This January GNMP began a new program for the 150th anniversary through Facebook that we call the “52 Footsteps Facebook Challenge.” Each week a new historical personality associated with Gettysburg and the Civil War is introduced and readers are encouraged to find a Gettysburg spot where that person stood , snap your picture, and post it on the park Facebook page. For those who cannot make it to Gettysburg, we encourage you to find some other location that individual might have trod during the course of the war and snap a picture. It could be their home, another battlefield, a place they camped, etc. There are few things that help us “feel” history like walking in the footsteps of someone that lived before us and who experienced extraordinary events. The people in our Footsteps Challenge experienced extraordinary events but they are not well known. They are instead usually ordinary people swept up in great events. Over the course of the Challenge I will use this blog to expand on some of the individuals highlighted in the challenge so that we can get to know them better, and also so that those people who live in a place where it is impossible to participate in the Challenge may experience it vicariously.
1st Sergeant Philip Hamlin, 1st Minnesota Infantry, was the subject of our January 9 challenge. When President Lincoln made his call for 75,000 volunteers following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Hamlin was among the first to answer the call. With hundreds of other men he mustered into Company F, of the 1st Minnesota Infantry on April 29, 1861. He was 20 years old. Sergeant James Wright, who served in Hamlin’s company and knew him well, described him as an “honest, earnest, consistent, christian man,” who “deprecating war, loving and praying for peace, he was fighting for his government as the performance of a sacred duty he owed to it and to God.” The other members of Company F clearly saw leadership qualities in Philip for he was elected a corporal. Their estimate of Hamlin proved correct for he was eventually promoted to sergeant then 1st sergeant of the company. [James Wright account, Minnesota Historical Society, copy GNMP Library. Wright’s account was edited by Steven J. Keillor, and published as No More Gallant Deed: A Civil War Memoir of the First Minnesota Volunteers, Minnesota Historical Society, 2001]
Philip wrote home regularly and thankfully his letters survived and today are preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society. They reveal an intelligent, articulate, sensitive and highly observant young man. A typical passage in one of his letters, written on August 8, 1861, several weeks after the first Battle of Bull Run, explained to his family why he was serving. “You must not infer from what I have said that I am sick of my bargain and anxious to be released from it; far from it. I have an intelligent understanding of the character of this struggle and of the principles which are at issue between the contending parties and in devoting my all to my country I believe that I am only acting in accordance with the dictates of duty, patriotism and affection. The terrible realities of my soldier’s life have taught me better than to desire to see and mingle in the like again, but they have taught me something concerning the cost of the government, and have thus served to establish my patriotism the more firmly and more than ever willing to labor and sacrifice for the good of my country.” [Hamlin to Family, August 8, 1861]
In another letter, written on March 1, 1862, the eve of the Peninsula Campaign, he again reminded his family what he fought for and that he might not survive the conflict. “I may not live to see it but I believe that God will yet deliver our nation from the difficulties which agitate and threaten her. The example of our nation has been a fountain of light to the people of the old world foreshadowing to the struggling nationalities a future destiny gloriously delivered from the weights and embarrassments of the past which have limited privileges, combatted freedom , made the distributions of blessings unequal, and restricted the culture of mind.” For a 20 year old farmer from Minnesota, Hamlin’s ability to communicate his feelings and articulate what was at stake in the war is remarkable. [Hamlin to Family, March 1, 1862]
Hamlin certainly had a sense of the severe test that awaited him, but even Bull Run could not have fully prepared him for the hardships and horrors he would endure during the Peninsula Campaign, at Fair Oaks, the Seven Days battles, at Antietam, and Fredericksburg. For a veteran like Hamlin the prospect of death was something one simply accepted in order to do your duty. He rarely complained about the hardships he endured but on April 10, 1863 after Minnesota’s governor had visited the regiment and brought them a new state color, his veteran’s outlook on war revealed itself. “I can’t see what we want of a state flag here as it is only an encumbrance and I think still less of it on account of it’s having the names of several battles inscribed on it which we did not help fight. The time for exciting me by flag presentations and the like has passed. They only sadden me by recalling the memories of some of my comrades than whom braver, truer men never lived but who labored, sacrificed and died unrewarded and now (if buried at all) sleep in unmarked graves their resting place unknown to friend or foe. My health is good.” [Hamlin to Family , April 10, 1863]
