One of the fun things of historical research on the Iron Brigade is discovering the boys of the past were in truth just boys and not mystical figures of some fanciful epic. Today's case in point, this brief poem sent to the Wisconsin State Register newspaper by Charlie Dow of the Second Wisconsin. Young Dow was many of the "prints" or former newspapermen now serving in uniform with the Iron Brigade and had not lost his way with words. This "Soldier's Prayer" was printed in the Register on April 18, 1863:
Our Father, which art in Washington, Uncle Abram is thy name;
Thy victories won, Thy will be done in the South as it is in the North;
Give us this day our daily pork and crackers;
And forgive us our shortcomings, as we forgive our Quartermaster;
And forgive us not by traitors but deliver us from Skedaddlers;
For thine is the power over...the soldier "for the period of three years or during the war."
Thursday, September 26, 2013
One of prized holdings of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison is the flag presented to the regiments of the Iron Brigade 150 years ago this month. The new flag was the effort of a group of citizens. They were proud of the brigade’s record at Gettysburg and elsewhere (“one of the most glorious organizations in the entire army,” a New York Times correspondent called it), raised $1,000, and commissioned Tiffany & Co. of New York to produce a banner of the richest construction “as a testimonial of the appreciation in which the Brigade is held for its bravery, gallantry and valor.” The flag carried the names of the five regiments and the various battle honors. It was mounted on a special staff with a massive silver spear head. It was to be presented on September 17, 1863, the one year anniversary of Antietam, with a great flourish. Before the event occurred, however, orders put the brigade on the march.
Nevertheless, on the appointed day, W. Yates Selleck of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s military agent at Washington caught up with the brigade at Culpepper, Va. The regiments were drawn up in a square. The presentation had “no splendid bower nor distinguished guests,” said one officer, but the “victuals” were on hand and “the liquors.” Selleck gave a brief speech and presented the flag to Col. William Robinson of the 7th Wisconsin, then the brigade commander. As fitting, the oldest regiment, the 2nd Wisconsin, served as the official escort for the new colors. One of the highlights was the reading of a letter by Selleck from the army’s old commander, George B. McClellan: “My heart and prayers are ever with them, and that, although their new colors can witness no more brilliant acts of patriotism and devotion than those which the old torn flags have shared in, I know that on every future field, they and the whole Army of the Potomac, will maintain their part, and the honor of their country and their colors.”
Afterwards, the officers made for the full tables and a Wisconsin officer noted for his temperance views wrote his sweetheart that it soon turned into “an affair that conferred little honor on the brigade, as gentlemen. I feel glad to say there were a few exceptions.” He also reported that the brigade officers and visiting generals “and staff officers within any convenient distance of us were almost unanimously drunk last night. We will see an account of the presentation in the New York Times, as I saw the ‘graphic and reliable’ correspondent of that paper guzzling champagne and wine with the rest of them.”
One Badger called it “a most disgraceful thing that spoiled the whole.” The officers had secured several barrels of whiskey and “most all got drunk.” A guard was posted by the whiskey barrels, the soldier said, but ‘the guard got drunk and the tables kicked down and the result was that most of the whole Brigade was drunk and the supper that was prepared for us was spoiled.” It was a spree of such epic proportions that it went on for two days and disturbed the sleep of the enlisted men. The rank and file, one private said, “got what they could swipe, which was not a small amount.” Another private called it “a gala day.” The new glorious flag had no official place with the brigade, however. Unable to keep it because regulations forbad all but official banners, the officers of the five regiments resolved to send the flag to Washington with Wisconsin Agent Selleck.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
What is this?--A FREE BOOK OFFER: Each person who views the book trailer for my book “The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter” and posts a comment about it here will be entered into a drawing. My book publisher Savas Beatie will choose one person at random who will win a FREE copy of the book. They will select a winner five days after this is posted, so don’t delay.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
In Gettysburg at midday July 3, 1863, one of the wounded Iron Brigade men--Pvt. James "Mickey" Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin--found one of the band members to help him and, hanging onto the railing on the stairs, climbed to the cupola of the railroad depot. “I saw what appeared like the whole Rebel Army in a chunk start for our lines with their infernal squealing yell. It seemed as if everything stood still inside of me for a second or two, then I began to pray.” An officer of his division, watching from Culp’s Hill with the Iron Brigade regiments, called it an irresistible sight: “On they came, banners waving in the battle smoke, cannon roaring, men shouting, horses neighing, small arms crashing in volleys! Still they came on…nothing stops them…. They almost reach our main line of battle with a fairly well-filled line of their own, as it seemed from our location.”
