I Go Forward Without Fear Hamlin and his comrades enjoyed sightseeing in Washington, D.C. , with the sight of the unfinished Capitol dome being of great intrigue. From Wikimedia commons
Sergeant Philip Rice Hamlin was born to Rice and Elizabeth Hamlin on May 24, 1839, in Warren County, Pennsylvania. It was not until 1855 that the family would move to Wisconsin, where farm land was plentiful and increasingly affordable. Philip was the oldest child in the Hamlin farm house, with three younger brothers, Jacob, Charlie and H.W, and a younger sister. His letter’s home during the war reveal a very paternalistic relationship with his younger siblings, with Philip continually checking on the progression of their school work and making sure the children had done their chores around the household.
Feeling duty- bound by his strong religious convictions that the war was God’s will, Hamlin was quick to answer President Lincoln’s first call for volunteers to serve in the Federal army in April,1861. He viewed the war as a means for necessary human progress, writing on April 26, 1861, “the Present magnificent uprising has led the people to make the greatest sacrifices and as virtues go in clusters, there’s things will lead the people to a higher and nobler course of conduct in the future.” Raised in a pious Victorian household in which morning prayers and nightly prayers were commonplace, Hamlin wrote extensively about the religious development of the men he served with, while simultaneously explaining his deeply-held beliefs to his family. Hamlin’s family shared his religious beliefs, but even the strongest of faiths would be tested in the heat of the battle, as Hamlin would soon find out. However, Hamlin seems to have accepted the outbreak of war and a pre-ordained fate, stating in June of 1861 that, having “entered the service of my country from a sense of duty, and trusting in the All Merciful, I go forward without fear.”
Following his April 1861 enlistment in the 1st Minnesota, Hamlin traveled to Washington, D.C. with his comrades where they were quickly mustered into service. While in the nation’s capital, Hamlin made his first visit to the Capitol building, where he was struck by the beauty and stateliness of the architecture. The sight of the Capitol’s yet -to-be completed done would make a lasting impression on Hamlin and his comrades- a reminder of the democratic principles of liberty and Union that many of these men were fighting for, and the unfinished work of the nation’s founding generation.
However, – Hamlin’s sight seeing in the nation’s capital would not last long. Just three weeks after penning a letter home about his adventures in Washington, Hamlin would receive his baptism of fire at the 1st Battle of Bull Run. As was typical for Civil War many regiments, each company of the first Minnesota had been raised from a different town with-in the state. Philip’s own company, companyF, bonded quickly over their home of Pine Island. The company took great pride in its men, who according to Sergeant James Wright, possessed many of the most celebrated attributes of Victorian masculinity. Wright recorded “There were may men of fine features and physique. Of these company F had its share. Philip Hamlin, Charley Harris, Len Squire and Marcelleus Milkin were a quartet to be proud of.”
The Hour of Peril Company F of the First Minnesota pictured at Fort Snelling in Wisconsin, circa April 1861, when they enlisted. Minnesota History Center.
Like many of the young men who knew they were about to “see the elephant” – the ever-eloquent Hamlin wrote a poignant letter home on July 10th, 1861, in which he sought to prepare both his family and himself for the enormous spiritual test before him. “In these hours of peril and trial how inconceivably precious is the Christian’s hope,” Hamlin remarked. Clearly conflicted between faith-backed hope and a pragmatic knowledge of war and its destruction, he included a good-bye to his brother, Jacob, unsure if the two would ever meet again. Uncertain futures and preparations for the worst would become commonplace as the realities of the horrors of war started to set in for many of the men. In Hamlin’s mind, the coming battle would be a fight between more than just the Confederate and Union forces; indeed, to the ever-pious Hamlin, his own hopes for the future and God’s will were preparing to face off in a literal battle between Good and Evil.
Despite even his own admittance that 1st Bull Run was otherwise a total rout, Hamlin wrote proudly of his service during the battle. Company F of the 1st Minnesota had been detached during the battle and lost contact with the rest of the regiment, except for Company A. Together, the two companies battled Stonewall Jackson’s men for control of James Rickett’s battery atop Henry House Hill, with the Minnesotan’s red shirts causing confusion for both sides as whether they were friend or foe. The battle ultimately ended in a rout of the Union forces. However, Philip made sure to highlight the bravery of his comrades and how his own nerves held steadily throughout the battle. Again, trying to navigate between his spiritual beliefs in the moral superiority (and thus pre-ordained success of the Union), on the one hand, and an emerging realization of the brutality and uncertainty of warfare, and on the other hand “perhaps God designed by this defeat to touch us the necessity of trusting Him.” Hamlin’s pragmatic views of the war also allowed him to criticize some of his leaders’ decisions made during the battle without losing faith in God, the Union cause, and the Union’s moral and martial superiority altogether. Hamlin would continue such critiques in his writings throughout the rest of the war, leveling particularly harsh yet insightful, critiques at General George McClellan.
