The Men Stood Like Iron: How the Iron Brigade Won Its Name, by Lance J. Herdegen, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 288 pages, $24.95.
Civil War veterans always argued among themselves about whose unit could fight harder, march farther, or steal more chickens. In the Union army, regiments of the “Iron Brigade of the West” seemed to place at or near the top in each of these categories. Organized in October 1861 and composed of the 2d, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana Infantry Regiments, the brigade was first commanded by Rufus King, one of those officers of whom so much was expected and who delivered so little. By chance it happened to be the only all-Western brigade in the Army of the Potomac, and the men were well aware of their distinct character.
Kept out of significant combat for almost 10 months after the unit’s formation, these Indiana and Wisconsin men complained that the war was passing them by and that others less deserving were winning all the glory. Then came the battle-filled summer of 1862. Placed under the leadership of Brigadier General John Gibbon, one of the Union’s most dependable commanders, these Western men fought in four savage battles in the space of just three weeks–Brawner Farm, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam. The survivors were changed forever, and Major Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin wrote that they would “always be found ready but never again anxious.”
Lance J. Herdegen, co-author with William J.K. Beaudot of An Irishman in the Iron Brigade and the award-winning In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg, has now examined that remarkable transformation from swaggering, cocky recruits to war-weary veterans who had seen far too much in far too short a time.
Herdegen has chosen to tell this story by concentrating on the experiences of a single regiment, the 6th Wisconsin, from the heady patriotism surrounding its recruitment to the emotion-crushing weariness after Antietam. He does so with insight, quoting liberally from the soldiers who were there and who recorded their adventures either in contemporary letters and diaries or in postwar recollections. The reader thus gets an opportunity to meet some of the men who enlisted to save the Union in 1861, men such as Dawes, Edwin A. Brown, Frank A. Haskell, James P. “Mickey” Sullivan, Jerome Watrous, and John H. Cook. These soldiers were an intriguing lot–from sober, earnest officers to whiskey-swilling, fun-loving privates–and Herdegen skillfully merges their distinctive stories into a compelling narrative. Some of these men lived and some of them died, none of them were heroes and yet all of them were.
One annoying tendency mars Herdegen’s narrative, however. Long after the reader has been introduced to the regiment and the major characters, Herdegen continues to remind the reader that Captain Brown and Mickey Sullivan and Rufus Dawes belong to the 6th Wisconsin. There are also a few minor errors of fact. For example, Thomas Allen was a major at Antietam, his promotion to lieutenant colonel came after the battle; John P. Wood, not James D. Wood, was on the brigade staff at Brawner Farm; and the 35th New York, not the 34th, was in Marsena Patrick’s brigade at Antietam.
The author has made good use of the many sources relating to the 6th Wisconsin’s history; his only problem seems to be a willingness to accept at face value postwar recollections that stretch credibility. One example of this is the 1912 tale of George Fink, who related how he, a recruit for the 6th, led a squad of 79 other recruits from Washington to the Antietam battlefield–no officers, no noncoms, and not even directions! Another suspect account describes a conspiracy at McClellan’s headquarters, in which units from the Army of the Potomac would not assist John Pope’s Army of Virginia. This story is pulled from the Jerome Watrous papers, but although Watrous published literally hundreds of army stories during his lifetime, he apparently never published this particular manuscript. Perhaps he himself was not convinced about its accuracy.
Herdegen’s narrative begins on July 4, 1863, the day after the fighting ended at Gettysburg, and follows the 6th Wisconsin for a few days until the Confederate army escaped back into Virginia. The author then returns to Wisconsin two years earlier, where he captures the early enthusiasm of men heading off to war: fifes and drums, women and sweethearts saying good-bye to the menfolk and waving handkerchiefs as the young men left home for Camp Randall.
The tale then moves inexorably toward the Brawner Farm battle that will change their world. While general officers often get all the attention in history books, such is not the case here. This is not a view from headquarters, but a glimpse of soldiers who were the bottom links in the chain of command. These are the men who looked to their generals for the solid leadership that so often failed to materialize. Here is the story of men who were blindly devoted to George McClellan because he was the image of what they thought a soldier should be. They would have followed him anywhere, even to overthrow the government, had he asked them to do so.
Fortunately for the country he did not ask, and these Badger soldiers, along with their Iron Brigade comrades, continued to fight for their country at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and beyond. Thanks to Lance Herdegen, we now know why they were able to do so.
Alan D. Gaff
Fort Wayne, Indiana