McClellan: “What are those troops fighting on the pike?”
Hooker: “General Gibbon’s brigade of Western men.”
McClellan: “They must be made of iron.”
Hooker: “By the Eternal, they are iron! If you had seen them at Bull Run [2nd Bull Run] as I did. You would know them to be iron.
McClellan: “Why, General Hooker, they fight equal to the best troops in the world.”
That is what General George McClellan recalled in a conversation with a Wisconsin veteran three years after the war.
While shrouded in myth in has the ring of truth to it and a good indication of how the Iron Brigade received its famous name.
The action being referred to where the Iron Brigade of the West was recognized by McClellan was the Battle of Turner’s Gap at South Mountain. Turner’s Gap was easy to defend and hard to attack.
At Turner’s Gap John Gibbon’s Iron Brigade (2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana and Battery B, 4th US Artillery) faced Confederate Alfred Colquitt’s Brigade consisting of the 23rd, 6th, 28th, 27th,Georgia and the 13th Alabama. After a tremendous uphill struggle and terrible cost the Rebs retreated as night-time ended the fighting.
The excerpt is from Lance J. Herdegen’s, The Men Stood Like Iron-How the Iron Brigade of Won Its Name (Indiana University Press, 1997). The book is a prequel to the equally excellent, Those Damned Black Hats-The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign (Savas Beatie LLC, 2008)
Both books are based on primary source material like letters, diaries, journals and the personal recollections of the members of this famous brigade.
Herdegen has done a masterful job of weaving all the sources into the story of the Iron Brigade from their initial recruitment in Wisconsin and Indiana to their placement together in the Army of the Potomac, to their baptism of fire almost a year into the Civil War at Brawner’s Farm (the 2nd Wisconsin was at 1st Bull Run and as the veteran regiment of the brigade they made it known they were veterans to the inexperienced 6th, 7th WI and 19th IN.) through the most bloody day of the Civil War at Antietam on September 17th, 1862.
It would be Gettysburg that the brigade would gain the most fame but that time it was almost expected of the westerners with their distinctive black hats of US Regulars. Yet it was Antietam that nearly did them in as a brigade.
At the start of the battle the brigade numbered 800 men (a full strength 4 regiment brigade as recruited in 1861 would number 4000 men thus testifying to the intensity of prior battles as well as sickness and disease that had reduced the brigade of 4 regiments to 800) and at the end of the battle they numbered 460 thus suffering a loss of 42%.
When the 24th Michigan joined them as re-enforcements the 24th mustered more men than all the original regiments out together did.
The book concentrates heavily on those who wrote the most but is not limited to the brigade’s famous officers like John Gibbon, who gave them their distinctive black hats and who always treated them like they were an elite fighting force or Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin who would gain fame at the railroad cut at Gettysburg. Herdegren uses the writings of the ordinary soldier as well thus giving a bird’s-eye view of the hell that was combat in the American Civil War.
And yet the book is not limited to the soldier’s experiences in battle as the men often wrote of their feelings regarding “the secesh” , the incompetence of many of their generals and their complaints about being tired and hungry. Even old Abe Lincoln did not escape criticism as many saw Abe as interfering with the conduct of the war.
One of the things I found especially interesting was the Wisconsin and Indiana’s men views on slavery and the plight of the black man.
Neither state had much of a black population and that seemed to make slavery pretty much of an abstraction and as a result there was a mixed bag of reaction when they encountered the masses of contrabands (blacks fleeing the south and taking refuge around the Union Army).
Some soldiers seemed to hate the contrabands as much as any cruel slave holder while others were moved by compassion and the injustice of slavery. Many others didn’t seem to fully grasp the bigger picture and the connection between “saving the Union” and ending slavery.
What does seem clear is that most of the western men were motivated to volunteer to defend the flag and not allow the “secesh” to succeed in establishing a separate country.
The men were intensely proud of their brigade and above all else were intensely loyal to the men of the brigade. They fought as they did like most soldiers, because they did not want to let down their comrades in arms. How they defended Battery B at Antietam is a case in point. Three times the Rebs tried to take the battery and three times they were repulsed by double-canister and the remnants of the brigade who had just been driven from the cornfield in a counter attack by the equally famous Texas Brigade of John Bell Hood.
Company F, Sixth Wisconsin was recruited in my hometown of Milwaukee and as such was made up primarily of German immigrants. George Fink of Milwaukee along with a squad of soldiers had been sent from Milwaukee to reinforce Company F. Arriving just after the Battle of Antietam Fink was part of a burial detail that was tasked with burying the men of his company.
Fink found Michael Basel, Leo Gotsch, Jacob Mueller and John Schilcke all dead in the same area along with the company’s commander Captain Werner Von Bachelle and Lt. William Bode. Von Bachelle’s body was found riddled with bullets and with his faithful dog lying dead across his chest. The 6th’s Colonel, Edward Bragg, who survived the fight wounded recorded that Von Baschelle “was a soldier of fortune and died as he desired-a soldier in the front line of battle.”
Both of Herdegen’s books are excellent, hard to put down reads. Through the use of the participants letters, diaries, journals and after the war reminisces the reader really gets to know and to some extent understand the men of the Iron Brigade from a period of history that still echoes in our modern times.
- The Iron Brigade at Gettysburg-Book Review (broeder10.wordpress.com)
- The “2nd German” 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry (broeder10.wordpress.com)
- An Artilleryman At Antietam (historynet.com)