Hamlin’s faith continued to infuse his military career as the war progressed. As the Minnesotans settled into camp life, he began to share his faith with other men in the company. Sergeant James Wright noted that “Company F had its little circle of praying men who used to gather at convenient times in some tent or under the trees for prayer. The leader of these was the big, manly Sergeant Philip Hamlin.” Minds often fell idle during camp life, but Hamlin relied on faith and reading the New Testament to keep his mind sharp and to ward of the temptations of gambling, drinking and other vices that were so common in camp life F. Wright was impressed by Hamlin’s persistently strong belief that the war could end with a united country- a belief strengthened by Hamlin’s belief in God and the righteousness of the Union cause. Hamlin’s strength of character and moral fortitude quickly earned him the admiration of his peers in Company F, with Wright remarking in his memoirs that “no many respected him and his sentiments, he and his associates were always treated with all proper considerations by the other members of the company” However, Hamlin also proved to be a convivial comrade who often joined his comrades in song as they turned in for the night.
Hamlin’s hope for a quick end to the war flagged after major Union defeats and in the wake of some of the war’s bloodiest battles. In particular, Hamlin grew more depressed about the Union’s fortunes after the fighting at Savage’s Station, Virginia in June of 1862, and at Antietam, in September of that year. Despite President Lincoln claiming a Union victory at Antietam, the sheer shock of the bloodiest day in American history hit his spirits hard. At these and other battles the 1st Minnesota developed a reputation as a hard fighting regiment, and their casualty list seemed to validate such a reputation. Hamlin’s letters home show his personal evolution as he, like many others, struggled to process the shocking brutality of civil war combat. During this time, Hamlin distracted himself by continuing his ritualistic letters home in which he documented his daily life and the happenings of camp. Hamlin seemed to be home sick, constantly inquiring after the home and family he so longed to see , sometimes writing paragraphs full of questions.
The traumatic Union defeat at Fredericksburg that December appears to have taken a particularly high toll on Hamlin’s faith in the Union’s highest leadership, as he wrote home “Our president may tell us that the defeat at Fredericksburg was not a mistake, but we do not believe him.” Jaded and questioning his trust in those who decisions had resulted in the death of thousands of northern brethren, Hamlin slogged through the frigid winter months. As the winter of 1862-1863 thawed out, Hamlin’s letters home still bore the coldness of winter and were filled with homesick and depressed sentiments. When spring finally arrived, President Lincoln visited camp to review the troops, including the 1st Minnesota. To the young and weary Minnesotan, Lincoln himself appeared to be careworn, an astute observation of the toll that the war continued to take on everyone; from a lowly Sergeant from Minnesota to the President of the United States.
As Hamlin would enter what would be his final months, he began to struggle with his faith. Like many of his peers, it was increasingly difficult for Hamlin to reconcile the religion he believed in with the reality he was experiencing. The temptations of camp life and the carnage of battle overwhelmed soldiers’ ability to process events. Coping mechanisms, like Hamlin’s faith, seemed inadequate and incompatible with their challenges. If God had truly preordained the Union cause for success, surely the extensive bloodshed of late 1862 was not necessary. What Hamlin believed to be God’s plan and what was happening on the field of battle seemed two diametrically opposed ideas.
It is sweet to trust in the All Seeing One This plaque on the smaller of the monuments dedicated to the First Minnesota commemorates the heroism of its soldiers on July 2nd and 3rd. http://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/
The 1st Minnesota would not see heavy fighting at Chancellorsville that May of 1863 but would soon face some of the heaviest combat of any unit in the war at Gettysburg. It was on the long, hot march from Virginia up to Pennsylvania that Hamlin would write his final letter home. At no point during the war had Hamlin devoted as much ink to the movements of the army as he did his June 25th letter to his family. Perhaps, Hamlin sensed the fury that was soon to be unleashed in the fields outside a small Pennsylvania town. But most interestingly, in the final sentence he was ever to write Hamlin confidently accepted whatever might happen during the coming battle, proclaiming “I know that whatever befalls me, all is well for I am in safe hands. Oh, it is sweet to trust in the All Seeing One…” Hamlin had rediscovered his faith- and he would certainly need it for his final battle. His renewed spiritual may have been the confidence that General Joe Hooker had instilled in his men, as well as the warm weather that helped bring him out of a winter’s depression. Hooker changed daily life for the soldier, fixing their diet, camp sanitary improvements and most importantly, implementing Corps badges that signified to what unit a soldier belonged. Hooker’s changes improved the morale that had plummeted under Ambrose Burnside. Doubtless, the Union army’s return to northern soil, and the renewed resolve it brought to Union soldiers who would now be fighting with a far more concrete sense of purpose, bolstered Hamlin’s spirits as it did for so many of his peers.
