On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued, under the signature of Secretary of State, William Seward, a call for 75,000 state militia troops to suppress the rebellious states of the South. His call for troops was issued three days after CS Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the provisional Confederate troops, ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
The Northern states were aghast that the South would fire on a largely defenseless garrison. With Lincoln’s proclamation for state militia support, the states were overwhelmed with volunteer recruits, mostly inspired by a sense of patriotism. On April 16, Wisconsin Governor Alexander Randall called for enough troops to satisfy the state’s quota of one regiment (approximately 1,000 men). Enough volunteers enlisted to create two regiments. The 2nd Wisconsin Infantry would include men from all over the state including Madison, Racine, Oshkosh, Milwaukee and La Crosse. Organized at Camp Randall, named in honor of their governor, the troops would be under the command of Colonel S. Park Coon. The individual companies were given nicknames that described the unit.
Company A (The Citizen’s Guard)
Company B (The La Crosse Light Guards)
Company C (The Grant County Grays)
Company D (The Janesville Volunteers)
Company E (The Oshkosh Volunteers)
Company F (The Belle City Rifles)
Company G (The Portage City Guards)
Company H (The Randall Guards)
Company I (The Miner’s Guards)
Company K (The Wisconsin Rifles)
The regiment would be mustered into Federal service, on June 11, 1861, in Madison. Arriving in Washington D.C. from June 20–25, they would be assigned to US Colonel William T. Sherman’s Third Brigade, US Brigadier General Daniel Tyler’s First Division of US Brigadier General Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia (this was before the army was officially called the Army of the Potomac). The 2nd Wisconsin would be the only western regiment in the brigade, the other three regiments being the 13th, 69th and 79th of New York. Sherman would drill his brigade, trying to get them “battle ready,” but was uncomfortable with the volunteer regiments.
Upon Lincoln’s urging, McDowell would put his army in motion, from Alexandria, Virginia, on July 16 – destination Manassas Station. It was known that P.G.T. Beauregard had a smaller army there. The operational plan called for an attack on the Confederates, while US Major General Robert Patterson kept CS General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah tied up in the Shenandoah Valley.
On July 21, McDowell’s army would approach Beauregard’s Confederates from the north, while a portion of his army would feint, to the west, along the Warrenton Turnpike. Unfortunately, the Confederates would anticipate the move from the north and be somewhat prepared for the attack, that started the Battle of First Manassas. The larger Federal attacking force would initially have success, pushing the retreating troops from Matthew’s Hill towards the Henry house. Unfortunately, Patterson failed miserably at keeping Johnston’s troops bottled up and his army would arrive on the field, just in time to decimate the Federals. It would prove a rout, with McDowell’s army retreating, on the run, to the Washington defenses. The ill prepared 2nd Wisconsin would not perform well, nor would they be alone. Very few brigades, or regiments held together. Sherman, after the battle, complained of the raw volunteer recruits, and blamed the defeat squarely on the volunteers.
After the debacle at Bull Run, the army would be reorganized and the 2nd Wisconsin would be assigned to US Brigadier General Rufus King’s Fourth Brigade, McDowell’s Division of the newly designated Army of the Potomac, commanded by US Major General George B. McClellan. The 2nd Wisconsin would have a new colonel, Edgar O’Conner due to the resignation of Coon. Additionally, they would have a new brigade commander, US Brigadier General John Gibbon. They would be an all “western” brigade, with the 6th and 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana filling out the new brigade. During the Peninsula Campaign, and the Seven Days, they would not be with the Army of the Potomac, as McDowell was held north of Richmond, near Falmouth, Virginia. They would be involved in some fighting, north of Richmond, in a failed attempt to keep CS Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s army from joining Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, during the Seven Days.
During this period of relative inactivity, Gibbon would drill his brigade, giving them the darker uniforms of the regular army, and the black hats that would give the their initial nickname – the Black Hat Brigade. Additionally, Gibbon would instill confidence in his western troops, through strict discipline and training. This would prove beneficial as they would need the discipline during the coming months. While they were anxious for a fight, they would not have long to wait.
