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Pale Horse At Plum Run

The First Minnesota at Gettysburg

Brian Leehan

Publication Year: 2004

The smoke had just cleared from the last volley of musketry at Gettysburg. Nearly 70 percent of the First Minnesota regiment lay dead or dying on the field--one of the greatest losses of any unit engaged in the Civil War. Pale Horse at Plum Run is the study of this single regiment at this crucial moment in American history. Through painstaking research of firsthand accounts, eyewitness reports, and official records, Brian Leehan constructs a narrative remarkable for its attention to detail and careful reportage. Word of the First's heroic act at Gettysburg quickly spread along Union lines and back to Minnesota. Their stand late on July 2, 1863, stopped a furious rebel assault and saved the day for the Union. Emerging from the chaos of battle, however, firsthand reports contradicted each other. Confused officers and frightened soldiers told very different stories of the day's hearsay and camp gossip for their sources of information. All of this leaves the historical investigator to ask, what really happened that day at Plum Run? In order to answer that question, Leehan performs superlative historical detective work. By focusing on the men themselves--and their accounts of the engagement--he weaves together a narrative of the First's action on July 2 and 3. Those who escaped the scythe of battle the first day lived to play a pivotal role the next in rebuffing the most famous infantry assault in American military history, Pickett's Charge. By tracking the movements of individual soldiers over the field of battle, Leehan reconstructs in amazing detail the story of this remarkable band of soldiers. In his investigation of the battle Leehan raises important questions about how we can really know the truth about the past. In cogent appended essays, the author muses on the lack of standardized timekeeping in the mid-nineteenth century, on the nature of Civil War weaponry, and on the emergence of a heroic mythology after the war.

Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Preface: “That these dead shall not have died in vain”

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pp. ix-xvi

A chilly rain fell. Rain always seems to follow me onto Civil War battlefields. I have visited many in the past quarter century, and most of my visits have been under steel-gray skies in intermittent monsoons. It has always reminded me of the stories from soldiers of the period of how the skies seemed to open up the night after a great battle. Some thought the ...

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pp. xvii-xx

The book is the result of a long and winding journey, beginning in 1991 with preliminary research for my master’s thesis in journalism. From that came a forty-five-minute video documentary on the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment; a one hundred-fifty-page book that represented a general regimental history, focusing on the regiment's ...

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1. I had been sleeping with a dead man

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pp. 3-13

September 20,1862: “This day will long be remembered by me, for about 8 o’clock a.m. the doctors put me on a table and amputated my right leg above my knee, and from then the suffering commenced in earnest.”1 So ended twenty-five-year-old Color Sergeant Samuel Bloomer’s ...

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2. The morning of a better hope

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pp. 14-27

In his memoirs, former Orderly Sergeant James Wright of the First Minnesota’s Company F wrote: “Someone has asserted that every one must ‘eat a peck of dirt during his lifetime.’ I have heard some old soldiers say that they had eaten that much in a day.”1 By the beginning of June 1863, more than 160,000 men on both banks of the Rappahannock ...

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3. The best we had in the shop

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pp. 28-37

The first rifle shot cracked in the still morning air at dawn on July1, 1863. As the battle opened, the dismounted Union cavalry troopers using their breech-loading carbines held back the rebels. The battle escalated as the race continued for more Confederate and Union troops to arrive on the scene. The rebels won the race, overwhelming the federal ...

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4. What meaner place could man be put in?

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pp. 38-50

Robert E. Lee had not been idle; he was forming his battle plan on the spot as the situation developed. Not having intended to fight on this ground and not really knowing the lay of the land well, he was searching for vulnerability in the Union line. J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry was sorely missed. Two separate early morning reconnaissance parties brought ...

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5. My God, are these all the men we have here?

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pp. 51-55

Winfield Scott Hancockhad earned the sobriquet “Hancock the Superb” for his performance during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. His feat at Gettysburg matched or surpassed it. Superb is the word—the man seemed to be everywhere on the battlefield, making decisive, in-the-nick-of-time decisions while being a solid inspiration for the troops. ...

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6. Behold! A Pale Horse

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pp. 56-76

The officers of the First Minnesota were all dismounted, their horses held by orderlies to the right and rear of the regiment.¹According to the standard placement of companies—an established order based on the seniority (commission date) of the various captains—the eight companies of the First Minnesota were formed in double ranks by ...

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7. Dead men and horses lying all around me

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pp. 77-81

Yhe destruction within the First Minnesota was astonishing. The entire episode, from the charge to the retreat back to the top of Cemetery Ridge, had lasted at most fifteen or twenty minutes.1 Nearly two-thirds of those in the charge were sprawled, bleeding, where they fell, from the pasture down to and along Plum Run. Many were making ...

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8. We just rushed in like wild beasts

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pp. 82-98

Orderly sergeant James Wright had been lulled to sleep by rifle fire. Now, only a few hours later, he was awakened by it. The rattle of musketry rose to a fierce crescendo in the area behind and to the right of the First Minnesota. The Twelfth Corps was busy at daybreak trying to drive the rebels out of the federal entrenchment along Culp’s Hill. The seesaw ...

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9. The funeral of our regiment

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pp. 99-123

In three days of combat, the two armies had used 569 tons of ammunition. Nearly 164,000 men had been engaged; almost 8,000 lay dead on the field; 27,000 were wounded; 11,000 were captured or missing in action (many of the missing were, in fact, dead but either not found or not identified); more than 5,000 dead horses and mules ...

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pp. 124-140

Both armies moved to the same war-torn land of the previous year—the area around the Rapidan River, the Rappahannock River, Chancellorsville, and the wilderness southwest of the burned-out crossroads.The Army of Northern Virginia took up a position south of the Rapidan, strung out from the Orange County Court House to Chancellorsville, a ...

Appendix 1. A question of time

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pp. 141-143

Appendix 2. The tools of death

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pp. 144-151

Appendix 3. The mythology of the First Minnesota

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pp. 152-168

Appendix 4. casualties

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pp. 169-188


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pp. 189-197


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pp. 198-234


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pp. 235-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780873516891
E-ISBN-10: 0873516893
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873515115
Print-ISBN-10: 0873515110

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 29 b&w illustrations, 6 maps
Publication Year: 2004

Edition: 1