Minnesotan was a Gettysburg hero
By Mike Creger
Forum News Service
DULUTH -- William Colvill was easily the most revered person in Minnesota after the Civil War. He was a hero, the colonel who led the historic First Minnesota regiment on a battle-saving charge at Gettysburg 150 years ago Tuesday.
He was a giant of a man in legend and in stature at 6 feet, 5 inches tall.
The celebrated war veteran, who also served as a state legislator and attorney general, lived out some of the last of his 75 years in Duluth and up the North Shore near Grand Marais.
In his later years, "he was among the top five Minnesotans, if not the top," said Al Zdon, a military history author and communications director for the Minnesota American Legion. "It's funny how fast war heroes disappear."
Colvill's exploits in the Civil War are well-recorded. What he did after the war isn't. Trying to find personal details behind the hero worship can be a difficult task.
Zdon said he ended up writing a 110,000-word paper for a master's program but was left dissatisfied.
"You'd like to say you really know him," Zdon said of researching Colvill. "I just never did."
Mark on the Minnesota
There are small details on his few years working at the Duluth Land Office. The Cook County Historical Society has artifacts from his life collected from the years he made a summer home and farm on the shore of Lake Superior.
The bulk of Colvill's life was spent in southeastern Minnesota, in Red Wing, where he was an attorney and newspaper editor before and after the war. There is a park and school named after him there and a memorial statue at his grave in nearby Cannon Falls. It's a replica of a statue at the Capitol in St. Paul, one of the first placed there. Both remain the only Civil War memorials in the state honoring an individual.
Colvill's war-hero status played a part in getting him elected to state office and an 1887 appointment from President Grover Cleveland as registrar at the Duluth Land Office.
Red Wing years
Colvill moved from New York to Minnesota in 1854. He eventually set up a law practice and newspaper in Red Wing.
Diane Buganski, a librarian at the Goodhue County Historical Society in Red Wing, said Colvill was one of the first men in the county to sign up for service in the First Minnesota.
"This was the greatest adventure," Buganski said. "They really believed they were making history."
Minnesota had been a state for three years when the war broke out, and residents were eager to show the country what Minnesotans were made of, Buganski said. She said they likely thought they'd see one battle, put down the Confederacy and come home.
Colvill ended up engaging in more than a dozen battles and led the First Minnesota by the time of Gettysburg in July 1863. His regiment was asked to fill a gap in the Union line, a suicide mission for the 262 Minnesotans against 1,600 Alabamans. In the end, only 47 of the Union troops survived, a casualty rate of more than 80 percent -- the highest for any regiment in the Civil War.
The charge created enough time for the Union forces to regroup and push off the Rebels.
Colvill was shot twice. His ankle was shattered, and it would leave him severely hobbled for the rest of his life.
Buganski said he was very disabled from the wounds. "He was carrying Rebel lead in him for the rest of his life," she said.
Colvill's demeanor after the war was often described as "gruff," Buganski said. "That war really changed people."
He was likely in a lot of pain daily as he continued his Red Wing law practice and newspapering. He was also very reticent when it came to speaking about the Civil War and his role in it, his friends have written in their own accounts of Colvill's life.
After the war
He had been looking for some type of political appointment for years after he held public office in the late 1860s and 1870s, Zdon said. In 1887, he got one to the land office in Duluth. In the midst of a land grab for rich iron ore lands in the Northland, the land office was subject to political and commercial pressures.
Colvill quit the office in 1891 as the infamous Section 30 property rights case was heading to court. He no longer wanted any part of disputed land claims. More than 30 people had laid claim to land east of Ely that was considered worth millions in iron ore deposits. Colvill had signed off on some of the claims himself and would eventually testify in a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court and took nearly 25 years to finally settle.
Colvill's wife died in Duluth in 1895. Shortly after that, he left his law practice on Superior Street and home on East Second and moved to the North Shore farm he homesteaded in 1892. In the winter, he would return to his home in Red Wing.
"Health forced him back to Red Wing," Zdon said of Colvill's final three years.
His wife's estate was tied up for years. Much of the Colvill property was in Jane Colvill's name. Zdon said the war hero was terrible with money. He had to ask for, and was granted, a boost in his war pension in 1892.
"He was basically broke," Zdon said. "He gave it all away. It was his personality."
Children in Red Wing remembered Colvill as always willing to offer up what change he had in his pockets for those who dared ask for some. Buganski said not only did his size intimidate them, he also carried around a bullwhip and would snap it.
"He was just a monster of a man," Zdon said of Colvill's physical presence. "He had bristly eyebrows. He was scowly. I'm sure he scared the crap out of people."
Though very ill, he took a train from Red Wing to St. Paul in 1905 for a Flag Day ceremony. Veterans were going to march from the old Capitol building to the current one. Colvill died in his sleep at his hotel on June 12, making the ceremony a somber one.
He was the first person to lie in state at the new Capitol. A statue was erected in the rotunda in 1909 and a replica placed at his gravesite in Cannon Falls in 1929.
President Calvin Coolidge left his summer home on the Brule River outside Superior to attend the dedication of the memorial. More than 100,000 people descended on tiny Cannon Falls on a muggy July day.
"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," Coolidge said.
Zdon said despite a lack of personal backstory on Colvill, his war story, and especially leading the charge at Cemetery Ridge, can't be denied.
"Despite his flaws, the men would follow him anywhere," Zdon said. "They all knew it was a suicide mission."