Composed of regiments from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, the Iron Brigade sacrificed proportionally more in terms of human life than any other Union brigade during the Civil War.
American Civil War lore asserts that on more than one occasion Confederate soldiers exclaimed, “There Are those damned black-hatted fellows again.” The “black-hatted fellows” the Rebels referred to were members of the Iron Brigade of the West, more commonly known as the Iron Brigade. The unit’s soldiers were easily recognizable because they donned rather ornate black, felt, tall-crowned Hardee hats throughout the war. Their reputation often preceded them in battle because they were among the more formidable troops in the Union army.
Origin and Structure
Originally known as King’s Wisconsin Brigade, the unit gradually began to materialize during the summer of 1861 as four Midwestern regiments mustered into volunteer service: the 2nd Wisconsin (June 11), the 5th Wisconsin (July 12), the 6th Wisconsin (July 16), and the 19th Indiana (July 29). Its formation became official on August 9, 1861, when Brigadier General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, issued General Orders, No. 18 (AOP) stating that “The Fifth and Sixth Wisconsin Regiments and the Nineteenth Indiana Regiment will constitute a provisional brigade, to be commanded by Brigadier General Rufus King, of the volunteer service.” When the 7th Wisconsin mustered into service on September 2, 1861, the War Department also assigned it to King’s Brigade. In October, the 2nd Wisconsin replaced the 5th Wisconsin, and Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, commanded by Captain John Gibbon, joined the brigade. Officially designated as the 3rd Brigade of Major General Irvin McDowell’s Division of the Army of the Potomac, King’s was the only all-Western brigade assigned to the Eastern Theater.
Army officials originally assigned King’s Brigade to the defenses around Washington, D.C., following the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
On March 8, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued War Order No. 2, merging the Army of the Potomac’s divisions into five corps. The reorganization resulted in McDowell and King being promoted to corps and division commanders. The King’s Brigade, now temporarily commanded by Colonel Lysander Cutler, became the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division (King), 1st Army Corps (McDowell), of the Army of the Potomac. Soon after McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862), the War Department assigned McDowell’s 1st Corps to the newly created Department of the Rappahannock (April 4, 1862).
The western brigade moved to the Department of the Rappahannock along McDowell’s 1st Corps. One month later, on May 2, 1862, the War Department promoted Captain Gibbon to the rank of brigadier general in the volunteer army. Five days after Gibbon’s promotion, McDowell ended Cutler’s temporary assignment and appointed Gibbon to command the westerners.
On June 26, 1862, President Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that merged the forces commanded by major generals John C. Frémont, Nathaniel Banks, and Irvin McDowell, along with those under Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, to form the Army of Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope. Under the reorganization, the army designated Gibbon’s brigade as the 4th Brigade, 1st Division (King), 3rd Army Corps (McDowell), Army of Virginia.
Baptism of Fire at Brawner’s Farm
Gibbon’s Brigade saw its first combat action during the Northern Virginia Campaign (July 19–September 1, 1862). As the Black Hats marched along the Warrenton Turnpike toward Centreville, Virginia, with their division on August 28, 1862, Confederate artillerists began shelling them near John Brawner’s farm. Gibbon quickly ordered the 2nd Wisconsin to form a line and advance up a small hill toward what he thought was a Rebel battery. Upon reaching the top of the rise, Gibbon faced General Thomas J. Jackson’s famous Stonewall Brigade advancing upon his men from the opposite direction. Outnumbered, Gibbon quickly called up the rest of his brigade and for the next two hours, they gave as good as they got from Jackson’s battle-hardened veterans.
By the time darkness enveloped the battlefield after 8 pm, hundreds of reinforcements joined the fray on both sides, but neither opponent had yielded. The clash was a standoff, but the casualties were staggering. Of the 2,800 Federal soldiers who took part in the fighting, nearly 1,100 were killed or wounded. Gibbon’s Brigade suffered 800-850 casualties, including over 200 killed. Jackson’s men fared nearly as poorly. Of the 3,500 Rebels who fought that evening, 1,100 were killed or wounded. One in every three men engaged on both sides was wounded or killed at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm. During the night, King ordered his division to withdraw and join the rest of Pope’s Army of Virginia at Manassas Junction, where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would soon score a decisive victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28-30, 1862).
Following the stinging Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 129 on September 12, 1862, ending the existence of the Army of Virginia by merging its three corps with the Army of the Potomac. Army officials designated Gibbon’s brigade as the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.
