On July 2, in the heat of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union general Winfield Scott Hancock realized that there was a dangerous weakness near the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. He needed time—five minutes—to shift reinforcements into position to meet the oncoming brigade of 1,600 Alabamans, so he ordered the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota Regiment to charge. The Minnesotans bought Hancock the time he needed, but only 47 men survived the attack. One of the survivors was the six foot five inch officer who led the charge, Col. William Colvill.
William Colvill was born on April 5, 1830, in Forestville, in western New York state, and studied law in the Buffalo law office of Millard Fillmore. In 1854, Colvill moved to Red Wing, in the Minnesota Territory, to practice law and edit the local Democratic paper, the Red Wing Sentinel. Colvill backed Democrat Stephen Douglas for President in 1860, but when President Lincoln called for volunteers in 1861, Colvill was the first volunteer from Goodhue County to sign up. He was elected captain of Company F of the 1st Minnesota Regiment. The 1st Minnesota served in most of the major battles of the war, from First Bull Run to Antietam to Chancellorsville to Gettysburg, where the regiment achieved its lasting fame in the desperate charge down Cemetery Ridge.
After the war, Colvill—who was seriously wounded at Gettysburg—served in the Minnesota legislature, served as state Attorney General (1866-68), and was appointed by President Cleveland to head the land office in Duluth. He died on June 12, 1905 (104 years ago yesterday) and was buried in the Cannon Falls Cemetery.
Col. Colvill's grave stands on a peaceful, oak-shaded ridge in the cemetery, overlooked by a statue of the colonel which is the only state monument to a Civil War veteran in Minnesota. A copy of the statue stands in the rotunda of the state capitol. An original 3" wrought iron ordnance rifle, which may have seen action in the Civil War, stands beside the statue. The statue was dedicated in 1928 at a ceremony attended by President Calvin Coolidge, who gave an address, in which he said:
In all the history of warfare this charge has few, if any, equals and no superiors. It was an exhibition of the most exalted heroism against an apparently insuperable antagonist. By holding the Confederate forces in check until other reserves came up, it probably saved the Union Army from defeat. What that defeat would have meant to the North no one can tell. Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and the whole heart of the North would have been open to invasion, and perhaps the Union cause would have been lost. So far as human judgment can determine, Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.