With US Major General John Pope’s defeat at Cedar Mountain, he would lose track of Stonewall Jackson’s 2nd Corps. Jackson had been sent to keep Pope from joining McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, he would continually fool Pope as to his intentions. Pope would finally determine that Jackson was near Manassas Junction, and would set his army in motion. He would be joined by McDowell’s III Corps to flush Jackson out. Near Gainesville, Virginia, on August 28, he wrongly believed that Jackson was no longer at Manassas, but was further east in Centreville. On August 29, Rufus King’s Division would be marching east, on the Warrenton Turnpike, oblivious to Jackson’s close proximity, near the First Manassas battlefield. With the division passing Brawner’s Farm, they would be engaged by Jackson’s artillery, located in an unfinished railroad cut, north of the turnpike. With Federal artillery unlimbered near Groveton, Gibbon, without being able to confer with King, who was actually experiencing what was believed to be an epileptic seizure, ordered his brigade into action. The 19th Indiana would form the left flank, with the 2nd Wisconsin on its right and the 7th Wisconsin on their right. The 6th Wisconsin would be on the right flank. Forming behind a woodlot, the regiment could see Confederate Infantry approaching and the smoke from their artillery on the rise behind the farm. Gibbon would send the 2nd Wisconsin, into the woods. They would stop, dressing their lines, before emerging and advancing up the rise, towards the farm. The regiment would come under increasingly heavy musketry and would slow. Gibbon realizing their predicament, would send the 19th Indiana in on their left and the 7th Wisconsin on their right. The 2nd would keep up a rapid fire on the Rebels, unaware that they were facing the better part of a division, from Jackson’s 2nd Corps. Gibbon would send messages to division command, advising of his situation, but would receive no response. Fortunately, US Brigadier General Abner Doubleday, who’s brigade was marching ahead of Gibbon, was able to turn around and engage in the fight. The battle at Brawner’s Farm would last well past dark, with the small Federal force holding Jackson’s forces in check. During the fighting, the 2nd Wisconsin’s commander, O’Connor, would be badly wounded. The color guard would quickly lose seven, of eight color bearers and the eighth would fall, shot through both legs. Describing the fighting, Albert Cole would tell the story of corporal E.B. Stickney, “…beside young Stickney during the fight, the first intimation that he was wounded was when Stickney said ‘There my little finger is gone; but I can shoot yet.’ A few minutes later Stickney would say, ‘I am shot through the arm; but I can shoot yet.’” Five minutes later, Cole looked around and saw Stickney’s head fall over on his shoulder, and he jumped and caught him, finding him dead, shot through the head.¹ As the first regiment engaged in the fight, the 2nd Wisconsin would suffer terribly. With a total of 430 men going into the fight, they would suffer 276 casualties – nearly two of three men were killed, or wounded. Fortunately, Gibbon’s brigade would see very little action at the battle of Second Manassas, that would take place over the next couple of days. With the Federal loss there, Robert E. Lee would start his Maryland Campaign, determined to take the war north of the Potomac.
The 2nd Wisconsin, with its new commander, Colonel Lucius Fairchild, would be involved in the fighting, at South Mountain, on September 14 and at Antietam on September 17. After South Mountain, the brigade would earn its new moniker, “Iron Brigade.” At Antietam, they would be the fourth brigade of the First Division of US Major General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps. The reinforced 2nd Wisconsin would be involved in some of the heaviest fighting, approaching the Confederates through the Corn Field. The Iron Brigade, entering the battle would have approximately 800 troops. They would suffer 343 casualties with the majority being in the 6th Wisconsin with 152, of 314 becoming casualties. The smaller 2nd Wisconsin would suffer 86 casualties. At Antietam, the Iron Brigade would prove they deserved to be called the Iron Brigade.
After Antietam, Gibbon would receive reinforcements, with the addition of the the 24th Michigan, keeping the Iron Brigade an all “western” brigade. He would also receive a promotion to divisional command, leaving his Iron Brigade to be commanded by US Colonel Henry A. Morrow. By the Battle of Fredericksburg, Colonel Solomon “Long Sol” Meredith would be promoted brigadier general and would command the brigade. During the battle, the Iron Brigade would be assigned the far left flank of the Army of the Potomac, now commanded by US Major General Ambrose Burnside. While Fredericksburg was another terrible defeat for the Federals, the Iron Brigade would suffer only 65 casualties – most being in the 24th Michigan who received their “baptism of fire” and were firmly established as an Iron Brigade regiment.
In January, Burnside would be removed from command, by Lincoln, after the failed “Mud March,” to turn Robert E. Lee’s left flank. US Major General Joseph Hooker would take command of the Army of the Potomac. 2nd Wisconsin corporal Horace Emerson, writing home on January 31, 1863, would state, “We was very glad to hear that Burnside had been relieved as he was played out and the boys had no confidence in him at all…” “Fighting Joe” Hooker, was well known in the army, as being confident and overly ambitious. However, after taking command, he would make sure his army was properly paid, received furlows and were well drilled – all this providing confidence in him, from his soldiers.
