Kenilworth Corridor: The LRT tunnel option

Southbound LRT leaving Ft Snelling station 12 4 2011
A southbound Route 55 LRT leaves the Fort Snelling station behind as it heads for the tunnel beneath Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Photo taken by Tony Held on December 4, 2011.

A tunnel along the Kenilworth Corridor portion of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line could solve the problem of co-locating Twin Cities and Western freight and Metro Transit light rail in the corridor as well as keep the Kenilworth Trail in place.   A group named the Kenilworth Preservation Group advocates one as well, such as in this white paper.

The city of Minneapolis is dead set against it, however.

“I don’t want anybody who is not in these deep conversations to think it’s really practical to do a deep tunnel there. If we could, in this area, afford deep tunnels, there would be one in downtown Minneapolis.”  Minneapolis Transportation and Public Works Committee chair Sandy Colvin Roy claims in this Southwest Journal article.  Roy’s claim conveniently ignores the tunnel on the Green (formerly Hiawatha) Line which passes underneath Lindbergh Terminal at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.

Southbound LRT arriving at Lindbergh Term station 12 27 2012
A southbound Route 55 train on the Green –aka Hiawatha– Line arrives at Lindbergh Station deep beneath Lindbergh Terminal at Minneapolis/St. Paul International. Photo taken on December 27, 2012, by Tony Held.


“People really should not get their hearts set on the deep tunnel because we have no idea how much cost it would carry with it. We have no idea how extensive the impact to neighboring communities might be. A lot more work would need to be done before we’d be in a position to take that seriously.”  Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak’s policy director Peter Wagenius claimed to the Southwest Journal.  Wagenius’ remarks about having no idea what the impact to the “neighboring communities” a tunnel would have flies directly into the face of support for a tunnel demonstrated by the likes of the Kenilworth Preservation Group.  “We are proposing to those in charge to consider TUNNELING as not only a viable option but as a solution to preserve this natural resource.” The KPG states on their website.  It would behoove Mr. Wagenius to contact this group and get some facts.  In fact, Wagenius claimed to the Star Tribune in this article that: “We’re willing to look at tunnel options to keep the project going,” though he added the that Mayor Rybak was tepid to the idea.

This same Star Tribune article reports that a deep tunnel would cost $420 million, while a shallow tunnel would cost $250 million.

It is my opinion that a deep tunnel would be the best option.  It could start near Cedar Lake, and end after passing under the Twin Cities & Western in the vicinity of Bass Lake in St. Louis Park.   The proposed 21st Street LRT station could be converted into a subway-style one like at Lindbergh Terminal, too.

I believe it would behoove Minneapolis and the Met Council to support a deep tunnel along the Southwest LRT.  It would allow the TC&W to remain where it is, keep the Kenilworth Trail intact, and end this long, drawn-out debate raging over transit issues along the Kenilworth Corridor.

Wake up and support a tunnel for the Southwest LRT line, Met Council and the City of Minneapolis!


Twin Cities & Western is “neutral” on reroute issue

Returning St Paul turn with ILSX GP 39 2 1389 and two TCW units crossing 21st street west Minneapolis April 3rd 2009
The Twin City and Western’s St. Paul Turn –bound for Hopkins after interchanging traffic with Twin City railroads– tip toes across 21st Street in Minneapolis as the train slowly rumbles along the jointed rails of the old Minneapolis & St. Louis main line on a gorgeous April 3, 2009. The train is right in the heart of a corridor contested between Minneapolis and the suburb of St. Louis Park as to whether or not freight rail can co-exist here with Light Rail Transit plus the Kenilworth Trail. Photo by Tony Held.


In January of 2013, Minnesota regional railroad Twin Cities & Western announced its opposition to being re-routed out of Minneapolis and into St. Louis Park for the Southwest LRT line.  But the railroad had done an apparent about-face from this stance by July.  “We could bring our trains through there safely,” TC&W president Mark Wegner told the Star Tribune in this article in regard to two new proposals that routed the TC&W through SLP.  “We can’t crimp capacity for freight,” Wegner told the newspaper when he expressed concerns that shipments of large loads such as wind turbine blades could not navigate a corridor that shared LRT with it. (This also indicates Wegner would be against the 29th Street corridor being reopened as well, due to the limited clearance beneath the many bridges along it.)

This begs the question: Is the Twin Cities & Western opposed to the re-route, or not?  Mark Wegner gave the answer in an August 3, 2013 Star Tribune guest editorial: “We have not sought to be relocated. We have emphasized the need to continue safe and economic freight service to our customers as we have for the past 22 years. Despite suggestions to the contrary, we have avoided taking sides with one community or another as they have sought allies for or against various options.”

And so the TC&W has declared itself “neutral” on the issue.  However, Wegner does not indicate his willing to let the trains be moved about at the whim of local governments, which is a good sign.

The only way this issue will be resolved ultimately boils down to whether Minneapolis will force St. Louis Park to abandon their stance on the re-route, or vice versa, not what the TC&W wants.   I do hope, however, their trains can stay where they are.  It is a much better option than having to beef up the Canadian Pacific’s MN&S spur –the former Minneapolis, Northfield, and Southern main line– in an expensive rebuild that would carve a swathe through St. Louis Park which dislocated home and business owners.


