Monday, December 2, 2013

A poem from the Iron Brigade

        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

A New Banner for the Black Hats

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

My, My...A FREE Copy of The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory

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.

Link to trailer on YouTube:


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

We knew that the rebs were scooped

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

To all appearances they saved the field

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.

A hard day for mothers

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

June 30 -- A day of reflection

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…

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Men of the Cloth in the Civil War

Religion in the army was largely a personal matter. Many soldiers carried their own bibles and religious objects. The more formal service was left to regimental chaplains, who usually received appointment by the unit commander on the vote of field officers and company commanders. Such chaplains had to be a regularly ordained minister of a Christian denomination and received the pay and allowances of a captain of cavalry. The chaplain’s main duties included overseeing the moral condition of the men in their regiments, conducting Sunday services, and assisting at the burial of soldiers. Conscientious chaplains also visited hospitals and guard houses and ministered to the individual needs of soldiers. Military officials made regular efforts to weed out the incompetent, but were often unsuccessful. The proportion of Catholic to Protestant chaplains was one to 20 although Catholic historians believe the ratio of their faith to Protestants in the Army was at least one in six. There was little friction between the Catholic and Protestant chaplains and most men of the cloth were regarded as sincere, hard-working religious men.   

Friday, June 7, 2013

Hardtack, Salted Pork and Soldier Food

Now I sit me in my seat,

And pray for something fit to eat.

If this damn stuff my stomach brake,

I pray that God my soul will take.


Oh, thou who blessed the loaves and fishes,

Look down upon these old tin dishes;

By thy great power those dishes smash,

Bless each of us and damn this hash.

            A Volunteer’s Prayer

           Rations for the soldiers had to be easily transported as well as resistant to spoilage. Fresh cuts of beef, soft bread and vegetables could be issued in established camps, but soldiers on the march existed on what they could carry in their haversack—coffee, salt, sugar, hard bread and salted beef or salted pork. Regulations called for a daily issue of 16 ounces of hardtack, 20 ounces of salt beef or 12 ounces of salt pork. The meat was packed in a brine solution sufficient to preserve it for two years.
           By late 1863, desiccated potatoes and desiccated vegetables, which were scalded and then pressed and dried into sheets, were issued as an antiscorbutic to prevent scurvy.  The soldiers in the Iron Brigade called them “desecrated vegetables” and generally did not eat them.
          Coffee, usually issued in bean form, was always popular and was pounded or crushed, then boiled in water in tin cups.
          Hardtack was a square biscuit made of salt, flour and water and then baked. It could be soaked in water and fried in the sizzling fat of the issue salt pork which was called “sowbelly” by the soldiers.
          Soldiers on both sides took to “foraging” to supplement their food rations. Orders generally prohibited the theft of private property in the form of pigs, chickens, corn and sweet potatoes.  A brigade commander requested his men not steal, but added, “Boys, do not go hungry,” which, one Black Hat private observed, “in war time means take what you want whenever you can get it.”
          One French officer with the Army of the Potomac in 1862 an estimated 2,000 wagons, drawn by some 12,000 animals, were necessary to feed an army of 100,000 men and 16,000 horses at only two days march from a base of operations.



Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Moses Ladd of the 21st Wisconsin

     One Badger soldier always catches my interest is Pvt. Moses Ladd of the 21st Wisconsin.
     He was was born June 28, 1828 in what is now Wisconsin. His mother was a Menominee and his father of Ojibwa/Ottawa mix. He married Mary Grignon sometime before the Civil War. She was the daughter of Charles Grignon, a well-known fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company. The Grignon family included the Langlade and Brunette families, all active in settling northeast Wisconsin.
     Ladd, despite his mixed Menominee/Ojibwa/Ottawa heritage, enlisted in the 21st Wisconsin Infantry in 1861. He suffered a minor wound at the battle of Perryville, Kentucky, where he was cited with saving the life of Jeremiah Reardon, who later became Manitowoc County Sheriff. Near the end of the war, he served as a chief scout for General William Sherman on the March to the Sea. Ladd mustered out with his regiment in 1865 and returned to the Poygan area.
     He was singled out by Sherman in 1880 when the general visited in the Winneconne and Oshkosh area. Seeing Ladd in the audience, Sherman stopped a speech to go over and greet him. He also offered Ladd a home in Washington. Ladd refused, however, saying he could not leave his hunting and fishing grounds. Sherman again stopped Ladd during the 1889 Reunion in Milwaukee telling him, “Moses, you are one of the best men I had.” Ladd died May 30, 1920 at the Soldiers Home in King, Wisconsin. He is buried in the 21st Wisconsin plot.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Western Style and Prairie Manners....

