born in New York State in 1830 to Irish and Scots parents.
graduates and teaches a country school for one year
studies law and reads law in the office of then VP Millard Fillmore in Buffalo; admitted to the Bar in 1851.
practices law in New York State until 1854, when he migrates to Minnesota.
spends the first year in St. Paul as the enrolling clerk and then as secretary of the Territorial Council.
moves to Cannon Falls and takes a tract of land upon which part of the city now stands.
opens a law office in Red Wing in 1854
establishes The Red Wing Sentinel, a Democratic newspaper in 1855 (was a Douglas Democrat – as in Stephen A Douglas – a supporter of popular sovereignty and Unionist, opposed to secession).
31 years old in 1861, he is a impressive man at 6 foot 5 inches
famously becomes the first man from Goodhue County to volunteer.
elected captain of Company F, 1st Minnesota Regiment.
In June 1861, the regiment heads east
On July 21, the regiment sees heavy fighting on Henry Hill in the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas. The 1st Minnesota is one of the last regiments to leave the battlefield, and suffers the highest casualties of any northern regiment (48 killed, 83 wounded and 30 missing).
The Union Army moves on Richmond and fights a series of battles over a week known as the Seven Days Battle. On June 30, 1862, Colvill receives a bullet wound in the shoulder.
Colvill returns to the regiment August 31 and is promoted to major.
On September 17, the regiment, only 435 men strong, participates in the Battle of Antietam. Bursting through the far side of the woods, the column is exposed to heavy fire from both flanks. The regiment suffers 15 killed, 79 wounded and 21 missing.
Shortly after Antietam, Colvill is promoted to lieutenant colonel.
The 1st Minnesota is at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Then begins Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania.
On June 23, Colvill is promoted to colonel and given command of the regiment.
Two days later, on June 25, JEB Stuart’s cavalry attacks the regiment. Colvill's horse is shot from underneath him.
On the 29th, Colvill is arrested for allowing the men to cross a three-foot deep river on logs whereas the orders were to wade across. The march from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg takes 14 days with traveling 11 of those, averaging over 14 miles a day. By the time they reach Gettysburg they are exhausted.
On July 2, 1863 the regiment is on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. In the morning, Colvill is relieved of arrest and resumes command the regiment.
Late in the afternoon, Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade breaks through the III Corp at the Wheatfield.
Union II Corp commander General Winfield Scott Hancock sees the danger of the Union position being overrun on Cemetery Ridge and orders Colvill and his regiment to make a suicidal charge to delay the Confederates enough to get reinforcements to the ridge.
Wilcox begins the day’s fighting with some 1,800 men in his unit although it is not known exactly how many are left at the time of the action with the 1st Minnesota. Without hesitation, Colvill orders the charge against a brigade four to five times larger. Of the 282 Minnesotans who make the charge, 217 are killed or wounded.
Despite the heavy losses, the Minnesotans are successful in slowing the Confederates until more regiments arrived.
The 1st Minnesota saves the Union line on Cemetery Ridge on Day 2 at Gettysburg, playing a key role in the Union victory which many consider the most decisive battle of the American Civil War.
Among the wounded is Colvill, who is hit three times and severally wounded. He is shot in the shoulder and the ankle. One bullet enters the top right shoulder and tears across his back, clipping off a part of his vertebra and lodging under his left scapula. Both wounds will force Colvill to use a cane the rest of his life.
After the battle, Colvill recovers in a private home in Gettysburg.
The surgeons at first want to amputate his foot, saying it was necessary in order to save his life, but Colvill would not allow it.
He is moved to a hospital in Harrisburg, PA where he remains until February 1864. He reunites with the remnants of his regiment that month as they are being mustered out and sent home.
Back in Red Wing, MN, Colvill edits the Red Wing Republican newspaper.
He is elected to the Minnesota State Legislature. He takes his seat in January 1865.
Immediately after the adjournment of the legislature, he receives an appointment as colonel of the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, which is stationed in Chattanooga.
On May 6, 1865, he receives a brevet commission as brigadier general.
He musters out of service in July 1865.
After the war, he returns to the state legislature until 1866.
He is elected Minnesota Attorney General from 1866 to 1868.
Then he returns to his law practice in Red Wing. He also serves in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1878. During the next decade he serves as register of the Duluth Land Office, from 1887 to 1891.
Colvill marries Elizabeth Morgan of New York in April 1867.
In 1893, the Colvills live on a 160-acre homestead near Grand Marais on the North Shore.
In 1905, Colvill travels to Minneapolis to attend a reunion of the veterans of the First Minnesota at the Old Soldiers Home.
While there, William Colvill dies in his sleep on June 13. He is 75 years old.
He is buried in the Community Cemetery in Cannon Falls, MN.
In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge is present for the dedication of a statue that is placed next to his grave.
Colvill statue in the Minnesota State Capitol