Two of the war’s most famous brigades engaged in mortal combat at Brawner’s Farm.
A solitary Confederate horseman watched from a ridge while a column of Union troops march past him. Riding his mount back and forth, he studied the enemy ranks, which were only a few hundred yards away. After several minutes on the ridge, he wheeled his horse rearward and rejoined a cluster of officers. They exchanged salutes, and Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson said to them, “Bring out your men, gentlemen!”
Artillery crews emerged from woods on the ridge, shouldered their cannons into position, rammed in charges and pulled the lanyards. The sudden blast of artillery fire erupted like a thunderclap in a bright blue sky. The stunned Federals scrambled for cover as shells burst above them. It was late in the day on August 28, 1862, along Warrenton Turnpike near Groveton, Va. Before darkness stilled the fury, Jackson would become embroiled in a difficult, costly fight, and four Union regiments, men wearing tall black hats, would earn the respect of their foes and begin laying the foundation for a legend.
One of the war’s most remarkable movements had brought Jackson’s 24,000-man wing of the Army of Northern Virginia to this wooded ridge near the old Manassas battlefield. Since mid-August the army’s commander, General Robert E. Lee, had been concentrating his units against Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia, positioned along the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers in the central section of the Old Dominion. Lee had reasoned correctly that the Federal administration would withdraw Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula and combine its units with Pope’s. Before the two enemy armies united, Lee acted, explaining later that “the disparity…between the contending forces rendered the risks unavoidable.”
The Confederate commander hoped to maneuver Pope out of the region with a broad turning or flank movement. Lee directed Jackson to cross the Rappahannock, swing beyond the Union flank and cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, the Federals’ main supply and communication line. Major General James Longstreet’s wing of the army would demonstrate along the river and then follow Jackson’s troops. Lee wanted to avoid a battle, and if fortune favored his army, threaten Washington, D.C.
Jackson’s veterans began marching early on the morning of August 25. A soldier in the 2nd Virginia asserted: “I do not believe that there was a man in the corps that knew our destination except Jackson. It looked like madness to march away from our supplies and support, but we had learned to obey and to blindly follow.” Jackson set a relentless pace, and stragglers abandoned the ranks in droves. By late in the afternoon of August 26, however, the Rebels descended upon the railroad, striking the tracks at Bristoe Station. A detachment seized Pope’s supply base at Manassas Junction. The Confederates had marched 54 miles in 36 hours.
At Manassas Junction the next day, Jackson’s men reveled in what seemed to be a mountain of supplies. A soldier declared, “What a time was that…half starved and worn out, we suddenly found ourselves turned loose among car loads of everything good to eat and drink and smoke.” Whatever they did not consume or carry off went up in flames. Shielded by darkness, the Rebels marched away, the scattered divisions finally reuniting on the morning of August 28 on the ridge near Groveton. Jackson had chosen a good defensive position that offered concealment to his men and a favorable location for Longstreet to join him. Throughout the day, Jackson received reports that enemy units were converging on Manassas Junction.
As Lee had planned, Jackson’s operation forced Pope to abandon his line along the Rappahannock. The withdrawal began on August 27, as blue-uniformed troops filled the roads northward. The men in the ranks had learned, according to one of them, “that the enemy had outflanked us and were trying to get in our rear.” On August 28, however, the march halted as Pope wrestled with conflicting intelligence that placed Jackson at Centreville and Longstreet near Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains. To Pope it must have seemed as though Confederate apparitions were flitting everywhere across the countryside. Late in the afternoon, he resumed the march, ordering his units toward Jackson’s reported whereabouts.
The troops of Brig. Gen. Rufus King’s 1st Division of Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell’s III Corps had spent the afternoon resting and enjoying roasted beef along Warrenton Turnpike less than two miles from Groveton. About 5 p.m., King’s four brigades, under Brig. Gens. John Hatch, John Gibbon, Abner Doubleday and Marsena Patrick, filed onto the road and stepped off to the east. Hatch’s men led the march, and as they passed the farm of John Brawner, lying north of the turnpike, someone in the van spotted movement along the wooded ridge to their left. Hatch ordered the 14th Brooklyn, a chasseur unit whose members wore red trousers, to sweep across Brawner’s fields and woods below the ridgeline. When the New Yorkers rejoined the column after finding no signs of enemy troops, Jackson appeared on the crest and then disappeared into the woods. Confederate officers hurried to bring out their troops.