Unlike most of his comrades, Sergeant Hamlin did not meet his fate during the regiment’s now legendary charge on July 2. Hamlin was not involved in the charge itself but would be the unfortunate soul who had to report the results of the charge to his comrades. The First Minnesota arrived early on the second day’s battle and was initially being held in reserve. When a portion of Dan Sickles’ left flank came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters, Company F (Hamlin included) was detached to skirmish with the Confederate sharpshooters. Company F rained fire into Barksdale’s Confederate brigade while their comrades remained in reserve. As the hour of the regiment’s fateful charge approached, 262 young Minnesotans had a sweeping view of the Gettysburg farm fields, with the 1st’s attention drawn towards the ferocity of the fight between Sickles’ men and James Longstreet’s corps. As the Union Third Corps ultimately collapsed in full retreat, the commander of the 2nd Corps Winfield Scott Hancock gave the famous order to the 1st Minnesota to “charge those lines” in an attempt to buy a few minutes of extra time for Union reserves to arrive on the Battlefield. From their position, Company F and its commander, Captain John Ball became distraught over the roaring gunfire emanating from the location where they had left their comrades. Ball, anxious to know what was going on, dispatched the reliable Sergeant Hamlin down the line to find out what happened. As night time descended on the second day’s battle and the roar of gunfire gave way to pleas of mercy from the wounded left on the field, Hamlin rejoined his company. Fellow Minnesotan, James Wright recalled the moment he was reunited with his comrades from Company F: “We had not been separated far, or long, but the greetings were as sincere and earnest as if oceans had divided us and years elapsed. There was a flood of inquiries about the missing ones, and the answers left no doubts in our minds of the awful calamity that had befallen the regiment.”
Of the 262 men who had participated in that afternoon’s charge, 215 were killed or mortally wounded, Leaving a mere 47 survivors. Fortunately, numerous companies of the regiment had been dispatched off before the charge took place. Company F had skirmished and lost 5 casualties, Company C was on provost guard at division headquarters and Company L, a unit of sharpshooters, was aiding an artillery battery. The survivors of companies F, L still had more fighting to face at Gettysburg, while company C remained on provost duty.
During the night of July 2nd,the exhausted and grieving survivors of the 1st Minnesota assumed a position on the western slope of Cemetery Ridge facing Seminary Ridge. Wisely suspecting a Confederate attack, the men began to fortify their position with fallen tree branches, rocks, and anything they could find to protect themselves. For many of the men, the loss of their comrades was incomprehensible. This was especially true for Henry Taylor, who would have to bury his brother Isaac following the battle.
Assuming a position between the 20th Massachusetts and the 80th New York, the greatly reduced but still tenacious 1st Minnesota would face off with Kemper’s brigade during the famed Pickett and Pettigrew’s charge of July 3rd. Accidentally during the battle, the detached Company C, still in full dress uniform from provost duty, rejoined their comrades who were in the midst of another ferocious volley. After what would be their finally volley, the 1st Minnesota was again given the order to charge. Their target: the copse of trees known today as the “high-water mark”. Remembering the sacrifice of their comrades a day before, they charged ploughed ahead into the 28th Virginia. Their gallant conduct would earn two medals of honors, but for Philip Hamlin, it was his hors mori. Charging near the color bearer who was also shot down, Hamlin was Struck in the neck, leg, and chest and killed instantly.
Hamlin’s death was a heroic sacrifice of life on behalf of his country and in the name of his most deeply-held religious and moral principles. He believed firmly in the Union cause, and that the country could one day become whole again. His faith in God allowed him to trust that the Union case was the superior one, ordained by the Almighty, and that this war served as both a lesson and a moral catharsis for the nation. On the fields of Gettysburg, Hamlin became a Christian martyr. As a man of great faith, who brought that faith to his comrades, he died a death for God. All throughout the war, Hamlin had been adamant that whatever his fate may end up being, it would be God’s plan. That plan was enacted on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Hamlin’s death lacked the final statement and affirmation of faith that as devout Christian, he would have wanted to have. But arguably, the charge he participated in was more powerful and meaningful than any last statement.
All time is the Millennium of their Glory One of the inscriptions on the urn dedicated to the 1st Minnesota in Gettysburg National Cemetery. Photo by the author.
