Last summer, I met Diane and Daryl Sannes at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers’ Office Museum. They were visiting Washington from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and we got to talking about various Civil War topics.
On November 18, they invited me to a special ceremony in Gettysburg, PA. They have adopted the Minnesota Urn at Gettysburg National Cemetery, which stands near the graves of 52 men from the First Minnesota Regiment who died during the 1863 battle. The Sannes have committed to ensuring that the urn is planted each season and maintained throughout the year.
I couldn’t attend, but I asked them to describe the ceremony and the significance of the urn. Here are my questions and Daryl's responses. Thanks to them for sharing this information and photos.
Q: Where is the urn, and what is its history?
A: The urn is in Gettysburg National Cemetery, part of Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. Made of marble, it was installed by surviving members of the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment in the fall of 1867. The urn was placed in the Minnesota section of the cemetery where 52 of the 75 soldiers of the First, killed or mortally wounded in the battle, were laid to rest. The urn was the first monument or memorial placed on the Gettysburg Battlefield. It would be another 12 years before the next state monument was placed.
In the autumn of 1867, four years after the bloodbath, those from the First Minnesota who were still alive returned to Gettysburg to place the urn and pedestal on a granite base to memorialize their fallen comrades. Thus, 2017 marks the 150th anniversary.
Q: Can you talk about the First Minnesota Regiment and its role at Gettysburg?
A: Late in the day on July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle, at a very critical point, 262 soldiers of the First Minnesota were ordered to charge a brigade of advancing Alabamians, numbering about 1300-1500. To gain 10 minutes of time in order to get additional soldiers in place on the Union Line, the First Minnesota made a great sacrifice, losing 215 to death and wounds. No other unit in the Union Army suffered a higher casualty rate in any single Civil War battle--82% of the regiment killed or wounded.
On July 3 the First Minnesota found itself in the middle of Pickett's Charge and lost additional men to death and wounds. Two Minnesota soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery in the repulse of the charge.
Q: Why did you decide to adopt the urn, and what does that entail? Who did you have to work with to make it happen?
A: Back in 2011, on our 6th or maybe 7th trip to Gettysburg, Diane and I decided to meet with the National Park Service and inquire about how the First Minnesota Urn could be cleaned up and look good for the 150th Anniversary of the Battle. We met with Lucas Flickinger, who is in charge of monument restoration. He mentioned the adopt-a-monument program and pulled out a large notebook to look up the First Minnesota Urn. The urn was the only monument on the battlefield that had not been adopted.
We quickly filled out the form and adopted the urn. The concern we had was to make sure that flowers be planted and maintained every year. This would be difficult to do from Minnesota, but Lucas put us in touch with Barb Adams, a Gettysburg resident and tireless volunteer for the National Park Service and Gettysburg Battlefield. We created an Urn Flower Fund. Each spring Barb takes money from the fund, buys, plants and maintains flowers and plants in the urn. So, we would like to thank Barb, again, for what she does to make the urn look great, every year.
In 2013, I received a letter in the mail from a gentleman in Virginia. It contained a check for $25 and a note that read, “I heard about the planting of flowers each year in the First Minnesota Urn. Please cash the check and use it for the Urn Flower Fund.” Now I’m not soliciting donations for the Urn Fund, but I tell this story because it typifies the power and reach of the legacy of the First Minnesota and shows that people from everywhere still care.
Q: What did the ceremony consist of? Were you able to find descendants of anyone interred there? Who else did you involve?
A: On November 18, 2017, about a dozen Minnesotans turned out to Remembrance Day at Gettysburg for the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Installation of the First Minnesota Urn in Soldiers' National Cemetery.
The ceremony included a bagpiper and the reading of a proclamation from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton that declared November 18 as Minnesota Remembrance Day at Gettysburg. Many descendants of Private Henry K. Winters, a First Minnesota soldier killed in the battle and buried in the cemetery, attended and participated in the ceremony. Brigadier General USAF (Retired) Charles "Pete" Winters, a descendant of Private Winters, delivered brief remarks about his ancestor, the First Minnesota, and what both meant to his life and career. Re-enactors of First Minnesota performed as the Honor Guard and the names of the 75 soldiers killed and mortally wounded in the battle were read.
Q: How will you keep your commitment given that you live far away? What will be planted next spring?
A: Without the special permission of the National Park Service and the help of Barb Adams, we would not be able to adopt the urn and plant and maintain the flowers each year. Newspaper accounts from the period stated that the first Minnesota veterans chose a "red, white and blue" theme for the flowers each year. Today, we follow the same theme, with red geraniums, dusty miller, and verbenas.
Q: Do you have any favorite books or other resources about Minnesota during the Civil War?
A: Books about the First Minnesota: Last Full Measure by Richard Moe, Pale Horse at Plum Rum by Brian Leehan, and Every Man Did His Duty by Wayne Jorgenson
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: This is my favorite spot on the Gettysburg Battlefield. Fifty-two Minnesota soldiers of the 75 killed or mortally wounded in the battle are buried here. The surviving veterans placed this urn here in 1867, to honor and remember their comrades who gave their lives to save the Union Line and maybe, even the Union.
But I think that the urn does more than that, and I think the surviving veterans had something “more” in mind. They placed the urn to attract and draw us to this place in the cemetery. They wanted us to know that Minnesota was here and Minnesotans made great sacrifices. They wanted everyone who visited the spot to learn and know the story of what they did. By placing the urn, they also wanted us to know how they felt about what they did and they wanted to share those feelings with everyone who came to visit. And, 150 years later, we are sharing those same feelings!
I have been reading about the Civil War since grade school. Since then I have researched, studied, and written about Minnesota soldiers in the Civil War. Soldiers in the First Minnesota became very special to me when I discovered in 1992, upon purchasing my current home, that two brothers (Edward and Marcus Past) who served in the First Minnesota lived and farmed on the same property. Edward was severely wounded in the Battle of Antietam and was discharged. The younger brother, Marcus, was killed during the charge of the First Minnesota on July 2 and is buried in Gettysburg.
Thanks, again, to Dianne and Daryl for taking the time to share this story and photos, and, of course, for their support at Gettysburg. If you would like to see it, the Cemetery is a well-marked walk or drive from the Visitors Center. Here is a map of the states represented.