The Iron Brigade

The Iron Brigade

It was the morning of July 1, 1863, and the Iron Brigade marched towards the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Known for their tall black felt hats (gaining them an additional nickname of The Black Hats), the Iron Brigade was formed of men from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan and were known as some of the toughest fighters in the Army of the Potomac. In fact, after the battle of South Mountain, General George B. McClellan professed that these men “must be made of iron!” The Battle of Gettysburg would prove to be the Iron Brigade’s finest hour, and tragically for some it would be their final hour.

During the Battle

The Brigade consisted of 1,883 men as fighting commenced on July 1. General John Reynolds commanded the Brigade forward in the fields near the Chambersburg Pike, northwest of town. “Forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of those woods!” These were perhaps the last words of General Reynolds as he was killed moments later. The Iron Brigade, true to form, did not let their General down. Fighting raged across the fields within site of the Lutheran Theological Seminary eventually moving to the unfinished Railroad Cut. There, the Sixth Wisconsin of the Brigade was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, grandson of William Dawes who rode with Paul Revere.

The intense fighting that ensued proved to be fatal for many of the Iron Brigade. By the end of the day the number of men went from 1,883 to 671, a nearly 61 percent casualty rate. By late afternoon the Union position collapsed, and the Brigade was forced to retreat through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill. They would take position up on July 2 and 3 at Culp’s Hill.

Though considered a defeat, the actions of the Iron Brigade on July 1 proved critical to the remaining two days of fighting. Had the Brigade not held their ground for most of that first day until more Union troops could arrive, the Battle of Gettysburg may have been a one-day skirmish. The Black Hats fought with such fierceness that the rest of the Army of the Potomac was able retire to better ground, a move that greatly contributed to the Union’s victory on July 3.

After the battle

The Iron Brigade monument was dedicated by the State of Wisconsin on June 30th, 1888. It originally stood about 50 feet to the west of its present location but was relocated when the Reynolds Avenue bridge over the railroad cut was rebuilt in the 1960s.

The red granite monument stands at 11′ 7″ tall and is filled with multiple symbols. At the top a five-sided symbol represents the Iron Brigade. A circle on the front is the symbol of the Union First Army Corps. Other symbols included on the monument are crossed rifles behind a knapsack, an eagle over crossed flags, and the Wisconsin state seal.

Iron Brigade