On the morning of July 1, 1863, Major General John Fulton Reynolds and the lead elements of his First Corps, Army of the Potomac arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time. They were there to help the dismounted cavalry troopers of Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry division slow the advance of General Harry Heth’s Division of the Army of Northern Virginia west of Gettysburg.
The Union army’s plan, as set up initially by General Buford and seconded by Reynolds on his arrival, was not to defeat the Rebels, but simply to slow down their advance in order to give the infantry of the Army of the Potomac time to march up from Maryland and occupy the high ground southeast of town. To do this, Buford chose to put his men’s backs against the Lutheran Seminary west of town and block the Chambersburg Pike, thus denying the advancing Confederates quick access to the town, and the heights beyond. He meant to keep the town in between the fighting and where the seven corps of the Army of the Potomac would eventually take up position on Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and down Cemetery Ridge. But he needed help. By mid morning he was feeling the weight of several large brigades of Confederate infantry against him, and had fallen back from the advanced position on McPherson’s Ridge to a second line on Middle Ridge.
The arrival of Reynolds and his infantry was enough to bring tears to the eyes of Buford. In the lead was the fabled “Iron Brigade” under Brigadier General Solomon Meredith. These hardy Midwesterners wore high-crowned black hats, and when spotted by the Confederates, someone was reported to have said, “Here come them damned ‘Black Hats’ again.” They were tough veterans of many battles in northern Virginia, and at South Mountain and Antietam. Most of those battles saw them on the losing end, advancing to attack, and then withdrawing northward time after time. Shortly after their arrival at Middle Ridge, Meredith ordered an advance into a wooded area owned by the Herbst family, and currently full of Alabama and Tennessee troops under the command of Brigadier General James J. Archer. Archer’s men were crossing the small stream called Willoughby Run behind the woods, and advancing up the hill among those trees.
Meredith’s advance brought 4 of his 5 regiments forward in a line that outflanked (overlapped) the right of Archer’s advance, and as those tough Midwesterners moved forward into the wood, encouraged by Reynolds himself in front, the men of Archer’s Brigade began to fall back. A shot rang out, and John Reynolds fell from his horse – dead when he hit the ground. The Iron Brigade barely paused in its advance, and wound up capturing several hundred men from Archer’s Brigade, including Archer.
Lieutenant Colonel Rufus R. Dawes was a tough young businessman raised in the patriotically named town of Constitution, Ohio. When the firing on Fort Sumter occurred in April of 1861, Dawes was on a business trip in Juneau County, Wisconsin. Even though his home was in Ohio, he sensed the urgency of the situation and immediately began raising a company of troops from Wisconsin. Within a few weeks, Dawes and his company of men were joined with the newly formed 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which found its way into the tough Iron Brigade. On this 1st day of July, 1863, the now battle-hardened Dawes was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding that regiment. Meredith had left the 6th in reserve, along the south side of the Chambersburg Pike. The 6th Wisconsin did not take part in the counterattack against Archer.
While this was occurring, another of Reynolds Brigades, under Brigadier General Lysander Cutler, the first commander of the 6th Wisconsin, was engaged on the Iron Brigade’s right, facing Archer’s left regiments.
Under cover of Archer’s assault, the brigade of Brigadier General Joseph R. Davis (nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis) emerged from the trees of a farm south of Mummasburg Road and began advancing on the right flank of Cutler’s Brigade. Reaching a cut in the ground (an unfinished railroad bed cut in the somewhat higher ground north of the Chambersburg Pike), these troops from Mississippi and North Carolina dropped into the cut and climbed the south bank where they began firing on three regiments, the 14th Brooklyn Zouaves and the 95th New York, of Cutler’s Brigade, and Dawes’ 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade. As one, these three regiments from two separate commands, changed front to face the new threat, and began to advance on Davis’s Brigade. In order to do so, however, they had to climb the fences that lined both sides of the Chambersburg Pike. Sturdy, five-rail fence took an effort to climb, but the gallant men of these three regiments did just that. Under a withering fire, they climbed the first fence on the south side of the road and took casualties. On the north fence, the fire was even deadlier. There is a point when crossing a fence when, at the top, the soldiers were almost stationary as they swung their legs around to the other side. At that moment they were most vulnerable, and their casualty rates began to skyrocket.
Here and there, pockets of men made it over and began to straighten their line, and once again to advance. The distance was about 150-180 yards, and they came on quickly. Seeing this, Davis began ordering his men out of the deep defile. Most of the 55th North Carolina and the 42nd Mississippi escaped and hied back to the woods from which they entered the fray. Most of the 2nd Mississippi was not so lucky, being in the deepest part of the cut. Before they could react, the 6th Wisconsin was on them, firing down into the railroad cut from the top of the south bank. A small party of the Wisconsin soldiers managed to get down in the cut on the left of the Mississippi men, in the location recently vacated by the 55th North Carolina. They started to “roll up the flank”.
