Roadside History, The Iron Brigade

Roadside historical markers are often interesting.

For example, while wandering around in North Dakota and Northwest Minnesota last fall, I found several rest area signs documenting the various trails and canoe routes used by 18th and 19th century fur trappers. Apparently it was desirable to trade your furs outside the territory controlled by the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company. The route south through Minnesota to the Mississippi river was an alternative.

Over in Wisconsin, an ‘Iron Brigade’ rest area sign caught my eye. I’d only dabbled a bit in Civil War history, and never from the point of view of my home states, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The rest area sign sent me down a rabbit hole – reading up on the contributions to the Civil War by the ‘Western Brigades’ of my home states.

It turns out that regiments from both states played significantly in the eventual Union victory over the insurrectionist Confederates. The open-field charge into the advancing Confederates by the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg is legendary, as is the performance of the Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan regiments of the ‘Iron Brigade’ during the first few years of the war.

1st Minnesota

The 1st Minnesota’s most famous action was when two-hundred sixty-two soldiers of the regiment were ordered to charge into a 1200-strong rebel line that was advancing in the open towards the shattered Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The charge of the 1st disrupted the rebel’s attempt to break the Union lines, buying Hancock a precious few minutes in which to organize a defense. Their selfless action against the rebel advance likely saved the Union from defeat the second day at Gettysburg. Nothing comes free of course – in five minutes, all but forty-seven of the two-hundred sixty-two that charged the rebel line were dead or wounded. They knew that when they formed up and double-timed directly into the guns of the Confederate line, they likely would not survive. Yet when ordered to face death, they did not hesitate.

The 1st Minnesota followed up that performance the next day by defending the ridge against Pickett’s charge, where they charged into Confederate lines, fought hand-to-hand, and captured the regimental flag of the 28th Virginia.

Note that if one wanted to view the 28th Virginia battle flag, you’d find it in Minnesota, not Virginia. 👍

The Iron Brigade

The Iron Brigade’s story stretches over several years of the war. Originally made up of volunteers from Wisconsin & Indiana (and later Michigan), the brigade served with distinction at many of the major battles fought by the Army of the Potomac in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The ‘Iron Brigade’ nickname was a result of the well-earned reputation for holding steady when under attack and fearlessly advancing in the face of withering fire. Few units were as solid and reliable under fire as the Iron Brigade.

From the jacket of Lance Herdegen’s 2012 book on the Iron Brigade:

Composed originally of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery, the brigade first attracted attention as the only all-Western organization serving in the Eastern Theater. The Regular Army’s distinctive felt dress hat earned them the nickname “Black Hat Brigade.” The Westerners took part in the fighting at Gainesville (Brawner’s Farm), Second Bull Run, South Mountain (where General McClellan claimed he gave them their famous “Iron Brigade” moniker), and Antietam. Reinforced by the 24th Michigan, the Black Hats fought at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But it was at Gettysburg on July 1 where the brigade immortalized a railroad cut and helped save the high ground west of town that proved decisive, but was nearly destroyed for its brave stand. … Only when the war was ended did the Western boys finally go home.

The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter
by Lance Herdegen

Quite the record.

I think that the story of the 6th Wisconsin at the railway cut on day one of Gettysburg is as good of description as any of the heroism of the soldiers of the Iron Brigade – and the brutality of the wars that we humans insist on fighting.

The Wisconsin line lurched toward the railroad cut with Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes shouting “Forward! Forward charge! Align on the Colors! Align on the Colors!” … The firing from the railroad cut was “fearful” and “destructive,” … crashing “with an unbroken roar before us. Men are being shot by twenties and thirties and breaking ranks by falling or running. But the boys … crowded in right and left toward the colors and went forward.”

… the “fire was the worst ever experienced, yet not a man failed to move promptly forward and closed in to the right as the men fell before the murderous fire of the rebels in the railroad cut.” … the opposing lines crashed together in a cacophony of screaming humanity near a Confederate flag fluttering on the edge of the depression, the historic encounter punctuated by a tangle of bayonets, musket butts, fists, and other implements of war.

… Along the edge of the railroad cut, the Wisconsin men pushed musket barrels into the upraised faces of hundreds of Confederates who now fully realized they were trapped in the deep portion of the long gouge. “Throw down your muskets! Down with your muskets!” the soldiers in big hats shouted over and over. “The men are black and grimy with powder and heat,” recalled one Wisconsin officer. “They seemed all unconscious to the terrible situation; they were mad and fought with a desperation seldom witnessed.”

The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter
by Lance Herdegen

For those who go out of your express how offended you were for having suffered the inconvenience of wearing a mask and for those who are proud and smug over defying such a trivial request, I suggest reading the stories of the volunteers of the First Minnesota Volunteers, the 6th Wisconsin, or any of the many, many stories of soldiers who fought in the Civil War and those since, charging into certain death without complaint or hesitation.

For perspective.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s