Jackson had bided his time for most of the day, waiting for the appearance of the enemy. He had proved to be an elusive quarry, but the time had come to reveal his position and strike a portion of Pope’s army. Captain Asher Garber’s Staunton Artillery ignited the combat. It was 6 p.m.
The artillery’s initial discharges surprised Hatch’s men, who scurried off the road, seeking shelter behind its banks and in nearby fields and woods. One Yankee stated, “Most of us lay so close to the ground that we must have left our impressions on the soil.” Hatch brought forward Captain John A. Reynolds’ Battery L, 1st New York Light Artillery, to oppose Garber’s Virginians. Behind Hatch’s men, their comrades in the other three brigades flattened themselves on the ground.
Gibbon’s brigade trailed Hatch’s by a quarter of a mile. When the enemy gunners opened fire, Gibbon rode ahead to a knoll north of the road to assess the situation. A West Pointer in the class behind Jackson and Regular Army to his soul, the 35-year-old Gibbon had been in command of his four regiments for barely three months. The 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana comprised the brigade—the only one in the East that consisted entirely of troops from Western states. In the parlance of the times, they were men from “way down beyond the sunset.”
Even on this day, the Westerners had not warmed to their demanding general. When Gibbon had assumed command of them in May, he had determined, in his words, to instill “the habit of obedience and subjection to the will of another…into the minds of free and independent men.” He drilled them incessantly and punished any transgressions of discipline. They cursed him, and as one private wrote, “you’ll just feel that you hadn’t better call him Johnnie.” Another Westerner put it bluntly: “Probably no brigade commander was more cordially hated by his men.”
Gibbon’s will prevailed, however, as the brigade became distinguished for its drill and discipline. He wanted them to be the equal of Regular troops and to wear the uniform of Regulars. He ordered for them the long dark-blue frock coat and the high-crowned black, or so-called Hardee, hat. They initially rebelled against this, as they had to purchase the items with their annual clothing allowance. He also required them to wear white leggings until he found his horse with four of them on its legs. But before long the men came to accept the tall black hats as the brigade’s symbol.
Gibbon knew that the real test for the Westerners lay ahead of them on some unknown battlefield. The 2nd Wisconsin had been bloodied on the slope of Henry House Hill at First Bull Run, but the other three regiments had been spared from combat. This uncertainty about his men’s steadiness under fire still gnawed at Gibbon when he rode forward to the knoll. His fears would prove to be unwarranted, however. A member of the 19th Indiana declared afterward that the men were “worked up to the battle-fever” and were “rather looking for trouble.”
On the knoll Gibbon saw a second Confederate battery, and then a third, clear the woods and deploy. These enemy gunners opened fire on the Westerners and the two trailing brigades. Doubleday soon joined Gibbon. They conferred, concluding that Jackson’s main force must be at Centreville, and that the Rebel artillery crews belonged to horse artillery units. Doubleday proposed an attack on the single battery near the Brawner house and farm buildings. “By heaven, I’ll do it!” Gibbon exclaimed.
Gibbon rejoined his command. Minutes before, he had ordered up the six 12-pounder Napoleons of Captain Joseph Campbell’s Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, to counter the enemy fire. The battery, which Gibbon had once commanded, rolled into position east of Brawner’s Woods and north of the turnpike. Now Gibbon turned to the 2nd Wisconsin’s Colonel Edgar O’Connor, directing him to advance against the Confederate guns beyond the Brawner farmstead. The Wisconsin men stood, formed ranks and followed an old roadbed through the woods into open ground. O’Connor shifted them into a battle line and sent forward skirmishers. Ascending the slope, they halted in a broomsedge field near the southern edge of the ridge.