Three days later, the Black Hats earned their illustrious nickname, “Iron Brigade,” at the Battle of South Mountain (September 15, 1862). During the fight for Turner’s Gap on the south side of the mountain, Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, sat astride his mount alongside Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the 1st Army Corps, and watched Gibbon’s men driving their Confederate opponents back along the National Road. During a speech delivered after the war, McClellan claimed to have asked Hooker, “What troops are those fighting on the pike?” Hooker replied “General Gibbon’s Brigade of Western men.” To which, McClellan observed, “They must be made of iron.” Hooker concurred, noting, “By the Eternal, they are iron! If you had seen them at Bull Run as I did, you would know them to be iron.” McClellan then marveled, “Why, General Hooker, they fight equal to the best troops in the world.” McClellan further recalled that after the battle, Hooker rode up to headquarters and called out, “General McClellan, what do you think now of my Iron Brigade?” Whether or not McClellan’s account is apocryphal, the Black Hats earned the name Iron Brigade after the Battle of South Mountain.
Two days after the Battle of South Mountain, the Iron Brigade fought bravely at the Battle of Antietam. By that time, previous struggles had reduced the unit’s original total of about 4,000 men to fewer than one-fourth of that number. On September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day of fighting during the Civil War claimed 343 more of the brigade’s remaining 800 officers and soldiers. With the brigade reduced to less than the size of a regiment, the War Department acted to increase its enrollment by issuing orders on October 8, 1862, assigning the 24th Michigan Regiment’s 838 soldiers to the brigade. One month later, on November 4, 1862 (Special Orders, No. 44, 1st Army Corps), officials promoted Gibbon to command the 1st Division. On November 25, Brigadier General John Reynolds, commander of the 1st Army Corps, announced the appointment of Brigadier General Solomon Meredith, of the 19th Indiana Regiment, to succeed Gibbon as brigade commander (Special Orders, No. 62, 1st Army Corps).
Battle of Fredericksburg
Under Meredith’s leadership, the Iron Brigade took part in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 12–15, 1862). After crossing the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges on December 12, the unit aimed to secure the left flank of the Union line when the federal assault began the next day. During the action, Brigadier General Abner Doubleday ordered Meredith to have his men clear the woods in front of them. When Meredith did not move quickly enough, Doubleday temporarily relieved him from command and replaced him with Colonel Lysander Cutler of the 6th Wisconsin.
Two days later, Major General Ambrose Burnside ordered his battered Army of the Potomac to retreat across the Rappahannock River after suffering over 12,500 casualties. The Iron Brigade’s losses paled compared to the bloodbath their comrades at the center of the Union line experienced during their repeated assaults on Marye’s Heights. Reinstated as the unit’s commander, Meredith reported after the battle that the Iron Brigade suffered sixty-five casualties, including nine killed, forty wounded, and sixteen missing or captured.
Battle of Gettysburg
Because commanding General Joseph Hooker held the 1st Division in reserve at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863), the Iron Brigade played only a small role in that conflict. Such would not be the case at the next major engagement in the Eastern Theater, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).
By the spring of 1863, mounting casualty totals from the Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville reduced the size of many of the Army of the Potomac’s brigades. The loss of troops required another consolidation that began in May 1863. In June, army officials re-designated the Iron Brigade as the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac.
Meanwhile, despite their victory at Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia desperately needed food, horses, and equipment. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North. He hatched a plan to disengage from Union forces near Fredericksburg and move his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lee began concentrating his army near Culpeper, Virginia, and troop movements began on June 3, 1863.
As the Army of the Potomac (now commanded by Major General George Meade) shadowed Lee’s movements, Brigadier General John Buford’s Union cavalry division engaged General A. P. Hill’s Confederate corps near the village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1863. The Rebels were getting the best of it until the 1st Army Corps arrived on the scene that morning. The Iron Brigade was among the first units to reinforce Buford’s flagging horse-soldiers. As the Black Hats rushed at the double-step to Buford’s rescue the Rebels greeted them with a sheet of hot lead that killed the corps’ commander, John J. Reynolds. Undaunted, the Westerners pushed onward and overran Confederate General James J. Archer’s Tennessee Brigade, taking many prisoners.
The Rebels were not through, however. In the afternoon, a flanking maneuver by the 11th North Carolina, coupled with a frontal assault by the 26th North Carolina, drove the men of the 1st Corps back toward Gettysburg. During the attack, shrapnel fractured General Meredith’s skull, taking him out of action. Colonel William W. Robinson (of the 7th Wisconsin) replaced Meredith as commander of the Iron Brigade.
