THE CLASSICS: The Iron Brigade (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews, Civil War 1863, Civil War Soldiers, Confederate Generals, Confederate Soldiers, Culp's Hill, Little Round Top, Robert E Lee

Reviewed by Peter S. Carmichael
By Alan T. Nolan

Alan T. Nolan pioneered the modern regimental history with The Iron Brigade.

The voices of the "Black Hat Boys," who comprised one of the fiercest combat units in the Army of the Potomac, still resound in The Iron Brigade, by Alan T. Nolan.

George Pickett, although not the brightest of Robert E. Lee’s lieutenants, was perceptive enough to recognize that the Yankees had something to do with Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Pickett made this painfully obvious observation after the war when Southerners were trying to explain to the rest of the world why they had lost the Civil War. This explanation, known as the Lost Cause, minimized the importance of Northern generalship and the fighting abilities of the common Union soldier. Traditional scholarship on Gettysburg has reflected this Lost Cause perspective, as historians have emphasized the actions of the Army of Northern Virginia in virtual isolation, overlooking the decisive role that the Army of the Potomac played in securing victory on Pennsylvania soil.

There were many pivotal moments at Gettysburg that hinged upon Northern leadership and bravery. The popularity of the novel The Killer Angels and its screen adaptation, Gettysburg, has put the spotlight exclusively on the actions of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, casting a shadow over the rest of the Army of the Potomac.

It is difficult to imagine the 20th Maine’s heroic stand on Little Round Top if it had not been for the stubborn fighting on July 1 of a Midwestern outfit better known as the Iron Brigade. This unit, composed entirely of men from Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, flattened a series of Confederate assaults around McPherson’s Woods and the famous railroad cut. The soldiers wore distinctive black felt hats and were known for their fierce tenacity in combat. At Gettysburg they confirmed their fighting reputations — but at a frightening cost. Of the 1,883 Midwesterners who had entered battle that day, more than 1,212 — or 65 percent — were killed or wounded. The brigade never recovered from these losses, but the human sacrifice was not without effect or meaning. They, among the other Union soldiers who held the paper-thin line that stretched around the outskirts of Gettysburg, gave George Gordon Meade the time to concentrate his army along the impregnable line that eventually stretched from Culp’s Hill to Little Round Top.

The exploits of this unit have been brilliantly captured by Alan T. Nolan, who is best known for his highly controversial book Lee Considered. Nolan was one of the first scholars to write a modern regimental history when he published The Iron Brigade in 1961. Even though Nolan was not schooled in the burgeoning social history movement that was gaining popularity among academics, he showed a remarkable sensitivity to recovering the voices of ordinary soldiers. Like many social historians, Nolan was interested in the daily lives of people and how they helped shape the course of the Civil War. Unit histories, as Nolan saw them, should be history from the bottom up.

He tended, however, to dismiss the role of ideology as a motivating force among the Midwestern men, an argument that has been overturned by scholars like James McPherson who believe that common soldiers were highly political. Nonetheless, Nolan offered future scholars new ways of understanding the experience of the rank and file. His discussions of soldier interactions with Southern civilians, their perceptions of slavery, and their varied response to reenlistments were new and important lines of inquiry that scholars are still pursuing today.

Nolan’s Iron Brigade, furthermore, reminds us that Civil War units were more than soulless chess pieces controlled and manipulated by generals and politicians. These outfits were made up of political beings whose beliefs and ideas still deserve our attention if we are to make greater meaning of the heroism that both sides displayed on great battlefields like Gettysburg.