In April 1863, Hooker was formulating his operational plans, for the opening of the spring campaign. His plan was to leave US Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, ad Fredericksburg, and march the remainder of his army north to the Rappahannock River crossings at Kelly’s Ford, U.S. Ford and Ely’s Ford. From this position, north of Fredericksburg, he could launch an attack into the rear of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. During the initial phase of preparations, the Iron Brigade, including the 2nd Wisconsin, would cross the Rappahannock, south of Fredericksburg, and secure a bridgehead. In forcing this crossing, the Iron Brigade would suffer 57 casualties. However, they were successful in not just crossing, but securing the bridgehead so Sedwick’s Corps could cross.
US Major General John Reynolds’ I Corps would be involved in the flanking movement north of Fredericksburg. Crossing five of his Corps, Hooker would assemble his army near the Chancellor Tavern, on the Orange Turnpike. Robert E. Lee’s quickly recognized Hooker’s intentions and starting moving his army north to meet Hooker. He would leave behind CS Major General Jubal Early’s Division, to keep Sedgwick’s VI Corps in Fredericksburg. Lee would crash into Hooker’s five army corps in the Battle of Chancellorsville. During this campaign, Lee would twice divide his army, the second of which sent CS Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 2nd Corps on a long flanking march – to Hooker’s exposed right flank. Jackson’s attack would decimate the Army of the Potomac, particularly US Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps. From April 30 – May 6, Hooker would watch his plans fall apart. He would be decisively beaten by an army with half his strength. The Iron Brigade would see minor action, near Chancellorsville, and would be near the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. Combined casualties, for the Iron Brigade, during the Chancellorsville Campaign were 61.
Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Iron Brigade would be involved in the battles at Brandy Station and Beverly Ford. Moving north, with the Army of the Potomac, the 2nd Wisconsin, and the rest of the Iron Brigade would enter south central Pennsylvania, on July 1. Once again, there had been major organizational changes within the Army of the Potomac. Joseph Hooker had been relieved from command and replaced with US Major General George G. Meade. Meade, known for his temper, was a well respected commander. He was also known to be called, “a damned old goggle eyed snapping turtle” to his lieutenants. Additionally, the Iron Brigade now had a new position in order of battle – they were now the First Brigade, of the First Division of US Major General John Reynolds’ I Corps. The men were proud of their new designation.
On the morning of July 1, US Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry division would engage a Confederate division northwest of Gettysburg. Originally thought to be a small detachment, no larger than a brigade, they turned out to be CS Major General Henry Heth’s entire division. General Robert E. Lee had not wanted a major engagement, and had instructed Heth’s 3rd Corps commander, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill to avoid bringing on a full engagement. Unfortunately, as Heth’s division came nearer to Gettysburg, on the Chambersburg Pike, he ran into Buford’s dismounted cavalry troopers – deployed on both sides of the pike. There would be a severe clash between the cavaliers and Heth’s Division. Amazingly, Buford was able to slow the Confederates, keeping them in the area of Herr’s Ridge. Hearing the rattle of musketry, and the boom of cannon, John Reynolds quickly rode into Gettysburg to assess the situation. Meeting with Buford, at the Lutheran Seminary, they were able to see the action unfolding from the building’s cupola. Buford would tell Reynolds, “The devil’s to pay,” referring to the massing Confederate army. Reynolds’ I Corps was still two miles from Gettysburg, but were moving at the double-quick, knowing there was an engagement west of town. US Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s First Division included the Iron Brigade, commanded by US Brigadier General Solomon Meredith and US Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s Second Brigade. They would arrive at McPherson’s Ridge first and would organize battle lines to meet the Confederate advance. Cutler’s brigade would be placed north of the railroad cut, with the Iron Brigade south of the cut, facing a woodlot – Herbst Woods. From left, to right, the Iron Brigade was deployed as follows: 24th Michigan, 19th Indiana, 7th Wisconsin and the 2nd Wisconsin. The 6th Wisconsin was being held in reserve by Meredith.