Dawes demanded, and received the surrender of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, or what was left of it, in total about 250 men, and their regimental colors. (Enough had escaped before the surrender that they were given a new set of colors, and officers, and the honor of participating in Pickett’s Charge two days later.)
This uniformity of action carried out by the three Union regiments from two different brigades, with little contact or coordination, was one of the reasons the Army of the Potomac was able to defeat the legendary General Robert E. Lee and his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Scenes similar to this were carried out all over the battlefield, time and again, when units from different Corps supported each other without orders from higher-ups, while on the Confederate side, there were problems at the brigade level where sometimes orders were deliberately disobeyed.
Which brings us to my professor’s favorite question, “Why”. Why Dawes and the two other regimental commanders automatically turned to face the new threat on their right is simply good soldiering, the result not only of good training, but combat experience. In short, it was the right move to make, a fact borne out by the ultimate outcome of the action: the repulse of Davis’s Brigade and the capture of the 2nd Mississippi. That same training and experience is why the men moved according to drill, and began the offensive movement toward the enemy.
This, then, leads us to “why” they were there in the first place. Why did men like Dawes eschew a return to his Ohio home in order to immediately raise troops to fight for the Union out of Wisconsin. To begin to answer this, we must look back to a letter penned by Dawes on the 4th of May, 1861 to the Wisconsin State Adjutant General, offering his company of 100 men. Dawes wrote:
“…If a kind Providence and President Lincoln will permit, I am [going]. I am Captain of as good and true a band of patriots as ever rallied under the star spangled banner. We hope to get into the third or fourth regiment, and if old Abe will but give a fair and merited share in the struggle to Wisconsin, we will see active service. The men expect and earnestly desire to go, and wait impatiently their turn. I shall esteem it an honor, worth a better life than mine, to be permitted to lead them in this glorious struggle. I am in hourly dread of hearing of some violence offered you on the border, and wish I might be permitted to bring to you, in your peril, some as strong hands and as true hearts as the Badger State can boast.”
Dawes saw his duty clearly, right from the start when Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. He never wavered. Duty and honor were integral to Dawes. They were not things that he had to learn. He did not even think about things very long at the start of the war before he began recruiting his company. The danger was there…most men prayed and hoped they would survive, and survive with honor, but most also prepared themselves for the worst…not coming home at all. It did not stop them. They volunteered by the millions, and died by the hundreds of thousands. It did not stop them. The ideal of country, of nation, secondary to the Confederates to their ideal of states, but primary to those loyal to the Union, was something they believed in, that had been handed down over the preceding generations from the Founding Fathers, and clarified once by the Framing Fathers with their new Constitution. Was not the very nature of the move from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution a move away from states power and toward federalism? Few in the north had to ask, or question the why, as they had lived it for nearly 90 years.
Congressman Rufus R. Dawes, writing in middle age, had not forgotten the "why" of what he did, in spite of a start to his declining health. Included in his autobiography was this letter to his wife, written December 18, 1881:
“My Dear Wife: -- I have today worshipped at the shrine of the dead. I went over to the Arlington Cemetery. It was a beautiful morning and the familiar scenes so strongly impressed upon me during my young manhood, were pleasant. Many times I went over that road, admiring the beautiful city and great white capitol, with its then unfinished dome, going to hear the great men of that day in Congress. An ambitious imagination then builded castles of the time when I might take my place there. Now at middle age, with enthusiasm sobered by hard fights and hard facts, I ride, not run with the elastic step over the same road, with this ambition at least realized, and warmth enough left in my heart to enjoy it. My friends and comrades, poor fellows, who followed my enthusiastic leadership in those days, and followed it to the death which I by a merciful Providence escaped, lie here, twenty-four of them, on the very spot where our winter camp of 1861-1862 was located. I found every grave and stood beside it with uncovered head. I looked over nearly the full 16,000 head-boards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all… For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.”
“The shadows of age are rapidly stealing upon us. Our burdens are like the loaded knapsack on the evening of a long and weary march, growing heavier at every pace. The severing of the links to a heroic and noble young manhood, when generous courage was spurred by ambitious hope, goes on, but you have lived to see spring up as the result of your suffering, toil and victory the most powerful nation of history and the most beneficent government ever established. While you are in the sear and yellow leaf your country is in the spring-time of the new life your victory gave it. This is your abundant and sufficient reward…”
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