Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gettysburg Day One: the Iron Brigade sees early action

Claude-Etienne Minié, a French military officer, invented, in 1849, a "... conical-cylindrical soft lead bullet, slightly smaller than the intended firearm barrel's bore, with ... exterior grease-filled grooves and a conical hollow in it's base. The bullet was designed by Minié with a small iron plug and a lead skirting. Its intended purpose was to expand under pressure and obturate the barrel and increase muzzle velocity. It greatly increased accuracy. It came to prominence in the Crimean War and the American Civil War." [Wikipedia]


Major General John Reynolds was, in effect, a "wing" commander, in that he was in overall charge of more than one corps of the Army of the Potomac, with individual corps commanders under his direction. Certainly he was Meade's equal (or superior) in experience and ability, if not in actual fact.

As the balance of the Federal First Corps continued to come up to Gettysburg from the south, General Reynolds personally directed the deployment of the First Division of infantry on McPherson's Ridge, and supervised the placing of the artillery in such a way as to cover the infantry as they were advancing into position.

The 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the 1st Corps was called the "Iron Brigade," among the best in the Union Army. They would be sorely tested today. Time was of the essence. Fences were knocked down and haversacks and blankets were discarded as the brigade stripped for action and deployed in the path of the rapidly advancing Confederates. It would be the job of the First Division to hold out until the rest of the Corps could join the fray.

Reynolds arrayed the Iron Brigade en echelon - with the 2nd Wisconsin front right, nearest the Cashtown road from where Pender's Confederate division was approaching; followed by the 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan. The final regiment (6th Wisconsin) was held in reserve slightly to the south on Seminary Ridge. Obviously they weren't going to hold off Heth and Pender for long, even with Buford's cavalry still engaged. But their object was to hold and delay until the rest of the corps got up. General Abner Doubleday (later the inventor of baseball) was commanding the division next in line of the upcoming First Corps, and he was making all haste to get up on Reynold's exposed right flank. The Confederates weren't waiting for that, though.

As the artillery from both sides began to boom, General Heth's brigades came in from the Northwest, led by General Archer's Alabamians. Artillery claimed the first lives of the battle on both sides. As they approached closer, the lead Confederates could hear the strains of the Union First Division's band: "The Girl I Left Behind Me". I don't know about you, but I think that took balls. At least it might have put a final smile on the faces of the Iron Brigade to hear their theme song, in the face of what was about to happen to them.

If Heth still held illusions that he was only up against unmounted cavalry and poorly-trained Pennsylvania Home Guard, he was immediately disabused of that notion. The Iron Brigade wore their legendary black sombreros with the right side turned up and pinned with the light blue infantry ribbon and sporting a plume, a la JEB Stuart; there was no chance Heth would mistake the Iron Brigade for amateur Home Guard. He let loose with more artillery and bodies began to fly. The Union guns answered. Showtime.

After directing the deployment of his infantry and guns, General Reynolds sent off a courier with an urgent message to General Meade, informing him that he had engaged the Confederates in force, and that a major battle would be fought at Gettysburg, not Pipe Creek. His message to General Mead said in part: "The enemy are advancing in strong force and I fear they will get to the heights beyond the town before I can. I will fight them inch by inch and, if driven into the town, I will barricade the streets and hold them as long as possible."

Although Pettigrew had the day before, several times, given Heth and Hill the lay of the land of Gettysburg, and had asserted that McPherson's Ridge was where the Federals were likely to defend, and General Archer had been standing right there listening, he hadn't heeded. Now the Federals were on McPherson's Ridge and were splitting his brigade.

The top of McPherson's Ridge was a farm, owned by a politician by that name, and on that farm was McPherson's woods. Into that woods went Archer's Alabamians, followed closely by the 2nd Wisconsin, followed by the Iron Brigade. Archer's Alabamians were in trouble and Archer knew it. Spilt, they were in danger of being double flanked. General Reynolds himself was directing this textbook envelopment. Unfortunately (for the Union), he recklessly exposed himself as he directed his troops. From the side, he could see the Confederates in the woods but he continued riding his big black horse and exhorting his troops, wearing his senior general's uniform: an obvious target.

