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"The Iron Brigade"

The letters of Lieutenant Colonel Rufus R. Dawes

"If I do anything glorious I shall expect you to be proud of me."

Col. Rufus Dawes
Colonel Rufus Dawes.jpg
(State Historical Society of WI)

Rufus R. Dawes began his military career in 1861. A twenty-two year old college graduate, Dawes was immediately caught up in the patriotic fervor that swept the north after the firing upon of Fort Sumter, South Carolina. "What seemed to most concern our patriotic and ambitious young men was the fear that some one else would get ahead and crush the rebellion before they got there," Dawes wrote. Gathering support, he and several other young men raised a company of volunteers for state service, to which Dawes was elected captain.
Like many other volunteer officers in 1861, Dawes had no formal military training and "worked like a beaver" to get his new company, "The Lemonweir Minute Men", into shape and into state service. The organization was eventually assigned to the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry as Company K. Dawes saw extensive service with the regiment at Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. He rose to the rank of major and lieutenant colonel to replace promoted officers. On July 1st, 1863, Lt. Colonel Dawes led his 6th Wisconsin Infantry of the famous "Iron Brigade" onto the field of Gettysburg.

After the war, Dawes authored Service With The Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, a wonderful account of his service with the regiment. Included were a number of letters written to Miss Mary Gates during the Gettysburg Campaign which are both factual and enlightening from the Union perspective. These are a few of those letters.

Bivouac near Centreville, VA
June 15, 1863

"Here we are again on our annual visit to Bull Run. I think, however, we shall miss our annual drubbing. We broke camp at daylight Friday morning, (the twelfth.) We marched that day about twenty miles under a scorching sun and through suffocating clouds of dust. You can hardly imagine what our poor loaded soldiers suffer on these marches. We camped Friday night at Deep Run. We marched at daylight Saturday and camped for the night near Bealton station. We marched Sunday morning and all day Sunday and all night, and until the middle of the afternoon today, when we reached this point, tired, sore, sleepy, hungry, dusty, and dirty as pigs. I have had no wink of sleep for two nights. Our army is in a great hurry for something. I hope we can be allowed to stay here to-morrow, to recruit our energies. The indications are now that we will. Indeed our poor worn out fellows must have some rest. We have had no mail and no papers since leaving camp. I must go to sleep. Our darky boy, William, has got my oil cloth fixed for a shade, and I am going to wrap up in my blanket and lie down on the ground with my haversack for a pillow, and I will have a sounder, sweeter, more refreshing sleep, than if I was in the softest bed. When you pity my deplorable condition, remember my noble boys who have had ten times the toil and have come through without a murmur."

Bivouac near Leesburg, VA
June 18, 1863

"We are still toiling along on our wary way with only such halts or rests as are absolutely essential to renew the strength of man and beast. We are hurrying to the rescue of Pennsylvania and Maryland as I never knew the Army of the Potomac to hurry before. And yet I suspect that we are anathematized for our slow motions. 'Where is the Army of the Potomac?' is, I presume, the indignant exclamation of many good people in the land to-day. Our march yesterday was terribly severe. The sun was like a furnace, and the dust thick and suffocating. Many a poor fellow marched his last day yesterday. Several men fell dead on the road. Our boys have all come through so far, accepting the hardships as a matter of course, and remaining cheerful and obedient I assure you I feel proud of them.
"One of the greatest hardships is to get no mail. Sometimes a little package of headquarters letters are brought through. We got the newspapers to-day. Our brigade newsboy got them through in some way. The head-lines say: 'Rebels in Pennsylvania' - 'Another battle at Antietam on the tapis.' I hope not. I never want to fight there again. The flower of our regiment was slaughtered in that terrible cornfield. I dread the thought of the place. If there is a battle, watch the papers to see if General John F. Reynolds and General James S. Wadsworth figure in it. By them you can trace me.