Philip understood what was at stake when the two great armies in the east met at Gettysburg. It would be men like him, placing their lives on the line, to ensure that a nation that “has been a fountain of light to the people of the old world,” could endure. What the 1st Minnesota did on July 2 is well known. On the late afternoon of July 2 the regiment was ordered to make a sacrificial charge to delay an advancing Confederate brigade long enough for reinforcements to arrive. They did and suffered approximately 172 casualties and a place in legend and lore in the battle’s history. But Philip Hamlin did not participate in this charge. Company F was detached as skirmishers shortly before the charge to attend to Confederate soldiers that had reached the cover of the Codori thicket in the regiment’s left front. The company lost 3 wounded while on skirmish duty and after the fighting on this part of the field subsided, the company commander sent Hamlin off to find the regiment and obtain orders. Hamlin returned with disturbing news. He found only “a few men of the regiment” and it was believed the rest were “all killed or captured.” The men were stunned, but being veterans, decided that it was likely not true, that the regiment had probably only been scattered in the fighting and the survivors that Hamlin encountered had exaggerated its loss. [Sgt. James Wright account]
On the morning of July 3 Hamlin’s company found the regiment. There were 47 men with its colors commanded by Captain Nathan Messick. Sergeant James Wright recalled “We had not been separated far or long, but the greetings were as sincere and earnest as if oceans had divided us and years had elapsed.” With the addition of Company F, the 1st Minnesota now mustered 67 officers and men. “Under ordinary circumstances, an organization that had suffered one-half the loss that we had would have been sent to the rear instead of the firing line. But this was no ordinary occasion.” Every rifle was needed on the line. Hamlin and his comrades gathered “rails, stones, sticks, brush, etc.,” and piled it in front of them. They loosened dirt with bayonets and used their tin plates to scoop it up and toss it on their works. On top of this they placed their knapsacks and blankets. The remnant of this breastwork can still be seen today in front of the second 1st Minnesota monument. [Sgt. James Wright account]
Hamlin survived the great bombardment that preceded Pickett’s Charge, and he would have seen how the first volleys of musketry from his regiment and the others around him, cut down hundreds of Confederate infantry and checked their attack on the 1st Minnesota’s front. But the Confederate breakthrough at the Angle threatened to crack open the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, and Hamlin and hundreds of others, answered the order to rush to this point and throw the enemy back. Somewhere between the second monument to the 1st Minnesota and the Copse of Trees, 1st Sergeant Philip Hamlin was killed. It was perhaps fitting that if Hamlin were to die it would be at the moment of his army’s greatest victory of the war.
Sergeant James Wright and several others of his comrades from Company F buried Hamlin that evening. Wright recalled the sad duty they performed:
None of us knew where we were likely to be or what the morrow would bring for us to do, and as we drank our coffee we decided to buy Hamline that night. Search was made for a spade, and after some time a shovel was found. With this a shallow trench was dug beside a walnut tree, near which he had been killed, struck by four bullets. His blanket and tent cloth were spread in it. He was then laid upon them and covered with the remaining portions. Then those present knelt in silence about him with uncovered, bowed heads. I do not now recall that a word was spoken, but it was a sincere and reverential service fitting the time and the situation. Then we covered him over with the dirt and the stones we had thrown out of the trench and placed at his head a board, on which his name, company and regiment had been marked.
Sometime later that summer or the next spring – we do not know when – Hamlin’s body made its final journey at Gettysburg when Samuel Weaver’s re-burial party removed Hamlin’s remains to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where it rests today.
To follow in Hamlin’s footsteps today is a humbling experience, but also an inspirational one. Hamlin represented the best of the country; a man willing to lay down his future, his life, not just for his nation, but for the hope of a better future for that nation.
D. Scott Hartwig