Sullivan’s prayer (though he admitted he “was, and am not yet noted for the frequency and fervency of my prayers”), was that the Confederates would “catch h—l.” It seemed after a few long, anxious minutes he said, as “if the fire from our lines doubled and doubled again, and I could see long streaks of light through the Rebel columns, but they went forward. I was afraid they would capture our guns.” Another Wisconsin soldier said later watching the heavy Confederate losses that he “felt bad for the poor cusses who went down, but it had to be.”
Sullivan watched as the Confederate infantry seem to melt as the Union infantry opened on them. “…[W]e could hear the Northern cheer. We knew that the rebs were scooped, and the old Army of the Potomac was victorious. The dozen or so wounded soldiers around Sullivan “were wild with joy, some cried, others shook hands, and all joined in with the best cheer we could get up. I forgot all about my wound and was very forcibly reminded of it when I went to shout as I had to sit down to keep from falling.” A Confederate officer came to see what the clamor was about and “when told that Lee was cleaned, he growled out if we d---d Yankees were able to cheer we were able to go to Richmond,” said Sullivan, who admitted “our fellows felt good anyway, and the reb went out and we saw no more of him.”
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
The survivors of the Iron Brigade watched the fighting of July 2, 1863, at Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard from their lines on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg. “We could plainly see that our troops were giving ground,” said a Wisconsin officer. “Our suspense and anxiety were intense. We gathered in knots all over the hill watching the battle…. As the sun was low down a fine sight was seen. It was two long blue lines of battle, with twenty or thirty regimental banners, charging forward into the smoke and din of battle. To all appearances they saved the field.” Suddenly, in the fading light, about 7 p.m., the rebel yell went up in front of Culp’s Hill and the far right of the Union line was attacked by forces under the command of Confederate General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Another attack centered on Cemetery Hill, but it flared sharply and quickly stalled when it was not supported. Johnson’s men were more successful on the far right of the Union line. Most of the Culp’s Hill defenders from the Union Twelfth Corps, had been sent to the left and only a brigade of New Yorkers under General George S. Greene remained in position. Greene insisted on constructing defensive works proved the difference, although a portion of the abandoned Federal works on the lower part of Culp’s Hill were occupied. Just as the lines on the far left were firing volley after volley, an officer came looking for Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin with orders to report to Greene. The 6th Wisconsin and the 14th Brooklyn were sent to the right to assist in repelling an attack. In the brush and darkness, Wisconsin Color bearer I.F. Kelly remembered struggling in the brush, darkness, and trees with his 11-foot flag staff. The first mounted officer Dawes encountered in the darkness was Greene, who took a card from his pocket and wrote his name and command, handing it to the young officer. He told Dawes to take his regiment into the breastworks hold. Dawes ordered, “Forward—run! March!” As the 6th Wisconsin reached the line, rebels in the dark rocks rose up and fired a volley. Greene was unaware the Confederates were occupying the breastworks and the rebels were just as surprised by the arrival of the Wisconsin men. After the volley, the Confederates went back down Culp’s Hill. “This remarkable encountered did not last a minute,” said Dawes. “We lost two men, killed—both burned with the powder of the guns fired at them.” One of the wounded was Color bearer Kelly, struck by a spatter of lead off a rock that cut his neck. The wound bled freely. Soldiers around him found a rag and wet it from canteens before wrapping it around his neck. The 6th Wisconsin remained in the line until midnight when they were relieved by troops of the Twelfth Corps who returned to the works after supporting the far left of the Union line. The Wisconsin and New York regiment returned to their original positions without further incident.
One hundred and fifty years ago tonight, the weary survivors of the 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade reached Culp’s Hill. They were greeted with friendly helloes from the Black Hats of the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan. From a regimental wagon, a dozen spades and shovels were pulled and the soldiers began constructing earthworks. It was believed by some in the army that such breastworks made a soldier cautious and sapped his will to fight, but any such notions were knocked out of the Black Hats on McPherson’s Ridge earlier in the day. “The men worked with great energy,” one officer said. “A man would dig with all his strength till out of breath, when another would seize the spade and push on the work.” The spades were also passed to men from the other regiments and soon a strong defensive line was in place.