To their front and left lay Brawner’s log farmhouse, a small barn, a few outbuildings and an orchard of apple and peach trees. Fences that had seen better times framed the fields. Farther back, woods darkened the northern rim of the high ground known as Stony Ridge. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a battle line of Confederate infantry, their ranks marked by five flags, emerged from the trees.
The Confederates were Jackson’s old command, the renowned Stonewall Brigade. In May 1862, they had numbered more than 3,600; on this day, the five Virginia regiments—the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd— counted barely 900 in the ranks. Colonel William Baylor led them. Days before, the brigade’s field officers had prepared and signed a letter to the War Department requesting that the popular Baylor be promoted to permanent command of the brigade. On they came with that steady stride of veterans who had been in such hot places before.
When the 450 officers and men of the 2nd Wisconsin saw the Virginians, the skirmishers fell to the ground. Behind them, according to one report, “the remaining companies in line firmly awaited the charge of the rebels, the men grasping their pieces with a tighter grasp.” A few of the Northerners muttered, “Come on, God damn you.” The Wisconsin men had waited more than a year to exact revenge for First Bull Run, and now marching toward them were their old foes on that terrible July Sabbath.
When the Virginians closed to within 150 yards, O’Connor’s men triggered a volley. The fire tore into the Confederate ranks, knocking men to the ground. They surged ahead to an old fence 80 yards from the Federals and, emitting a yell, opened fire. “Within one minute all was enveloped in smoke,” stated a witness, “and a sheet of flame seemed to go out from each side to the other along the whole length of the line.” For 20 minutes the opposing lines hammered each other in, as a participant put it, “a fair square stand up face-to-face fight.” Along the fence the Virginians, said one of them, “would lie down, load and fire, and it seemed that everyone who would raise up was shot.” Many of the Wisconsin soldiers refused to lie down, confronting the whirlwind of musketry on their feet.
The dead and wounded mounted. Colonel John Neff of the 33rd Virginia died instantly when a bullet hit his left check and exited through his right ear. In the 2nd Virginia, Colonel Lawson Botts fell with a mortal head wound, and his successor, Captain John Nordenbousch, soon went down with a serious wound. Across the field, the 2nd Wisconsin lost their “little Colonel,” as the men called O’Connor, a man of small stature, who toppled from his horse with bullets in the arm and groin. The colonel implored his fellow Northerners to hold the ground as he was carried to the rear. He died within the hour. So many had fallen that one soldier claimed that the survivors “had to be careful where we placed our feet to prevent stepping on” them.
Gibbon had been watching the 2nd Wisconsin’s fearful struggle and ordered in Colonel Solomon Meredith’s 19th Indiana. As the 423 Indianans marched up the slope, Meredith shouted to them, “Boys, don’t forget that you are Hoosiers, and above all, remember the glorious flag of our country!” The Hoosiers came in on the 2nd Wisconsin’s left flank, where they had been engaged with the 4th Virginia around the Brawner buildings in an “almost hand to hand fight.” The Rebels blasted Meredith’s ranks with a volley. One Indianan compared the musketry to “a cat that has unexpectedly met a big dog, bowing up its back and spitting fire at him.”
The advance of the 19th Indiana signaled the entry of more units into the maelstrom, which Gibbon described as “a long and continuous roll” of musketry. Jackson personally sent in two or three regiments from Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton’s Georgia brigade of Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Division. With Jackson urging them on, the Georgians raked the right flank of the 2nd Wisconsin. “We poured volley after volley into the ranks of the enemy,” declared a Georgian.
Gibbon, meanwhile, hurried forward Colonel William Robinson and the 7th Wisconsin. Members of this regiment cleared Brawner’s Woods and aligned on their comrades’ right flank. Lawton’s Georgians were less than 100 yards away and appeared “like a black mass” to the Federals. A volley from Robinson’s untested soldiers scythed into the Confederate line. One Georgian asserted later that it seemed as though they “would be overwhelmed and cut to pieces.” They responded in kind, and “it seemed as if the heavens was a furnace,” said a Yankee. The two lines stood “within a hailing distance of each other” and ravaged the other’s ranks.