The Kenilworth Corridor “bottleneck”

This image from the “LRT Done Right” website perfectly sums up what a bone of contention the Kenilworth Corridor along the former Chicago & North Western/Minneapolis & St. Louis line from Cedar Lake Junction in Minneapolis to Bass Lake Yard in St. Louis Park has become. The line –now operated by the Twin Cities & Western but owned by the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority– is slated to be replaced by a twin set of light rail tracks for the new Southwest LRT line. St. Louis Park is supposed to inherit the freight traffic. They do not want it moved; and residents in the Kenilworth corridor do not want to sacrifice the trail.  The result is a swell boondoggle. Image courtesy LRT Done


Looking up the tracks at Cedar Lake Parkway 11 5 2011
No place causes more contention along this contested railway line than in the so-called “bottleneck” sector of the route. Here we are at Cedar Lake Parkway looking north on a mild day early in November of 2011. The space at right used to host at least two more sets of tracks, if not more. If you took out the trail and moved the freight track over a bit, you could co-locate both here. However, the trail –the Kenilworth Trail– is super-popular, and those who use it will not see it go without a struggle.


Cedar Lake Parkway trail grade crossing 11 5 2011
Another look at the “bottleneck” along the Kenilworth Corridor as it looks on the north side of the Cedar Lake Parkway grade crossing. It is interesting to note here that the Kenilworth Corridor did not have a “bottleneck” in it for the longest time, as this aerial photo from 1972 demonstrates. The reason why it now exists at all will become obvious the further south we go along it.


Cedar Lake Parkway grade crossing 11 5 2011
A view of the Cedar Lake Parkway grade crossing looking east. South of this point is where “the bottleneck” begins in earnest.
ROW stuff at Cedar Lake Parkway grade crossing 11 5 2011
We are on the west side of the corridor looking south here. Residential development at right encroaches on the current corridor from here to Lake Street.  The 1972 aerial photo reveals that this spot was once much wider thanks to rail yard-related trackage here; it can be seen in the right-center background of the photo down from the apartment building that occupies the same area of the picture.
Signal on south side of Cedar Lake Parkway grade crossing 11 5 2011
The corridor on the south side of Cedar Lake Parkway as viewed from the eastern side. The narrowing of the corridor is especially notable here. This and preceding four photos taken by Tony Held on November 5, 2011.
TCW line by townhomes between Cedar and Lake view two 7 22 2012
We are down along the curve along the TC&W which starts south of Cedar Lake Parkway on a warm late July afternoon. The townhome development that was built on former rail yard land is visible at left. Kenilworth trail is at right. The “bottleneck” is at its most tightest here; but it is a pinch caused by lack of foresight when the yard land was sold after Minneapolis & St. Louis successor Chicago and North Western abandoned the Kenilworth and Cedar Lake yards in the early 1980s.
Anti co locate sign by townhomes along TCW Mpls 7 22 2013
The banner for the “LRT Done Right” website flies like a Yankee flag planted on Rebel earthworks during the Civil War at the townhome development built on former rail yard land post-abandonment.
TCW by townhomes between Cedar and Lake view one Mpls 7 22 2013
We are now looking south along the TC&W towards Lake Street. The townhome development marches practically up to the road on former rail yard land.  If these homes had not been built, there would be none of the issues and opposition hampering co-location today.   The question of whether it was the C&NW or the HCRRA that sold the freight yard land is one worthy of investigation; whoever sold it was extremely nearsighted, needless to say.
Underside of Lake St bridge view two Mpls 7 22 2013
At Lake Street along the TC&W’s current alignment on the ex-C&NW, exx-M&St.L. route from Cedar Lake to Bass Lake. Note how there is space for at least two tracks under the bridge deck at the right. A freight rail track could be threaded through there and the two LRT tracks could go through the center, though the bridge itself doubtless will need work to accommodate the overhead wires and other infrastructure.
Underside of Lake St bridge view one Mpls 7 22 2013
We are on the south side of Lake Street. The “bottleneck” has ended, and elbow room exists for co-location of the freight rail and LRT tracks…
Looking northeast along TCW by Lake St Mpls 7 22 2013
…as you can see further…
…and further south of Lake Street.
Looking southwest on TCW near Lake St Mpls 7 22 2013
We are now looking southwest from the vantage point of the photo above. Again, you could put the freight rail line further over and co-locate the LRT. The matter of whether to cross the lines at grade at Bass Lake or via a bridge is another matter of contention. I must concede that a bridge would be the best solution, since it would allow LRT operations to be unaffected by freight rail operations. The bridge could begin in this area for the gentlest grade possible for LRTs. Of course, should the LRT be put in a tunnel from Cedar Lakr to Bass Lake a bridge would become a moot point.  This and preceding seven photos taken on July 22, 2013, by Tony Held.

