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Letter From March 2007 America's Civil War Magazine

Originally published on Published Online: February 06, 2007 
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For a long time, this image of Company I of the 7th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade was thought to have been taken in the summer or early fall of 1862 on Upton's Hill, near Alexandria, Va. Recently some historians have come to believe that while the time frame is correct, the photograph was actually taken just outside of Fredericksburg, Va., during the Union Army's first occupation of that city (story, P. 50). That determination is based upon the fact that under magnification, the arrangement of steeples and rooftops in the distance matches up with other wartime images of Fredericksburg.

Regardless of location, the photograph was taken before the Iron Brigade had that famous nickname and before the Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana men had gone through the crucible of the big Eastern theater battles of 1862 and 1863. You are looking at a company of relative greenhorns, most of whom probably held on to naive, innocent notions of what is was like to be in a fight. By 1864, Confederate canister and musketry had blasted away those rookie ideals and the Midwesterners had buried plenty of their comrades (stories, P. 22, 30).

If they had the opportunity, what would the survivors of Company I have thought when they saw this image? Imagine a trembling, gray-haired veteran looking at the ranks and seeing the faces of friends lost in the maelstrom of battle years before. What an intense mixture of pride and sadness that would have conjured up.

During an 1880s visit to Washington, Rufus Dawes, a former officer in the 6th Wisconsin, went to Arlington Cemetery to hunt up a group of Iron Brigade graves, an emotionally draining event for him. He wrote: "I found every grave and stood beside it with uncovered head….Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples…came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day…and Levi Pearson…and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men who fell at my side and under my command." He took heart, however, knowing that their sacrifice was far from wasted. It had, he said, helped to create "the most beneficial government ever established." How correct he was.

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