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The soldiers of the Iron Brigade managed to hold their position at Antietam with muskets, cannons and brawn. And by the skin of their teeth.

The Iron Brigade, recalled Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bragg of the 6th Wisconsin, had a “sniff of blood in their noses” early on September 17, 1862, in the opening stages of the Battle of Antietam. They were “sweeping along like a storm cloud, over skirmishers, everything opposing” when the brigade’s 800 soldiers drove southward at dawn down the Hagerstown Pike. On the east side of the pike, the 6th and the 2nd Wisconsin pushed into D.R. Miller’s cornfield, while the 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana moved along the open ground west of the road. Deadly Confederate volleys stopped the Iron Brigade’s advance as it reached the southern end of the Cornfield, however. The Midwesterners rushed forward and forced the Confederate lines to break at about 7 a.m., but a fresh Southern battle line emerging from the West Woods soon sent the Iron Brigade reeling back.

The embattled Badgers and Hoosiers rallied near the position of Captain Joseph Campbell’s Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery. As oncoming Southerners began cutting down the Northern gunners, some of the infantrymen raced to help keep the cannons firing.

While the six guns of Battery B fired to stem the Confederate advance, a “terrific fire” of musketry erupted in the Cornfield. The confusion and smoke made it difficult for brigade commander Brig. Gen. John Gibbon to determine the progress of his men or see what was happening. Wounded troops poured out of the corn, including Colonel Bragg, who warned Gibbon that the regiments, nicknamed the “Black Hats,” were being flanked. The Cornfield was a hellish swirl of smoke and shouting soldiers, the air full of bullets and exploding shells.

It was about 30 minutes into the advance, and the fighting seemed to be rolling back through the corn toward Gibbon’s prized bronze guns. Out of the shambles of the bullet-ripped field, “torn and broken and with thinned ranks,” reported Gibbon, tumbled the survivors of the 6th and 2nd Wisconsin and those of Colonel Walter Phelps Jr.’s 1st Brigade, I Corps. Artillerymen and horses were falling at an alarming rate, and his brigade looked to be broken and in disorder. Just ahead, advancing Rebels were firing at point-blank range into the gun crews and horses. “It seems almost incredible that any man could have escaped in a battery working in an open field with veteran infantry under dense cover sharpshooting at it within 28 or 30 paces,” related one gunner. The gunners were using canister and then double canister. Captain Campbell was down. “He had dismounted when he was hit twice, and his horse fell dead with several bullets in the body,” wrote teen bugler John Cook. “I started with the captain to the rear and turned him over to one of the drivers. He ordered me to report to Lieutenant [James] Stewart and tell him to take command of the battery.” The steady firing of Battery B’s guns began to falter.

Turning back toward the guns, Cook came upon a dead artilleryman, struck down while carrying ammunition to the guns. “I unstrapped the pouch, started for the battery, and worked as a cannoneer,” said the 15-year-old, who would one day be awarded a Medal of Honor for his service. Moving along the firing guns, Stewart organized his crews to maintain a steady rate of fire. When he spotted an infantry volunteer trying to jam two complete canister rounds with powder bags attached into the gun he was serving, Stewart stopped to show the soldier how to knock off the powder container of the second round against the hub of the wheel. The volunteer did as instructed, only to painfully slam his finger on the metal rim. After that, explained Stewart, every second round went into the muzzle powder and all, just as it came from the arsenal.

The heavy blasts from the double-charged 12-pounders deafened and stunned the men working the guns, who pushed the pieces back into place after each recoil. The Regulars trained the new men and infantry volunteers to stand on their toes to absorb the concussion, explained volunteer Henry B. Foster of the 2nd Wisconsin. Foster was holding a lead team, but left the horses to another man to carry ammunition to one of the pieces. Some of the men tied handkerchiefs around their heads to ease the pounding, Foster recalled, but added, “I have seen some of our men bleed at the nose and be deaf for a number of days after a hard battle, and…you know that them twelve pound brass guns is the worst kind to be close to when firing.”

When Henry Klinefelter, a 7th Wisconsin man serving as an artillery gunner, noticed the two guns to his right had stopped firing, he discovered “all the men were shot down.” Two or three of the injured gunners “crawled on their hands and knees several times from the limber to the pieces and loaded and fired those guns in that way until they had recoiled so far that they could not use them any more. Not until then were they entirely silenced.” Another 7th Wisconsin volunteer serving in the battery was Horace Ripley of Bristol. Left with the limbers, Ripley helped a wounded sergeant to the rear. He was given a pair of horses to hold when he returned to the battery. One animal was hit in the flank, its thrashing body and hooves threatening Ripley as he danced out of danger. “In a moment,” he said, the second horse “had his bits completely shot out of his mouth, carrying away his whole under jaw.” One of the Regular artillerymen stepped out of the smoke with a belt revolver, walked over to the crazed animal, and “blew his brains out to put him out of his misery.” The young Badger was sent forward to carry ammunition to one of the embattled Napoleons, but within minutes enemy bullets knocked out everyone serving the piece except Ripley and one other man.