BNSF Wayzata Sub: Volume Six

Westbound BNSF grain train pulling out of siding Long Lake 6 9 2013
Here comes a westbound BNSF grain job with BNSF 7709 (ES44DC) and 6930(ES44C4) at the crew’s disposal. Photo taken on 6-9-2013 by Tony Held.
Departing westbound BNSF grain train at Brown Road Long Lake 6 9 2013
Here is another view of the two units on the June 9 catch as the hogger takes the train beneath the Brown Road bridge (a span that is a staple landmark in many of my pics taken in Long Lake.) Photo by Tony Held.
Tagged hopper on grain train 1 Long Lake 6 9 2013
The June 9 catch had a bunch of colorful “tagged” smoothside covered hoppers in the consist like this one…
Tagged hopper on grain train 2 Long Lake 6 9 2013
…this one…
Tagged hopper on grain train 3 Long Lake 6 9 2013
…this baby…
Tagged hopper on grain train 4 Long Lake 6 9 2013
…this example…
Tagged hopper on grain train 5 Long Lake 6 9 2013
…this example…
Tagged hopper on grain train 6 Long Lake 6 9 2013
…this example…
Tagged hopper on grain train 7 Long Lake 6 9 2013
…and finally these babies. All photos by Tony Held.
Westbound BNSF freight Long Lake 6 19 2013
Here comes yet another westbound general freight (I really have to learn my train symbols) rumbling through Long Lake on June 19, 2013. Motive power is BNSF 5023 and 5241(both C44-9Ws.) Photo by Tony Held.
Eastbound BNSF freight approaching pedestrian bridge Long Lake 6 29 2013
Here is an eastbound freight storming through town bound for Wayzata and on into Minneapolis just after the lead units “split the signals” at the west end of the Long Lake-Wayzata siding (I can’t recall the proper name for that piece of track.) Motive power was BNSF 4306 (C44-9W) and 5694 (AC44CW.) Photo taken on June 29, 2013, by Tony Held.
Eastbound BNSF freight Long lake 6 29 2013
The same two units as they scoot out from under the pedestrian bridge over the Wayzata Sub/Hwy 12 corridor in Long Lake. Photo by Tony Held.
Eastbound BNSF grain train Long Lake 7 6 2013
I really composed this shot of this eastbound grain job very good; I did not need to crop it at all! Photo taken on July 6, 2013, by Tony Held.
Eastbound BNSF grain train headed  for Wayzata Long Lake 7 6 2013
There they go, headed for the bridges carrying the Luce Line over the BNSF/Hwy 12 corridor. Motive power was BNSF 6852 and 6654 (both ES44C4s.) Photo by Tony Held.
BNSF DPU unit on eastbound grain train Long Lake 7 6 2013
This grain job I caught on July 6 had this Grinstein Green-painted SD70MAC on the hind end as the DPU…
Another view of BNSF DPU unit on eastbound grain train Long Lake 7 6 2013
…the road number of which was 9627. Both photos by Tony Held.
Stopped eastbound BNSF train with UP power Long Lake 7 6 2013
You can find motive power from other railways on the Wayzata Sub. Usually they are NS and CSX units, but other roads show up as well. I also caught on July 6, 2013, this empty eastbound ballast train that the dispatcher stopped in town for a time before clearing on through. Motive power was UP 4984 and 4771 (both SD70Ms.) I am glad I caught it! Photo by Tony Held.

BNSF Wayzata sub: Volume Five

Stopped BNSF eastbound general freight Long Lake 5 31 2013
BNSF dispatch loves to halt trains in Long Lake, MN, and not just on the siding, too. At times the trains they stop right on the main track yield terrific catches like this one on May 31, 2013! Photo by Tony Held.
Stopped eastbound BNSF freight Long Lake 5 31 2013
The motive power on this May 31, 2013 catch of mine was a trio of ex-BN units …
Stopped BNSF eastbound freight Long Lake 5 31 2013
… 8100 and 8103 (SD60Ms), and 1916 (SD40-2.) Both photos by Tony Held.
RailGon gondola 29658 in stopped BNSF eastbound freight Long Lake 5 31 2013
Here is one of three interesting freight cars I found on this stopped eastbound freight with the ex-BN power. This is Rail Gon gondola 29658.  Photo by Tony Held.
BNSF gondola 516196 in consist of stopped eastbound freight Long Lake 5 31 2013
Here is a new BNSF gondola, 516196, complete with “swoosh” logo.  Photo by Tony Held.
Tagged AGPX hopper 12057 in consist of stopped  BNSF eastbound L Lake 5 31 2013
This hopper car was the third interesting freight car I saw on the May 31 catch, AGPX 12057. It was “tagged” with some vibrant –but clean– graffiti! It got parked half under the Brown Road bridge when the hogger stopped the train for the red signal. Photo by Tony Held.
Eastbound BNSF freight with dash nine 5032 and ES44DC 7312 Long Lake 6 3 2013
Here comes another eastbound general freight, one BNSF dispatch is letting roll right through town. It has BNSF 5032 (C44-9W) and 7321 (ES44DC) on the point. Photo taken on 6-3-2013 by Tony Held..
Going away view of eastbound BNSF freight about to head into siding Long Lake 6 3 2013
Here are the two units again as the hogger takes the train east. Photo by Tony Held.
Eastbound freight DPU passing under Brown Road Long Lake 6 3 2013
Here comes the DPU unit on this train, BNSF 6117 (an ES44AC.) It is emerging from beneath the Brown Road bridge. Photo by Tony Held.
BNSF ES4AC 6117 on eastbound freight Long Lake 6 3 2013
Another look at the 6117. Photo by Tony Held.
Tagged BNSF hopper Long Lake 6 3 2013
Before the DPU appeared I saw this tagged BNSF hopper sporting the old logo …
Tagged ex Southern boxcar Long Lake 6 3 2013
…this very well tagged ex-Southern boxcar…
Ex BN covered hoppers Long Lake 6 3 2013
…and these two lightly graffiti-clad ex-BN ribside hoppers. All three photos by Tony Held.
Westbound BNSF freight Long Lake 6 6 2013
Westbound thunder! Here comes a westbound general freight (I really need to learn the train symbols for the Wayzata sub!) rumbling through Long Lake on the 69th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2013. Photo by Tony Held.
Westbound BNSF general freight about to duck under Brown Road Long Lake 6 6 2013
There goes the motive power on what I dubbed the “D-Day anniversary express”, ducking under Brown Road. The crew had BNSF 4108 (C44-9W) and 7688 (ES44DC) for power. Photo by Tony Held.
Tagged CN boxcars in westbound freight Long Lake 6 6 2013
I spotted these tagged boxcars in the string of cars hanging off the knuckle of the rear unit …
Tagged boxcars in westbound freight Long Lake 6 6 2013
…along with these specimens. Freight yards and other open access rail areas sure bring out the street artists. Photo by Tony Held.

