Among the first units of the Army of the Potomac to pass into Pennsylvania on June 30th, 1863, the Iron Brigade enjoyed the cheering crowds and free food from grateful civilians that Robert E. Lee’s “Army of Liberation” had been expecting but never saw. The men that made up the Brigade — of the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan — spent the night camped where Marsh Creek crosses the Emmitsburg Road (this area today is a non-descript dip in Highway 15, but if you know what to look for, you can find it). Members of the 19th Indiana pulled picket duty on the northern border of the camp, and found themselves the very tip of the spear of the Union Army, the furthest north and closest to the enemy. A few of the men on picket duty noticed a prominent hill in the distance that passing locals identified as Big Round Top, just outside of the town of Gettysburg.
The men had been told by those in charge that there were no Confederates about, and not to expect action on July 1st, but a detachment of John Buford’s cavalry passed through the camp late on the 30th and the horsemen spoke of going to greet some enemy infantry just down the road. Elements of Buford’s cavalry had fought with the brigade throughout the past year, and the Iron Brigade soldiers trusted their take on events more than any general’s. The troopers rode Continue Reading »
June 1863 saw messages and telegraph traffic explode to new levels as the North and the Army of the Potomac anticipated General Lee’s next move. Many expected Lee, fresh from victory at Chancellorsville, to go on the offensive. The North, wounds still knitting from that battle, reorganized and prepared to match Lee’s movements. Many enlistments in the Army of the Potomac had expired on June 1st, and many one year and ninety-day men went home. The draw down in man power and influx of new units saw the Iron Brigade re-designated as the First Brigade of the First Division of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. They would now be first on paper, as well as first on the field, in the coming campaign.
The men of the Iron Brigade knew nothing of General Lee’s plans, and continued to rotate on and off of picket duty. Continue Reading »
The spring of 1863 came to an Army of the Potomac in the midst of change. After taking command from General Burnside in late January, “Fighting Joe” Hooker spent the early days of the year rebuilding the army, both physically and mentally. Meals were improved, with more fresh food brought in daily. The paymasters got everyone up to date on their pay, removing the burden of worrying about providing financially for those back home.
A new furlough system lessened desertions. Soldiers were granted extended leave to visit home, some for the first time since they’d enlisted more than two years prior. And as the furlough system lessened the number of men deserting, those that had already run were welcomed back. The last three weeks of March 1863 Continue Reading »
January 1863 saw the 19th Indiana and the Iron Brigade in winter quarters, camped at Bella Plain, VA, on Potomac Creek. Still smarting from the defeat at Fredericksburg, many referred to the winter of 1862-1863 as “the Valley Forge of the Army of the Potomac”. The soldiers built wooden cabins that they fitted with fireplaces and covered with their field tents, then settled in for several months of inaction.
With little to do, talk among the soldiers turned to the recent Emancipation Proclamation. Most were against it, in the respect that they thought it changed the course of the fight. A Captain of the 19th wrote “I dont want to fight to free the Darkeys. If any body else wants to do so, they are welcome to come and do so.”(sic) The near-general consensus throughout the unit and most of the army was that they had signed up to restore and preserve the Union, not free slaves. Obviously little thought was given to the main reason that had caused the war and brought them to that place. Still, others welcomed the proclamation and couldn’t wait to get freedmen Continue Reading »
After the Battle of Antietam, the Union Army took time to lick its wounds. President Lincoln and many in the Washington command structure champed at the bit and wanted McClellan and the army in pursuit of the Confederates to follow up on the victory. McClellan, though, stood by his decision to rest his battered forces and regroup.
The men of the 19th Indiana and the Iron Brigade rejoiced at the break. They’d been roughly handled in their first three battles, and their numbers depleted drastically. Immediately after the battle the unit camped on the battlefield near the Dunker Church, their objective the morning of the battle. As the fortunate began to trickle in from the hospital, the survivors walked the fields, burying the dead men and feeding huge bonfires to burn the dead horses and mules; inky black smoke towered skywards for weeks afterwards while Gardner’s photographers walked the battlefield and photographed the carnage.
