Saturday, December 29, 2012

A soldier cemetery at Gettysburg

Frank Haskell of the 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade was serving as a aide to Gen. John Gibbon when the two went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in November 1863. They were there to represent the Army of the Potomac at the special dedication of a new federal soldier cemetery. The neat row of stones of the fallen was troubling to Haskell. He wrote his brother a short time later:

“…[W]hat is so appropriate for the soldier’s rest as the spot where he died nobly fighting the enemies of the country,--where perhaps the shout of victory went up with his spirit to Heaven—where his companions in arms, his survivors, had lovingly wrapped him in his blanket, and wet with brave men’s tears, had covered him with the earth his blood had consecrated…. But no,--these things were not to be. The skeletons of these brave men must be handled like the bones of so many horses, for a price, and wedged in rows like herrings in a box, on a spot where there was no fighting—where none of them fell! It may be all right, but I do not see it…but as it is now…we have instead a common, badly arranged grave yard, in which names, and graves, if designated at all, are as likely to be wrong as right. But read the newspapers,--Every body says this is splendid, this making the ‘Soldiers’ Cemetery,’ and I suppose it is.”

Frank Haskell was himself killed in 1864 leading a charge of the 36th Wisconsin near Cold Harbor, Virginia. His body was returned to Wisconsin for burial at Portage.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Terrible would have been the fate of the 19th Indiana

Thinking today about Fredericksburg in December 150 years ago, and of  the Iron Brigade and Lt. Clayton Rogers:

Left behind a mile beyond what had been the Iron Brigade line in the retreat from Fredericksburg was the 19th Indiana, whose job it was to watch the Rebels and keep them at a distance. General John Reynolds had made the decision to abandon the Hoosiers to prevent an alarm during the withdrawal, but Colonel Lysander Cutler pleaded with the general and gotten permission to make an effort to save the regiment. When the Iron Brigade began marching for the bridges, Cutler sent his aide, Leutenant Rogers, with an order for the commander of the 19th Indiana to call in his pickets and march for the pontoon crossing. The splendidly mounted Rogers, a man with an eye for good horses, “rushed to the extreme left with no regard to roads but straight as a bee flies.” “The left once gained,” a friend wrote, “he moderates his pace and whispers into the ear of each astonished officer.” The order is passed by whispers and Rogers moved out to the picket line in a movement hidden by the stormy weather. A witness described the scene: “One by one our drenched boys are falling back and drawing in together. Silently as shadows the whole picket line steals across the plain. And now as the ranks closed up for rapid marching, ‘double double quick’ is about the pace.” One bridge remained at the crossing point, and engineers were standing by with axes to cut it loose. It is only after the last of the 19th Indiana has passed that the mounted Rogers, “grimly smiling,” rode onto the bridge himself. The rearguard of the regiment arrived a short time after the bridge lines were cut. They climbed into skiffs the engineers had held back for them and began paddling for the north bank. “[I]f we had been left as our head General at first designated terrible would have been our fate,” a private in the 19th confessed in his diary, “or we would have known nothing of the retreat, and when the enemy advanced the 19th is not the Reg’t to surrender without any fight.” The consequence, he added, “would have been a wiping out of the old 19th.”

Friday, November 30, 2012

Old Mickey Sullivan returns for a story or two...

Sgt. James Patrick Sullivan made an appearance at Freedom Hall in the Civil War Museum at Kenosha, Wis., a few days back and it was the same old “Mickey, of Company K”—sharp of tongue, a glint in his eye, and full of Irish blarney.

It was good to see the old veteran of the Sixth Wisconsin and listen as he talked about attending the 1883 reunion of the Iron Brigade Association at La Crosse.

Mickey was to give a talk, he explained, and was trying to catch a few words on paper. He is the first enlisted man asked to formally address the annual gathering, and he admitted looking back to his soldier days triggered a flood of memories.