Vicksburg 150th: U.S. Grant wins again

Union forces under U.S. Grant almost break through the Confederate lines at Vicksburg, Miss., during their second pre-siege assault on the city.  The unit depicted here is the 13th US Infantry, which won the accolade “First at Vicksburg” for this feat.  Image courtesy Wikimedia.


Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had sought to capture the strategic point of Vicksburg, Miss., since late 1862.  A railroad hub and a key point for river commerce along the Mississippi, both President Abraham Lincoln and his counterpart Jefferson Davis knew full well of Vicksburg’s crucial importance.

Unfortunately for Grant, his every attempt to take the city fell far short of success until May of 1863, when he embarked on a bold campaign that witnessed him deliberately abandon his supply line and subsist his troops off the land as they struck first towards the Mississippi state capitol at Jackson and then wheeled back west towards Vicksburg, centering the advance of his army on the railroad linking Vicksburg to Jackson and points east.

Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton, commander of the army based at Vicksburg, sought to stop Grant by coming out from his fortifications and taking the fight to him.  Pemberton’s military skills were pedestrian, however, and while his men fought well, Grant had the advantage in both skill and numerical superiority.  The inevitable result was that Pemberton lost every battle he picked with Grant.

But Pemberton’s army regained confidence once back inside the formidable defenses that ringed the eastern side of Vicksburg.  Grant twice tried to break through them, but a measure of his old bad luck returned to haunt him when both failed –though some historians such as Ed Bearss and Stephen Ambrose argue that Grant failed to properly support a breakthrough made by Gen. John C. McClernad’s corps, though scholars such as Bruce Catton do not agree with this argument.

No matter what Grant did or did not do during his attempts to crack Pemberton’s lines, the very fact that Grant had the hapless Pennsylvanian-turned Confederate –Pemberton was married to a Virginia lady– ensured that victory would be his regardless of how long a siege might take.

As Grant’s army ground away at Pemberton’s, Confederate soldiers and civilians alike found themselves under increasing hardships; hardships not even jocular pieces of writing like a “Bill of Fare” for the “Hotel de Vicksburg” that circulated amongst the Confederate ranks promoting “pastries” such as ” pea meal pudding” or “entrees” like “mule beef jerked a-la-Mexicana” or “liquors” like “Spring Water, Vicksburg brand” could obliterate growing pangs of hunger.  By early July Pemberton’s men had had enough of no food and slipped a note signed “Many soldiers” that demanded: “If you can’t feed us, surrender.”  It was the writing on the wall.

On July 3, 1863, a delegation bearing a flag of truce emerged from the Confederate works.

Pemberton and Grant soon met beneath a tree located between the opposing lines.  At first Grant demanded unconditional surrender just like he had done at Fort Donelson the year before.   But Grant changed his mind, and Pemberton was offered generous surrender terms: He was to disarm his troops, who would then be paroled home for the duration of the war.   Pemberton accepted, and on a date replete with tragic irony -July 4, 1863- Old Glory waved once more over the city.

Ironically enough, some of Pemberton’s 30,000 men broke their paroles and returned to combat, being captured again at the battle of Chattanooga the following November!  Regardless of this breach of good faith on the Confederacy’s part, Grant had won again.  With Vicksburg gone, the last remaining Confederate bastion along the Mississippi at Port Hudson, La., capitulated to Union forces besieging it under the command of Gen. Nathaniel Banks.  President Lincoln announced that “The Father of Waters again flows unvexed to the sea”… and Jefferson Davis had to cope with a country now divided in two.

Gettysburg 150th: Lee’s fateful decision

Pickett’s fateful charge begins in Ron Maxwell’s 1993 epic Gettysburg. This scene was filmed on the actual location, a fact that moved one and all as the cameras rolled.  Image courtesy War Movie Blog.


Only July 3, 1776, delegates from the Thirteen Colonies gathered in Philadelphia, Penn., were debating a momentous decision: whether or not to declare independence from Great Britain.

Only July 3, 1863, two armies faced each other at a town 111 miles west of Philadelphia. One army wore blue, the other gray.  As the morning wore on a fateful conference occurred between two generals of the Army of Northern Virginia: Gen. Robert E. Lee. and Gen. James Longstreet.