Bivouac on Broad Run, ten miles from Leesburg, VA.
June 19, 1863

"I have pitched my tent tonight in a splendid grove of grand old oaks on the banks of Broad Run. Nothing could be more pleasant or romantic than our situation tonight, but the boom of hostile cannon toward Aldie Gap takes away something from the romance. Our march today was short and well conducted, and our men are washing themselves in the pure waters of Broad Run and so are feeling fresh and more cheerful. It is eight days tonight since we have had a regular mail... It rains through my tent on the paper which causes the spots. The impression was, when we camped this evening, that we would remain here a day or two and I had my camp systematically arranged with reference to regularity and cleanliness."

Bivouac near Broad Run
June 21, 1863

"Our long watched for mail caught us last night. The cannon are sounding in the direction of Leesburg and there is quite a battle being fought there this Sabbath morning. Our men seem to have driven the rebels and the firing seems to have receded. Have had a busy forenoon. Ordnance to inspect, camp to be put in condition, candidates for the invalid corps to be examined, and I got twelve letters in the mail. We are in camp again. I suppose we are waiting for the 'favorable opportunity to fall upon Lee and destroy him.' Lee, meanwhile, ravages Pennsylvania at his leasure, but there is one thing- 'Washington is safe.'
"Our regiment numbers in the aggregate 595, of whom 535 are present for duty. We have no sick men and have but one man die of disease with the regiment in six months, though we have marched several hundred miles. The week's marching in the dust and heat has been hard on the men. One of our men in company 'I' has become a lunatic from the effect of the heat. The newspapers say there were a thousand cases of sunstroke in our army. I stand the sun very well, but it has made me brown as sole leather. We are no longer holiday soldiers.
"Did you ever eat a hard tack? Get one and eat it if you can for my sake. There are reports of a chicken of rebel proclivities and Billy has laid a campaign to capture it. So I hope for better things tomorrow. My boy, Billy, is a good provider, but this desert is too much for him. Hard tack, ham, fresh beef and coffee without milk is the ceaseless round of our bill of fare."

Camp on Broad Run
June 24th, 1863

"General Hooker shows no disposition to press the enemy so long as he confines his attention to the Pennsylvania Dutchmen and leaves Washington alone. The prospect is very dark with us just now. But if we open the Mississippi and I think we will, and can thwart General Lee in his effort to carry the war, as the rebels say, 'into Africa,' we will have accomplished for this summer perhaps, all we have any right to expect. Our cause is just and we will get success as soon as we deserve it.
"I had a chance to do a good thing this morning and it gave me pleasure. One of our men of Company 'C', a fat cheeked, sleepy boy was sent to me under guard... to be dealt with for sleeping on his picket post, for which the penalty is death when in the presence of the enemy, The poor fellow, who... slept because of a big supper on rebel chicken, was sadly frightened. That demon, official duty, required that I should prefer charges and send him to a general court martial for trial. But with a sharp lecture and warning, I released him from arrest and sent him to his company. His demonstration of gratitude was quite affecting.
"Our living has improved much within two a day or two. We now get butter, eggs, milk, mutton, and almost everything but fruit. I do not expect to taste a strawberry this year. When in camp we live comfortably enough. It is on the march that we have to suffer. Our provisions and a wedge tent, we carry on a pack mule. Everything else I carry on my horse. I have a good horse. She knows the orders on battalion drill almost as well as the men do. She will follow the column on a night march no matter how dark. This is important as to lose the road in the night is fatal to a Colonel. He leads astray all troops behind him."

