William Newell Irvine was born in New York, the son of William and Sarah Irvine. They moved to Minnesota in the late 1850′s, settling on a farm near Monticello. He enlisted at age 22 at the outbreak of war and was mustered into Company D of the First Minnesota Infantry on May 21, 1861. He was soon promoted to corporal. His younger brother Theodore enlisted in December of 1861 and was placed in Company C.
Color Sgt William "Newel" Irvine. Here Irvine is seen holding the colors carried by the regiment at Gettysburg. The flag was literally shredded by shot and shell during the battle. This picture was taken in Alexandria, shortly after the battle. (Wayne Jorgenson)
At the battle of Fredericksburg, Corporal Irvine’s company found itself in a precarious position on the evening of Dec. 14th, 1862 while trying to establish a new line as close to the enemy as possible. Some men heard noises in front of them that sounded like shoveling. Lt. Chris Heffelfinger and Corporal Irvine crept out to see what was what. The Confederates were alerted and Irvine was captured, while Heffelfinger made it back. Irvine was later released on parole and took his place with his regiment.
On July 3rd, during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, while repulsing Pickett’s charge, Corporal Irvine took control of the First Minnesota battle flag after Corporal Henry D. O’Brien was shot. As reported in by 1st Sgt. James Wright of Company F,
“Captain Messick was in command, and Corporal John Dehn carried the flag-he being the only one of the color guard of the day before able to be on his feet at the close of fighting the evening of the 2nd-a new detail being necessary. In the ‘mix-up’ with Pickett’s men he was shot through the hand, and the same shot splintered the flagstaff so that it broke in two pieces. Corporal Henry D. O’Brien then took the piece with the flag on and kept it until twice wounded, when it passed to the hands of Corporal William N Irvine, who carried it through the fighting. The flag of the 28th Virginia was captured by Marshall Sherman. A portion of this staff was used to replace the broken portion of ours. The splice made in the field by a little rough whittling and bound with a knapsack strap and was carried afterwards until the regiment returned to the state the following February.”
Irvine was promoted to the rank of Color Sergeant and carried the regiment’s colors for the rest of their service until they were discharged. The adjacent photo shows Cpl. Irvine holding the repaired colors.
After the regiment mustered out in May of 1864, Irvine reenlisted. He retained his rank as the Regimental Color Sergeant. Shortly thereafter the new First Battalion of Minnesota Infantry was engaged with the enemy at the Battle at Petersburg. On June 18, 1864, while carrying the flag forward, Irvine was shot in the forehead. He was immediately taken to the 2nd Division Hospital, then on June 22nd to Carver Hospital in Washington, DC. The bullet had entered his brain. He was operated on and at first responded favorably. However, he became delirious and died on June 28th, ten days after being shot. Color Sgt William Newel Irvine lays buried in Arlington National Cemetery.