Lee was eager to attack the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge after failing to turn both of its flanks of the Army of the Potomac the day before.  His vision was of a massive artillery bombardment of around 200 guns lined up hub to hub on Seminary Ridge that would pulverize the Union defenders.  After that Longstreet would follow through with three divisions.  One of his own –Gen. George Pickett’s recently arrived one– as well as two from Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps, Johnson Pettigrew’s and Isaac Trimble’s.

Longstreet was highly reluctant. Both men had witnessed from atop Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous December massed assaults by waves of Union troops crumpling beneath massed Confederate fire from the heights; and those attacks had been launched by numbers greater than that which the hapless Gen. Ambrose Burnside had flung against Lee on that bloody December day.  Longstreet could appreciate Lee’s zeal, given what he had accomplished at Chancellorsville the previous May –a battle Longstreet had missed due to detached duty with two of his divisions– but he would not stand idly by while disaster was in the making. He finally said to Lee something that went like this: “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”

Lee listened politely, but his fateful decision had been made.

Longstreet dutifully made his preparations, albeit with a heavy heart.

As the great barrage echoed and reechoed across the hills and fields of Gettysburg and the Union defenders endured the storm as best they could –some dying, some horribly wounded, but most unscathed due to the guns firing too high– Gen. Pickett eventually rode up to Longstreet bearing a message from I Corps artillery commander Lt. Col. E.P. Alexander:

“If you are coming at all, come at once, or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slackened at all. At least eighteen guns are still firing from the cemetery itself. –Alexander.”

Longstreet’s heart surely sank lower when he learned that Union cannon were still in action; cannon that could rake the left flank of his attack from their position on Cemetery Hill.

“General, shall I advance?” Pickett asked.

Longstreet could only nod in reply.

Pickett rode off in high spirits.  Soon the grand panorama of the charge that would bear his name appeared on the fields between Seminary and Cemetery Ridge: Soldiers marching in perfect cadence as their battle flags snapped above their gray and butternut-clad ranks.  The sight excited the admiration of their waiting opponents in blue.

But they sight did not overawe them into retreat.

“Do not hurry, men, and fire too fast, let them come up close before you fire, and then aim low and steady,” Union Lt. Frank Haskell heard Gen. John Gibbon tell his men. The night before Gibbon had been warned by Gen. George Meade himself that the next place Lee would attack would be on his front.  He could see now that Meade had displayed an incredible sense of foresight into his legendary opponent’s mind.

Five minutes after Lee’s men had emerged from Seminary Ridge the first shots of the epic finale of the battle of Gettysburg cracked out; skirmishers firing what Haskell eloquently described as “the first drops, the heralds of a storm, sounding on our windows.”

The storm finally broke in earnest as the Union batteries on not only Cemetery Hill but also the ridge –many untouched by the great barrage– opened up.  As soon as Lee’s men came into rifle musket range, the long lines of Union infantry arrayed before them began to fire and fire.

The carnage besetting Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble’s men defied description.  The survivors still marched on, their ever shrinking ranks closing on their battle flags as they fell repeatedly only to rise again and again.   Meanwhile, a Union brigade on the left flank of Pickett’s charge along with one on its right maneuvered out of their defensive positions and poured an enfilading fire into the Confederates, winnowing their ranks even more.

The gray and butternut mass reached the Emmittsburg Road; and while some sections of the fence were down as a result of an attack across this same ground the previous evening. the fence remained largely intact.  More men fell as they tried to surmount this obstacle, while many others crossed.   It was at this point the Confederates began to return the fire that decimated them right and left; but by now they were taking fire on both flanks from two Union brigades that had maneuvered out of their defensive positions and were now pouring enfilading fire into them.  Their odds of success were rapidly dwindling.

One of the men who reached the road was Gen. Lewis Armistead.  Hat perched on his sword as a guide for his brigade, he lead his men not only against the Union II Corps but also a personal friend –II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock.  He marched with a heavy heart, sad to be confronting his friend in battle at last.  His sense of duty kept him marching into the face of hell, however.

Meanwhile, down at the angle of the low stone wall fronting Cemetery Ridge was Lt. Alonzo Cushing.  Cushing’s battery had been one of the few Union batteries Confederate shells had played havoc with during the preceding massed barrage.  By now Cushing only had two guns left in action, and only had canister shot left; canister that flayed the oncoming Confederates.

Cushing was already suffering from a wound suffered during the barrage as well as a burnt thumb suffered when he jammed it over an exhaust vent on one of his guns before it fired when a Confederate bullet entered his mouth and drove into his brain.

He fell dead into the arms of a devoted Sgt. named Fuger, who laid him on the grass before taking command of the two guns.  He did not command them long, however, for their infantry support began to waver and pull back as the Confederates closed in; Fuger and the surviving battery crewmen had no choice but to follow.

Armistead led his brigade through Kemper and Garnett’s survivors.  At last Lee’s army had pierced Cemetery Ridge!

But Armistead and his men were alone. Pettigrew and Trimble’s men had not been able to make any appreciable penetration of the Union line to the north and were now pulling back.