Sullivan laughed in telling how his new company—the Lemonweir Minute Men—drilled at the Mauston Park in Juneau County before the call to go to Camp Randall at Madison in 1861. School children, fathers, mothers sisters, friends and girls that had not yet been left behind stood watching, he recalled with a smile, and “if they judge by the loudness of the tones of command and our ability to charge the school house or church, they must have felt the rebellion would soon be a thing of the past.”

A couple of darker memories gave Mickey pause. It was at Gettysburg, in the bloody railroad cut, that he was shot in the shoulder and taken to the town on the back of a cavalry horse ordered up by Gen. James Wadsworth himself. At the Court House, he said, he found doctors “busy cutting up and patching up the biggest part of the Sixth Regiment, A good number of the Company K boys were in the same fix I was, and some a great deal worse.”

And there were other memories as well—of “Old Boo” the famous pet jackass of Company K, and a drill session with two new recruits, one German and one Irish, and, of course, Sullivan had to pull from an old chest his faded blue coat and the misshapen famous Black Hat of the Iron Brigade. The old coat was a little tight around the middle and the hat had seen better days, he admitted as he put them on, and then pulled himself up erect soldier fashion to begin his poem:

            There are hats in the closest, old, ugly to view,
             Of very slight value they may be to you.
             But the wreath of the Astors should not buy them to-day,
              With letters of honor, old Company K.

            At the end, Sullivan saluted the way the old boys,did in 1861, and then he was gone.
            His return was a funded by a grant given to the Civil War Museum from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The 40-minute performance featured actor T. Stacy Hicks as Mickey Sullivan. The script was written by Playwright Jim Farris from Sullivan’s Civil War writings as found  in An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan, Sergt, Company K, 6th Wisconsin Volunteers, by William J.K. Beaudot and Lance J. Herdegen.           


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Was it a lock of hair of President Lincoln?

While I was working at the Institute for Civil War Studies at Carroll College, a visitor came to show me a small rectangle of glass with a lock of hair inside and tied with a red ribbon. On a card on the opposite side was the note: "A lock of Lincoln's Hair." The relic had been found in an old trunk left at a Milwaukee hotel the family had operated long ago. It was discovered after the fellow living there, Charles King, the famous author, died and trunk was left. A quick comparison showed the handwriting on the note was similar to that of Charles King. He was the son of General Rufus King of the Iron Brigade and served as his father's "aide" early in the war. He was one of four cadets appointed to the U.S. Military Academy by President Lincoln. (Another of the four was William Upham of the Second Wisconsin after he was severely wounded at First Bull Run.) I asked the visitor for just a few hairs from the lock, but was turned down with a smile. For the record, the hair was dark brown and very coarse. Was it the real hair of Abraham Lincoln? I like to think so, but we will never know for sure.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Black Hats meet Old Abe, the War Eagle.

As the Seventh Wisconsin was at Camp Randall at Madison preparing to leave for Washington and the warfront, companies of the Eighth Wisconsin were arriving. The one from Eau Claire in north central Wisconsin caught the attention of the Western boys. It included the "proud form" of a live bald eagle perched on a painted shield and carried by a bearer. The eagle liked to spread its wings to retain its equilibrium while being carried, presenting a martial tableau. "It was the center of attraction during the day," said a Seventh Wisconsin man. "The [Eau Claire] boys say they were going to take him with them and are not going to return until he shapoos his head in the Gulf of Mexico." Of course, the bird became famous as "Old Abe, the War Eagle" and was carried into skirmish and battle over the coming years. The Seventh Wisconsin was soon a part of the storied Iron Brigade.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

