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....