South Mountain by Rick Reeve

South Mountain by Rick Reeve
South Mountain by Rick Reeve depicting the wounding of General Garland

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Birth of the Iron Brigade

Co. K, 7th Wisconsin Infantry

As you drive along the Old National Road (present day Alt. 40) across the Middletown Valley, just as you begin driving up the slope of South Mountain towards Turner's Gap, you'll notice a clear field with a few rock outcroppings and trees. It was here that one of the most famous brigades to come out of the Civil War earned the moniker, "Iron Brigade".

What we know today as the "Iron Brigade" had it's beginnings in the Fall of 1861 when the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment's and the 19th Infantry Regiment were joined together in a brigade under the command of Brigadier General Rufus King. Of these regiments, only the 2nd Wisconsin had been in any kind of combat being present at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861. The brigade would also include Battery B, 4th United States Artillery and it would assigned to the defenses of Washington, D. C. for the next nine months or so. While staying manning Washington's defenses, the brigade would become recognizable almost immediately for two reasons, one it was the only all-western brigade in the Eastern Theater and two because of the Model 1858 Hardee Hat that was issued to the brigade. This hat itself earned the brigade it's "Black Hats" nickname. The brigade would not go with the Army of the Potomac when George McClellan attempted to march on Richmond, Virginia by going up the Virginia Peninsula, so the brigade avoided the bloody Seven Days' battle. Instead they would march to Fredericksburg, Virginia to take up a reserve position with the Major General Irwin Mcdowell's Infantry Corps.

By August 1862, Brigadier General John Gibbon was in command and the brigade was attached to General John Pope's Army of Virginia in an attempt to hunt out and destroy "Stonewall" Jackson's Confederates operating somewhere in northern Virginia. Jackson would find Pope instead. On August 28, 1862, General Jackson came out of hiding and attacked Gibbon's brigade at Brawner's Farm near the old Bull Run battlefield. The fight that ensued was nothing short of an all out slug fest. Jackson committed the better part of four brigades in an attempt to drive off Gibbon's men but they slugged it out round for round with the Jackson's veterans. The discipline that had been pushed upon the men by General Gibbon paid off in the fight. All told in three hours of savage fighting where the opposing lines were less than 30 yards apart, the men of Gibbon's brigade lost nearly 800 men out of over 2,000 engaged while inflicting over 1,000 casualties on the attacking Confederates. The brigades trial by fire showed that the western men would fight. They would go on to fight in the Union disaster that was Second Bull Run and retreat back to the defenses of Washington. The brigade remained in Washington where it was transferred to the Army of the Potomac and into the First Corps under the command of Joseph Hooker.

Between September 4-7, 1862, General Robert E. Lee marched his seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia north across the Potomac and into Frederick, Maryland where they would eventually march west in the hopes of pushing the campaign into Pennsylvania. Gibbon's men and the First Corps were ordered to march out of Washington on September 5th marching toward Brookville and eventually towards Frederick. The advance elements of the Union Army arrived in Frederick on September 12th and by the 13th, McClellan had most of his army massed in and around Frederick. As the Union Army encamped at Frederick on the 13th, a piece of paper outlining Robert E. Lee's plans for his campaign which called for the division of his army and the capture of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. General McClellan used this document to put his army in motion. On the 13th, the lead elements of the Union Army pushed through the passes within the Catoctin Mountain range and advanced right up to the base of South Mountain.

On the morning of the 14th of September, Gibbon's brigade along with the rest of the 1st Corps were ordered to move up the National Pike towards South Mountain. By early afternoon, the Corps had reached the small town of Bolivar at the base of the mountain and proceeded to turn to the right up Mount Tabor Road in an attempt to outflank the Confederates holding the pass. All this while hearing the distant rumble of cannon and musketry up at Fox's Gap where portions of the Union 9th Corps under Major General Jesse Reno had all but turned the Confederate right flank. While the 1st Corps was moving into position near the Frostown Gap, Gibbon's brigade was detached from his division and sent back to the National Pike to await further orders.

Gibbon's brigade was ordered to advance directly up the National Pike against the confederates holding Turner's Gap. The brigade moved into position late in the afternoon of the 14th and the regiments were deployed as follows: the 19th Indiana was deployed on the right of the pike and the 7th Wisconsin on the left of the pike creating the main battleline of the brigade. Two companies of skirmishers from the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin would be deployed out in front as skirmishers. The 2nd and 6th Wisconsin would form a second battle line a little ways back from the first line and move as support. To give artillery support to the brigade, a section of Battery B, 4th US Artillery of Lieutenant James Stewart was placed just to the rear of the first line. Opposing Gibbon was the brigade of Alfred Colquitt that was a mixture of Georgians and Alabamians.

As the advance began, the skirmishers of both sides came into contact. The Federals slowly pushed the Confederates back but the advance eventually ground to a halt. Confederate sharpshooters had taken up position in a house near the pike and their fire was holding back the entire Union advance it seemed. The sharpshooters were forced out of the house after a few rounds fired by Lieutenant Stewart's guns were sent through the house. After this incident, the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana advanced to support the skirmishers and the engagement intensified.