He too wanted to vote for Lincoln

One unexpected development in the presidential election of 1864 was that 71 percent of the vote in the Army of the Potomac went to Abraham Lincoln and not its old commander George McClellan. In a strange turn of events that war year, Wisconsin and Michigan men of the Iron Brigade were allowed to vote while those from Indiana could not. The Indiana legislature had voted against soldiers from their state being allowed to vote in the field. "We all agreed that what the Rebels liked was just what we had no right to like, and if it was going to do them so much good to elect McClellan, we just wouldn't do it," one Badger wrote home. In the end the old Iron Brigade regiments voted 749 for Lincoln and 147 for Little Mac. In the 6th Wisconsin, the very satisified  Sgt. Frank Wallar wrote in his diary the vote of his Company I was "unanimous for Abe. I am going to have two canteens of whiskey tonight." During the day-long balloting a lone Confederate deserter stepped into the Michigan picket line to announced that he too wanted to vote for Lincoln. It is not recorded whether he was given that opportunity.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I could have hugged the necks of them all

In all of the letters written by members of the Iron Brigade I think none is as poignant as that written by Lt. Frank Haskell to his family the morning of August 29, 1862. The late afternoon of the day before the four regiments of Gibbon's Black Hat Brigade-the Second, Sixth, Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana-had fought in its first battle at a place they called Gainesville, but we know today as Brawner Farm. "None of the officers could look upon our thinned ranks, so full the night before, now so shattered, without tears," Haskell penned. "And the faces of those brave boys, as the morning sun disclosed them, no pen can describe. the men were cheerful, quiet and orderly. The dust and blackness of battle were upon their clothes, and in their hair, and on their skin, but you saw none of these, - you saw only their eyes, and the shadows of the 'light of battle,' and the furrows plowed upon cheeks that were smooth a day before, and now not half filled up. I could not look upon them without tears, and could have hugged the necks of them all." Haskell himself would be shot dead at Cold Harbor in 1864 and his body returned to Wisconsin.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A clean shirt made him feel like a new creature...

Can anyone reading through the first person accounts of the aftermath of Antietam not be touched by the horror of those hours and days? Take this story of Pvt. William Harries of the Second Wisconsin, shot in the chest. He was sharing a blanket with Uriel Olin of La Crosse, a sergeant in his regiment. During the long night, Dr. A.J. Ward came to the "little frame house" and gave each some whiskey. But Olin was dying. "The wound he received through the bowels gave him great pain early in the evening," Harries wrote later, "but for an hour or more before the final dissolution he made no complaint and died without a struggle." Harries was told that "it was considered quite probable that I could be buried in the morning with Sergeant Olin as I was bleeding frequently from the mouth." The next day he was moved to a nearby barn where Iron Brigade wounded were housed. "until the Sanitary Comission came along we were in horrible condition. I do not care to describe my own; suffice to say that I felt like a new creature when I got a clean shirt." Harries survived the war and returned home to Wisconsin.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My interview with Savas Beatie

SB: You have been researching and writing about the Iron Brigade for decades. What is your fascination with this organization?

LH: I think it is because many of the soldiers were just regular folks from my home state who played such a key role in the Civil War. I can drive past their old farms and homesteads and through their hometowns on the same roads they traveled. I can stand at their gravesides. At speaking engagements in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters and other relatives come up to say hello. Often they know only a little of what their ancestors did between 1861 and 1865 and I have the wonderful opportunity to share information I have uncovered. The Black Hats left a remarkable record of service and patriotism at a critical time in American history and they deserve to be remembered.

SB: Why did you decide to write The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory?

LH: I had been thinking about a new and complete history of the Iron Brigade for many years. I was finishing a journalism degree at Marquette University when Alan Nolan was writing his excellent The Iron Brigade: A Military History. He published it in 1961 and it was a huge success. I had provided some minor information to him at the time and we became lifelong friends and walked a lot of the battlefields together. It is difficult to grow up in Wisconsin and not be drawn to the story of the Iron Brigade, which included three Wisconsin regiments in addition to one from Michigan and one from Indiana. Over the years, I wrote a couple of books on the Black Hats that covered only a narrow portion of the story and expanded on Nolan's work with information that has come to light since 1961. Alan pretty much ended his book after the Iron Brigade lost its all-Western makeup in 1863, and included only a few pages on the rest of the war. I began thinking seriously about completing the story about five years ago under the persistent badgering of my publisher, Ted Savas. So much new information had become available and I wanted as well to take a long and hard look at the 1864 and 1865 role of the brigade in the closing days of the Civil War.

