Battle of Gettysburg: Rufus Dawes at the Railroad Cut
On October 6, 2016, I listened to a story that moved me more than words can describe. The story featured the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes and the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Iron Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg. This fighting force was composed of 420 volunteers from the western frontier and had a reputation as one of the toughest regiments in the Union army.
A monument to the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment by the Railroad Cut in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
On July 1, 1863, the fighting on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was spiraling out of control. Dawes and his battle-hardened troops were joined by the 84th and 95th New York and led a counterattack against Confederate troops from the 2nd Mississippi, 42nd Mississippi, and 55th North Carolina. As the Rebel soldiers fell back, they took cover in a 600-foot railroad cut.
On July 1, 1863, rails had not been laid on the tracks of the cut, but the roadbed was finished. Confederate troops used this position as protection against the 6th Wisconsin and other Union troops.
Dawes’ men were outnumbered nearly 2-1, but furiously continued to push forward. Once the 6th Wisconsin was within 175 yards of the cut, it cost Dawes one man for every yard his regiment advanced. Lt. Colonel Dawes relied heavily on regimental flags to command his troops. This made whoever carried them an instant target of enemy fire. Dawes is believed to have lost 10 men carrying the colors in a matter of minutes.
Skip to 3:45 on the video above to hear about the importance of regimental flags in the attack on the railroad cut. (Video Credit: YouTube User - BattleAtGettysburg)
Once Dawes and his men reached the cut, Confederate troops found it almost impossible to return fire because of the steep sides of the embankment. Corporal Francis A. Waller of the 6th Wisconsin would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing the flag of the 2nd Mississippi. Hundreds of Rebel soldiers were either killed or wounded and close to 200 were taken prisoner.
Looking over the cut from the Reynolds Avenue Bridge in Gettysburg. Monuments to the 6th Wisconsin and 95th New York are visible in the distance.
The price for success at the railroad cut was high for Dawes. The 6th Wisconsin lost roughly half of their men in the assault. In his battle report, Dawes wrote, “The loss sustained by my command in this charge was not less than 160 men killed or wounded.” Dawes added later in his report, “I can only say that the men of the Sixth most nobly sustained their history in this desperate struggle.”
The left side of the 6th Wisconsin monument reads, "In the charge made on this R.R. cut the 2nd Miss. Regt. officers, men, and battle flag surrendered to the 6th. Wisc." The losses of the 6th Wisconsin are also included and recorded as 30 killed, 116 wounded, and 22 missing for a total of 168 casualties.
I created This Is Why We Stand the day after discovering the incredible story of Lt. Colonel Rufus Dawes and the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. I recently had the opportunity to visit the site in Gettysburg where Dawes and his men assaulted the railroad cut. Walking the same ground as these heroes and imagining what they went through is something that I will never forget.