As they sat in camp, Continue Reading »
Wars are about attrition. They start out with patriotic slogans, promises to protect those who can’t protect themselves, or the notion of righting horrific wrongs, but the series of battles themselves come down to attrition: each side kills as many of the other side until one has lost too many lives or they’ve expended all of their resources in the contest, and they then surrender. That’s it, and it’s rarely more evident than in the Civil War (although World War I has my vote for the most effective campaign to thin humanity’s population), and there’s no greater monument to the loss of life in the Civil War than the Battle of Antietam.
Following the Battle of South Mountain, Union General McClellan had the Confederate armies on the run. Continue Reading »
The Battle of South Mountain is obscured and ignored by history, so much so that it’s difficult to write about it. The reason to bring it up in discussion of the Iron Brigade is that they earned their permanent moniker during the battle. While that happened, men fought there, died there. No small skirmish — large portions of both the Union and Confederate armies engaged throughout the day of September 14th in and around the three mountain passes named Fox’s, Crampton’s and Turner’s gap – the battle claimed over 2300 Union and 2600 Confederate casualties.
Unlike Brawner’s Farm, Antietam, or Gettysburg, Continue Reading »
Yesterday evening, August 28th, I sat on our deck in Hoboken, New Jersey, right before sunset. I watched the sun sink below the horizon and thought about what was kicking off down in Virginia, 150 years ago. The battle at Brawner Farm began just before sunset, at about 6 p.m. in 1862, but now with time zones and other factors, it was nearly 8 p.m. here by the time the sky had turned to a gradient of orange upwards to dark blue, and everyday objects replaced their hard lines with shadows.
Brawner Farm was the first battle for the Union unit known as The Iron Brigade, a unit I’ve developed a particular fondness for. They didn’t have that name 150 years ago at Brawner Farm, though, not yet. They’d earn that at the battle of South Mountain in less than a month. On August 28th, they were known as the Black Hats. The unit was made up of entirely “western” soldiers, men from Wisconsin and Indiana; the only brigade in the eastern theater to be made up so. In order to further distinguish them, their commander John Gibbon outfit them in the regular army uniform of tall black hats, long blue frock coats, and even dress leggings. Imagine going into battle wearing that.
The unit was formed in late 1861, Continue Reading »
Besides visiting the NASM while in D.C. this past weekend, I also spent more than my fair share of time out at the Manassas National Battlefield Park. It’s a beautiful woodland area now smack dab in the middle of urban sprawl. I have to admit to not knowing a lot about most of the first battle of Bull Run, and I have only studied about one aspect of the Second Battle.
My area of interest is Brawner’s Farm, where the Iron Brigade first saw combat as a unit on August 28th, 1862. The farm remained in private hands after the war and up until the late 20th century. It’s still a relatively unknown part of the park, as the National Parks Service is still restoring the site and mentions it only in passing in the park literature. It took me a while to find the place amidst terrific thunderstorms that moved through the Washington area on May 29th, but find it I did, at last, and during a 15 minute break in the weather I was able to walk the field completely alone.
The photos are random shots from the Henry Hill area of the First Bull Run area of the battlefield, and the shots of the white two-story house are the Brawner farmhouse.
This past week I returned to Gettysburg and spent four days there and at Antietam taking tours, talking to historians, guides and rangers, and doing general research. I stayed at my usual hotel on the site of General Lee’s headquarters during the battle. Its proximity to the first day’s field on the west of town is very convenient since that’s the focus of my research. To be within walking distance on a battlefield that is approximately 25 square miles is a huge bonus. This was my first real summer visit to the area, and I highly recommend it even though it was hot and humid. The various summer programs going on throughout Gettysburg will keep anyone busy. I was there four days and there were at least another four days worth of activities I wish I could have stayed around for. The tour guides and rangers were of great help while I was there, especially Joanne Lewis, who came in on her day off to give me a tour of the Gettysburg Day 1 field, Gerry Eak, who gave me a great tour of the town of Gettysburg itself, and Mannie Gentile, who gives a wonderful no-nonsense tour of the Antietam field.
I’ve posted some photos here. Yeah, more sunset photos. No matter where I go in the world it seems my camera ends up focusing on sunsets and clouds.