Despite the killing blasts of double canister and musketry, the yelling Confederates seemed about to carry all before them. John Johnson of Janesville, one of the 2nd Wisconsin men, was working a handspike with Sergeant Joseph Herzog to shift a gun back into firing position. The piece had fired 10 to 15 rounds of canister in what Johnson later called “as fierce and murderous a combat as ever surged about a six-gun battery.” Herzog was shot through the lower bowels and slumped against the trail of the piece in great agony. Johnson watched in horror as the tough Regular pulled out a revolver and shot himself in the right temple.

Not far away, Gibbon watched the gunners and horses “falling thick and fast in the combined space.” The crew working a Napoleon on the pike was down to just four men. The piece was on an incline, so every time the gun fired it rolled backward, tipping the muzzle higher into the air. “In the hurry and excitement of the battle,” said Gibbon, the elevating screw was permitted to run down (as it will do in firing) until…the muzzle was sticking up in the air in such a way as to throw the projectiles entirely over the heads of the closely approaching enemy.”

Gibbon spurred his mount toward the skeleton crew, shouting, “Run, run up the elevating screw,” but could not be heard above the noise and confusion. Gibbon swung off his horse and, to the astonishment of the watching artillerymen, ran up to the gun and shouldered aside Henry Klinefelter.

The general straddled the trail of the gun to spin the elevating screw so the canister blast would bounce off the ground into the advancing Confederates. Gibbon then jumped away and yelled, “Give them hell, boys!” nodding to the man on the lanyard. The heavy gun bucked, the rear of the tube lifting in recoil as Gibbon ducked under the smoke to see the discharge. The blast “carried away most of the fence in front of it” and produced “great destruction in the enemy ranks.”

Brigadier General John B. Hood’s Confederates, wrote Gibbon, “got so close to the battery in this desperate attempt to capture it that pieces were double-shotted with canister before which whole ranks went down, and after we got possession of the field, dead men were found on top of each other.” The men rolled the gun forward to fire again. During one of the hurried firings, Sergeant John Mitchell was badly hurt when the gun recoiled over him.

A 6th Wisconsin soldier stumbled out of the ruins of the Cornfield carrying his regiment’s blue state flag and a Confederate banner he had found on the ground. Unsure what to do, the man approached Gibbon near the guns, but the general had no time for trophies. “Throw down the flag and take your place in ranks!” snapped the general. Not one to disobey an order—especially from an excited general—he did as he was told. A few seconds later, Gibbon, “grimed and black with powder,” found Major Rufus Dawes of the 6th at the edge of the Cornfield rallying his broken regiment. “Hurray for the Sixth! Three cheers men, for the Sixth!” Gibbon shouted. “Major, bring your men over and save that gun,” he added, pointing to the Napoleon on the roadway.

With the state flag in hand, Dawes waved it above his head and ran to the artillery piece. “Let every man from Wisconsin follow me!” he called. Looking back, Dawes would write, “it did not seem possible then to carry that flag into the deadly storm and live.” Soon gathered around him was “every ‘black hat’ within sight of the blue emblem of the Badger state.” Also coming up were men from the 20th New York State Militia, sent to support Battery B. The moment of decision had arrived. The Wisconsin survivors and the New Yorkers pushed ahead to shoot at the Confederates in the corn. The enemy, recalled bugler John Cook, made “three desperate attempts to capture us, the last time coming within ten or fifteen feet.”

A 2nd Wisconsin man working the guns “as if artillery was his forte” remembered the “terrible ordeal” lasted fewer than 10 minutes, during which Gibbon and his gunners “literally filled the air with fence rails, haversacks, guns and limbs of rebel soldiers.” Dawes was “fairly stunned [by] a report as of a thunderclap” from a Napoleon near him firing a double blast of canister that threw “the rails of a fence” high into the air.

When all seemed lost, a line of blue infantry came sweeping from the right across the field in front of the battery and into Hood’s Rebels holding the southwestern quarter of the Miller Cornfield. It was “our gallant 19th Indiana,” exclaimed Dawes. On its left was the 7th Wisconsin, with three other New York regiments from Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick’s brigade joining the counterattack. The Federals fired into the flank of the Confederate attack, halted under a hot exchange of musketry, and rolled forward again with a loud yell.

The genesis of this counterassault began with the skirmishers of the 19th Indiana, who spotted Hood’s men closing on Battery B from their position in the fringes of the West Woods. Lieutenant Colonel Alois Bachman, who could not see the Rebels because of a rocky ledge, called in his skirmishers and sent runners to the 7th Wisconsin and the New York regiments: He was changing front for an attack. With the 7th Wisconsin coming up on its left, the 19th Indiana moved to the rocky ledge and opened fire on the Confederates. Some of the Rebels fled, but most stood their ground.

When the Hoosiers began shouting “Charge! Charge!” Bachman pushed through his line and looked right and left. He had been with these men since the first days of the war. “Boys, the command is no longer forward, but now it is follow me!” he called. Hat in hand and sword drawn, Bachman led his yelling Hoosiers into the open.

