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…