They “Fought Like Iron…”
I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter that for the last little while I’ve been working on a blog post about this Union Army hottie Major General John Gibbon…
Gibbon was the second commander of what is known as the Iron Brigade. The first commander was Union Brigadier General Rufus King. The Wisconsin Historical Society has some more information about him here
It was on May 7, 1862, when Special Order No. 46 was issued, giving command of the Iron Brigade to Brigadier General John Gibbon. To begin, the Brigade had consisted of the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiments, 19th from Indiana and Battery B of the 4th U.S. Light Artillery. The 24th Michigan later joined their ranks.
When I started researching John Gibbon and finding out that he led the Iron Brigade, one of the questions I had was just how had this Brigade come to be called the “Iron Brigade”?
Well, it happened 154 years ago today, during the Battle of South Mountain (also known as the Battle of Boonsboro Gap), which was part of the Maryland Campaign. It was fought at three separate passes where General Lee’s Army (this is where I started to go down a rabbit hole but quickly got back out again. No, Mary, focus on how the Brigade was named. You don’t need to talk about the whole damn battle!):
So, I won’t go into a lot of detail about the battle but Civil War Trust has a good summary of the battle here. Also, I’ve included a couple maps too, just to give y’all an idea of where the battle was fought and who was where…
Onto the naming of the Brigade. By this point, Gibbon’s Brigade was already standing out with their black Hardee hats. Ever the unique snowflake, it was Gibbon who had made them part of the uniform. Hence the other name they are also known by – the Black Hat Brigade.
The morning of September 14 found Gibbon and his men marching towards South Mountain. In short, General McClellan (henceforth known as G McC) had found General Lee’s Order 191 (Pro-tip: don’t roll important orders around a cigar. Someone will probably drop them), giving detailed plans of his army’s operation. Hence the marching to South Mountain. By this point, however, Bobbi Lee had found out G McC had found the order. He’d already reinforced South Mountain. I read a couple sources that state G McC was taking things at a “leisurely place”(*gasp* Is this what Lincoln referred to as “the slows”? I think so…).
Gibbon was marching with Brigadier General John Porter Hatch’s Division to begin with…
Plans changed, however, and he received direct orders from General Ambrose Burnside to take his brigade plus Battery B (the artillery) back to the National Road. It was there they started advancing towards the mountain at what is known as Turner’s Gap.
It was Confederate General D.H. Hill who was defending Turner’s Gap, a man who John Gibbon knew personally as he’d been D.H. Hill’s groomsman at his wedding. This is one of those moments where I think of the Godfather: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business”.
With support from Battery B, it was Gibbon’s Brigade on its own that was to go up the National Road and hit the center of the Confederate line at Turner’s Gap. Back at headquarters, G McC and Burnside would have front row seats, so to speak, to see Gibbon and his men in action. Since Bobbi Lee knew G McC would be coming to pay him a visit, General D.H. Hill had been reinforced already with brigades from Brigidier General J.R. Jones and General John Bell Hood. Of course he had artillery of his own too.
Gibbs and his Black Hat Brigade were going to have a tough climb up to Turner’s Gap towards Alfred H. Colquitt, who had 1,100 men with him. It was later in the afternoon when Gibbon finally received word from Burnside to move forward. As they started their ascent, Gibbon was mounted on his horse, commanding “Forward! Forward! Forward!”. They ascended towards Turner’s Gap, and they had a hell of a fight.
Much of the fighting was done in the darkness. The Black Hat Brigade fought hard and slowly, they gained ground, despite constant firing and shelling from the enemy. The Confederates were putting up a hell of a fight as well in order to hold their ground. Gibbon moved on the battlefield, directing his men where to go and seemingly staying quite cool considering the circumstances.
Circumstances seemed grave near the end of the night and I’m sure even Gibbon was scared. You know shit is getting bad when you have to give your men the order “Hold your ground with the bayonet” because they’ve run out of ammo. This was the order he had to give the men of the 7th Wisconsin and it is eerily like an order given less than a year later by Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Little Round Top during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Just when things seemed at their worst, Gibbon finally got the word to cease firing and that they had won the day. At approximately 9pm on September 14th, the bloody fighting at Turner’s Gap was done.
Fighting had ended else where along South Mountain at this time too. General Lee soon withdrew his troops. The wounded and dead lay strewn along the mountainside and this was Gibbon’s greatest concern. 25% of the brigade had been lost – 37 killed, 251 wounded and 30 missing. The 7th Wisconsin had the heaviest casualties with 147 wounded or dead. Overall, the Black Hat Brigade had sustained greater losses than any other Brigade that day at South Mountain.
Their hard fighting and sacrifice did not go unnoticed, however. Remember I said that G McC and Burnside had front row seats to watch Gibbon and his bad ass Black Hat Brigade ascend Turner’s Gap? Nolan sums it up perfectly in his book about the history of the Iron Brigade:
McClellan and Burnside and a number of other officers had seen it all, the initial advance up the mountainside, the unflinching progress as the enemy’s fire increased and the dogged movements, always forward, into the darkness, marked toward the end of the day by the flashes from the opposing lines of rifles.
“A brilliant engagement” was how Burnside put it. G McC, in his official report, wrote that “General Gibbon, in this delicate movement, handled his brigade with as much precision and coolness as if upon parade and the bravery of his troops could not be excelled”.
The word “iron” was used to describe the brigade and how they had fought. Some sources say that it was Hooker who said “those men fought like iron”. Others say it was McClellan. Another source I found attributed it to Hooker. Whatever the case, Gibbon’s Brigade, nicknamed the Black Hat Brigade because of their black Hardee hats, became known as the Iron Brigade. This was the name they most certainly had earned in the fighting of Turner’s Gap.
Nolan states that:
On the rocky sides of South Mountain at Turner’s Gap, Gibbon’s soldiers acquired a reputation, a reputation they would have to sustain with further bravery and which would somehow make them brave, as brave as an “Iron Brigade”.
Prior to South Mountain, they had fought at Second Bull Run. They went on to fight at Antietam, which happened just a few days after South Mountain on September 17th, 1862. Their other battles included Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Minerun, Overland, Richmond-Petersburg and finally, Appomattox.
Also, I can’t recommend Alan T. Nolan’s book “The Iron Brigade: A Military History” enough. Although I haven’t read it all the way through yet,what I have read is very well written and very interesting. It was my main source for writing this post.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I absolutely loved learning how the Iron Brigade earned it’s name at South Mountain. The Iron Brigade is becoming a favourite of mine and I can’t wait to read the whole book about them.
Do any of you have a favourite brigade from the Civil War? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter or on my Facebook page.
Until next time,
Thus ensued the Battle of South Mountain
“Bloody Prelude: The Battle of South Mountain”. http://mountainaflame.blogspot.ca/2010/07/birth-of-iron-brigade.html
Civil War Trust
“King, Gen. Rufus (1814-1876)”. Wisconsin Historical Society. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetails=R:CS2379
Nolan, Alan T. “The Iron Brigade: A Military History”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.
“The Battle of South Mountain”. The American Civil War 150 Years Ago Today. http://civilwarsesquicentdaily-wolfshield.blogspot.ca/2012/09/september-14-1862.html