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The Iron Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg


On the morning of July 1, 1863, the Iron Brigade of the West marched towards the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Distinguished by their tall black felt hats, the Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan soldiers of the Iron Brigade were some of the stoutest fighters in the Army of the Potomac. Everyone who saw these Western troops in action knew that they were a force to be reckoned with. After watching them fight at South Mountain, General George B. McClellan claims that he professed that these Westerners “must be made of iron!” No matter what problems befell the Army of the Potomac as the war progressed, the reputation of the Iron Brigade was never in doubt. The Battle of Gettysburg was the Iron Brigade’s finest hour, and for far too many Westerners, it was also tragically their final hour.

Composed of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan, the Iron Brigade was the First Brigade of the First Division of the First Army Corps. The brigade carried 1,883 men into battle on July 1, and as always, they were ready to fight. “Forward men!” General John Reynolds shouted to the Black Hats. “Forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of those woods!” Reynolds was killed moments after urging the Iron Brigade to attack, but the Westerners did not let his final orders go unanswered. After Confederate troops seemed to be pressing their advantage, progress came much slower as heavy lines of Union infantry started to appear. “There are them damned black hatted fellows again,” one rebel called out. Another Confederate shouted, “Hell! Those are the big hat devils of the Army of the Potomac!” The Black Hats were on the field and in a firefight; these were the types of soldiers that you wanted in your ranks.

“Iron Brigade” – painting by Don Troiani showing the 24th Michigan in action at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. (Photo: Michigan Radio)

Lieutenant Colonel Rufus R. Dawes led the 6th Wisconsin against rebels who took cover in an unfinished railroad cut. Dawes described that during the chaotic fight, “Men [were] 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.” Like Dawes’ 6th Wisconsin, the other four regiments of the Iron Brigade also faced a relentless fight and suffered heavy casualties. Of the 1,883 Westerners who entered battle on July 1, only 671 were reported in the ranks by the end of the day, a percentage loss of 64.3. While the first day’s fighting ended in defeat for the Union, there would not have been a prolonged battle at Gettysburg had it not been for the vigorous delaying actions waged by the Iron Brigade. The Black Hats fought with a fierceness that allowed the rest of the army to retire to better ground, a move that contributed to the Army of the Potomac’s eventual victory on July 3.

The regiments of the Iron Brigade fought on in 1864 and 1865, but were never the same after suffering such heavy losses at Gettysburg. Long after the battle, Rufus Dawes would write, “Where has the firmness of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg been surpassed in history?” The examples are few and far between. Until their final days, the survivors of the Iron Brigade of the West were convinced that no unit performed better service at Gettysburg than theirs. The world will never forget the fighting spirit of the 1,883 Westerners who entered battle on July 1, 1863. They were truly made of iron.

Wisconsin soldiers of the Iron Brigade. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Sources

Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.

Those Damned Black Hats!: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign by Lance J. Herdegen.

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