by John O’Connell, Montana Historian Magazine
When most of us think of Montana connections with our nation’s Civil War I would bet that nothing much comes to mind. After all, we didn’t even become an organized territory until 1864. The Confederate Army didn’t come within a thousand miles of Montana and what Federal troops that were here were preoccupied with chasing the Lakota along the Yellowstone River and in the Powder River country. That’s not to say the Civil War didn’t touch Montana.
There was actually a fair number of Confederate sympathizers that lived and worked here. That is however a story for another time. We are celebrating the Fourth of July this weekend which of course is when we declared ourselves independent from Great Britain but is also the anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War, Gettysburg. So, I wondered if anyone who had connections to Montana fought at Gettysburg.
Martin Maginnis grew up in Red Wing, Minnesota where he went to public school and eventually attended Hamline University in Saint Paul. He left the university early and took over a Democrat newspaper. Maginnis met William Colvill at this time who was the editor of the Red Wing Sentinel newspaper and Colvill took the young man under his wing. Maginnis and Colvill were hunters and fishermen, admirers of Stephen Douglas and staunch Democrats.
When the Civil War broke out, Colvill organized a company of volunteers and Maginnis joined as First Sergeant. Within a few weeks the company became part of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment which participated in many engagements both large and small leading up to Gettysburg. Colvill was the Colonel of the regiment at the time of Gettysburg. Maginnis, serving under his friend and mentor, had been promoted to Lieutenant and commanded a company.
On July 2, 1863 Maginnis’s brigade had been held in reserve to support the 4th U.S. Artillery at a key position overlooking the Peach Orchard across the valley and watched General Sickles inexplicably (this move is controversial to this day) and without orders move his 3rd Corps toward the orchard and assembled in a V- shaped formation with the apex of the V pointing at the Confederate lines comprised of Longstreet’s 1st Corps and A.P. Hill’s 3rd Corps. They saw the weakness in the Union line and launched an overwhelming attack at the apex and proceeded to roll up the Union formation. Reinforcements in division strength arrived supporting Sickles and the battle raged back and forth over the Wheatfield and Devils Den. Eventually Sickles Corps collapsed, Sickles himself was wounded and his retreating men ran past and through Maginnis’s depleted brigade of just 262 men. The Union left flank was now in peril. General Winfield Hancock, Maginnis’s corps commander, came riding up. He had understood the situation and had reinforcements coming but they were nowhere to be seen.
“What regiment is this?” he shouted at Colvill and Maginnis.
“The First Minnesota!” Colvill replied.
Hancock pointed at the Confederate battle flags approaching through the smoke.
“Charge those lines!”
Hancock needed time and though he knew the charge was practically suicidal, he had no choice.
The order to “Fix Bayonets!” rang out and the Minnesotans formed up to charge.
“At the double quick!” They jogged forward to within a few yards of the Confederate lines then broke into a sprint and crashed through the first line of infantry using their bayonets and then fired a volley into the second line opening a hole in the advancing troops spreading chaos. The ferocious attack surprised the attackers so much that their advance stalled and before they could get reorganized, the Union reinforcements had arrived. After fierce fighting, both sides fell back to the positions they had started from that morning. Hancock’s plan to save the left flank had worked, but as he had feared, at a terrible cost. Of all the 24 commissioned officers in the 1st Minnesota, only three were standing, Maginnis among them. 262 men had made the charge and only 47 had survived. Colonel Covill had been wounded three times and was so badly injured he needed a cane to walk for the rest of his life.
The regiment was pulled out of the line and sent to New York to help quell the Anti Draft Riots that were going on at the time. Maginnis and his regiment participated in two more bloody years until the end of the war where he was mustered out of the Army. He returned to Red Wing, Minnesota where he spent the next six months recuperating from his service. At that time one of his former lieutenants, Hezekiah Bruce, had crossed the plains to the mining camps around Helena, in the Montana Territory. He arrived soon enough to file a good claim at Last Chance and was one of the discoverers of Nelson Gulch. Major Maginnis, bored with the monotony of life in Red Wing formed a party to join him and bring goods from St Paul to Helena to supply a store opened by a man named Steele. It was quite the undertaking with forty wagons and 150 men, some of which were from the old outfit. They followed a route that was north of the Missouri River to avoid any trouble with the Lakota, a route that the Great Northern railway followed later. They arrived in Helena in September of 1866 to a booming mining town where he tried his hand at prospecting and when that was not successful. Instead he ended up editing and publishing the Helena Daily Gazette.
He later tried his hand at politics and in 1872 was elected as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives as the territory’s non-voting representative until 1885 where he lost his re-election. He became the Commissioner of Mineral Land of Montana from 1890 to 1893. Maginnis attempted to fill a vacancy as a Senator-designate in 1900 but was not seated. In 1915 he moved to California for health reasons and in March of 1919 he died of gangrene of the foot. He is buried in Resurrection Cemetery in Helena, Montana.
While Maginnis may not be a native son of Montana, he certainly was influential in the beginning of our state and thought enough of us to be laid to rest here instead of his home state of Minnesota. As I write this it is July 4th and 157 years ago Lee was trying to get across the Potomac River into the safety of Virginia and I have to believe that Maginnis was taking stock of the horrific losses his regiment had sustained and wondering about his good friend Colvill recuperating in a private home in Gettysburg.
We so often think about and debate the contributions to Montana history by the famous names of people like Meagher, Custer, Crazy Horse or Jeannette Rankin but it is only right to research and contemplate the lesser known people such as Martin Maginnis, newspaper man, miner, politician and, in my estimation, Civil War hero. The next time you are in Helena maybe you could stop and pay your respects.