“My God, what a slaughter!” attested a member of the 7th Wisconsin. “No one appeared to know the object of the fight, and there we stood one hour, the men falling all around; we got no orders to fall back, and Wisconsin men would rather die than fall back without orders.” It was a terrible frenzy in the deepening darkness, and it pulled more men into its folds. Jackson ordered in Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble’s Brigade on the left of Lawton’s beleaguered line. Coming up the slope from the south was Gibbon’s final regiment, Colonel Lysander Cutler’s 6th Wisconsin.
The 6th’s Private Albert V. Young later recalled his feelings as they advanced: “I must have been very pale. It seemed as if my blood had stopped circulating. Waves of intense heat flashed in quick succession through my entire being. I trembled so I could with difficulty keep from dropping my musket, but I hung on to it because I realized I should soon have need of it if I were not knocked out very early by a rebel bullet.”
Cutler halted his 500 officers and men in a swale, barely 80 yards from Trimble’s Georgians, North Carolinians and Alabamians. The Rebels seemed to have either not seen the Yankees or mistaken them for Lawton’s men. Cutler shouted to his men, “Get ready, boys, for the fun is coming.” He gave the order to fire, and the men’s rifles flashed in the dimming light. Trimble’s line reeled, and his men lay down, hurriedly piling up rails from a fence in front of them. Then, said a Georgian, “the work of death commenced at short range.” Major Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin contended that the Westerners “loaded and fired with the energy of madmen.”
Before long, the 76th New York and 56th Pennsylvania of Doubleday’s brigade filled the 300- yard gap between the 6th and 7th Wisconsin. Now, from one end of the opposing lines to the other, “a roaring hell of fire” ensued. Trimble declared, “I have never known so terrible a fire.” Union officers urged their men, “Give them hell boys, give them hell!” A member of the 7th Wisconsin swore later that despite the deafening roar of combat he heard a Confederate colonel call the Federals “sons of Bitches” and admonished his soldiers to fire until “every God damned man of them are killed and make them take their breakfasts in Hell.”
At one point in the fighting, Ewell led a regiment forward to support Trimble’s left flank. The 6th Wisconsin detected the movement and unleashed a volley toward the Rebels. A bullet struck Ewell in the left knee, shattering his leg. Carried to the rear, the general had the limb amputated the next day. He would not return to the army until May 1863, as Jackson’s successor in command of the Second Corps.
Jackson was determined, however, to break the bloody stalemate. He summoned reinforcements from Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Division on the left of his line, but they would not arrive until the combat had ended. He then instructed division commander Brig. Gen. William B. Taliaferro to send a brigade against the flank of the 19th Indiana on the Union left. Finally, Jackson directed Lawton and Trimble to undertake a frontal assault against the enemy line. It was about 7:30 p.m.
Trimble’s veterans stepped out first. Tragically, only his two right regiments, the 21st Georgia and 21st North Carolina, had received the order. Crossing the fence and unleashing a Rebel yell, the pair of regiments went forward together to within 30 yards of the Federals. They never had a chance. The enemy fire “seemed to pass through our ranks,” said a Georgian. It was as if an unseen force had reached out a giant hand and clutched scores of men in its grip at once. Before they could extricate themselves, the Georgians and North Carolinians sustained losses approaching 80 percent. Only two other regiments in Lee’s army incurred a higher casualty rate in an engagement than those units.
On Trimble’s right, the 26th Georgia and possibly some other troops charged, directing the attack against the 2nd Wisconsin. No Union troops had held their ground longer than these Federals, and they were not about to give it up now. With the Georgians only 30 paces away, the Wisconsin troops lashed them with a volley. “Men fell from the ranks by the dozens,” wrote one Georgian. Eight of 10 company commanders in the Confederate regiment fell, while its entire color guard disappeared. A member of the 76th New York told his family in a letter: “Gibbon’s men did not run. Those western men are not easily scared.”
The New York men and members of the 7th Wisconsin laced the Georgians’ flank. “Our fire perfectly annihilated the rebels,” one Northerner claimed. The Southerners had had enough and stumbled back across the ridge, looking for cover behind a fence. Only 60 officers and men remained in the regiment’s ranks; nearly three-fourths of the regiment had been either killed or wounded.