SB: Let's step back a moment. How did you become interested in the Civil War?

LH: I blame my father. When I was about 12, he brought home an 1864 rifle-musket and cavalry sword he found while helping a neighbor clean out an old shed. I was totally entranced and I began to read everything I could find on the Civil War. I also became interested in shooting small arms and artillery of the era and was soon active in competitive shooting with the North-South Skirmish Association. My team was Company F, the Citizens Corps, 6th Wisconsin, of the famous Iron Brigade. I still shoot a little even today and I think being familiar with the weaponry helps you better understand--if even on a small scale--battle and the reality of executing tactics under fire.

SB: You were in the news business most of your life. Did that influence your take on history and the Civil War?

LH: It surely did. I was a reporter for the United Press International (UPI) news wire service for most of my adult life. As a reporter, I am a product of the Vietnam era and I tend to be generally distrustful of official materials. I am not interested in looking at events from the top down. I am interested in looking at events from the ranks up because it is a very different view. A generic report that the Army of the Potomac was "short on supplies" does not match in hard reality an account of a hungry private soldier chasing a cow across a field in an effort to get a canteen full of milk. A professor of mine at Marquette University, Dr. Frank Klement, who wrote four good books on the Civil War, said reporters always have the first chance to write history. He liked to add with a smile, however, that most reporters got it wrong. I guess what I am doing now is just an extension of my UPI days. When I start writing about a battle or incident from the Civil War, I pretty much let the actual sources take me where they will. I like to say my coverage zone just slipped from the 1960s to the 1860s.

SB: What makes The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory unique?

LH: First, there is no other book at all like it on the Iron Brigade. And my UPI experience, as I mentioned a moment ago, gives me a different perspective. I like to write about how people are affected by history, both good and bad. And when you do that, and work from the bottom up, these men flesh out into individuals with feelings, thoughts, emotions, families, pain, suffering. They bleed, cry, are footsore, hungry, tired, cold--just like all the rest of us.

SB: You bring them alive. . .

LH: I try to do that, yes. I want readers to identify with them and think about them when they close the book. I covered several presidents and dozens of political campaigns as well as much of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movement for UPI. It taught me about the complexity of the world around you and how unexpected violence can be, and how difficult it is to deal with it emotionally. One of my first jobs at UPI's Milwaukee bureau was contacting the families of Wisconsin soldiers killed in Vietnam. Each Friday afternoon for two years, when the lists were released, I would call the families to get the details of the lives of their fallen sons and brothers. At first I was horrified at the thought of such an intrusion, but I soon discovered the families were more than willing to talk to me . . .

SB: Why was that?

LH: I think they needed to have someone recognize the sacrifice of their loved ones and to make sure everyone knew what they were all about before they were killed. I think about that sometimes while writing about some Black Hat killed at Gettysburg and or elsewhere. He is obscure to us today. Odds are we don't have his photo and know very little about him. But he was someone's son, father, husband, brother, uncle. Someone knew him back then, and someone grieved when they learned of his fate.

SB: What is it about this study of the Iron Brigade that you think will interest readers who have read your other books on the same unit?

LH: That's a good question and I actually address that in the Introduction. I get asked that a lot, too. Where to begin. First, as I noted earlier, no other study goes past Gettysburg in any depth. I think there are something like 150 pages just on 1864 and 1865. All of the attention has been the early part of the war, and especially their stand at Gettysburg. How the survivors reacted and performed in the 1864 and early 1865 fighting is a completely different story of a different kind of courage. The idealistic young men of 1861 are hardened combat veterans fighting a different kind of war. So I think this new book offers a conclusion--a final ending--to the endlessly interesting and revealing story of the Black Hats.

