One hundred-fifty years ago this month, a young immigrant named Balthasar Best shouldered his rifle and dashed down a hill and into history books amid one of the most storied charges in military history.
The courageous assault against overwhelming odds by the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment occurred on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863.
The unit had been ordered to stop advancing Confederate forces from taking the elevated ground of Cemetery Ridge. Outnumbered four or five to one, fewer than 300 Minnesota volunteers raced into the teeth of a force of Alabamans numbering close to 1,200. The Minnesotans knew their charge meant almost certain death or injury.
“The 1st Minnesota carried out two skirmishes,” Best wrote in his diary that day. “In my (Company) K, 1st Minn. we had 8 deaths and 9 wounded.”
The regiment as a whole lost 80 percent of its force to death or injury, a casualty rate reported by some historians to be the highest of any surviving Union Army unit in the war.
The significance of Best’s remarkable survival is not lost on one Douglas County resident, retired Circuit Judge Bill Lasswell. The Oakland man is Best’s great-grandson.
“He fought in all these battles — Antietam, Manassas, Bull Runs one and two … and then they get to Gettysburg,” Lasswell said. “He was just a simple, simple young man who gave unselfishly of himself.”
A Life Revealed
Lasswell knew little about his great-grandfather’s military adventures until about 10 years ago, when whole chapters of the man’s life came to light in the form of a mysterious diary written in archaic German.
The diary’s existence became known to him in 2002 when Lasswell’s mother, Marione Lasswell, received a phone call from a Minnesota-based collector of Civil War artifacts. The caller said he had acquired a diary Best kept during the war and had taken the liberty of having it translated.
The book contained terse accounts of virtually every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac in the first few years of the war — Antietam, Bull Run, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg — and glimpses of the dusty marches, picket duties, and light skirmishes that took place between battles.
Lasswell trekked to Minnesota, where he viewed the diary in its display case among other Civil War memorabilia in the man’s collection. He little suspected the man might offer to let him buy the family treasure.
“I got home and he called me, and he said, ‘My wife and I have discussed the matter and have decided that this diary is better off in your hands than mine,’” recalled Lasswell.
The man let him have it for the price he had paid: $700.
Lasswell encased the diary in glass to preserve the fast-fading ink on its brittle pages, his interest in his ancestor’s life growing by the day.
A visit to Gettysburg the next year yielded another serendipitous discovery.
As Lasswell toured the historic battle site with his wife and daughter, he noticed a car bearing a license plate from Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He approached the owner to see whether this man could help him piece together another chapter in his great-grandfather’s life: that of his disastrous move to America.
Lasswell knew only that the 12-year-old Best had been orphaned in a fiery boat accident on Lake Erie and was subsequently adopted by a family in Cuyahoga County.
The man knew nothing about the accident but promised to research it and share his findings.
Lasswell would later learn Best and his family were among 300 passengers aboard the G.P. Griffith steaming from New York to Ohio in 1850. Their boat caught fire and burned to its water line a couple hundred yards from shore.
Some 286 passengers never emerged from the water. Best made it to shore with the aid of a bystander, but his parents and seven siblings all perished.
“He arrived in the states not speaking a word of English without any family, and this began his life in the United States,” Lasswell said.
‘Badel of Gittisburg, Pa.’
Best was 23 when he enlisted in the Army on April 29, 1861. The Minnesota regiment he joined was the first to answer President Lincoln’s call to serve the Union. As a result, its troops were well seasoned by the time the unit arrayed for battle at Gettysburg.
Best wrote that his unit spent the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg marching 19 miles in the heat to reach the battlefield itself. They camped that night in a wheat field, as he wrote: “Die Nacht in einem Weizenfelt gekaempt.”
Most of the men in the regiment would not live to build another campfire.
“In the morning 7 o’clock we marched to the front in line of battle. An order was announced to the troops that any coward leaving the battlefield would be shot by order of General (John) Gibbon,” Best wrote. “The whole day we were under fire. At 3 o’clock (after)noon the Infantry started to fight in the center of the line.”
