Though destined for fame as one of the most respected and feared forces in the Army of the Potomac, the Iron Brigade came from humble roots. The all-Western infantry brigade was primarily comprised of five colorfully named regiments: the Calico (6th Wisconsin), the Huckleberries (7th Wisconsin), the Babies (19th Indiana), the Feather-beds (24th Michigan), and the Ragged Asstetical (2nd Wisconsin), which won its not-so-fierce nom de guerre, said the veteran Aubrey Cullen, “from the fact that the government contractors had run short of good material when they made the pantaloons … allowing their flag of truce always to be kept in their rear.”
At the battle of Gettysburg, General John Gibbon was their commander. A West Point graduate and expatriate North Carolinian whose father and brothers fought for the Confederacy, upon taking command he had re-uniformed the brigade, equipping the 2nd Wisconsin with better pants(!), and standardizing their wearing distinctive black tall-crowned Army formal dress hats, trimmed with infantry blue cord and ostrich plumes, pinned up on the left side by a brass eagle. The sight of those hats among his troops had already gained recognition and inspired respect on multiple battlefields as the brigade proved themselves fierce fighters throughout the Eastern Campaign, earning the brigade its first nickname, “The Black Hats.”
The brigade took pride in its designation, “1st Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps.” But they attained their most famous nickname when General George B. McClellan witnessed them in action during the Battle of South Mountain, saw how firm they stood in the face of battle, and commented “They must be made of iron.” Thus was born the legend of the Iron Brigade of the West.
What Did The Iron Brigade Do At Gettysburg?
Chief among its various engagements of note, the Iron Brigade played a key role in defending Union positions on the first day of Gettysburg. Such was their bravery that at the end of the day, the Iron Brigade had to be ordered off the field. But that courage cost them dearly.
After the first day, the Iron Brigade regiments were beyond decimated, losing over half their number, including their commander General Gibbon. But their sacrifice made it possible for the Union army to hold the best ground for the next two days of fighting. When night fell on the first day of battle, the Iron Brigade had held firm, and the Union maintained the advantageous position that would carry them to the crucial victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Iron Brigade, proportionately, suffered the most casualties of any brigade in the Civil War. Though crushed by losses, the Iron Brigade fought on in the days after, engaging the Confederates on Cemetery Hill, engaging in an artillery duel on Brenner’s Hill, and again standing their ground to help hold the line repelling Pickett’s Charge. Elements of the brigade fought at Herbst’s Woods, the Railroad Cut, and Culp’s Hill.
Historical accounts written after the Civil War would assign much glory to other regiments who also took great action and suffered great loss in securing the crucial Union victory at Gettysburg. But as one historian noted: “…people kind of forget there wouldn’t have been a second and third day at Gettysburg without what the Iron Brigade did there.”
Map of the Area near the Iron Brigade Monument
Following is a Google Map showing the location of the Iron Brigade Monument and other nearby landmarks at Gettysburg National Park:
In addition to the fascinating history of the famed battlefield itself, a visit to Gettysburg National Park offers the opportunity to see the more than 1,300 monuments on the battlefield. Following is a list of important monuments located in the vicinity of the Iron Brigade Monument:
- Major General John Buford Monument
- Major General Reynolds Monument
- 84th New York Infantry Monument
- 14th Brooklyn Regiment Monument
- 19th Indiana Monument
- 97th143rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment Monument
- Monument to James Wadswoth’s Division – 1st Division 1st Corps
- McPherson Farm
- Gettysburg Battlefield: Lee’s Headquarters
Visit The Iron Brigade Monument in Person
Summer is almost here! Our bus tours of the historic Gettysburg Battlefield are out and running in full swing. Reservations can be made by calling our toll-free number at 877-680-8687. You can also purchase bus tour tickets online. Tours depart from the Gettysburg Tour Center located at 778 Baltimore Street across from the National Cemetery.