Though the Iron Brigade of the West was worn down and shot up by 1864, its soldiers were not about to shirk their duty.
Dawn came gray and damp to the Army of the Potomac camps at Culpeper,Virginia, on March 29,1864. A 6-inch snowfall of two days earlier was still slushy on the muddy ground. Along a railroad track a mile south of the town, small regiments in blue formed lines in a cold drizzle—the Army of the Potomac was waiting for a review by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.
One of the officers shivering in the rain was Lt.Col.Rufus Dawes of the 6thWisconsin Veteran Volunteer Infantry.His regiment was part of the famous Iron Brigade of the West,the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin,24th Michigan and 19th Indiana,which had earned a reputation for stout fighting at Antietam and Gettysburg. In 1862 and 1863, the brigade had been the pride of the I Corps of the Army of the Potomac,easily recognized by the tall black felt Model 1858 dress hats the men wore instead of the slouchy forage caps worn by most Federals.
By 1864,however,the once stalwart old I Corps was no longer.So many of its units, including the Iron Brigade,had been worn out and shot up that the corps had been dismantled over the winter of 1863-64 and merged into theVCorps.It was a bitter disappointment to the Iron Brigaders who were with the old corps when it was organized by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in the Washington,D.C.,camps of 1861. The only bright spot was the order allowing them to retain and wear the red woolen circular badges marking the 1st Division of the I Corps instead of the Maltese cross of the V Corps.Those badges had been a great source of pride to the men from the West.
Corps badges couldn’t keep them dry as the Iron Brigaders stood in the rain,disgustedly waiting for their new commanding general.To add to their sullen mood,twice before they had readied for review by Grant,but the general had failed to appear.
Grant and his escort finally did arrive, two hours late.The party passed slowly along the line. Like McClellan, Grant received loud cheers,but unlike his predecessor, he did not seem to notice them. He rode along in “a slouchy unobservant way,” one soldier said,“with his coat unbuttoned and setting anything but an example of military bearing to the troops.” Another thought “Old Grant”not “so hard-looking a man as his photographs make him out to be, but stumpy, unmilitary, slouchy and Western-looking; very ordinary in fact.” Dawes’impression was more favorable:“He looks like a plain common sense man,one not to be puffed up by his position nor abashed by obstacles.”
But the 25-year-old Dawes,who had battled under various commanders at places such as the Cornfield at Antietam and a railroad cut at Gettysburg on July 1, was provoked by Grant’s offhand manner.There were,he admitted later,mixed emotions because the government had turned to a general who was not from the Army of the Potomac for the final push to end the war.Some soldiers welcomed the appointment because they hoped and believed fighting under Grant would end the war.Others were fearful because Grant never had confronted Robert E.Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on a battlefield. Dawes wasn’t sure what to think of the new man. He turned to face his regiment and said:“As General Grant does not seem to think our cheering worth notice, I will not call for cheers. Maintain your position as soldiers.”
When Grant reached the 6th Wisconsin, he was met with the required military salutes performed with exact precision,the hardened veterans standing as motionless as statues.The silence caught Grant’s attention more completely than the most thunderous of cheers.The lieutenant general halted, his gaze taking in the veterans of so many hard fights. Grant had never commanded these men in battle,their glory days had occurred when he was west of the Mississippi River.Nonetheless,the black hats’fighting prowess was well-known to Grant,and impressed with their reputation and soldierly bearing,the general decided they deserved additional recognition.
Grant took off his hat and made a low bow to the brigade. Regimental colors dipped in return salutes. Dawes said his Westerners understood the gesture immediately.“It was to say,‘I did not come here for a personal ovation.’ It was a genuine Grantism and our men were highly pleased at it.”“Grant wants soldiers, not yaupers,” Dawes’ soldiers told one another.
The story of the Iron Brigade of the West began in 1861,when the 2nd,6th,7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana were brigaded together while camped near Washington.The regiments comprised the only all-Western brigade in the Eastern armies.“We felt we were the test of the West,”one private said. But for almost a year, officers and privates alike worried the war would be over before they could play a role.Of the four regiments, only the 2nd Wisconsin had seen action in the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run.
When the fighting did come in August 1862, it was almost more than the brigade could handle.The Westerners fought in four battles in less than three weeks—Gainesville or Brawner’s Farm, Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Antietam. It was during those weeks they became known as the Iron Brigade.