Posted atop Cemetery Ridge in support of an artillery battery, the eight companies of the First Minnesota watched the advancing Confederate force scatter their Union brethren like mice on the field below and then prepare to assault the ridge.
Their commander, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, grew desperate to buy time for his reinforcements and ordered the regiment to stanch the bleeding in his line.
“I would have ordered that regiment in if I had known every man would be killed. It had to be done,” Hancock wrote later.
Another of Best’s superiors, Lt. William Lochren, remarked later, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all; the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position, and probably the battlefield.”
The order given, the Minnesotans rushed headlong into the hail of enemy fire that awaited them, their bayonets fixed for the charge.
“No hesitation, no stopping to fire, though the men fell fast at every stride before the concentrated fire of the whole Confederate force,” Lochren wrote.
In spite of the crippling losses inflicted in the charge, the Minnesotans met their opposition with enough force and created enough confusion to halt the Confederate advance until other Union forces joined the fray.
In forcing the Rebels to abandon their aims on the ridge for the day, Hancock’s ploy had worked. But it cost the Minnesota regiment all but four dozen of the soldiers who had made the charge.
Best made note in his diary of the names of the officers wounded in the charge and the preliminary casualty count: “229 men dead or wounded.”
The harrowing last gasp of the Confederate Army known as Pickett’s Charge received scarcely more than a line of description from Best.
Of the hellish artillery exchange between the armies that occurred on the third day of battle, he wrote only: “In the afternoon 2 o’clock the cannons of both sides started to fire heavily.”
He was similarly sparing in his description of the Rebel onslaught that followed: “At 4 o’clock the infantry was engaged in the battle, we fought back however, captured 3600. At four o’clock the firing ceased.”
Other members of his unit provided more color.
“There was an incessant, discordant flight of shells, seemingly in and from all directions; howling, shrieking, striking, exploding, tearing, smashing and destroying,” wrote Sgt. James Wright of the artillery exchange. “The ground was torn up, fences and trees knocked to splinters, rocks and small stones were flying in the air ... guns were dismounted and men and horses were torn to pieces.”
When the furious fusillade finally ceased, the Confederate charge commenced. Best and his fellow Minnesotans watched as a mighty mass of 12,000 Rebel troops crossed the plain that separated them amid withering Union artillery fire and ascended the ridge they had defended so gallantly the day before.
“It was a magnificent spectacle. A rising tide of armed men rolling towards us in steel crested billows. ...We hastily made preparations to meet this avalanche of bayonets that was being projected against us,” Wright wrote.
Sgt. Alfred Carpenter of Company K, Best’s unit, described the frenzied fighting that followed:
“Men fell about us unheeded, unnoticed; we scarcely knew they were falling, so great was the intensity of attention to the approaching foe,” Carpenter wrote. “Our muskets became so heated we could no longer handle them. We dropped them and picked up those of the wounded. Our cartridges gave out. We rifled the boxes of the dead.”
The First Minnesota once more found themselves in the thick of the action, thrust against the one Confederate contingent that managed to break through the Union wall.
“Closing in on them with a rush and a cheer; there was shooting, stabbing and clubbing, for there was no time to reload, and then the bloody work was over,” Wright wrote. “We rushed for the low wall where the break had been made, and very quickly all who had passed it were killed, captured or had fled.”
The charge would mark the last Confederate rally in a battle that is widely regarded as a turning point in the war that nevertheless dragged on for another two years. Gen. Robert E. Lee would return his troops to the South to regroup as the Union Army licked its wounds and buried its dead.
Hancock, the general who sent so many of Best’s comrades to their deaths in their desperate charge down Cemetery Ridge, would later herald the contribution of the First Minnesota to the battle:
“No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.”
He fought in all these battles — Antietam, Manassas, Bull Runs one and two … and then they get to Gettysburg.
Retired Circuit judge