Bivouac near Middleton, MD.
June 27, 1863

"We left our camp near Guilford station on Broad Run, early on the morning of the twenty fifth. We marched all night and crossed the Potomac at Edwards Ferry.. We proceeded via Poolsville and encamped for the night near Barnesville. We marched next morning at daylight... through deep mud and a drizzling rain all day and encamped near Jefferson in the valley of Middleton. This morning we started early and reached this point at two o'clock. Our marches have been long and toilsome. What do you think of trudging along all day in a soaking rain, getting as wet as a drowned rat, taking supper on hard tack and salt pork, and then wrapping up in a wet woolen blanket and lying down for a sleep, but waked up during the night three or four times to receive and attend to orders and finally turning out at three o'clock in the morning to get the regiment ready to march? Well, that is soldiering and it is a great deal more comfortable soldiering than to march through suffocating clouds of dust under a hot sun. In the dust men are dogged and silent. In the rain they are often even hilarious and jolly.
"The campaign has now been fairly inaugurated on Northern soil. General Meredith and I rode together over our battle ground on South Mountain. The grass has grown green over the graves of our brave boys who lie buried there. The inscriptions on the head boards are already scarcely legible and with their destruction seems to go the last poor chance that the sacrifice these men made for their country shall be recognized and commemorated."

Bivouac in Pennsylvania
on Marsh Creek near Gettysburg
June 30, 1863

"We left South Mountain in great haste on the 28th and marched to Frederick through a drizzling rain as usual. Next day we moved from Frederick to Emmitsburg, Md., and today we came here, where we are having a muster for pay. I don't think I ever before saw at this time of the year such a long continued, misty, drizzling storm as we have been marching through since we crossed the Potomac. General Meade as commander of the army was a surprise.
"Meade lacked the martial bearing and presence of Hooker. few of our men knew him by sight. We have marched through some beautiful country. It is refreshing to get out of the barren desert of Virginia into this land of thrift and plenty. Our reception in Maryland was hardly so enthusiastic as last summer, but in Pennsylvania, everybody, great and small, is overjoyed at the coming of our banners. Our regiment had the advance and first crossed the Pennsylvania line.
"The rebel stealing parties are running away ahead of us and I presume the whole rebel army is concentrating to give us battle. I am kept full of business on such hurried marches, scarcely from morning to night getting a moment I can call my own."

Line of battle on a hill near Gettysburg
July 2nd, 1863, 8 A.M.

God has preserved me unharmed through another desperate bloody battle. Regiment lost lost one hundred and sixty (eight) men killed and wounded. I ordered a charge and we captured a regiment. Major (John A. Blair) commanding the second Mississippi surrendered his sword and regiment to me. There are no communications now with the North but sometime I hope you will get this."

In line of battle before Gettysburg
July 4th, 1863

"I am entirely safe through the first three of these terrible days of the bloody struggle. The fighting has been the most desperate I ever saw. On July 1st, our corps was thrown in front, unsupported and almost annihilated. My regiment was detached from the brigade and we charged upon and captured the second Mississippi rebel regiment. Their battle flag is now at General Meade's headquarters...
"The Sixth has lost so far one hundred and sixty men. Since the first day we have lost only six. O, Mary, it is sad to look now at our shattered band of devoted men. Only four field officers in the brigade have escaped and I am one of them. I have no opportunity to say more now or write to any one else. Tell mother I am safe. God has been kind to me and I think he will spare me."

In line of battle before Gettysburg
July 4th, 6 P.M.

"What a solemn birthday. (Col. Dawes turned twenty five) My little band, now only two hundred men, have all been out burying the bloody corpses of friend and foe. No fighting today. Both armies need rest from the exhaustion of the desperate struggle. My boys have had nothing to eat since yesterday morning. No regiment in this army or in any other army in the world ever did better service than ours. We were detached from the brigade early on the first day and we operated as an independent command. I saved my men all I could and we suffered terribly to be sure, but less than any other regiment in the brigade.
"I went in person taking the captured flag to General Meade, at headquarters Army of the Potomac. The object... was to obtain, if possible, permission to send the battle flag to the Governor of Wisconsin to be retained in Wisconsin as a trophy. In this effort I was unsuccessful. As I passed along from General Meade's headquarters... carrying the rebel flag loosely folded over my arm, I took my course over the ground where General Pickett made his charge. Many wounded Confederate soldiers were still lying on this ground. A badly wounded Confederate sergeant who had lain upon the ground during the night called to me in a faint voice: 'You have got our flag!' It was a sergeant of the second Mississippi regiment. The men of this regiment who had escaped from the railroad cut on July first, had taken part in the attack. I do not know whether this sergeant survived his wound. I did all in my power to secure for him aid and attention."

