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The glory and the tragedy
Wisconsins role in the Civil Wars Battle of Gettysburg
2nd-7th battlefield
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in the field behind the 7th Wisconsin Regiment memorial in this photo. - photo by Photo by Robert Moore

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pa., approaches, the nation and various regional locations with ties to the battle take note of the ultimate sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought there and what it means to the country.

Understandably, the focus of ceremony and dedication from July 1–3 will be at the Pennsylvania battlefield. Yet the enormity of the battle suggests that soldiers north and south deserve special mention in their hometown or state. Wisconsin is one of those states, and a special one at that.

The Badger State is far from the Gettysburg battleground, and it seems odd that Wisconsin boys would fight there. Indeed, most Wisconsin Civil War soldiers saw action in the “western” theater of operations at places like Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Atlanta.

The presence of Wisconsin troops fighting with the Union Army of the Potomac in the East was an accidental rarity. In President Abraham Lincoln’s first call for troops to defend the Union in the spring of 1861, Wisconsin, in a burst of patriotic fervor, was quicker than most to respond. Asked to raise one company of volunteers, Grant County raised two and pleaded with the governor to allow them both to report to training facilities. Their request was granted.

Behind them other men continued to organize into companies of 100 friends, neighbors, and county residents. They called themselves Platteville Guards, Miner’s Guards (Iowa County), Prairie du Chien Volunteers, Grant County Grays, Badger State Guards, and Lancaster Union Guards. They all reported to an open field in Madison. The new training site was named Camp Randall, honoring Wisconsin’s governor.

The first wave of recruits was needed to defend Washington, D.C. The 2nd Regiment of Wisconsin Infantry was among the first of three year recruits to arrive at the nation’s capital. By the early summer they were joined by the 6th and 7th infantry units. The mining districts of Southwest Wisconsin had contributed heavily to the 2nd and 7th. Whole companies of 100 men each were organized from Platteville, Lancaster, Boscobel, Fennimore and Mineral Point. Men from the small mining communities of Potosi, Hazel Green, Smelser, Beetown, and New Diggings combined to form companies of their own.

In Washington, the new Wisconsin regiments settled in to drill and guard duty. As the army was made ready for movement, the three Wisconsin units were teamed with the 19th Indiana and later the 24th Michigan regiments. This all-Midwest brigade was looked upon with suspicion by the other regiments of the Army. They wondered if the western boys from so far away had the courage to face intense combat, or would they run?

Soldiers of the western brigade quickly made themselves famous in the bloody encounters at Bull Run (the second battle), Antietam, and South Mountain. By the time they arrived at Gettysburg in 1863 they were a veteran unit that had been given the nickname — the Iron Brigade. No one is sure how they came by the name, but it seems a Union officer, having seen them stand strong in battle, remarked, “The men must be made of iron.”

To add to the distinctive nature of the unit, the men of the Iron Brigade took to wearing tall black hats instead of the regular issue short-bill kepi. In spite of their past accomplishments, the Wisconsin troops and others of the Iron Brigade were about to experience their greatest moment of glory and tragedy as the armies of North and South moved toward Gettysburg.

The Iron Brigade prided themselves on being first. They were members of the 1st Army Corps, 1st Division, 1st Brigade. Additionally, they were placed first at the head of the marching column advancing toward Gettysburg.

As they approached the town their commanders received urgent orders to hurry to the sound of gunfire. Confederate infantry units on the other side of town were pushing Union cavalry backwards. If successful, the maneuver could potentially doom the entire Union army before it arrived on the field. The battle of Gettysburg had begun.

Rushing to the battlefield, the 2nd and 7th were among the first to occupy a high ground of woods and open country on either side called McPherson’s Ridge. Rebel units facing them already knew about the Iron Brigade. Below the ridge, the rebels were heard to remark, “There are those damned black hats.”

The charge of the Iron Brigade down the western slope of the ridge became their crowning glory of the battle. Slamming into Confederate Gen. John Archer’s Tennessee troops, men of the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin overwhelmed the rebels and captured Archer — the first rebel general to be taken as prisoner.

Guarded by Wisconsin infantrymen, Archer was escorted to the rear, where he met a Union commander.

“Good to see you, Archer,” said the Union officer.

The rebel general replied, “Well, I’m not glad to see you by a damned site.”

The 6th Wisconsin regiment, previously held in reserve, became engaged in an intense fight with Mississippi riflemen. Holding their line saved the rest of the Iron Brigade from a deadly flanking maneuver. It cost the 6th about half its strength to hold that line.

Meanwhile fresh rebel reinforcements bore down on the now weary 2nd and 7th on McPherson’s Ridge. Both Wisconsin regiments lost dozens of men as they began a retreat toward the town. Having been in the fight since morning, the retreating units were nearly out of ammunition as mid-afternoon approached and rebel soldiers closed in from three sides. Confusion reigned as soldiers from both sides mingled in the streets of Gettysburg.