SB: That sounds interesting. I take it there are several other aspects to your new work. . .

LH: Yes, there are. Next, I think the book develops the changing understanding of the war by the soldiers and then, long after the fighting, how they dealt with what they saw and how it changed their lives. The question they tried to understand and answer was whether the result of the long war was worth the cost in deaths, suffering, destruction, and loss. It is easy to forget in writing military history the soldiers were real people. I finally had enough material to really root out answers to those questions.

SB: Did they conclude it was worth the terrible cost?

LH: Yes, as a whole I think so, but some of these men really suffered emotionally after the war. I am not sure they were completely convinced.

SB: Does an example jump readily to mind?

LH: Yes. Rufus Dawes. He was an officer, fought through the entire war, and afterward was elected to Congress. When he was leaving Washington, he wrote a moving letter to his wife about spending two days search through Arlington to find the graves of those who died under his command and as a result of executing his orders. And then he described many of them. Dawes was never wounded. I think he had what we call today "Survivor's Guilt." I think he was really torn up inside. It is not hard to understand why. That story, in much greater detail, is in the book.

SB: What else do you think readers will enjoy about this study?

LH: Over the years, descendants have given me letters, diaries, photos, journals, and such. It was all this new material, plus some wonderful newspaper articles most historians have ignored, that made this book possible. The book also includes previously unpublished photos. Taken as a whole, these men finally come alive in a way that was simply impossible to create in the past.

SB: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.

LH: You're welcome.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A first look at a new book

Writers spend a lot of time awash with loose papers, open books, scraps of paper with scribbles, and the zomie-like stare of a person who spends too much time looking at a computer. The long and sometimes late hours all come together when a box containing your new book arrives at your doorstep and you get your first look at the final product. I had to a chance to do that just the weekend past under the most unusual circumstances. I was presenting at Ted Alexander's Chambersburg, Pa., Civil War Seminar when my first box of books arrived. With the biggest grin ever, bookseller and author Jim Mclean of Butternut and Blue opened the box and then motioned me forward to take out the first copy of The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter. Now that was moment I will remember and treasure. I held up the book as the attendees applauded and laughed with me. It looked splendid and suddenly all the long hours were worth it. Thanks, Jim, and those in attendance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"I have seen enough of the horrors of war."

Capt. Edwin Brown of the 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade was exhausted on the eve of the battle of Antietam. He wrote to his father after the fighting at Gainesville and Second Bull Run: "I have seen enough of the horrors of war, imagination cannot picture it, it is too horrible to write about, I am weary, worn out. I don't weigh over 115 pounds, and would like to seek repose with my family & friends. I have been on every march. In every place of danger, that my Co. & Regt. have. I have been broken so much of any rest, have had such hard fare that I am tired and thin. I tried to get leave of absence for one week to rest in Washington but was refused. What the end will be I can't tell. Probably a fit of sickness...." Brown was shot and killed in the Miller farmyard the morning of Sept. 17, 1862.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Iron Brigade Supports Us

One incident always talked over during the Iron Brigade reunions was an incident involving Battery B of the Fourth U.S. Artillery which supported the Black Hats during the hard fighting at Antietam on September 17, 1862. One of the brigade chaplains, a pious man who was "always at hand when the boys were double shooting, sleeves rolled up, working their guns to the best." As the churchman watched, one gunner stepped back before firing, calling out to his comrades, "Now boys, give 'em hell!" The clergyman stepped in to reprimand the gunner. "How do you expect to have the support of Divine Providence when you use such language!" The gunner gave the chaplain a long and hard look. "To hell with the Divine Providence, the Iron Brigade supports us," he said. or at least that is how the story was told long after the war.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Brawner's Farm or Gainesville?