Private Jerome Watrous of the 6th Wisconsin said the name was first publicly attached to the brigade after the September 14 fighting at South Mountain, Md., by a newspaper correspondent who was at McClellan’s headquarters. “The last terrible battle has reduced this brigade to a mere skeleton; there being scarcely enough members to form half a regiment,” the reporter wrote in a dispatch printed September 22.“The 2nd Wisconsin, which but a few weeks since numbered over nine hundred men, can now muster but fifty nine. This brigade has done some of the hardest and best fighting in the service.It has been justly termed the Iron Brigade of the West.”
New Yorker soldiers claimed the name was stolen from them and that the original Iron Brigade was the 22nd, 24th and 30th New York regiments and 14th Brooklyn.“I do not know that I can blame those western kids for taking up our name after we mustered out; but they should have added Jr.Making it the ‘Iron Brigade,jr.,’”said one New Yorker.
An officer in the 24th New York said in a letter the name was attached to his brigade after a march that covered 50 miles in two days: “Sixteen miles a day is considered good march, so you can see why we are sometimes called the ‘Cast Iron Brigade.’”
The Wisconsin and Indiana men always believed there was no confusion, and it was their regiments that McClellan singled out as the Iron Brigade after the fighting at South Mountain. They were always careful to include a reference to their Western roots when using the name and noting it was won not by long marches, but by hard fighting.
Soon after South Mountain and Antietam, other soldiers began talking about a brigade of iron men from the frontier. But the reputation came at terrible cost.“By gaining this name, we have lost from the brigade seventeen hundred and fifty men,” a 7th Wisconsin man wrote home. “We have never turned our backs to enemy in any engagement, although they have outnumbered us every fight we have had.”
Joined after Antietam by the 24th Michigan,the brigade was engaged at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and won everlasting laurels for its defensive stand at Gettysburg. But the heavy fighting in Pennsylvania, where the brigade lost 1,212 killed, wounded missing,or 65 percent of the 1,883 engaged,all but destroyed the five regiments. In many ways they never recovered.
The first sign of change came two weeks after Gettysburg.In complete disregard for tradition and morale, the 167th Pennsylvania was added to the brigade.The Pennsylvania unit had 800 men,more than all the survivors of the five original regiments,and had seen no serious fighting.But what most angered the veterans from Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan was the simple fact the new arrivals were ninemonth men and draftees.The Pennsylvanians were also sulky and mutinous because they believed their nine months had expired and they were entitled to go home. The first “little difficulty” with the new regiment,as a 7th Wisconsin man wrote in his diary,came on July 30,when the Pennsylvanians refused to go on guard duty and only did so after two or three of the mutineers were arrested.Two days later the drafted men refused to march.
The commander of the brigade was Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler, a former colonel of the 6th Wisconsin and a grim and serious New Englander with little patience. Cutler ordered the rest of the brigade to fall in with loaded weapons.The draftees were told they had five minutes to fall in and take arms.The 2nd and 6th halted in front of the Keystoners and took aim.That did it.The 167th fell in at the double quick.Within a short time,the regiment was transferred out of the brigade. “The brass band belonging to the Iron Brigade serenaded them part way to the R.R.,” wrote a Midwesterner in his diary on August 5.
The return to an all-Western status lasted only a few days until the four companies of the 1st Battalion New York Sharpshooters were added to the brigade.The New Yorkers were three-year men and would stay with the brigade for most of 1864.As veterans they were generally welcomed, but the old Iron Brigade was not the same.No longer would the brigade be the deciding force in battle, and the men in ranks were beginning to realize that perhaps the Iron Brigade’s greatest days of service were behind it. Only several hundred remained of the 5,000 volunteers who had left Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan to save the Union.
That they were there at all in 1864 came down to the confusing and sometimes vexing veteran question—whether the boys who enlisted in 1861 were willing to stay to see the war to its conclusion.Many of the volunteer regiments were reaching the end of their three-year enlistments just at a time when victory seemed a possibility.An order had been published June 25, 1863, giving authority for veteran reenlistments of “all able bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years,who have heretofore enlisted and have served not less than nine months.” If three-fourths of the men on the roster of a volunteer unit would reenlist, the order said, then each soldier would receive a $402 bounty paid in installments (this at a time when privates collected $13 a month) and a 30-day furlough—the “veteran volunteers” to be sent home as a regiment to enjoy it.