The 7th Wisconsin joined the attack, followed by the 21st and 35th New York (with the 23rd New York in support). The Confederates stood for a short time before turning to run. One regiment, the 4th Texas, was in danger of being cut off. The Texans tried to move by the left flank, halted and fired into the Black Hats. The crashing musketfire knocked back the Badgers, and the Texans slipped away.

The Hoosiers of the 19th drove forward, crossing the Hagerstown Pike into the Cornfield before wheeling right to follow fleeing Confederates to the brow of the ridge. There, not far from the Dunkard Church, another line of enemy infantry was seen moving northward through abandoned artillery pieces. A murderous volley swept through the Indiana ranks. A bullet struck Bachman on his right elbow and spun him around. A second shot killed him instantly. “We got into a hornet’s nest” and were “nearly cut to pieces,” remembered one of the Indiana Black Hats. With Bachman down, command fell to a young man of 19, William Dudley, the youngest captain in the line. Just months before, he had been quietly milling grain in Richmond, Ind. Now the boyish captain was doing his best to keep his men together and alive.

Rebels seemed to cover the front, and everyone was shooting. A group of men carried Bachman’s body to the rear. Dudley ordered the Indiana regiment to fall back to the road, where it rallied with the 7th Wisconsin on its left and Patrick’s men gathered farther north. The line held there for a time.

Without warning, Confederates fired from the West Woods and advanced north. The exhausted Federals gave way again, rallied, changed front and continued firing. Their muskets were so hot and dirty that the Indiana boys had to throw their ramrods into the barrels to thump down the ball. Finally, when the Rebel attack fell apart and withdrew into the timber, Dudley pulled back his command to a rocky ledge, where some of Patrick’s soldiers and the 7th Wisconsin were stitching together yet another makeshift line. With cartridge boxes empty or nearly so, the Indiana and Wisconsin regiments fell back north, leaving the New Yorkers behind. The battle continued just a couple hundred yards to the east, as a fresh Southern attack drove toward the Cornfield and the East Woods. Patrick’s men also withdrew soon thereafter to a meadow near the Miller barn, in search of fresh ammunition and new orders.

One soldier described the charge of the 19th Indiana and its fellow regiments as “gallant, but ill-advised,” but an officer of the Iron Brigade credited the furious rush with saving Battery B. The quick and timely advance, he argued, was made “regardless of consequences to themselves, but to protect Battery B, and save their Brigade brothers so hard pressed in the cornfield. It was bold, and it was bravely met, as the line of dead along that pike on that front testified more forcibly than word may do.”

With the Confederate attack turned back, fighting west of the pike dribbled to a close. When Gibbon ordered Battery B to the rear, the damaged teams and enervated gunners worked like fiends to haul their guns out. “The attack was beaten off, the bullets gradually ceased to come, and during the lull the battery was rapidly limbered to the rear and quickly withdrawn from its dangerous position,” wrote Gibbon, “leaving the corner of the field thick strewn with its dead men and horses, while the thinner ranks of the brigade followed after it.”

The 2nd Wisconsin man serving with the battery hopped a caisson with one of the Regulars. The caisson had only rolled “a few rods when the thing turned over and came near breaking their necks,” wrote a witness. “They got the thing righted and made another start when the caisson blew up; the full force of the charge went out of the end on which sat the regular, and blew him into shreds,” while the Badger was “stood on his ear” into apple tree tops that had been cut off and piled in heaps. Somewhat the worse for wear, the Black Hat calmly brushed himself off. “For the first day in a battery I’ve been used rather rough,” he commented to a man standing nearby. He had been serving the battery only 20 minutes, he added, and was fully convinced “that battery was inclined to take too many risks.”

A Wisconsin officer boasted that his regiment rallied to save the battery as “readily and cheerfully as for a companion in arms.” The heavy bronze guns “had voices,” he continued, “and the voice of B had always been to them the forerunner of victory, and they loved the guns as if they were part of themselves.” Gibbon, too, admitted that the escape of his pet Napoleon cannons was very close indeed: “Had we succeeded even in getting the pieces out through the double gate-ways of the barn yard, there beyond was that long straight stretch of turnpike, perfectly under command of the enemy the moment his riflemen reached the top of this little ridge up where the guns stood. A single horse killed or badly wounded in that narrow ‘gorge’ and Battery B would be numbered among the trophies of Lee’s Army.”

One of the gunners, a veteran of several fights, remembered the service of September 17, 1862, as the hardest of the war for Battery B. “The recruits of 1863, even with Gettysburg on their records, always took off their caps to the old Antietam boys whenever there was a campfire debate about prowess, and cordially yielded the palm to the Iron veterans who had braved the butchery of that fatal Cornfield on the Sharpsburg Pike.”


This article is excerpted from Lance J. Herdegen’s The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats From Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter, published by Savas Beatie (2012).

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.