A Voice From Battle Remembered

On this Memorial Day, as I think about those who have fallen in battles past and those who will fall in battles yet to be fought, I thought I’d let the words of my great-grandfather, Emil Graf, speak to the realities of war.  Emil Graf enlisted in the First Minnesota Regiment during the Civil War.  He was wounded at Gettysburg and mustered out in Philadelphia.  It was while he was in hospital there that he met my great-grandmother.  They married and returned to Minnesota where they farmed and raised a family.  He helped found the town of Lismore, Minnesota, the town bank, and entered into a local career as a citizen politician before finally moving to a community of Civil War veterans in Florida in 1910.  Here, in his own words, is his account of the Battle of Gettysburg:

“On the second day at Gettsyburg General Hancock came to look at our main line when General Sickles’ Third Corps advanced too far, driving the rebels near Devil’s Den to Peach Orchard and the rebels flanked him on his left, forced him to fall back fighting hand to hand.  They double-quicked past him, taking many prisoners, until they got between him and our main line, and rushed for the opening of our broken line.  Hancock saw the danger, but the divisions from Culp’s Hill were not in sight yet to fill this gap and, seeing the Rhode Island Battery that our company (268 men) was lying behind for support, he had to act quickly so that he came neared and called:

“What regiment is this?”

“The First Minnesota, sir” answered Colonel Collville, our commander.

So he ordered the colonel to fall in with his men and charge on the rebels.  Our colonel called, “Attention, First Minnesota!  Fall in, right shoulder, shift arms!  Double quick, forward march!

We know what it meant, but every man went; not a man faltered.  The distance then was about 200 yards, near Dry Run.  The rebels got into there first, got down on their right knees, guns at the “ready.”  We heard their officers tell the men not to shoot till ordered.  When we got within four rods, we heard them call out, “Fire low. Fire!”

That volley settled our charge.  Eighty-two percent wounded and killed lay there.  Only those who were unhurt ever fired their guns at a rebel, falling back.  At this moment, reserve divisions came up on the double quick to fill the gap, which made the rebels retreat in a hurry to their main line.  While our battery did good work against the enemy, this settled our regiment, only a small squad going into the fight on July 3rd.

On the Fourth of July, there was jubilee, as the rebels retreated back into Virginia.”  (This ends the account as written by my great-grandfather)

Note:  The First Minnesota Regiment sustained the highest losses in a single engagement of any surviving military unit to this day, as far as I know.   As we honor our servicemen and women, let’s not forget the terrible toll war exacts on both sides of a conflict and on the civilians in its path, just as it did on those hot, steamy days in July, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


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