The Iron Brigade regiments occupied the far left of the Union line along Culp’s Hill, almost facing north. A 7th Wisconsin officer remembered the “rocky faced hill” as “not hard to hold against attack. We piled stone along our front. Dandy for defence, and got water…from springs at the foot of the hill.” Rations were issued, but coffee fires were banned. The men quietly ate sugar and hardtack and “water was our helper with the cold grub.” With the work finished, the men settled in and reflected on what had befallen their Western Brigade.
The officers of the regiments called the rolls on Culp’s Hill and were staggered by the grim final numbers. The brigade had taken 1,883 into the fighting that morning. Now only 691 remained around the battle flags. The 6th Wisconsin, which escaped the heavy fighting on McPherson’s Ridge, sustained losses of 48 percent. The 7th Wisconsin lost 42 percent, the 19th Indiana 72 percent, and the 2nd Wisconsin 77 percent. The newest and largest regiment of the brigade, the 24th Michigan, suffered an 80 percent loss—the largest number of casualties of all the Union regiments in the battle. Among the captured and wounded were three of the five regimental commanders—Lucius Fairchild of the 2nd Wisconsin, John Callis of the 7th Wisconsin, and Henry Morrow of the 24th Michigan.
Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin tried to put the somber night into words: “Our dead lay unburied and beyond our sight or reach. Our wounded were in the hands of the enemy. Our bravest and best were numbered with them…”
July 1, 1863, had been a hard day that would be long remembered by mothers in faraway Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan....
Sunday, June 30, 2013
A century and a half has passed and it is a time of reflection and memory about the Iron Brigade of the West at Gettysburg.
The Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan soldiers camped at Marsh Creek south of town that night of June 30th some 150 years ago were much changed since being called to Washington. Later it was said to be a sight never seen again—the Western regiments swinging along with an easy stride toward the Marsh Creek camp, the famous black hats now more serviceable than showy. One who saw them said they “looked like giants with their tall black hats,” and recalled the veterans of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan moved with a “steady step” and filling the “entire roadway, their big black hats and feathers conspicuous….”
Two years of service, the letters, journals, and diaries they left, revealed the bright hopes of 1861 and 1862 were gone for the veterans. The survivors gathered in close, tight messes to share food, drawing on each other support. While they marched and died, enduring unspeakable hardship, the homefolk “growled” about high prices, short money and hard times. The army tossed out the used-up soldier and the “patriotic” speculators fleeced them of their pay. The soldiers fought well, but were denied victory by incompetent generals. Officers used their rank to get through sentry posts to forage and their authority to execute a weak soldier unable to face combat.
Only one of three soldiers was still in ranks from the regiments formed in 1861; the others dead from battle or illness or even homesickness. Scores of the early volunteers were sent home sick and disabled; some gone only God knows where or why. The survivors were first dependent on the men of their campfires and then to their small companies and then to their regiments. They were isolated from the homefolk, misused by their generals and the country’s leaders, cheated by sutlers, snubbed by Easterners because of their Western origins. They trusted only their comrades and the few officers who have proved to be skillful and brave. They are a hard lot, good soldiers, and proud of their reputations.
Only the men of the 24th Michigan, even after 10 months in service, marched toward Gettysburg feeling they still had something to prove. The Michigan regiment and its famous brigade saw only limited service at Fredericksburg when the Wolverines first came under fire and their colonel called out, “Steady, men, those Wisconsin men are watching you.” The Michigan regiment joined in the spirited river crossing during the Chancellorsville Campaign, but it was not the kind of fighting endured at Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Antietam. It was only after Chancellorsville that the Michigan regiment’s coveted black hats arrived. “They made our appearance,” a Wolverine said, “like the name of the brigade, quite unique.”
The Western men would regard the upcoming fighting at Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War. In many ways it was the last great fight for the “Boys of ’61,” those bright volunteers who flocked to the National flag in a swell of patriotism after Fort Sumter. The army itself was changing into something that seemed more sinister. In the camps, the veterans were unsettled by recruits who enlisted to collect bounties and newspapers reporting lack of support for the war back home. After the first three days of July 1863, it would all be different, partly to a change in the way the war was fought and partly because of the men brought in fill the battle-diminished regiments.
But on that quiet evening of June in 1863 at Marsh Creek, all that was yet to come…