“Where has the firmness of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg been surpassed in history?” Asked Rufus Dawes in a letter from Marietta, Ohio to an 1884 reunion of his Lemonweir Minute Men at Mauston [WI]. “Two thousand muskets were carried into battle and for four long hours these men breasted the billows of rebellion until twelve hundred were shot down under the colors. Then, with colors flying and unbroken front, they retired to the Cemetery Hill. But that four hours time saved our army Cemetery Hill, and that enabled it to save the nation.” Those famed Black Hats-The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign Lance J. Herdegen
Mr. Herdegen’s book is a marvelous account of The Iron Brigade of the West’s service in the Gettysburg Campaign with a special emphasis on the first day.
The Iron Brigade of the West consisted of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana and the 24th Michigan at Gettysburg. As a brigade the unit was wrecked sustaining losses that totaled 64%.
The 2nd Wisconsin, the first raised regiment of the brigade lost three out of four men.
The 6th and 7th Wisconsin lost one of every two men.
The 19th Indiana lost three out of four men.
The 24th Michigan lost four out of five men -the highest toll of any Federal regiment in the three days of Gettysburg.
The 2nd Wisconsin, except for two companies that merged into the 6th Wisconsin was shortly there after mustered out of service. The 19th Indiana would be merged with the 20th Indiana.
The Brigade as a whole would never be the same nor play a significant role in any other battle. The original brigade of three year men was essentially all but wiped out in the bloody fighting on the first day as Henry Heth’s Confederate Division blundered into Buford’s Union Cavalry and then the First Brigade of the First Division of the First Corp of The Army of the Potomac-The Iron Brigade of the West.
The brigade was slow in getting recognition for its decisive delaying action on that first day. Pickett’s charge on the third day and the Devil’s Den fighting and the epic story of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top were much better known incidents following the Civil War.
Part of the reason was because the first veteran ‘s organizations were located in the east and thus received the lion ‘s share of publicity. The other reason may be the Iron Brigade of the West was the only all western brigade in the Army of the Potomac so regional rivalries may have played a part.
The western regiments of the Iron Brigade always seemed to know that that the eyes of the eastern regiments were upon them, wondering how these men from the western States would perform.
The Iron Brigade’s first commander, John Gibbon gave the brigade both discipline and pride issuing the unit with their famous tall black hats, the same hat as the US Regulars. By the time of Gettysburg the brigade had already earned it’s famous nickname- a fact recognized by the advancing Confederates when they realized they were not facing dismounted Union Cavalry or militia but the damned black hat brigade of the Army of the Potomac.
My interest in the Iron Brigade began years ago when I read Nolan’s classic work on the subject. Herdegen gives Nolan ample credit and then does a masterful job of drawing from primary source material to reconstruct the battle and campaign largely in the words of the officers and men of the Iron Brigade.
This book was very hard to put down. By the time you are finished you feel to some extent that you have just shared in this famous unit’s wartime and postwar experiences. Being from Wisconsin and realizing that four companies of the brigade were recruited in my hometown of Milwaukee made the reading extra special.
I enjoyed the book so much I ordered Hendegren’s prequel, The Men Stood Like Iron-How the Iron Brigade Won it’s Name.