The Sixth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, on the left, charges the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Unfinished Railroad Cut on the morning of July 1, 1863.
The Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan soldiers moving up the Emmitsburg Road toward Gettysburg had marched a good many miles since being called to Washington in 1861. It was a sight no one of them would ever see again—the Black Hat brigade swinging along with an easy stride, the famous headgear now more serviceable instead of showy. One who saw them said they “looked like giants with their tall black hats,” and recalled they moved with a “steady step” and filled the “entire roadway, their big black hats and feathers conspicuous…”
Two years of service had left its mark on the men in the original four regiments. Their letters, journals, and diaries, which once brimmed with the bright hopes of quick victory 1861, no longer evidenced such naiveté. The survivors gathered in close, tight messes to share food, drawing upon each other for support. While they marched and died, enduring unspeakable hardship, the home folk “growled” about high prices, short money, and hard times. The army tossed out the used-up soldier and the “patriotic” speculators fleeced them of their pay. The men fought well, but were denied victory by incompetent generals and a strong, resilient enemy. Officers used their rank to get through sentry posts to forage and their authority to execute weak men unable to stand the travails of combat.
By June 1863, only about one of three soldiers was still in ranks from the regiments formed in 1861. The others were dead from battle or illness or even homesickness. Scores more had been sent home sick and disabled. Others had simply melted away, gone only God knows where or why. The survivors owed their allegiance first to the men around their campfires, then to the small companies, and finally to their regiments. They were isolated from the folks back home, misused by their generals and the country’s leaders, cheated by sutlers, and snubbed by the Easterners because of their Western origins. They trusted only their comrades and the few officers who had proved to be skillful and brave. They were a hard lot, these Westerners, good soldiers deeply proud of their reputations.
Only the men of the 24th Michigan, even after ten months in service, marched toward Gettysburg feeling they still had something to prove. The Michigan regiment and its famous brigade had seen only limited service at Fredericksburg, where the Wolverines first experienced enemy fire. When the combat began, their colonel had yelled out, “Steady, men, those Wisconsin men are watching you!” The Michigan regiment joined the 6th Wisconsin in the spirited river crossing during the Chancellorsville Campaign, but it was not the kind of heavy, terrible fighting their comrades had endured at Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam. It was only after Chancellorsville the Michigan regiment’s coveted black hats arrived. “They made our appearance like the name of the brigade, quite unique,” recalled one Wolverine with pride.
The five regiments were also marked by what John Gibbon later called “the habit of obedience and subjection to the will of another, so difficult to instill in the minds of free and independent men.” The “men who carried the knapsacks,” a Wisconsin officer said, “never failed to place an officer just where he belonged, as to his intelligence and bravery. Even if they said nothing yet their instinctive and unconscious action in battle, placed upon the officer the unavoidable brand of approval or disapproval. For no regiment acted well its part under fire and great danger, without the officers had the confidence of the rank and file.” To veteran soldiers, said one officer, battle is an “awful experience” and they had not the “headlong recklessness of new men, who start it, acting as though they would rather be shot than not, and then lose their organization and scatter like sheep.” They understood from “much experience in fighting that safety is best had by steadiness, persistence in firing, and most of all by holding together.”
The fight these Western men were unknowingly marching toward that morning of July 1, 1863—one many would come to regard as the turning point of the conflict—was in many ways the last great fight for the “Boys of ’61,” those bright volunteers who flocked to the National flag in a swell of patriotism after Fort Sumter. The army itself was changing into something that, two years earlier, would have been unrecognizable. By the summer of 1863, the veterans were unsettled by recruits who enlisted to collect bounties and newspapers reporting lack of support for the war back home. After the first three days of July 1863, it would all be different, partly because of a change in the way the war was fought, and partly because of the men brought in fill the battle-depleted regiments. However, late in the war and afterward, at the old soldier campfires and reunions, even those bounty and drafted men would be accepted. Why? Because they had been there; They had shared the hardship the stay-at-homes had not. But the aftermath of the greatest combat in the Western hemisphere and its aftermath was still ahead of them.