Some books say it was from a sniper in a tree, but it didn't have to be: the Alabamians were fully in the woods now and had formed a skirmish line. It could have come from anyone there in that clump of trees. The Minié ball struck General Reynolds in the back of the head and came out his eye. He slumped on his horse, then fell.

It was 10:15 a.m. on the first day of Gettysburg.

Fun trivia: The Hardee Hat, with it's turned up side (reminds me of the Aussies) had been authorized to be worn by the First Brigade of the First Division in the late 1850s by the Secretary of War. At that time, the U.S. Secretary of War was a man by the name of Jefferson Davis, soon to be President of the Confederacy.

I am drawing these accounts from several (many) books, and gluing the various authors' accounts together with my own comments and narrative. Hopefully it doesn't sound too disjointed. I am, of course, leaving much out. My collection of books on the Civil War has grown large over the years. I'll publish a main bibliography at the end of this series of posts. I can't put more than this in a blog post, and, in fact, will be drastically summarizing the rest of the Gettysburg battle. I will shorten the posts because I would rather get into analyzing the battle and tactics rather than describe each individual contribution as I have up until now. In between the battle timeline, I will try to do posts on what the various generals were planning and doing along the way. I want to analyze Ewell's failure to pursue his first day's victory, and the consequences: did it lose the battle and perhaps the war for the Confederacy? I want to give my opinion about the importance of JEB Stewart's absence the first two days of the battle. Of course I want to second guess Lee's decision to frontally attack the dug-in Union's center, just as all historians have done over the past 150-odd years. I have some personal comments to make on the quality of the senior commanders of the Confederate Forces. I want to debate why Lee left the field (he wasn't really beaten after Gettysburg) and why Meade didn't pursue more aggressively. Oh, all kinds of more interesting things to argue about than simple troop movements and statistics. Hang in there. Soon I will stop describing and we can start arguing. :)


  1. Thank you! Well, I've found out that I COULD keep going for ages, so I've decided to TRY and start summarizing more, so we can start talking about tactics and causes and results. And stuff.

  2. Ah Gettysburg ... I've been to the battlefield at least five times and read lots of books about the three days that men spent shooting at each other there but there's always something new to learn.

    Now correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't it still considered bad form to shoot higher ranking officers during the Civil War or at that point had they stopped referring to them as "Officers and Gentlemen" and simply started calling them "Those Damn Yankees"? Perhaps Reynolds thought etiquette would save him and that's why he got so recklessly close to the enemy.

    Damn shame, too, he was a nice looking figure of a man.

  3. No, they made a point of shooting at senior officers. Lots of colonels and generals were shot during the three days of Gettysburg. 4 Union general officers were killed, including Reynolds and 3 others. Others wounded and/or lost limbs to amputation. Generals led their units into battle and got shot. Many wore plain coats over their uniforms or low ranking coats, but being on a horse was a dead giveaway. 38 general officers were killed in the entire war. I know you are also a student of the Civil War, so I feel like I am preaching to you! But I have been rereading a lot of my books the past month on it. :)

    Color bearers as a group didn't last very long in battle, as a little tidbit. :)

    So good to see you!

  4. Incidentally, another 29 Union generals died later of wounds (for all the civil war) including 3 more for Gettysburg.

  5. So much for it being a "Gentleman's War", eh?

    I suppose there was also the risk of getting shot by your own men a la Stonewall Jackson. I get the feeling that fragging came out LONG before the Vietnam War.

  6. Great article! My 3rd great grandfather was part of the Iron Brigade. He fought in the 19th Indiana at Gettysburg and was one of the lucky few not to be a casualty on that day. I love reading anything on the Iron Brigade.



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