The first fight of what became the Iron Brigade was fought August 28, 1862, just outside Manassas Junction, Virginia, in the opening of the battle of Second Bull Run. It is now commonly called Brawner's Farm. But a century or more ago a veteran of the Black Hats would have looked at you in puzzlement if you asked about the fighting using that name. In the 1860s it was known as Gainesville to the Federals and sometimes Groveton to the Confederates. My friend the late Alan Nolan used Brawner Farm for the first time in 1961 in his outstanding book on the Iron Brigade as a way to correctly locate the action. A look at the reunion ribbons of the Iron Brigade, however, clearly identify the 90-minutes of fighting as Gainesville. I am sometimes conflicted when hearing someone doing a living history impression talk about "Brawner's Farm" as putting the battle in the wrong century. What is one to do?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Capt. Werner von Bachelle and his Faithful Dog

They found Capt. Werner Von Bachelle of the Sixth Wisconsin dead on the turnpike next to the cornfield. His company was on the roadway and was caught in the first flurry of bullets from the Confederates. He was hit several times and fell. When the company dropped back into the corn, the officer's large pet dog refused to leave him. Later, they found the captain on his back, "his feet crossed and arms folded, his cap drawn forward over his eyes, like a soldier taking his rest, his body riddled with bullets, his field glass across his shoulder shattered into innumerable pieces, and his faithful dog...lying across his body dead." Said Col. Edward Bragg: "He was a soldier of fortune and died as he desired--a soldier in the front line of battle." The dead of the Sixth regiment were buried under "a locust tree on the right of the pike and in the field proximating the church, well up to the front, but close toward the wood, Captain Bachelle with is feet to the south, on one side of the tree, and the enlisted men in a trench dug with a battery hoe on the reverse side. The captain's dog was placed beside him in the grave. Von Bachelle's body was later removed to the National Cemetery at Sharpsburg, Maryland. For reasons not explained, he was buried with a group of officers, and not with his Wisconsin men. It is not known if his dog was moved with him. Lest we forget.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Iron Brigade of the West is Named

Exactly how the famous name was attached to Gibbon's Brigade remains unclear. Gen. George McClellan said after the Civil War that he was responsible when he said "They must be made of Iron!" while watching the Black Hats fight up the National Road at South Mountain on this very day 150 years ago. A brigade of New York regiments said later that it was the original "Cast-Iron Brigade" for a description given the unit following a hard match of 50 miles in two days. The name was somehow "stolen" by the Wisconsin and Indiana boys, they said. The Western men, however, never believed there was any confusion with the New Yorkers and that it was Little Mac who named them. Capt. Jerome Watrous of the 6th Wisconsin said the name "Iron Brigade" was first publicly attached to Gibbon's Brigade by a correspondent for a Cincinnati newspaper. The "print" was with McClellan watching the Black Hats at South Mountain and probably overheard the description from officers discussing the fighting. "The last terrible battle has reduced this brigade to a mere skeleton there being scarecely enough members to form half a regiment," the reporter wrote in a dispatch printed September 22, 1862, five days after the bloodletting at Antietam. "The 2nd Wisconsin, which but a few weeks since, numbered over nine hundred men, can now muster but fifty-nine. This brigade has done some of the hardest and best fighting in the service. It has been justly termed the Iron Brigade of the West."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Memoir of Richard Larsen

Wisconsin's Civil War community lost one of its own a few days back with the passing of Dick Larsen. He was active in a couple of organizations and was a key figure in the reprinting of Quiner's The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union. It is hard to image a world without Dick Larsen in it. He was such a powerful life force—a man of honesty, intelligence, laughter, and straightforward decency. How I would enjoy our wide-ranging conversations on a dozen topics. Sometimes we were serious, but more often we laughed, mainly at ourselves. His interest in history was always compelling. I tried to find a word or phrase to describe him and the one that comes to mind is from Wisconsin lumbering days—a time in which he had an interest. In those days, when the logs were floated down river to the mills, the piney camp boys wanted men around them they could count on because the work was exceedingly dangerous. Dick was one those kind of men—a “man to ride the river with.” I will miss him.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Old 6th Wisconsin - 2nd place North-South Skirmish Assoc. Nationals

This photo of the old 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade after winning a second place at the North-South Skirmish Association national musket matches is probably from the late 1960s. My, my.... Western boys raising hell.

