The Civil War Trust announced recently it is purchasing a parcel of land at Gettysburg by where units of the Iron Brigade made their last stand the afternoon of July 1, 1863. Long attached to the unit, Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery was formed by half battery on both sides of the railroad cut closest to the present day motel and abreast of what is known as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. The right half battery under Lieutenant James Stewart was on the north side of the cut, slightly forward and facing west. The left half battery, under Lieutenant James Davidson, was in open order along the space between the turnpike and the railroad and faced southwest. In a small grove to the north were the 11th Pennsylvania and the 6th Wisconsin. The Wisconsin regiment was detached from its famous brigade for a successful attack against the railroad cut.
The heavy brass Napoleons were firing with a fury late the afternoon of July 1 when heavy lines of Confederates began to close on the town. “Feed it to ‘em! God damn ‘em, feed it to ‘em,” Davidson was yelling in the smoke and confusion. Each of the heavy guns quickly fired savage blasts of double-canister that staggered the advancing Confederates. “Up and down the line men were reeling and falling,” one battery man wrote later of Gettysburg. “Splinters were flying from wheels and axles where bullets hit," said one gunner. "In the rear, horses were rearing and plunging, mad with wounds or terror, shells were bursting, shot shrieking over, howling about our ears or throwing up great clouds of dust where they hit; the musketry crashing on three sides of us; bullets hissing everywhere, cannon roaring, all crash on crash and peal on peal, smoke, dust, splinters, blood, wreck and carnage indescribable; but the brass guns of old B still bellowed and not a man or boy flinched or faltered.”
The Confederate line came on under the storm of canister, “creeping toward” the battery “fairly fringed with flame.” The soldiers of the 6thWisconsin and 11th
crawled up over the bank of the railroad cut in rear of the caissons and added
their musketry to the canister. Lieutenant Davidson was twice wounded and was
so weak one of the men held up him. He could not stand because one ankle was
shattered. The rebels fired volley after volley into the battery hitting men
and horses. Finally Davidson was unable to stay in command and Sergeant John
Mitchell took over the half battery. The water in the buckets used for sponging
was “like ink,” one gunner remembered, saying a comrade nearby was smeared with
burnt powder and “looked like a demon from below.” North of the railroad cut, the three guns of
the other half battery under Stewart “flashed the chain-lightning…in one solid
Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin stood amid the guns watching the fighting. When the Confederates slowed under the canister and musketry, one of his infantrymen jumped forward, waving a fist, and calling over and over again, “Come on, Johnny! Come on!” It was going to be very close. Finally the order came from the rear to retreat. One Badger remembered how the Wisconsin men turned and poured in a volley to the Confederates who were so close “that we could hear them yelling at us to halt and surrender.”
The orders were to retreat beyond the town and “hold your men together.” Dawes said he was astonished as the cheers of defiance along the line by the Lutheran Seminary buildings “had scarcely died away.” But a glance to the right and rear was sufficient: “There the troops of the eleventh corps appeared in full retreat and long lines of Confederates, with fluttering banners and shining steel were sweeping forward in pursuit of them without let or hindrance. It was a close race which could reach
first, ourselves, or the rebel troops….” The officer wrote later that his
regiment marched away with flag high and a steady step. One of his soldiers in
the big hats said the order was more direct—run for it. “We obeyed this
literally, and how we did run! As we came out of the smoke of the battle what a
sight burst upon our gaze! On every side our troops were madly rushing to the
rear. We were flanked on the right and on the left. We were overwhelmed by
numbers. My heart sank within me. I lost all hope.” Gettysburg
With his infantry supports retreating, Stewart of Battery B also gave the order to limber up. The left half battery withdrew along the Chambersburg Pike with the enemy within 50 yards, losing more men and horses. Stewart had to move his three guns across the railroad cut. When his three guns were clear, he rode back to check on the left half battery and found it gone and the place full of rebels. They called on him to surrender and fired, but Stewart jumped his horse over a fence and suffered only two bullet holes in his blouse. Stewart said the 6thWisconsin and his battery were the last to leave the field.
To the south, just before the line gave way, the fighting at a make-shift barricade in front of the buildings of the Lutheran Seminary was furious. It was there the other regiments of the brigade—2nd and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan—stayed until the end. But despite defiance in the face of defeat, the famous Iron Brigade of the West, which marched to the fighting with such a confident step at mid-morning on July 1, 1863, was wrecked.
It is fitting that that small parcel of land is finally being conserved by the Civil War Trust. The soldiers who fought there so long ago have made it a hallowed place. The modern buildings will soon be removed and the land made to look as it did more than a century and a half ago. Perhaps, in the near future, when a visitor goes there, they will still be able to catch the distant voices of the past, especially a soldier in a battered black hat calling out, “Come on, Johnnie! Come on!”