Henry D. O’Brien of the First Minnesota Volunteers was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 9, 1890. His citation reads:
Taking up the colors where they had fallen, he rushed ahead of his regiment, close to the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, and engaged in the desperate struggle in which the enemy was defeated, and though severely wounded, he held the colors until wounded a second time.
Born in Calais, Maine in 1842, Henry moved with his family to St Anthony Falls, Minnesota in 1857.
At his enlistment on September 28, 1861 at the age of 19, he stood 5′ 7″ tall with light complexion, hazel eyes and dark hair.
During the 1st’s famous charge on July 2, 1863, Henry was slightly wounded in the side. Despite being hurt, he helped a badly wounded comrade, Ernest Jefferson, to a place of shelter. After the battle Ernest was found and taken to a field hospital.
In spite of his wound, Henry was with the regiment and his comrades on July 3rd lying in wait behind a fence in the middle of the line to the left of the copse of trees toward which Pickett’s army was headed.
Corporal John Dehn, the regiment’s color bearer, was shot through the hand during the early exchange of fire between the combatants. The shot broke the flag’s staff in half. Though difficult to hold, Henry picked up the First Minnesota’s battle flag and with it in hand, he leapt over the fence and charged toward the Confederates. His comrades followed as much to protect their colors as anything else.
Lt. Lochren was angry at first and blamed O’Brien for imperiling the regiment’s flag which had been stained in blood the day before. But the affect of O’Brien’s stirring charge “was electrical,” Lochren wrote later. “Every man of the First Minnesota sprang to protect its flag, and the rest rushed with them upon the enemy.”
When Lt John Ball of Co K saw O’Brien drive towards the Confederate position, he shouted, “O’Brien, come back here!” Later O’Brien admitted that he had heard the order but confessed with a grin, “I didn’t come.”
As Caleb Jackson of Co G saw it,
“When General Pickett made his famous charge his men succeeded in striking our line near a battery and close to our right flank and for a moment it seemed that we would be overwhelmed. At this critical time the last of our color guards was shot and the flag fell to the ground. Corporal Henry D. O’Brien, of Company E, though not a member of the color guard instantly seized it and waving it over his head rushed ahead of the Regiment and close up to the muzzles of the Confederate muskets. His example was quickly followed by the rest of the men and the Confederates were beaten back leaving the colors of the 28th Virginia with our command. Corporal O’Brien’s action at that time was fearless and as daring as anything I saw during the war, and there is no doubt in my mind that it was one of the principal causes that led to the defeat of the Confederates at that point. I looked at his face and smiled as he broke off a piece of the shattered staff and threw it to the ground and marched on. He was struck in the head by a musket ball and although stunned by the force of the blow he held to the colors until he was again struck in the left hand. This occurred at the moment of victory.”
After the battle Henry was sent to Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia for treatment and recovery.
When, on May 5, 1864, the regiment was mustered out after their three years of service, Henry re-enlisted in the First Battalion of Minnesota Infantry. On May 12, 1864, he was appointed 2nd lieutenant in Company B and acting adjutant for the Battalion.
On Aug 14, 1864, at the battle at Deep Bottom, Virginia, he was shot in the right shoulder and lung, a portion of the minnie ball passed through him. He was carried to safety by Alonzo Pickle and others. He was taken to the Armory Square Hospital in Washington DC. He was not expected to survive, but did. His wound bothered him for years, reopening every year for nineteen years until he finally submitted to an operation during which the surgeon removed twenty two pieces of bone and a bullet fragment.
Henry’s company commander, Capt Ellet Perkins, later told the story of what had happened.
“Second Lieut. Henry D. O’Brien, of my company, acting adjutant, had been sick for some time and was excused from duty; but when the charge was to take place insisted on participating in it, notwithstanding the protest of his comrades. The assault was made and Lieut. O’Brien, whose assigned position was in the rear of the command was shot through the right shoulder and lung, when 20 feet in advance of it, and close to the Confederate breastworks. He was carried to a ravine, where the line was reformed and then attacked by the enemy. He urged his comrades to hold the position which they did and a few moments afterward he became unconscious through loss of blood. In my report of the battle I stated that he had been mortally wounded and I certainly had no reason to expect his recovery. His action on this occasion was commendable. He did more than his duty.”
Henry died of pneumonia on November 3, 1902 at the age of 61 in St. Louis, Missouri.