Monday, September 3, 2012

He fought the whole Rebel Army by himself at Second Bull Run

If you asked in the old Iron Brigade regiments for the soldier “who fought the whole rebel army all by himself at Second Bull Run,” the Big Hats would smile, and point to Pvt. James Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin. “Mickey, of Company K,” was on the skirmish line in the woods in the early fighting. When the line was pulled back, Sullivan was left “pegging away” at the rebels. Finally stopping to pull more cartridges from the lower portion of his box he discovered that he was all alone facing the Confederate line. He dodged back through the woods to find his regiment where he angrily “doggoned” Sgt. John Ticknor for leaving him behind. Ticknor said simply, “Get down Mickey or you will get yourself killed.” Afterwards, Col. Edward Bragg always liked to single out Sullivan to others as “the soldier who held back the Confederate advance all by himself at Second Bull Run.”

Friday, August 31, 2012

Retreat from Second Bull Run

This is one of those 150th anniversary days--the day after the defeat of the Union army at Second Bull Run. The Iron Brigade was one of the rear guard units and among the last to leave the battlefield. Adjutant Frank Haskell of the Iron Brigade wrote home a few days later: "On the night of the Thirtieth after the battle the army fell back to Centreville and Gibbon's Brigade with Campbell's (formerly Gibbon's) Battery 'B' Fourth Artillery, was the reargurd of the whole army. This is no small honor, and you may set it down as a fact, the lying newspapers to the countrary notwithstanding."

The Iron Brigade in the Civil War and Memory

Why another book on the Iron Brigade? Because this is really the first book on this storied outfit—and it could not have been written without the lifetime of study undertaken. More than a standard military account, my latest book puts flesh and faces on the men who sat around the campfires, marched through mud and snow and dust, fought to put down the rebellion, and recorded much of what they did and witnessed for posterity.

The Iron Brigade is one of the most celebrated military organizations of the American Civil War. Although primarily known and studied because of its remarkable stand on the first bloody day at Gettysburg, its stellar service during the earliest days of the war and from the Wilderness to Appomattox has been routinely slighted. I have rectified this historical anomaly with his The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory. Composed originally of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery, the brigade first attracted attention as the only all-Western organization serving in the Eastern Theater. The Regular Army’s distinctive felt dress hat earned them the nickname “Black Hat Brigade.” The Westerners took part in the fighting at Gainesville (Brawner’s Farm), Second Bull Run, South Mountain (where General McClellan claimed he gave them their famous “Iron Brigade” moniker), and Antietam. Reinforced by the 24th Michigan, the Black Hats fought at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But it was at Gettysburg on July 1 where the brigade immortalized a railroad cut and helped save the high ground west of town that proved decisive, but was nearly destroyed for its brave stand. Reorganizations, expired enlistments, and different duties split up the famous outfit, but some of the regiments fought on through the Wilderness to Petersburg and finally, Appomattox. Only when the war was ended did the Western boys finally go home.

The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory is based on decades of archival research and includes scores of previously unpublished letters, photos, journals, and other primary accounts. This well researched and written tour de force, which includes reunion and memorial coverage until the final expiration of the last surviving member, will be the last word on the Iron Brigade for the foreseeable future.

When we were young, explained one Black Hat veteran many years after the war, we hardly realized that we “had fought on more fields of battle than the Old Guard of Napoleon, and have stood fire in far greater firmness.” Here, at long last, is the full story of how young farm boys, shopkeepers, river men, and piney camp boys in a brigade forged with iron helped save the Union.