Throughout the coming hours, the battle would rage, back and forth, at the Herbst Woods. The Iron Brigade, less the 6th Wisconsin, would pin portions of CS Brigadier General J.Johnston Pettigrew’s First Brigade and CS Brigadier General James J. Archer’s Third Brigade, roughly along the small stream – Willoughby Run. As the 2nd Wisconsin was entering the Herbst Woods, John Reynolds would be instantly killed, by a Rebel minie ball. Command would pass to US Major General Abner Doubleday. This would be a devastating loss, for the United States, as Reynolds would be the second highest ranking Federal general killed during the Civil War. With Reynolds dead, pandemonium ruled the field. The Iron Brigade continued to hold their own against Pettigrew and Archer’s brigades but a Confederate breakthrough, to the north appeared to separate Wadsworth’s division.
Three Confederate regiments, 2nd and 42nd Mississippi and the 55th North Carolina, had found the railroad cut and were using it as cover, to approach Gettysburg – which would make McPherson’s Ridge, and Oak Ridge, virtually untenable. The 6th Wisconsin, in reserve, would move quickly over, to join the 14th Brooklyn, and the 95th New York in an attempt to thwart their attempt to flank them. Arriving in time, a brisk fight broke out. Eventually, with minie balls raining down on them, the Alabama, and Mississippi troops backed out of the railroad cut and to their lines. The action at the railroad cut gave Doubleday some extra time to await reinforcements. He would not have to wait long, as US Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps was arriving. Howard as the senior major general would take command the both Corps.
The afternoon’s fighting would end when the Federals were finally overwhelmed from the west, and from the north, where CS Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s 2nd Corps was arriving, near Oak Ridge, and Barlow’s Knoll. The two Federal army corps would retreat through the streets of Gettysburg, arriving near Cemetery Hill in the evening. It was a very rough day for the 2nd Wisconsin. They would suffer 233 casualties amongst the 302 men that entered Herbst Woods. This would be a casualty rate of 77%. The rest of the brigade also suffered (24th Michigan 73%, 19th Indiana 68%, 6th Wisconsin 49%, 7th Wisconsin 49%). The Iron Brigade’s casualty rate was 63%. The brigade was just a shadow of its former strength. But it was still the Iron Brigade.
After two more days of fighting, at Gettysburg, the great battle would end. The decimated Iron Brigade would see very little additional fighting, but on July 5, it would leave with the army to chase Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Arriving in Virginia, the Army of the Potomac would settle in, to rehabilitate their army, and add recruits. The 2nd Wisconsin would be involved, in the Mine Run Campaign, from November 26 – December 2. They would then enter winter camps.
Spring would bring a new supreme commander, the newly appointed lieutenant general, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had enjoyed great success in the Western theater and would command all land based operations in the country. He would command from the field, staying with the Army of the Potomac. George G. Meade would retain overall command of the army. Grant would reorganize the army corps, combining under strength units to reduce the command structure. At the start of the spring 1864 campaign season, the Army of the Potomac would have only three active corps: II, V and VI. Gone were the old I and III Corps, which were decimated at Gettysburg. The Iron Brigade, including the vastly under strength 2nd Wisconsin were now assigned to the Fourth Division of the V Corps, commanded by Major General Gouverneur K. Warren. To supplement the strength of the brigade, the following regiments were added: 7th Indiana and 1st New York Battalion Sharpshooters. On May 11, 1864, the 2nd Wisconsin would be assigned to Provost Guard duty, with the V Corps. They would stay with the V Corps through the Battle of Cold Harbor, where terms of enlistment expired. Those soldiers that chose to re-enlist, for the remainder of the war, were organized in a battalion and were assigned Provost Guard duty with the V Corps. On July 2, 1864, the retiring veterans would be mustered out of Federal service, on July 2, 1864, at Madison, Wisconsin.
The 2nd Wisconsin was a fighting regiment. They proved themselves on the battlefield in terrible battles such as Brawner’s Farm (Second Manassas), Antietam and Gettysburg. Many of the brave soldiers of the 2nd did not return home. Many were buried on the battlefields where they died. Some of those fortunate souls would be re-interred in a National Cemetery – perhaps known, but very likely as an “unknown.” The 2nd Wisconsin would lose a total of 315 men in the war. Those that survived would be proud, that they were members of the Iron Brigade. They were all HEROES.²
¹ Alan D. Gaff, “Brave Men’s Tears: The Iron Brigade at Brawner Farm, p.81.
² Other sources were used to research this artcile, including: Alan T. Nolan, “The Iron Brigade,” Noah Andre Trudeau, “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage,” 2nd Wisconsin at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailor System, Wilderness Union order of Battle at Wikipedia and BattlefieldPortraits.com.