning high ground again, this time at Cemetery Ridge. Of the 262 Minnesotans screaming downhill with bayonets into a band of charging Confederates six times their number, only 47 survived to fight the next day. This casualty rate has held up as the highest of any American military unit during any single engagement. The First Minnesota monument at Gettysburg reads, in part:
As (Union Gen. Sickles’) men were passing here in confused retreat with two Confederate brigades in pursuit, to gain time to bring up reserves and save this position, Gen. Hancock in person ordered the eight (First Minnesota) companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy. The order was instantly repeated by Col. Wm. Colvill and the charge was instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades, breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there. The remnant of the eight companies nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time and till it retired on the approach of the reserve. The charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position and probably the battlefield.
The second example involving the First Minnesota occurred the next day during Pickett’s Charge, when 15,000 Confederates rushed over a mile of field toward the Union center. The First Minnesota’s 47 men just happened to be at the spot where all 15,000 Confederates had been ordered to converge. As the Rebs approached, 20-year-old Corporal Henry O’Brien of St. Anthony Falls, Minnesota, while holding the First Minnesota battle flag, impulsively leaped over a protective fence by himself to engage the 28th Virginia Infantry. Emboldened, the rest of the First Minnesota jumped over with him for hand-to-hand combat. Another 17 Minnesotans became casualties. For his courage, Corporal O’Brien earned the Medal of Honor. Another Medal of Honor recipient, Marshall Sherman of St. Paul, captured the 28th Virginia battle flag, which the Minnesota Historical Society still maintains….
I hope you didn’t mind this little diversion—and hope you remember these examples of courage when fighting for your business life. Finally, remember to have your nominations in for 2012 Business Person of the Year by October 1. (See instructions page 21.) Until next time, thank you for reading south-central Minnesota’s first and only locally owned business magazine.