That night, Hamlin received a rare honor on the field of battle as his comrades held a somber burial service for him. Not a word was said, as the men stood silently with bared and bowed hands, paying homage to a noble fallen comrade. His comrade, James Wright would later eulogize him in his personal reflections on the war:
“He always and everywhere an honest, earnest, consistent, Christian man; whose open, unostentatious, frank, manly and unobtrusive observance of what he considered his religion was well known and respected by all who knew him… 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. He had the most implicit faith in an ‘over-ruling providence’ and seemed to feel that, no matter what happened to him personally, all that he was fighting for was certain to be accomplished. The results were a splendid vindication of his sublime faith.”
Hamlin was buried by the few remaining survivors of the 1st Minnesota, just northwest of Peter Frey’s house, which still stands to this day. Both of their graves lay near the fortifications the men had erected by a walnut tree. Hamlin’s grave is likely one of those made marked on the 1864 Elliot map, available through the Library of Congress. Hamlin, in his eternal rest, likely would have been comforted by his burial location. While not a fig tree, a walnut tree would have provided the shade where no one, Hamlin included, could be made afraid, just as the Lord God proclaims in the book of Micah. Hamlin, like many Civil War casualties, would not be buried by his family. Instead, his adopted family, his comrades in arms who were lucky enough to survive two brutal days of fighting would bury Hamlin. Later that fall, Hamlin’s remains would be moved to Soldiers National Cemetery, just over the hill from Hamlin’s death site. Hamlin’s grave would bear witness to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address on November 19th, where few men better embodied the sacrifice that Lincoln would speak of. Hamlin did not die in vain for his deeply held beliefs. It would be two more years and many more devastating battles, but the country would become one again.
Hamlin’s long letter train home was never to be continued, and the family he left in April of 1861 would never see him again. However, in a touching tribute to his comrade, Sergeant James Wright wrote to Hamlin’s father about the details of his son’s death, fulfilling an obligation many made to the families of their fallen friends who craved word of the final moment of their loved ones’ lives. The year after Philip died, his brother Jacob would be killed in the fighting around Nashville. Like many mothers and fathers, Rice and Elizabeth Hamlin would have to endure the sacrifice of two of their children sacrificed upon the alter of freedom.
Preservation of the Union required the sacrifices of thousands of sons and older brothers, as the Hamlin family quickly learned. However, unlike some less fortunate families, the Hamlin’s would not be left to grieve alone as the tight knit communities that raised these Minnesotan heroes would turn to each other for comfort when the devastating casualty reports would finally arrive from the distant little Pennsylvania town containing the names of loved ones, neighbors and schoolmates. No pension could ever placate the suffering that the Hamlin family was forced to endure in the wake of their son’s death. While, for many struggling families, the pension was an essential monetary supplement for pure survival, for the Hamlins, their monthly eight-dollar pension would serve as a constant, painful reminder of the heroic sacrifice of their oldest son, Philip.
The 1st Minnesota has been immortalized for the charge it made on July 2nd, 1863. One cannot deny the heroics of the 262 men who charged and were decimated down to 47 survivors. The 1st Minnesota’s hallmark monument to that charge is one of the more popular ones at Gettysburg, often visited by sight-seers to the nearby Pennsylvania monument. However, not far to the northwest of that monument sits another, small, unassuming monument commemorating the heroics of those men like Hamlin who fought on July 3rd. These men bravely entered the fray with the full weight of the previous day’s murderous charge pressing on their minds. Their contributions continued the regiment’s legacy of gallantry through what would be its last battle. The two charges were not altogether that different; both were necessary sacrifices in the heart of battle, made on almost the same ground, with the same purpose. It would be these and countless other episodes of selfless devotion to cause and comrades that would ultimately give the Union its biggest victory of the war.
No matter when or where these heroes fell, they ultimately share one monument in their eternal rest. An urn, honoring these brave fallen men sits near the graves of those buried in the National Cemetery. The urn reads on one side “all time is the millennium of their glory.” The glory of men like Philip Hamlin and the 1st Minnesota is preserved on the hallowed ground at Gettysburg National Military Park, itself the most compelling monument to the cost of perpetual Union and freedom.
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Compiled Service Records of Union Soldiers Who Served in the 1St Minnesota Regiment, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Gottfried, Bradley M. The Maps of Gettysburg an Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3-July 13, 1863. New York: Savas Beatie, 2010.
Gottfried, Bradley M. Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg. Skyhorse Pub Co, 2012.
The letters of Philip Hamlin, accessed through Gettysburg NMP archives .
Compiled Service Records of Union Soldiers Who Served in the 1St Minnesota Regiment, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Moe, Richard. The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
Wright, James . NO MORE GALLANT A DEED: A Civil War Memoir of the First Minnesota Volunteers. ST. PAUL: MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOC, 2017.
Photo of Philip Hamlin used courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Narrative and map by Cameron Sauers, Gettysburg College.