Fresh Union reinforcements closed in to seal the breach by the copse of trees. None other than the First Minnesota Volunteers was amongst them.  Even the death of their temporary commander Capt. Nathan Messick did nothing to staunch their adrenaline as they crowded in with many other regiments.  They may not have captured a Confederate banner during their lone charge the evening before, but today they got one courtesy of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, captured by Pvt. Marshall Sherman when he charged its bearer and demanded his surrender.

Lew Armistead finally fell severely wounded amidst the scuffle at the angle.  He was soon was succored by two Union officers.  He learned from them that Hancock too had been recently wounded, and asked them to convey to their general how sorry he was.

Those Confederates that could beat a hasty retreat, while the rest surrendered.

As the battered and bloodies survivor streamed back to Seminary Ridge –some horrifically wounded– Lee met them.

The sight shocked him to his very core.

Finally a realization dawned inside Lee’s soul, one that he knew he could not deny.  “It’s my fault,” he said out loud over and over.

For decades and centuries after the Civil War, many sought to assign blame to various generals serving in the Army of Northern Virginia –James Longstreet in particular, for his alleged “slowness” in getting his corps into battle on the second day– but such blame-seeking is invalidated at a stroke by Lee’s admission to his men on that hot, bloody afternoon 150 years ago.   Lee knew his fateful decision was his fault and his alone.  No more, no less.  It was an act of moral courage lacking in many a general who made a costly mistake in wartime.

Poor George Pickett.   When Lee asked him to look to his division afterward, the now-traumatized Pickett exclaimed “General Lee; I have no division!”  As indeed he did not: All three of his brigade commanders were now gone, as well as numerous junior officers and enlisted men.

After the war Pickett’s Charge was hailed as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. To those that survived it, however, it had been a journey to hell and back; a journey none of those delegates gathered in Philadelphia less than a hundred years before could have dreamed of.


Gettysburg 150th: The Charge of the First Minnesota

Sgt. William Irvine, First Minnesota Volunteers, poses with the shot-torn regimental flag in a studio portrait taken after Gettysburg. Sadly, Irvine was later mortally wounded during the siege of Petersburg.  Image courtesy First


Plum Run lay to the front of  the advancing brigade of Confederate Gen. Cadmus Wilcox on the evening of July 2, 1863.   Wilcox, a graduate of the fabled West Point class of 1846 –which saw many future Civil War generals graduate such as Thomas Jackson, George McClellan, Wilcox, and others– could see good fortune lay ahead of the stream. He was leading his men into a large gap in the Union lines on top of Cemetery Ridge.

Then a thin line of blue appeared in their path.

They were the First Minnesota Volunteers.  A regiment first offered by Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey to Secretary of War Simeon Cameron immediately after word of the attack on Fort Sumter reached Washington, D.C., in 1861.  The First Minnesota could justly lay claim to being not only the first regiment from Minnesota but the first unit to answer to call of the Union.

From First Bull Run to Antietam the First had distinguished itself notably.  Good fortune smiled on them in that they were spared the meat grinder below Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous December and were lightly engaged in a diversionary action near the same town during the Chancellorsville Campaign of May 1863.

On this July evening, however, the gods of war decreed the First shed its blood.

The chain of events that led to this sacrifice had begun that afternoon when Gen. Dan Sickles had advanced his III Corps off of Cemetery Ridge to occupy the Wheatfield-Peach Orchard-Devil’s Den salient. When Confederate Gen. James Longstreet smashed into Sickles with his I Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the Potomac commander Gen. George Gordon Meade had no choice but to reinforce Sickles since it was too late now to recall him. The corps that the First Minnesota wore the trefoil emblem corps badge of –the II– committed several brigades in an attempt to shore up the III Corps along with units from the V Corps.  It was to no avail: Longstreet’s battle-hardened men ultimately crumpled the salient and sent the survivors retiring towards their lines.

II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock had committed so many of his troops that he discovered a large gap in his lines along Cemetery Ridge as he sought to rally retreating soldiers; it was the same gap that Wilcox was aiming his brigade for.  Hancock spotted a regiment of infantry supporting a nearby artillery battery. “My God!  Are these all the men we have here?” Hancock exclaimed to Col. William Colville, commander of the First.

“What regiment is this?” Hancock quickly asked Colville.

“First Minnesota.”

“Charge those lines!” Hancock barked.  But before Colville to execute the order Hancock apparently added something else.
“Colonel, do you see those colors?” He asked Colville next, referring to the flag of the leading Confederate regiment in Wilcox’s brigade.

Colville said he did.

‘Then take them!” Hancock cried.

Then the First Minnesota began their charge to glory.

Colville had less than his full strength at his disposal.  Two companies of the first had been detached for duty elsewhere, which left him with only eight totaling less than 300 men. Every man present followed their colonel down the slope of Cemetery Ridge towards Plum Run and Wilcox’s brigade.

In a fierce fire fight that swept Plum Run, Colville, his second in command, and many others fell dead or wounded as Wilcox’s men and Confederate artillery savaged them. The First gave as good as it got, however, and Wilcox’s advance was stymied.  Union reinforcements finally arrived to plug the gap, and the First Minnesota –down to 47 men still on their feet– withdrew to Cemetery Ridge. Wilcox’s men lost not a flag to them but the First had kept theirs even though it had fallen and been raised five times during their feat of valor.

