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The Civil War and Freeman Orcutt


It was in the month of April that the Civil War began in 1861, and 2011 marks the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the war’s onset. Many of that war’s veterans would become leaders in Dakota Territory, and later, after statehood in 1889, in North Dakota.

Today’s datebook tells of a Union soldier named Freeman Orcutt, who settled in Wahpeton in 1870. Orcutt had joined the First Minnesota Regiment of the U.S. Army in April 1861, responding to the call of President Lincoln to quell the Confederate rebellion.

Born in 1845, Orcutt enlisted as a private “under a misrepresentation, giving his age as 18 when in truth he was but 16.” He looked older than he was, being a “big robust fellow,” one “accustomed to hard labor, privation and exposure” to the elements.

Orcutt’s strong frame served him well as the First Minnesota regiment fought in the battle of Bull Run in 1861, and in later battles at Fair Oaks and Savage’s Station. Orcutt also survived the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, where the First Minnesota took heavy losses.

In 1863, Freeman Orcutt became part of the legend of the First Minnesota Regiment. They were guarding artillery positions on July 2nd – the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when General Winfield Hancock called upon them to fill a gap at Little Round Top hill, and to halt a Confederate advance from the Peach Orchard.

Hancock said: “What regiment is this?”

The reply: the First Minnesota.

Hancock ordered: “Charge those lines,” – a mere 400 yards away.

The charge was a sacrifice to buy five minutes’ time.

The First Minnesota charged at double-time, bayonets fixed, against a Confederate force twenty times their size. After the charge, 215 of the 262 lay dead, dying or wounded, but they had saved the Union position. The next day, the First Minnesota helped repulse Pickett’s Charge. Freeman Orcutt was “terribly wounded in the shoulder” at Gettysburg, but he later returned to his regiment and finished out the war.

Orcutt came to Dakota in 1868; established a 640-acre farm near Wahpeton in 1870; and eventually became a county judge. When he died in 1904, at age 59, thirty-two veterans of the First Minnesota honored him at a military funeral. Orcutt’s family received “great comfort” from the veterans, who told stories of how Freeman Orcutt, the youngest among them, had served his country so nobly.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “In Memorium: Freeman Orcutt,” Wahpeton Globe, November 24, 1904, p. 4.

“Judge Freeman Orcutt, Wahpeton,” The Record [Fargo, ND], Volume 2, No. 3 (September 1896), p. 15.

Death notice of Freeman Orcutt, Fargo Forum, November 23, 1904, p. 11.

Legend of First Minnesota from Richard Moe, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993), p. 268-276.