The order caused a great stir. Many of the soldiers argued that the war probably could be brought to a successful conclusion within the year, and reenlistment would allow them to “share the glory of a continuous service to the end of the war.” It was the furlough that was a most “tempting bait,”but there were other matters just as important.“Down in the hearts of the men there was the manhood of patriotism,” one Iron Brigade veteran remembered,“the feeling that the country needed them, and that they would not be contented at home while armies were contending.”
The quandary was outlined in the diary of Charles Walker of the 7th Wisconsin:
October 5,1863:There is quite an excitement in camp about going into the Veterans’Corps. The 19th Ind. took a vote on it tonight and they were all for it to a man.
October 6,1863:Went over to the Co.And put my name down for to go into the Veterans’ Corps.The boys are all going to a man….A lot of conscripts came in for the 2nd Brigade.
December 18, 1863:Very wet and sloppy underfoot. No inspection, but at noon we fell in without arms…to find out how many were willing to go into the Veteran Corps and go home on a 30 day furlough….
Dec. 31, 1863:Was mustered in to serve 3 years longer.
January 1,1864:Signed the payroll and got my pay amounting to $194.50.
While a financial boon for some, the veteran question ended forever the associations begun in 1861.The 7th Wisconsin, with 249 on the rolls,enlisted 211 as veterans. The 6th Wisconsin, with 290 men, veteranized 227.The 2nd Wisconsin was used up and mustered only 40, with the remaining 170 to be sent home in June 1864 at the end of their three-year enlistment. The 19th Indiana reenlisted 213 men—but was somehow ruled short of the goal. The 24th Michigan’s three-year enlistment ran until 1865. Rufus Dawes wrote home the last day of 1863: “The men, who have stood by the old flag through fair and foul weather, and through many bloody battles,almost to a man dedicated their lives and services anew to their country.”
The month at home on veteran furlough the early weeks of 1864 was always remembered with fondness.Many of the soldiers of the 6th and 7th Wisconsin had not been home in almost three years,and the 30 days seemed to pass with great speed.One newspaper reported the furlough had gotten the men looking “rugged and hearty.”Another announced that the veterans had monopolized all the “horses,cutters,sleighs and young lady’s to be found in the vicinity” and noted that Lieutenant William S. Campbell was wed to Millie Pixley in Portage City.
When the veterans returned,they found a flood of conscripts reaching the Army to be placed in the old regiments.There were a few volunteers, but most arrivals were drafted men or those who accepted bounties to join the Army.The tough veterans of the bloody fields of Antietam and Gettysburg were troubled by the new men— “cattle,” one soldier called them—and understood that safety in battle was best had by “steadiness,persistence in firing,and most of all by holding together.” Substitutes and drafted men, they said, weakened every battle line into which they were forced.“No man can fight when surrounded by cowards who are easily panic stricken,and who are unrestrained by any consideration of pride from ignominiously running away to save their lives,” one veteran said.
It was the bounty men who were most suspected and despised.The drafted men were given a grim acceptance by the veterans as fellows who just had bad luck to be conscripted, but were there doing their duty.Also among the new arrivals from Wisconsin were members of Indian tribes previously barred from service. Dawes wrote home that thousands of soldiers from other regiments gathered in wonder on the eve of the Battle of the Wilderness to watch a “war dance” by the rookie Ojibwas serving in the 7th Wisconsin.
The regiments were now inflated in numbers by the arrivals,but the new men were a different breed from the “enthusiastic and eager volunteers”of 1861. No longer were the companies made up of hometown boys. Strangers now served together in the same company.
There were also changes among the brigade’s officer corps, as the noncommissioned officers of 1861 traded in their stripes for the shoulder straps and additional responsibilities of commissioned leaders.The veterans, distrusting the new men, kept to themselves in small messes even as the companies and regiments readied for the campaign of 1864.
On May 5, the Army of the Potomac was plunged into what Dawes called that “strange and terrible struggle”of the Battle of the Wilderness.The brigade advanced in heavy woods with 344 men and 23 officers but lost its way in the dense underbrush and was struck on the flank and tumbled backward.As Dawes described:
I ordered a change of front on the color company to bring the regiment to face them.We here lost 40 to 50 men in a very few moments. The brush now served us well.The rebels came on yelling and firing.Our little band,as always under fire, clung around its colors.We rallied and formed twice or three times and gave the enemy a hot reception as they came on. When the rebels ceased pursuing us,we found ourselves alone as a regiment and lost in the woods,and we lay flat on the ground, not knowing certainly which way to go to join our troops….We were in the woods between the hostile lines and we felt our way cautiously back to the open ground around the Lacy House, where our corps was being formed after this repulse.