Colville –who until early that morning had been under arrest for letting his men cross a bridge over a stream rather than ford it in order to spare their feet suffering from chafing later on– survived his wound, as well as many other wounded. Many others, alas, would not rise again. One such soldier was Isaac Taylor, brother of Henry Taylor, who survived. “Well Isaac, all I can give you is a soldiers grave.” Henry somberly proclaimed when he took a detachment from the First out to find Isaac. When Abraham Lincoln said that the soldiers who died at Gettysburg had “given the last full measure of devotion” to their country in his Gettysburg Address the following November, Henry Taylor knew painfully well what Lincoln spoke of.

The First Minnesota’s participation was not done yet, however. The next day found the regiment still in the center and ultimately reinforced by the two detached companies. Now commanded by Captain Nathan Messick, they would participate in the grim grand finale of Gettysburg: the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

Today the shot-torn battle flag of the First Minnesota occupies a hallowed place in the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.  It is also a somewhat incongruous place, given the petty politics that occur within its halls and chambers.  Nevertheless, it remains 150 years after it was carried into Plum Run as a mute but eloquent reminder of the First’s epic charge.

And Cadmus Wilcox?  He never rose to the heights of fame that classmates like Tom Jackson did; but he will forever be known as the Confederate general whose brigade was stopped by a lone regiment named the First Minnesota.


“Gettysburg” (1993): Cold steel at Little Round Top

20th Maine charge Gettysburg
The 20th Maine surges forward with fixed bayonets in Ron Maxwell’s epic 1993 film Gettysburg.  Image Copyright (C) 1993 Turner Pictures/Warner Brothers; image courtesy


The hills, fields, and swales surrounding Gettysburg, Penn. witnessed many an act of courage 150 years ago today. On this date in 1863 Robert E. Lee sought to turn both the left and right flank of George G. Meade’s army from the “fish hook” position the latter’s Army of the Potomac occupied on high ground east of Gettysburg. Lee’s plan went awry despite a blunder made by Union Gen. Dan Sickles when –incredibly– he advanced his III Corps beyond Meade’s line to ground Sickles somewhat naively thought was better than what he was assigned to.  Sickles’ corps –and ultimately elements from several others– bled dearly for that ground too far; ground they ultimately had to give up: the Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den.

Sickles’ mistake late on the afternoon of July 2 did set the stage for glory at a place named Little Round Top, however.

On the slopes of that hill many Union soldiers crossed the threshold into the realm of heroes. Soldiers such as Strong Vincent, Patrick O’Rourke, and, most remembered today, Joshua Chamberlain.  The commanding officer of the 20th Maine Volunteers of Vincent’s brigade, which was the first brigade deployed by Union Gen. G. K. Warren to hold the hill exposed by Sickles advance.

Chamberlain and his men were soon confronted by two tenacious Confederate regiments –the 15th and 47th Alabama– plus part of another –the 5th Texas; the 20th Maine soon had their hands full as they repelled attack after attack.

The men of the 20th steadily burned through their ammunition until a sustained rate of fire became impossible.  Chamberlain was now faced with two options: annihilation or retreat.

Chamberlain chose neither.

Let his own words describe what he did next:

The silence and the doubt of the momentary lull were quickly dispelled. The formidable Fifteenth Alabama, repulsed and as we hoped dispersed, now in solid and orderly array–still more than twice our numbers-came rolling through the fringe of chaparral on our left. No dash; no yells; no demonstrations for effect; but settled purpose and determination! We opened on them as best we could The fire was returned, cutting us to the quick. The Forty-Seventh Alabama had rallied on our right We were enveloped in fire, and sure to be overwhelmed in fact when the great surge struck us. Whatever might be other where, what was here before us was evident; these far outnumbering, confident eyes, yet watching for a sign of weakness. Already I could see the bold flankers on their right darting Out and creeping and crawling like under the smoke to gain our left, thrown back as it was. lt was for us, then, once for all. Our thin line was broken, and the enemy were in rear of the whole Round Top defense– infantry, artillery, humanity itself- with the Round Top and the day theirs. Now, too, our fire was slackening; our last rounds of shot had been fired; what I had sent for could not get to us. I saw the faces of my men one after another, when they had fired their last cartridge, turn anxiously towards mine for a moment; then square to the front again. To the front for them lay death; to the rear what they would die to save. My thought was running deep. I was combining the elements of a “forlorn hope,” and had just communicated this to Captain Ellis J. Spear of the wheeling flank, on which the initiative was to fall. Just then–so will a little incident fleck a brooding cloud of doom with a tint of human tenderness–brave, warm-hearted Lieutenant [Holman S.] Melcher, of the Color Company, whose Captain and nearly half his men were down, came up and asked if he might take his company and go forward and pick up one or two of his men left wounded on the field, and bring them in before the enemy got too near. This would be a most hazardous move in itself and in this desperate moment, we could not break our line. But I admired him. With a glance, he understood, I answered, “Yes, sir, in a moment! I am about to order a charge!”

Not a moment was to be lost! Five minutes more of such a defensive, and the last roll-call would sound for us! Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it, but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors. The men turned towards me. One word was enough,” -BAYONET!” It caught like fire’ and swept along the ranks. The men took it up with a shout ,–one could not say, whether from the pit, or the song the morning star! It were vain to order “Forward.” No mortal could have heard it in the mighty hosanna that was winging the sky. Nor would he want to hear. There are things still as of the first creation, “whose seed is in itself.” The grating clash of steel in fixing bayonets told its own story; the color rose in front; the whole line quivered for the start; the edge of the left-wing rippled, swung, tossed among the rocks, straightened, changed curve from cimetar to sickle-shape; and the bristling archers swooped down upon the serried host–down into the face of half a thousand! Two hundred men! –Joshua Chamberlain, “Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg.”