General John Reynolds caught up with the marching column of the First Division just after it left Marsh Creek. The general had spent the night of June 30-July 1 at Mortiz Tavern six miles south of Gettysburg. That evening, he was joined by Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the Eleventh Corps. The two officers examined the latest reports and Reynolds showed Howard “a bundle of dispatches—the information brought to him during the day—with evidence of the proximity, nearness and designs of the enemy.” Reynolds, remembered Howard, “impressed me as unusually sad; perhaps more so than any clear-headed officer would be on the eve of an important battle.” The report from cavalryman John Buford, who was already at Gettysburg with his troopers, was that one Confederate infantry command, perhaps as much as one-third of the Rebel army, was massed near Cashtown to the northwest. Another Confederate body was near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a third was close to Chambersburg, west of Cashtown. This information was deemed reliable and Reynolds understood the gravity of the situation. Howard left about 11:00 p.m. to return to his corps. Just a handful of miles distant, General Robert E. Lee was operating without any clear picture of the Federal Army’s whereabouts or intelligence of its intention to concentrate near Gettysburg.
Reynolds was up at 4:00 a.m. the next day. His first order was to Wadsworth of the First Division: push your men ahead to Gettysburg. General Abner Doubleday with the rest of the First Corps would follow Wadsworth. Other riders sought out Third Corps commander Dan Sickles near Emmitsburg, Maryland, with instructions to also move toward Gettysburg. Howard and the Eleventh Corps were ordered to follow the First Corps. Reynolds, meanwhile, rode ahead to briefly confer with Wadsworth before pushing his black horse “Fancy” up the Emmitsburg Road toward Gettysburg. It was early Wednesday morning, July 1, 1863.
The soldiers of the Iron Brigade finished a “hearty breakfast of coffee and hardtack” just as the sun was rising above the horizon. “The Pennsylvania line had been reached and the forces of the enemy must be met very soon,” a Michigan man predicted, “though none suspected that the foe was within a few hours march.” Union cavalry moving up the road the previous day—Thomas Devin’s brigade of John Buford’s cavalry division—leaned from their saddles to warn the infantrymen they had run into Johnnies just ahead near Gettysburg—and a lot of them. Lee’s whole army was gathering up there, one officer cautioned them. Despite the ominous news, no sense of urgency rippled through the marching column. Men atop ordnance wagons parked nearby, however, began passing out the required fresh “60 rounds of ammunition in the boxes and upon the person.” An awkward moment transpired within the ranks of the 24th Michigan as the men drew cartridges while the chaplain tried to complete a morning prayer. The Black Hats shoved two packets of 10 cartridges each in the tin containers of their cartridge boxes, then broke open two more and put the individual paper cartridges in readiness at the top of the tins. The paper twists with percussion caps were opened and the caps added to the small leather boxes looped to their waist belts. The remaining two packets of cartridges boxes were stuffed in haversacks and pockets. It went unrecorded how much of the chaplain’s prayer was heard.
The Iron Brigade was equipped with a variety of weapons ranging from imported Model 1854 Austrian Lorenz rifles to the Springfield pattern rifle-muskets. There was a minor supply problem as the 2nd Wisconsin carried Austrian Lorenz rifles in their original .54-caliber, while the shoulder arms of the other regiments were in .58-caliber.
The Lorenz was the second most common imported firearm in the Civil War and the Badgers, who were used to handling firearms, generally liked them. The 2nd Wisconsin was first issued “sheet metal” smoothbore .69-caliber Harpers Ferry muskets that had been altered from flintlock to percussion. “Is there any wonder, then that we should weep for joy rather than for sorrow,” a Badger wrote home when the new rifles were issued in January 1862, “when we exchanged them [muskets] for true and trusty rifles that will bite as well as bark and kick. We now have the best guns in the Brigade, and I think they are in the hands of men who know how to use them.” A week later, following a firing drill, the correspondent seemed to agree with that assessment when he concluded, “the results proved highly satisfactory. They are a splendid piece, rough as they look; and in the hands of the Second will do good execution when the opportunity for their use occurs.”