On the march, July 6th, 2 P.M.

"We have stopped for a few moments near Emmitsburg. I am entirely well. I telegraphed to mother before yesterday. This has been a terrible ordeal. Our loss is 30 killed outright, 116 wounded, several of whom have died since, and 25 missing, all from 340 men taken into battle. My horse was shot from under me early in the fight, which perhaps saved my life. The experience of the past few days seem more like a horrible dream than the reality. May God save me and my men from any more such trials. I could tell a thousand stories of their heroism: One young man, Corporal James Kelly of company 'B', shot through the breast, came staggering up to me before he fell and opening his shirt to show the wound, said 'Colonel, won't you write to my folks that I died a soldier.' Every man of our color guard was shot and several volunteer color bearers. There was not a man of them but would die before the honor of the old Sixth should be tarnished."

Rufus Dawes survived the Gettysburg Campaign and led his 6th Wisconsin during the 1864 Wilderness Campaign to the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia. In late summer, he was mustered out and sent home at the expiration of his term of service. Dawes enjoyed a bright post-war career in the lumber business and then served several terms in the United States House of Representatives. In 1890, he published his private letters and reports in Service With The Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers from which these letters are taken.

Recommended Reading: The Iron Brigade: A Military History (Great Lakes Connections: The Civil War). Description: This is the definitive history of the Iron Brigade, the "Black Hat Brigade", which was the only all western brigade in the Eastern army. This battle-hardened Federal unit fought at 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; and the unit fought valiantly. Continued below.

This book was a delight to read and is one of my favorite books on the American Civil War. The study is well written and the battle narratives include excellent maps…. It is, moreover, one of the best unit histories ever printed.

Try the search engine, type, for example, "The Iron Brigade."

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Recommended Reading: A Brotherhood Of Valor: The Common Soldiers Of The Stonewall Brigade C.S.A. And The Iron Brigade U.S.A. Description: Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson was arguably the greatest commander of the Civil War. Yet, "Stonewall" Jackson owed much of his success to the troops who served under his command. He eagerly gave them their due: "You cannot praise these men of my brigade too much; they have fought, marched, and endured more than I even thought they would." The Stonewall Brigade, composed mainly of Virginians from the Shenandoah Valley, proved its mettle at First Manassas and never let up--even after its esteemed leader was shot down at Chancellorsville. Their equally elite counterparts in the Army of the Potomac were known as the Iron Brigade, hardy westerners drawn from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. By focusing on these two groups, historian Jeffry Wert retells the story of the Civil War's eastern theater as it was experienced by these ordinary men from North and South. Continued below.

His battle descriptions are riveting, especially when he covers Antietam:

Three times the Georgians charged towards the guns, and three times they were repelled. Union infantry west of the battery ripped apart the attacker's flank, and the artillerists unleashed more canister.... Finally, the Georgians could withstand the punishment no longer, and as more Union infantry piled into the Cornfield, Hood's wrecked division retreated towards West Woods and Dunker Church. When asked later where his command was, Hood replied, "Dead on the field."

But the book is perhaps most notable for the way in which it describes the everyday hardships befalling each side. They often lacked food, shoes, blankets, and other military necessities. When the war began, the men believed deeply in their conflicting causes. Before it was over, writes Wert, "the war itself became their common enemy." Wert is slowly but surely gaining a reputation as one of the finest popular historians writing about the Civil War; A Brotherhood of Valor will undoubtedly advance his claim.


