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....