The 7th advancing up the right side of the pike came under a flank fire from the 28th Georgia that was in line behind a stonewall while engaging the 23rd Georgia in front also in position behind a stonewall. The regiment also recieved fire from the 6th Georgia from the left. The 19th Indiana advanced up the left side of the pike and came into contact with the 13th Alabama and 27th Georgia. As the advance of both of these regiments became stalled, the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin came to their support. The 2nd Wisconsin took up postion in between the 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin and the 6th Wisconsin extended the brigades right flank to reliece pressure on the 7th from the Confederates firing into the regiments flank. While the 6th and 7th were duking it out with the 23rd and 28th Georgia, Colonel Solomon Meredith of the 19th Indiana solved the impasse on his front by moving Company G to his extreme left flank and into a position that allowed the company to fire into the Confederate flank. The fire from this company caused a panic in the Confederate line and forced them to retreat with the 19th Indiana and 2nd Wisconsin hot on their heals pushing them back up the mountain. Both regiments, after pushing the Confederates opposing them, took turns pouring a flanking fire into the Confederates that remained in position agains the 7th and 6th Wisconsin.

On the right of the pike, the 6th and 7th Wisconsin were caught up in a severe fight for possesion of the stonewalls occupied by the Confederates. The two regiments duked it out with the Confederate defenders until well after dark and their ammunition was exhausted. One last action occurred after dark when Union soldiers were ordered to conserve what ammunition they had left one final push if possible. The Confederates noting the silence, advanced from behind their strong position and began to fire into the darkness. Almost immediately, the 6th and 7th Wisconsin replied with a deadly fire. The 6th's fire was so terrific that the Confederates retreated in confusion and once they Confederates were gone, the 6th remained in position to await any more advances. The 7th meanwhile fixed bayonets and charged against the advancing Confederates and when they were nearly 20 paces from the Confederates, they too unleashed a volley that caused the enemy to retreat in confusion. The fighting had lasted roughly four hours and the Confederates still held Turner's Gap but they were holding on by their fingertips. Darkness had ended the fighting and at around midnight, Gibbon's brigade was relieved by the brigade of General Willis Gorman.

Gibbon's brigade would suffer rather heavily in their fight for Turner's Gap. The losses of the 2nd Wisconsin are reported as being relatively light by the regiment's commander Colonel Lucius Fairchild. The number of casualties in this regiment are missing but it is known that the captain of Company B had been killed. The 6th Wisconsin under Lt. Colonel Edward S. Bragg were 11 killed, and 79 wounded for a total of 90. The 7th Wisconsin under Captain John B. Callis was the heaviest of all the brigades regiment with a total of 147 men out of 375 men engaged. The 19th Indiana under Colonel Solomon Meredith lost 9 killed, 37 wounded, and 7 missing for a total of 53. In total, Gibbon reports that the brigade lost a total of 318 men: 61killed, 274 wounded, and 45 missing.

The fight at Turner's Gap earned his men the "Iron Brigade" nickname. The story goes something like this. General Joseph Hooker of the 1st Corps rides up to McClellan's headquarters to get orders. A conversation begins between the two men and McClellan asks, "Who are those men fighting in the Pike?". Hooker replies that it is the western brigade of General Gibbon. McClellan to this answers, " They must be made of iron." Hooker exclaims that they had fought even better at Second Manassas and McClellan exclaims they must "be the best troops in the world." This conversation excited Hooker and the general rode off without his orders and the "Iron Brigade" name stuck. Whether this story is true or not, it does make for an interesting story!

The brigade would continue fighting with the Army of the Potomac suffering heavily at Antietam where the brigade spearheaded the early morning attack of the 1st Corps up the Hagerstown Pike and through the infamous Cornfield. Just before the battle of Fredericksburg, the 24th Michigan was added to the brigade. The brigade would fight at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in late 1862 and early 1862 respectively. The Iron Brigade would go down in glory for its desperate stand on Mcpherson's Ridge against the onslaught of General James Archer's massive Confederate brigade. The fighting at Gettysburg, especially that of July 1st, devastated the brigade so much that it lost it's all-western status when a Pennsylvania regiment was added to make up for losses. The Iron Brigades survivors would fight on with the Army of the Potomac during the 1864 Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. The Iron Brigade gained everlasting fame for its stand at Gettysburg, but it was at South Mountain that it earned its famous nickname.

(All statistics on losses at South Mountain at from the Official Reports that can be found at
(photo of 6th Wisconsin at Turner's Gap courtesy of


  1. Excellent account of the Iron Brigade.7th Wisconsin csualties at Turner's Gap included 23 killed/died of wounds,including Color Guard Corporal Charles Plummer,a 21-yr old farmer from Fall River WI."...a most terrific fire was poured into the gallant old 7th,until even the colors were dropped and picked up many times,so severe was the fire,killing off the men,that it seemed that no one could survive."[DESCRIPTIVE ROLL;SAUK COUNTY RIFLEMEN]

  2. Thanks for the comment. Also thanks for the 7th Wisconsin information, it was interesting to see a direct quote about the regiments fight at Turner's Gap.

  3. My great great grandfather was of the 7th infantry, co A. Thomas Strangeway was 19 when he was at the South Mountain battle. He survived the war but died of wounds he received at the age of 51; in Lodi, Wisc.

  4. I will include this link in my FaceBook account entitled LandscapeTurnedRedbyStephenSears which details the very likely possibility that my two grand-great uncles were killed a few days later in The Cornfield by the Iron Brigade.!/LandscapeTurnedRedByStephenSears