The final spasm of bloodletting occurred on the Union left flank, manned by the 19th Indiana. On orders from Jackson, Captain John Pelham of J.E.B. Stuart’s Horse Artillery raced to the battlefield from the distant rear and unlimbered his guns within 100 yards of the Indianans. To meet this serious threat to his flank, Colonel Meredith shifted two companies to the left. The Hoosiers crept ahead through the grass and then opened fire on the Rebel gunners at short range, forcing Pelham to withdraw.
Behind Pelham came three regiments of the brigade commanded by Taliaferro’s uncle, Colonel A.G. Taliaferro. Halting in the yard of Brawner’s bullet-marked house, the Southerners raked the 19th Indiana’s fraying ranks. Meredith’s horse went down under the fire, injuring the colonel. Gibbon ordered the regiment to retire, with the Hoosiers fighting as they withdrew. Musket and artillery fire continued for awhile in the darkness and then finally subsided. After nearly two hours of fearful combat and staggering casualties the fight was over.
Soon details of men on both sides, guided by the light from lanterns, began to gather up the broken survivors. One in every three men who fought along Stony Ridge had become a casualty. Confederate losses exceeded 1,250, borne primarily by the Stonewall Brigade and Lawton’s and Trimble’s regiments. “Never before, or after that, during the war,” a Georgia officer argued, “did Stonewall Jackson’s old Corps suffer so severely in the same length of time.”
For Jackson himself, it had been a frustrating action. Though he had the advantage of superior numbers, he had been unable to bring them to bear against the Federals. His division commanders, Ewell and William Taliaferro, had managed to commit only parts of their commands to the fighting. Jackson personally intervened, issuing direct orders to brigades and even regiments. In the end, he had 14 brigades in his command, and only three of them were seriously engaged against a force that consisted of six regiments, five of which had never been in combat before that day. It had not been a notable performance by the senior Confederate commanders.
Conversely, Gibbon and Doubleday could only be pleased with the conduct of their troops. The Westerners, wrote Gibbon later, stood “up to their work like old soldiers,” and “I was exceedingly proud of my command.” In his report, Doubleday praised the 76th New York and 56th Pennsylvania, saying, “Throughout the whole action my men held their ground unflinchingly, and in this their maiden fight covered themselves with glory.” Gibbon believed, however, that his and Doubleday’s regiments should have received help from Hatch’s and Patrick’s brigades.
The casualties among the Federal units were also serious. Doubleday’s pair of regiments sustained a combined loss of a reported 236 killed, wounded and missing. Among the Westerners, the toll came to 725, or nearly 40 percent of the 1,900 engaged. Every regimental commander had fallen—O’Connor, mortally wounded; Robinson and Cutler, seriously wounded; and Meredith, injured. The casualty rate in the 2nd Wisconsin approached 60 percent, while in the 19th Indiana it exceeded 50 percent. Protected by a swale in the ground, the 6th Wisconsin incurred the fewest casualties, only 75. When Gibbon’s officers gave him the figures that night, he bowed his head and wept.
The 6th Wisconsin’s Major Dawes later questioned the sacrifice, commenting, “The best blood of Wisconsin and Indiana was poured out like water, and it was spilled for naught.” Indeed, they had gained perhaps not a foot of ground nor achieved a tactical victory. But a bond had been forged between the men of the brigade and Gibbon, whose rigid adherence to drill and discipline had prepared them for what they had encountered. They had also earned the respect of their opponents. Less than three weeks later, as they charged at South Mountain, their foes immediately recognized who they were, calling them “those damned black hats.”
After South Mountain and Antietam, Gibbon’s “men from way down beyond the sunset” would forever be known as the Iron Brigade. It had been at Brawner’s Farm, however, that they gave their first indication of what type of men and soldiers they would become. They had been itching for a fight, and it came to them late on an August afternoon. One of them confided after the war that the Westerners were always ready for combat, but after Brawner’s Farm, “we were never again eager.”
Jeffry D. Wert, who writes from Centre Hall, Pa., is the 2006 Laney Prize winner for his book The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. For additional reading, see Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, by John J. Hennessey.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.