The 6th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan generally carried the model 1861 .58-caliber Springfield pattern rifle-muskets and found them superior to the Austrian variety. One of the backwoods boys, Private James Patrick Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin, knew how to hit a mark as well as any man. He mounted his rifle-musket with “some silver ornaments and fixed the screw in a stock against the dog [sear] so it [trigger pull] worked almost as easy as a squirrel gun, and felt very proud of it.” The fix involved placing a screw next to the trigger guard extending into the works of the lock. During an inspection one day, when General Wadsworth asked the private about the screw in the gunstock, Sullivan wrote, “I told him so that I could hit a canteen at one hundred yards and he asked me no more questions.”
The 7th Wisconsin was also issued Model 1854 Austrian Lorenz rifles in February 1862, but unlike the smaller caliber given to the 2nd Wisconsin, they were re-rifled or reamed up to .58-caliber—the standard being adopted by the army. One soldier said the new rifles were “colored black except for the lock guard and rammer, which are bright.” The rifles were four inches shorter than the old musket and half a pound heavier, he said, but “they carry very nice and much easier than the musket. So we are ready for the secesh now.” A few weeks later the beechwood stocks of the 7th Wisconsin rifles were bleached almost yellow by the elements and it was ordered they be “varnished” with a dark stain at a cost of ten cents to each soldier. The extra cost was met in ranks with “strong opposition.”
In appearance, the Western men carried knapsacks (or an occasional bedroll), and common to all was the famous big black felt hats marked by the red wool badges of the First Corps. Most of the men wore the dark blue four-button sack coats, but the Regular Army nine-button blue frocks were still plentiful—especially in the 6th Wisconsin where they were favored. Over the shoulder each soldier carried a haversack and canteen and in each knapsack a rubber or woolen blanket (in addition to personal items). On the top straps of the knapsack, soldiers tied a shelter half where overcoats usually were carried. Two soldiers would combine shelter halves and button them together to form a common tent and share their woolen and rubber blankets.
As the men began forming their companies, some observed Lysander Cutler’s Second Brigade already on the road. The soldiers also saw Reynolds conferring with Wadsworth. James Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery followed Cutler’s brigade and the Second Brigade’s 7th Indiana was left behind to guard the division wagons. Sol Meredith was slow getting his men in formation and Cutler’s brigade pushed off and was well ahead—almost a full mile—before Wadsworth sent a rider galloping with orders to “close up.” The 2nd Wisconsin led the way, followed by the 7th Wisconsin. A short distance ahead, the soldiers of the 19th Indiana, which had been on sentry duty, waited to file in behind the 7th. The 24th Michigan closed up behind the Hoosiers. The 6th Wisconsin was last in line, followed by the Brigade Guard of 100 men and two officers.
The weather was warm but pleasant, and the Western men, well-rested and looking forward to a friendly reception in the town just ahead, moved with an easy route step. They were in “high spirits,” remembered one man, and a Milwaukee company in the 6th Wisconsin lifted up a “soul stirring song as only the Germans can sing.” The regiment took up the step of the music and when the Milwaukeeans finished, three rousing cheers were offered on their behalf. Then the Juneau County company (“with about as much melody as a government mule”) began a song about “a heifer wild” that stole cabbage “in the moonlight mild” and that everyone knew she should be “killed and quartered and issued out for beef.”
And so it went, verse after verse, with the whole column joining the chorus, “On the distant prairie, Hoop de dooden doo,” until the song broke down in laughter. Another soldier began the scandalous “Paddy’s Wedding,” and another recalled he found it “odd for men to march toward their death singing, shouting and laughing as if it were parade or holiday.” Finally, the men settled down and the column “plodded along” in a march of “unusual quietude.” The peaceful moment was broken when cavalry clattered up the roadway, scattering the infantry left and right. An Irish soldier in a Wisconsin regiment raised a fist and called after them, “May the devil fly away with the roofs of your jackets; yez going now to get us into a scrape and thin walk off and let us fight it out like you always do!”
He had no idea how accurate his prediction would prove to be.