If you were to ask a non-Minnesotan in the street what is the single most important thing Minnesotans have done in history, chances are (if the person can list anything at all), it will be the work of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg, where seven companies of the regiment were ordered to attack a Confederate column outnumbering them some twenty to one — and the Minnesotans made the charge, at the cost of 82% casualties, and bought Winfield Scott Hancock the five minutes he needed to get enough other troops into position to save the Union army.
Strangely enough, this event has no place in song. Indeed, there seem to be no traditional songs about the Battle of Gettysburg at all, except for The Last Fierce Charge, which Lyle ran some time ago — and that song usually refers to the Battle of Fredericksburg anyway.
But I'm writing this on the hundred and forty-fifth anniversary of Gettysburg, and I thought I should include something related to that battle.
This is about as close as I can get. It's a Civil War song, not widely known, that was sung in Minnesota by M. C. Dean and printed in his book The Flying Cloud. The original was by Bernard Taylor.
The battle of Lundy's Lane (Bridgewater) took place on July 25, 1814. An American army led by Jacob Brown (who would later issue the orders for the founding of Fort Snelling) had invaded Canada. The brigades led by Winfield Scott ran into the British, and the armies fought to a bloody draw. The Americans, with their two top officers (Brown and Scott) wounded, withdrew back to the American side of the Niagara River.
Fast forward forty-seven years. The Civil War is starting, and Winfield Scott is now commander-in-chief of all Union armies. This story was used to inspire younger recruits.
It's rather lucky for the Union that Billie Johnson was not accepted into the army; armies do a lot more marching than shooting, and Billie certainly could not have marched with the Army of the Potomac. What's more, his 1812 gun would have been a smoothbore musket, not a rifle musket, and you couldn't hit the side of a barn with those things. Still, a veteran of Lundy's Lane did try to organize a "veteran" company at the start of the war (and had them rejected). What's more, a War of 1812 veteran did famously fight at Gettysburg: John Burns had his cows chased by Confederates, so he got out his gun and started popping away — and ended up wounded three times and a prisoner.
The text given here is Dean's, but he had no tune. So I have used the tune sung by "Yankee" John Galusha to Frank Warner, Galusha, however, was recorded in extreme old age, and couldn't hold pitch and sometimes adjusted his timing so he could breathe. I fixed a few notes toward what I'm guessing he meant to sing. I could be wrong, of course.
An old and crippled veteran to the War Department came,
He sought the chief who led him o 'er many a field of fame,
The chief who shouted "Forward!" whene'er his banner rose,
And bore the flag in triumph behind his flying foes.
"Have you forgotten, General," the battered soldier cried,
"The days of Eighteen Hundred and Twelve when I fought by your side?
Have you forgotten Johnson who fought at Lundy 's Lane?
It's true I'm old and feeble, but I'd like to fight again."
"Have I forgotten?" says the chief, "My brave old soldier, No!
And here's the hand I gave you then and let it tell you so;
But you have done your share, my friend, you are crippled, old and gray,
And we have need of stronger arms and fresher blood today."
"I'm not so weak, but I can shoot, and I've a good old gun,
To get the range of traitors' hearts and pierce them one by one;
And if a bullet should find me out and lay me on my face,
My soul will go to Washington, and not to Arnold's place.
"I am ready, General, so you let a post to me be given,
Where Washington can look down on me as he looks down from Heaven,
And say to Putnam at his side, or maybe General Wayne,
'There stands old Billie Johnson, he fought at Lundy's Lane.'"