---From the La Crosse Democrat

Re-printed in the Prairie du Chien [Wisconsin] Courier, Thursday, June 17, 1864


Since the opening of the present war we have watched with the closest eye and careful scrutiny the conduct of our Northern troops. Before the May battles began, the Western men were more than in advance of those in the East, and the events of the present month have faded the laurels for the East and brightened those of the West till the latter are truly entitled to the proud title of American Heroes.
The battles fought lately in the West have been of terrific carnage. The victories Western men have successfully won have been at the bayonet point, after a display of courage and endurance like that of the ancient Romans who used the shield less for defense than to rest the heads of dying braves on. The troops under Grant - the divisions of Logan, Steele, Sherman, Quimby, McClernand, McArthur, and McPhereson in the late battles before Vicksburg have covered themselves with glory enough for a lifetime, no matter what reverses in the Providence of the war may overtake them in the future. Where death held highest revel - where the bursting shell - screaming rifle ball and howling rifled shot dealt destruction the brave troops of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas have with unfaltering firmness and unfinishing bravery beat back the pride of the rebel forces and made the rebel chivalry forces to acknowledge the superiority of Western pluck, muscle, bravery, and endurance.

When the full accounts of the battles of Jackson, Raymond, Edward's Depot, Big Black Bridge, Barker's Creek, Vicksburg and other fields are given, each one will be a chapter of bravery which will make Grant's army the envied of the war. All through this war, the entire record of Western troops is one of undaunted spirit. In defeat or victory they have never become demoralized, or given up in despair. Western men don't know the meaning of defeat. At Boonville, Carthage, Wilson's Creek, Springfield, Lexington, Frederickstown, New Madrid, Cape Giradeau [sic] - at Corinth, Fort Donelson, Columbus, Pea Ridge, Pittsburg Landing - at Boston Mountain, Fayetteville, Island No. 10, Bowling Green, Shiloh, and Murfreesboro our Western men have proved themselves.
While the West has fought to win, with a life, pluck and energy to make us feel more than proud, the armies of the East have become demoralized, politicalized and manipulated that no one dare bet on them for fighting. The retreats, flights and foot races in and out of Washington have caused us to lose much of the respect once felt for the eastern troops.
Had it not been for the Western troops, the forces on the Potomac, Rappahannock and about Washington would have been a mob long since. There is contagion in example. The pride of Western men has kept them from following the lead of Eastern army styles - we hope the pride of Eastern men will enable them to emulate the glorious example of Western soldiers from this time on. Hair-oiled Bostonians, black-coated New Yorkers and white-necktied Philadelphians may turn up their noses at the brusqueness of the Hoosiers, Badgers, Pukes, Buckeyes, &c, of the western prairies - they may laugh at western style and smile at prairie manners, but when it comes to making a country, to whipping rebels, or otherwise proving title to the name of MAN, the "uncouth" sons of the west take front seats.
(Thanks to my friend Mike Thorson)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

How the Minie-ball changed war in 1861-1865

I used to spend a good amount of time on the firing line with the North-South Skirmish Association shooting Civil War era weapons in marksmanship competitions. Along the way I picked up some thoughts on whether the new so-called “Minie-ball” (my friend Phil Spaugy would say “Burton bullet”) of the Civil War era changed the war.

Technology had stepped ahead of the tactics and experience in the 1861-65 and the officers of both sides—trained in the linear infantry movements of Napoleon—were slow to catch up. The foremost innovation was the new "rifle-musket “which became standard for both armies. Rifles had long been used in war, but they were slow to load and the basic infantry firearm until the mid 19th century was the muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. The smoothbore was quick to load, but its effective range was limited.

The new .58-caliber "rifle-musket" (with the length of a musket and the rifling of the rifle) was adopted for U.S. service in 1855, just six years before the start of the Civil War. It was still a muzzle-loader, but had grooves in the barrel to spin and stabilize a new hollow-based bullet the soldiers called the "Minie-ball" and it produced surprising accuracy and velocity. Accepted tactics of the day, however, were based on massed formations that could deliver dense swarms of bullets. The training was designed to bring soldiers quickly and in good order to a place where they could fire. The regiments fought with companies abreast, forming a long, double rank of men.

It all was based on the accepted theory a regiment was able to advance within 100 yards of an enemy position without taking significant causalities (given the limited range of smoothbores), then make the quick dash to close with bayonets. The emphasis in the volunteer camps was on marching in well-closed, disciplined formation; bayonet drill, and instruction for the individual soldier in loading quickly and firing on command. Marksmanship training was limited.

While the new rifle-musket made much of such training obsolete, it would be easy to overstate the importance of improved accuracy and point to it as the reason for the terrible casualty rates of 1861-65. The technology did not increase the rate of fire by individual soldiers (about two or three shots per minute) and, in fact, there was a drawback. If a soldier under ideal conditions was able to hit a man-sized target at 500 yards, the lobbing arc of the "minnie-ball" (as it was called by the soldiers) was about 12 feet above the point of aim at mid-range—causing infantrymen to over or under shoot at the longer distances. Even clear-eyed marksmen would find it difficult to consistently strike a moving line of infantry at distances of more than 300 yards.

The tragic significance of the rifle-musket and Minie-ball came at ranges less than 200 yards—it was there massed fire knocked apart battle lines with brutal efficiency. The point-blank killing range became 150 yards (not 50 yards) and all the previous experience of officers and the training of soldiers involved the short effective range of the smoothbores.
Other observations can be made on the subject, but let those bide for another time.