Recommended Reading: THOSE DAMNED BLACK HATS!: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign. Description: The Iron Brigade--an all-Western outfit famously branded as The Iron Brigade of the West--served their enlistments entirely in the Eastern Theater. Hardy men were these soldiers from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, who waged war beneath their unique black Hardee Hats on many fields, from Brawner's Farm during the Second Bull Run Campaign all the way to Appomattox. In between were memorable combats at South Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, the Overland Campaign, and the grueling fighting around Petersburg. None of these battles compared with the "four long hours" of July 1, 1863, at Gettysburg, where the Iron Brigade was all but wrecked. Lance Herdegen's Those Damned Black Hats! The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign is the first book-length account of their remarkable experiences in Pennsylvania during that fateful summer of 1863. Continued below.

Drawing upon a wealth of sources, including dozens of previously unpublished accounts, Herdegen details for the first time the exploits of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan regiments during the entire campaign. On July 1, the Western troops stood line-to-line and often face-to-face with their Confederate adversaries, who later referred to them as "those damned Black Hats!" With the help of other stalwart comrades, the Hoosiers, Badgers, and Wolverines shed copious amounts of blood to save the Army of the Potomac's defensive position west of town. Their heroics above Willoughby Run, along the Chambersburg Pike, and at the Railroad Cut helped define the opposing lines for the rest of the battle and, perhaps, won the battle that helped preserve the Union. Herdegen's account is much more than a battle study. The story of the fighting at the "Bloody Railroad Cut" is well known, but the attack and defense of McPherson's Ridge, the final stand at Seminary Ridge, the occupation of Culp's Hill, and the final pursuit of the Confederate Army has never been explored in sufficient depth or with such story telling ability. Herdegen completes the journey of the Black Hats with an account of the reconciliation at the 50th Anniversary Reunion and the Iron Brigade's place in Civil War history. "Where has the firmness of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg been surpassed in history?" asked Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin. Indeed, it was a fair question. The brigade marched to Gettysburg with 1,883 men in ranks and by nightfall on July 1, only 671 men were counted. It would fight on to the end of the Civil War, and do so without its all-Western composition, but never again was it a major force in battle. Nearly 150 years after the last member of the Iron Brigade laid down his life for his country, the complete story of what the Black Hats did at Gettysburg and how they remembered it is finally available.

Recommended Reading: A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers. Description: A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade combines the personal experiences of Rufus R. Dawes with a history of the regiment in which he served. The Iron Brigade was the only all-Western brigade that fought in the eastern armies of the Union and was perhaps the most distinguished of the Federal brigades Continued below.

Dawes is credited with a keen sense of observation and a fresh and vivid style. Seldom absent from the field during his entire three-and-a-half-year term, he chronicled Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness campaign, Cold Harbor, and the Petersburg lines. Perhaps most remarkable is the well-honed sense of humor he displayed about both the war and himself. Dawes’s sophisticated account of significant military organizations and events improves our understanding of the epic of the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: Four Years with the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Journal of William Ray, Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers (Hardcover). Description: The recently discovered journal of William Ray of the Seventh Wisconsin is the most important primary source ever of soldier life in one of the war's most famous fighting units. No other collection of letters or diaries comes close to it. Two days before his regiment left Wisconsin in 1861, the twenty-three-year-old blacksmith began, as he described it, "to keep account" of his life in what became the "Iron Brigade of the West." Continued below.

Ray's journal encompasses all aspects of the enlisted man's life-the battles, the hardships, and the comradeship. And Ray saw most of the war from the front rank. He was wounded at Second Bull Run, again at Gettysburg, and yet a third time in the hell of the Wilderness. He penned something in his journal almost every day-occasionally just a few lines, at other times thousands of words. Ray's candid assessments of officers and strategy, his vivid descriptions of marches and the fighting, and his evocative tales of foraging and daily army life fill a large gap in the historical record and give an unforgettable soldier's-eye view of the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: The Men Stood Like Iron: How the Iron Brigade Won Its Name. Description: No volunteers tramped with more innocent resolve on the drill fields of 1861 than the farmers, immigrants, shopkeepers, and "piney" camp boys who volunteered for the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin and the Nineteenth Indiana Infantry. The Men Stood Like Iron is the moving, often melancholy, story of how the backwoods "Calico boys" became soldiers of the celebrated "Iron Brigade."

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