The fighting then moved to Laurel Hill and on to Spotsylvania Court House.The brigade was held in reserve and then moved forward in a driving rainstorm to within shooting distance of the Bloody Angle. “We formed our line in the rear of the troops engaged and our orders were to move forward to their support,” said Dawes of his 6th Wisconsin. He went on:
The mud was half boot-top-deep and filled with the dead of the battle over whom we stumbled in the darkness.At 100 feet,the line stalled,unable to advance….Sometime in the night I suspected the enemies were retreating. I then ceased firing and my exhausted men lay down as best they could and some laid their heads upon the dead and fell asleep.The rebel works presented an awful spectacle…crowded with dead and wounded, lying in some cases upon each other and several inches of mud and water.
The armies slid east and south to the North Anna River, where fighting raged for an hour with great fury. “We came near being driven into the river, but the enemy has lost vigor in attack.Their men are getting so they will not fight except in rifle pits,” a Wisconsin soldier wrote home.Dawes,in a letter written May 25, 1864, reported:“I have had not a full night’s sleep since May 7th when I took command of the regiment. Day after day, and night after night we have marched fought and dug entrenchments. I have not changed my clothing since May 3rd.”Unwilling to lay siege to Richmond, Grant moved portions of his army over the James River to encircle Petersburg and began a siege of that city.
The Iron Brigade,meanwhile,continued to dissolve.The 2nd Wisconsin was detached so it could be sent home after three years. It was the first of the four original regiments to leave the brigade for good.Two companies of soldiers who enlisted after 1861 were later to be mustered into the 6th Wisconsin.The 19th Indiana was consolidated with the 20th Indiana,and a short time later,the 24th Michigan was sent to Fortress Monroe on Virginia’s coast and then to Baltimore to take charge of camps of drafted men.The regiment halted its travels at a draft rendezvous at Springfield, Ill., where it would serve as part of the honor guard for the burial of Lincoln in 1865.
The brigade also witnessed the explosion of a large mine in an attempt to blast open the Confederate line at Petersburg. Private William Ray of the 7th Wisconsin recorded in his diary for June 30, 1864:
Half past 4:00 arrived and with it the shaking of the ground awakened me. I rocked to and fro, looked at the ground to see the crack that might engulf me…the mine had burst.There were…parts of things whirling and whizzing in the air.It was a grand sight….Just as soon as the thing burst, hundreds of pieces of artillery and different kinds and thousands of small arms belched forth Death and Destruction into the enemy’s lines. I fired as fast as I could…. Five minutes after the fort blew up, our men piled over and into the fort and we see rebs coming in.Oh how our boys cursed and damned them and damned the officers for not reinforcing our brave fellows when the rebs would charge on them.There is something wrong says the boys.The boys yell too much commissary allowed meaning of this the officers was too drunk on commissary whiskey.For last night when our bridge ammunition team came up with ammunition they brought a barrel of whiskey. I suppose thinking that would be needful to insure success. But the rank and file didn’t get a smell.
During the last half of 1864 there was fighting in Virginia at Globe Tavern,the Boynton Plank Road and the Weldon Railroad.The Battle of Hatcher’s Run came in early February 1865. For a time during those months, the 6th and 7th Wisconsin served in the brigade with several hundred drafted and bounty men.In March 1865, the 91st New York, a heavy artillery organization converted to infantry, arrived to fill the brigade. The three regiments now numbered 3,000 men.
On April 1, 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan and elements of the V Corps overran the enemy at Five Forks,and the fighting led to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.“We saw an officer come riding down the lines,his horse wet and covered with lather,” a Wisconsin soldier remembered of the final day.“As he passed along we saw the boys’ caps went up in the air—the shout rang with cheers….As he came in front of us,he shouted,‘Gen.Lee and army had surrendered to Gen.Grant.’We yelled for joy for we knew the war was ended.”
After the war, when the final tally was made, the Iron Brigade of the West was given a melancholy honor:During the four years of the war,1,131 soldiers from its five regiments were killed or died of wounds,a higher proportion of casualties than any other brigade in the Union armies.
Lance J. Herdegen is currently serving as the historical and content consultant for a new Civil War museum under construction at Kenosha,Wis. He is the author of several books, including The Men Stood Like Iron: How the Iron Brigade Won Its Name.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.