Chamberlain’s audacious maneuver routed his opponents.

Incredibly, despite numerous accounts of the action left behind by Chamberlain and other members of the 20th, their valor lay forgotten in the dust bin of history along with all the other heroes of Gettysburg –until two men arrived on the scene.

The first was John J. Pullen, who retold the story of the 20th Maine in his book simply entitled The Twentieth Maine.

The light Pullen shined on their story attracted the attention of another writer: Michael Shaara. Shaara had conceived the idea of retelling the saga of Gettysburg in the form of not another history book but a historical novel that boldly utilized historical characters for the cast. Shaara was gripped by the story of Chamberlain and the 20th, and so included them in his masterful novel The Killer Angels.

Shaara’s novel attracted the attention of filmmakers Ken Burns and Ron Maxwell. Chamberlain occupied a prominent place in Burns’ documentary miniseries “The Civil War.”

Maxwell had something even more grand in mind.

In 1992 cameras finally rolled on Gettysburg, Maxwell’s big screen adaptation of The Killer Angels; an adaptation that brought the novel to stunning life.

Here is a You Tube link to a clip from the film that depicts Chamberlain and his gallant charge, a scene so stirring it can send shivers down your spine:

God bless Chamberlain and all the other heroes of Gettysburg’s second day 150 years on.


Gettysburg 150th: John Buford

Buford and staff Aug 1863
Brig. Gen. John Buford and his staff pose in a photographers studio one month after Gettysburg. The officer standing to the left of Buford is none other than Miles W. Keough. An officer destined to fall in battle at the Little Big Horn over a decade later along with another Gettysburg participant: George A. Custer. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.


Gen. John Buford was a lucky general 150 years ago. He not only did not have to contend with Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart and the best of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry because Jeb and his best brigades were off on a raid. The rest of Robert E. Lee’s horse soldiers were tied down in convoy escort duties. For once, the Army of the Potomac had the advantage.

Buford had wasted no time in realizing Gettysburg’s importance when he arrived with his division on June 30, 1863; he realized that not only did the town’s road hub made it important, he also knew the terrain around town was perfect for defensive fighting. This writer does not know if Buford knew of the plan Gen. George Gordon Meade had for fighting a defensive battle along Pipe Creek just across the Maryland/Pennsylvania border. Buford nevertheless realized the Army of the Potomac could not afford to let Lee capture the high ground at Gettysburg and decide to fight defensively just as he did at Fredericksburg the previous December –to the Union army’s cost.

So Buford set the stage for the epic clash at Gettysburg.  Deploying his division dismounted and on foot, he waited the onslaught.   When it came the next morning, he met the challenge with skill and courage as the III Corps of Lee’s army bore down on Gettysburg from the west. If help did not arrive soon, Buford knew he would also have to contend with Lee’s II Corps as it arrived from the north of Gettysburg.

Gen. John F. Reynolds arrived with the vanguard of Meade’s I Corps, however, and Buford could breathe a little easier.  When Lee’s army drove in the combined forces of Meade’s I and XI corps later that morning, Buford actually threatened the Confederate forces on the Seminary Ridge sector with a mounted charge.  The Rebels near Buford’s Yankees actually formed square to repel their charge, a sight not seen since Waterloo.   Buford was just bluffing in order to buy time for the I Corps to retreat, however.

Alas, Buford’s division actually left Gettysburg on July 2, apparently due to conflicting orders.  Buford may have missed the rest of the battle, but his determination to keep the good ground for the Union paid good dividends for the Army of the Potomac in the bloody days to come.

Speaking of Buford’s stand on July 1, some confusion exists regarding two events that took place during it.

Two accounts left by members of his staff differ as to where Buford was when Gen. Reynolds arrived with the I Corps. One account by one of his staff states he was just behind his dismounted cavalrymen on horseback; the other that he was in the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary on Seminary Ridge. This writer believes Buford was at the Seminary. Much of the terrain on that part of the battlefield is wooded.  Why would Buford deny himself the advantage of such a vantage point, especially when so much was at stake? The discrepancy between the two staff officers’ accounts can be easily explained by a memory slip on the part of the staff officer who assumed Buford and Reynolds first met behind the lines because that is where he himself first saw the two together.

The second event that is surrounded by confusion concerns this question: Just how long did Buford’s men fend of Gen. Harry Heth’s lead division of the Army of Northern Virginia’s III Corps that morning 150 years ago? One historian assumes it was barely a half hour; Buford’s own report states they fought alone for two hours.  This writer believes Buford’s report.  Buford was there, the scholar was not.

Regardless of where Buford was when Reynolds arrived or how long Buford’s men stood alone against Heth’s, the veteran pony soldier deserves the credit many have given him for saving the high ground at Gettysburg.  His innovative use of dragoon-style tactics advocated by Gen. John Watts DePeyster –tactic which Buford had studied before the Civil War—put him at the front rank of Union generals.