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Last week I had one of those coincidences that make my job possible. I’ve been thinking about a column for the Fourth of July, but after 25 years I wasn’t sure I had anything different to say.

Then my son and grandson toured the Minnesota Military Museum, which was having kind of a rummage sale of no longer needed items. Because they couldn’t help themselves, they bought a framed print showing the actions of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg and gave it to me.

For those of you who weren’t paying attention in Minnesota History class, or, heaven forbid, you live in a state or country that doesn’t teach Minnesota history, here’s the deal.

The 1st Minnesota was the very first group of Union volunteers in the Civil War, in part because our governor was in Washington DC when war was declared and he hot-footed it over to the Capitol to offer the services of his constituents.

The 1st Minnesota fought in most of the major battles of the Civil War, but it was on July 2, the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, that they had their greatest, and most terrible, moment.

To cut a long story short, toward evening a Confederate unit made a strong push on the center of the Union lines, on Cemetary Hill. Overall, the Union had more troops than the Confederates, but at this particular spot, the Confederates vastly outnumbered the defenders. If they broke through the lines there, all was lost. General Hancock saw the danger and that he had reinforcements on the way, but they were still half a mile away. He needed five minutes to save the battle, perhaps the war, and he ordered the 1st Minnesota to charge, despite being outnumbered four or five to one.

They fixed bayonets, charged downhill and crashed into the Confederate lines, stopping it in its tracks - for a moment. They were surrounded and fired on from all directions, taking massive losses but holding off the attack until the reinforcements arrived. Then the survivors gathered up the wounded and walked back up the hill. Eighty-two percent of the unit were killed or wounded, which seems to be a record number of losses by an American military unit in one battle.

Think about that. Line up five of your closest friends and try to picture four of them getting wounded or killed in five minutes. By this time in the Civil War, no one had any illusions – this was the fourth major battle the 1st Minnesota had fought, along with numerous smaller ones. They charged down that hill knowing what was going to happen to them, and they did it anyway.

I used to read Bruce Catton’s description of that battle to my children, but I’d always choke up, and after the first ten or twelve times, I think the kids got the point. I do still think about it quite often, most recently at a baseball game.

Number Five is eight years old and fairly serious about his baseball career. A few weeks ago, he was hit by a pitched ball. His grandmother had to choke back the urge to rush the field and cuddle him, while I yelled, “Way to take one for the team!” as he trotted to first base.

Two perfectly reasonable reactions.

Now, getting plunked on the ribs by a baseball isn’t fun, but it sure helped the team get the base runner it needed. How about the second time the ball is headed your way? Or the eighth? What if instead of a baseball it was a bayonet?

The mind boggles at some of the sacrifices that built our nation. The United States had been a country for less than a hundred years at the time of the Civil War. One fourth of the soldiers were immigrants, some barely spoke English, and most of them had immigrated not to get rich, but because their homeland didn’t offer any hope for a future.

And perhaps that’s the secret.

Perhaps hope is what makes it possible, reasonable, to risk your life, lose your life, for something as intangible as a search for a more perfect union. So many seem to have forgotten all of us, every single one, are supposed to be created equal, that we're all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. It can be hard to remember that we’re all supposed to be on the same team.

Don't get discouraged by that. The United States is, almost by definition, a work in progress. We've stumbled, fallen flat, betrayed our ideals so many times. That doesn't mean we're doomed. It just means we need to try harder.

And that means, as much as it hurts, sometimes you have to take one for the team.

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson

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