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Iron Brigade Gave Union Advantage at Gettysburg

Scanned engraving from The Century Magazine

This week marks the 150th anniversary of one of the Civil War's most famous battles.  The Battle of Gettysburg was also the war's deadliest, and Wisconsin soldiers played a key role over its three days.

The 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin regiments were part of the noted Iron Brigade, along with regiments from Indiana and Michigan. They played a key role in defending Union positions on the first day, July 1st, 1863, at Gettysburg. Such was their bravery that at the end of the day, the Iron Brigade had to be ordered off the field. But that courage cost them dearly.

The voice of our Iron Brigade and Beyond: Wisconsin in the Civil War series, Pewaukee historian Thomas Martin Sobottke says after the first day, the Iron Brigade regiments were beyond decimated - the Roman origins of that word meaning to lose 10 percent of your unit.

The 2nd Wisconsin took 72 percent casualties; the 6th lost 60 percent. And the newly minted Black Hats who had only just joined the Brigade, the 24th Michigan, lost more than half of its men.

"They had sacrificed themselves," Sobottke says. "They made it possible for that Union army to hold the best ground for the next two days of fighting...Confederates would comment after the war, 'Those Yankees had the best ground when night fell.'"

This advantageous position helped the Union carry the victory - a crucial one, that many consider to be the turning point of the war.

"They had sacrificed themselves. They made it possible for that Union army to hold the best ground for the next two days of fighting." -Thomas Martin Sobottke

Because of the tremendous casualties on the first day, Wisconsin soldiers played a smaller role on the second and third days of battle. But that doesn't mean they stopped fighting.

Maustin, Wis. native Rufus Dawes fought with the 6th Wisconsin at Groveton, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.

The 6th Wisconsin led by the state's own Rufus Dawes repelled a Confederate thrust at taking Cemetery Hill in the darkness on the second day. Battery B 4th U.S. Artillery, which by that point had a number of Iron Brigade soldiers and Wisconsinites in it, was involved in some heavy artillery exchange on Brenner's Hill. Madison's Frank Haskell, who would later write a superb account of Gettysburg, was an aide to a Union general when on the third day he guided a division of soldiers at the center of Pickett's Charge.

But Sobottke says after the war and into our own time, these feats of Wisconsin soldiers have largely been forgotten. In the 1880s, Dawes and some 6th Wisconsin soldiers got into a fight with veterans from New York about not being properly recognized for their service.

"There was a lot of bad feeling about that, having their sacrifice not fully recognized," he says.

"It seems like we in Wisconsin get to do all the unglamorous work and all this great glory goes to all these other regiments and rightly so, but people kind of forget there wouldn't have been a second and third day at Gettysburg without what the Iron Brigade did there."

Thomas Martin Sobottke is the voice of our Civil War series - you can hear the first segment on Gettysburg here. He's a historian, teacher, and the author of the book Across That Dark River: The Civil War Memory, published by Moving Train Books, LLC. He has published articles for North and South magazine, including one on War Correspondents, and he lives in Pewaukee. Our Civil War series is produced by Stephanie Lecci.