Although the Rebels forced the Black Hats from the field on July 1, the Iron Brigade’s resistance delayed the Confederate progress long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save the Union line. During the next two days, the Westerners contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg, but their achievements exacted a terrible price. The Iron Brigade suffered the greatest proportion of the Army of the Potomac’s casualties—an astounding 61%. Of the 1,883 Westerners who fought for the Union those three days, 1,153 were killed, wounded, or missing. At the regimental level, 24th Michigan (80%) and the 2nd Wisconsin (77%) suffered the second and third highest casualty rates for all battles fought during the Civil War.
The Iron Brigade’s all-Western composition ended on July 16, 1863, when army officials incorporated 167th Pennsylvania into it to compensate for the massive losses at Gettysburg. Later, as original recruits mustered out of volunteer service and returned to their homes at the end of their three-year enlistments, the War Department filled the vacancies with increasing numbers of Easterners.
After Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade served with the Army of the Potomac in the Bristoe (October 13–November 7, 1863), and Mine Run (November 26–December 2, 1863) Campaigns. On March 23, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 115 announcing the reduction of the number of army corps making up the Army of the Potomac from five to three. Officials attached the Iron Brigade to the 1st Brigade, 4th Division, of the 5th Army Corps. The brigade served throughout the Overland Campaign (May 5–June 24, 1864) under that designation.
During the Petersburg Campaign (June 1864–March 1865), army officials attached the brigade’s regiments to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, of the 5th Army Corps in August and then to the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 5th Army Corps in September. In October, the 19th Indiana went out of existence when army officials folded it into the 20th Indiana. A month later, the 2nd Wisconsin also ceased to exist when officials merged it with the 6th Wisconsin.
Although the army dispersed the Iron Brigade’s units and soldiers, the remnants of the unit took part in the Appomattox Campaign (March 29–April 12, 1865). At the conclusion of the war, the men marched with the Army of the Potomac during the Grand Review of the Union forces at Washington, D.C., on May 23–24, 1865.
Excluding temporary assignments, the following officers commanded the Iron Brigade during its nearly four years of existence.
- Brigadier General Rufus King: September 28, 1861–May 7, 1862
- Brigadier General John Gibbon: May 7–November 4, 1862
- Brigadier General Solomon Meredith: November 25, 1862–July 1, 1863
- Colonel William W. Robinson: July 1, 1863–March 25, 1864
- Brigadier General Lysander Cutler: March 25–May 6, 1864
- Colonel William W. Robinson: May 6–June 7, 1864
- Brigadier General Edward S. Bragg: June 7, 1864–February 10, 1865
- Colonel John A. Kellogg: February 28–April 27, 1865
- Colonel Henry A. Morrow: April 27–June 5, 1865
At the conclusion of the Civil War, the original regiments of the Iron Brigade returned to their home states and mustered out of volunteer service in the following order: 24th Michigan on June 30, 1865, 6th Wisconsin (including the soldiers of the 2nd Wisconsin) and 7th Wisconsin on July 2, 1865, and the 19th Indiana (then part of the 20th Indiana) on July 12, 1865.
No brigade in the Volunteer Army sacrificed proportionally more in terms of human life to save the Union than the Iron Brigade. Of the 7,673 soldiers who served in the unit’s five corps regiments during the Civil War, 14.7% (1,131 soldiers) were killed or mortally wounded in combat. Roughly 500 more died of disease, and over 2,000 more were wounded.
At the regimental level, the 2nd Wisconsin tallied the highest percentage of soldiers killed because of combat (19.7%) in all the Union armies. Of the over 2,000 volunteer regiments that served their country, the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana placed sixth and eleventh respectively on that grim list. In raw numbers, only one regiment (the 5th New Hampshire) suffered more total deaths than the 2nd Wisconsin’s 282.
In recognition of the sacrifice and courage of the men of the Iron Brigade, Congress awarded the Medal of Honor to seven of its members.
- Buckles, Abram J., Sergeant
Company E, 19th Indiana Infantry
Awarded for actions at the Wilderness, Va., May 5, 1864
- Coates, Jefferson, Sergeant
Company H, 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
Awarded for actions at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863
- Ellis, Horace, Private
Company A, 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
Awarded for actions at Weldon Railroad, Virginia, August 21, 1864
- Johnson, John, Private
Company D, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
Awarded for actions at Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 13, 1862
- O’Connor, Albert, Sergeant
Company A, 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
Awarded for actions at Gravelly Run, Virginia, April 1, 1865
- Sickles, William H., Sergeant
Company B, 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
Awarded for actions at Gravelly Run, Virginia, March 31, 1865
- Waller, Francis A., Corporal
Company I, 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
Awarded for actions at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863