Individual stories of bravery, fear, and confusion are mostly lost to history, but not all. Private George W. Fortney was a member of Company C (Platteville Guards) of the 7th. As a 22-year-old, helping his father on the family farm south of Platteville, he had not seen much of the world beyond the fields and lead mines of southwest Wisconsin. Now he was in the thick of the heroic fight on the first day.

For Fortney and his Grant County friends in company C, it had been a momentous morning of triumphant success. But he was quickly the victim of the chaos that followed in the afternoon. His war ended when he was captured during the hectic retreat through town. He was escorted to the rear and marched south with the retreating Confederate Army after the battle. Fortney would languish and die at the infamous Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia.

Luckier was Private Elisha Reed of the 2nd Wisconsin. During the retreat he was struck in the upper leg by a musket ball. “To stop there and tie up my leg would be to fall into [rebel] hands … to run might insure my bleeding to death.” Reed elected to run, and discovered that the wound would not be fatal.

Of special note on that first day was Boscobel native Jefferson Coates of the 7th. Already wounded once in a battle prior to Gettysburg, his wounds in this fight cost him sight in both eyes. Determined to fight on, his actions that day earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

By nightfall of the first day, the Union lines had stabilized south of town. But what did the actions of the Wisconsin units and the rest of the Iron Brigade mean? Certainly the Gettysburg saga is replete with more famous acts of courage, from Pickett’s Charge to the fight for Little Round Top. Yet serious students of the fight also recall the first day’s combat as a turning point in the most famous battle in American history.

Rock County historian John Decker knows the battle well and said, “I am convinced that had it not been for the Iron Brigade, and what they did on that first day, the Gettysburg battle would have been won by Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army.”

The triumph of McPherson’s Ridge came at a heavy price. The 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin regiments each lost half or more of their fighting strength and were wrecked as a combat unit.

“There was one group that took 30 men into action and could muster only 10 at the end of the day,” said Decker.

But the holding action on the first day bought time enough for the rest of the Union army to establish a defensive position south of town that proved to be a stronghold the Confederate’s could not break during two days of additional fighting.

An impressive feature of the Gettysburg battlefield today is the hundreds of stone monuments dedicated to the service of all participants, north and south. During the summer season, visitor’s cars clog the roadway where Pickett’s Charge took place. The parking lot on Little Round Top, scene of pivotal fighting on the second day, will be full.

A much less traveled part of the battlefield is northwest of town, where the opposing armies first met. There on McPherson’s Ridge, along a side road that is not part of the regular auto tour, one can find the monuments dedicated to Wisconsin soldiers.

First in line is the red granite spire of the 7th Wisconsin. The inscriptions ironically face away from the road. Tourists who do not get out of their car to investigate would never know it was a Wisconsin memorial.

A short distance down the same road is the white stone monument to the 2nd Wisconsin. Like the regiment itself, the monument looks tired and weather-beaten. One must walk up and look very closely to make out the inscriptions.

The monument to soldiers of the 6th Wisconsin is some distance to the north and out of view of the other Iron Brigade spires. It is fittingly located at the railroad cut where Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes executed a flanking movement that drove rebel troops back in confusion and resulted in the capture of dozens of enemy soldiers including their prized battle flag. The red monument is similar in style to the 7th and likewise located on a part of the field that is difficult for anyone to see up close.
Grant County residents, however, did not forget about their war heroes. In the fall of 1862 — prior to the Gettysburg battle — it was suggested by a Platteville citizen that funds be raised to dedicate a monument to all the Grant County men who died in the conflict. It was reported that such a request was the first one of its kind in the nation.

The official dedication of the stone spire in the Lancaster city square was held July 4, 1867. Gov. Lucius Fairchild, himself a veteran of the Iron Brigade, made the dedication speech, borrowing language from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “What we say and do her today, will, when a few short years shall pass, be scarcely remembered. But the deeds which this monument is to commemorate will last until history is dead. …

“Many of the names I read upon this monument were those of my intimate comrades in the field. … I have called those names often from the muster rolls of the regiment.”

Indeed Fairchild commanded the 2nd Wisconsin on McPherson’s ridge. He reported shortly after the battle, “My officers and men fell killed or wounded … from the instant they arrived at and passed the highest point of the ridge … I was struck by a rifle ball which struck my left arm and made amputation necessary.”

One hundred fifty years after Gettysburg, the monuments on the battlefield and on the courthouse square at Lancaster are continual reminders of the sacrifices of Grant County Civil War veterans. Certainly the Wisconsin men will get their due at the Gettysburg dedication events. Aside from the national park ranger-led talks, a group of Civil War re-enactors from the Badger State will be on the battlefield during the dedication days and will be making their way to the Wisconsin monuments.

For those of us on the home front, perhaps a look and a nod to the white monument on the courthouse square will be enough.

Moore, a retired high school history teacher, was named Arizona American History of the Year in 1998. He lives in Belleville.