The 7th Wisconsin Infantry was formed in the late summer of 1861 and sent east, where it was brigaded with the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin Infantry regiments, plus the 19th Indiana Infantry. This brigade saw extensive and costly fighting at the Battles of Brawner’s Farm, South Mountain, and Antietam in 1862, earning the nickname Iron Brigade. The 24th Michigan Infantry joined the brigade in late 1862.
On July 1st, 1863, the Iron Brigade was part of the Army of the Potomac’s 1st Division of the 1st Corps. On that day, the Iron Brigade was one of the first Union Army infantry brigades to be engaged at the Battle of Gettysburg, rushing forward to McPherson’s Ridge, where Union cavalry was fighting Major General Henry Heth’s division of Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s corp. The 6th Wisconsin was sent to the right of McPherson’s Ridge and would do it’s fighting along the railroad cut on the other side of the Chambersburg Pike. The remaining regiments of the Iron Brigade deployed with the 24th Michigan, 19th Indiana, 7th Wisconsin, and 2nd Wisconsin from left to right.
They attacked the advancing Tennessee and Alabama regiments of Brigadier General James Archer’s brigade. The Federals successfully drove off Archers’ Confederates, but reinforcements in the form of Brigadier General James Pettigrew’s North Carolinians and Colonel John Brockenbrough’s Virginians soon arrived. The 7th Wisconsin was able to hold Brockenbrough in check, but Pettigrew’s brigade finally caved in the Iron Brigade’s left flank after extensive fighting, and the Federals withdrew to a new line on Seminary Ridge, fighting all the way back. Eventually, the defenders of the Seminary Ridge line were forced to retreat through town, but their stubborn and costly defense had bought time for more of the Army of the Potomac to arrive and set up defenses on the favorable ground along Cemetery Ridge.
At Gettysburg, the 7th Wisconsin was under the command of Colonel William Robinson. Robinson took over command of the Iron Brigade after Brigadier General Solomon Meredith was wounded during the battle. Robinson filed this after action report:
HEADQUARTERS SEVENTH WISCONSIN VOLUNTEERS,
November 18, 1863.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by the Seventh Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, under my command, in the engagement at Gettysburg on July 1:
We left our camp, on the road running from Emmitsburg to Gettysburg, about 5 miles from the latter place, early on the morning of the 1st, with the brigade, the Second Wisconsin leading, the Seventh next in column. Arrived in the vicinity of Gettysburg about 10 a.m., when we heard firing to the left of the town, and were informed that our cavalry were engaged with the enemy’s advance. The brigade was immediately moved across the field to the left, to the point where the cavalry were engaged, where we formed them in position behind a grove of timber and slight elevation of land, their position being behind and parallel to this ridge, with their skirmishers dismounted and thrown forward of the ridge. Just at the time we came up, a brigade of the enemy’s infantry was advancing upon the position. We were ordered to take position on the ridge in front of the cavalry as quickly as possible. I immediately formed companies, and threw the battalion forward into line in double-quick, and advanced to the top of the ridge. We had not halted to load, and no orders had been received to do so, for the reason, I suppose, that no one expected we were to be engaged so suddenly. I, however, gave the order to load during the movement, which was executed by the men while on the double-quick, so that no time was lost by this omission. I halted the battalion on the summit of the ridge until the Nineteenth Indiana and Twenty-fourth Michigan, which were in my rear in column, had formed on my left.
In the meantime the Second Wisconsin–which was next in front of me in column, in its evolution into line was formed to my right and the length of the battalion in advance; this threw them behind the grove before mentioned, into which they advanced without halting–had engaged the enemy. My right was now resting near this grove, with the Nineteenth and Twenty-fourth on my left. Immediately in [front], and running parallel to and about 200 yards from my front, was a ravine, through which runs a small rivulet; from this ravine a heavy fire was opened. I was at first uncertain, in the dense smoke and from the near proximity of the fire, whether it was the enemy or the left wing of the Second Wisconsin.
At this moment Captain Wadsworth, of the division staff, rode up from the right. I asked could he tell what troops those were firing in the ravine. He pointed a little farther to the left up the ravine (where I saw the rebel battle-flag), and said it was the enemy, and that the general directed that we should drive them out. I moved the line forward to the crest of the ridge, delivered a volley, and gave the order to charge. The three regiments–Seventh Wisconsin, Nineteenth Indiana, and Twenty-fourth Michigan–rushed into the ravine with a yell. The enemy–what was left of them able to walk–threw down their arms, ducked through between our files, and passed to the rear. We moved up the opposite bank to the top of the hill, where I halted the line. In this charge we passed by and beyond the position occupied by the Second Wisconsin in the grove. We had occupied our new position but a few minutes when Captain Richardson, of the brigade staff, brought an order to change front to the rear on the left battalion. While this evolution was being executed, General Meredith came up, and directed me to place my regiment in the grove on the right of the Second. I took the position indicated, my right resting on the open fields, and threw out skirmishers to the front. In this position we lay some hours under a severe artillery fire. From my position I could see the movements of the enemy in our front.
Early in the afternoon columns of infantry were seen moving to our left, evidently with the intention of turning our left. Also heavy columns were being massed in our front. This information I sent to the general, and the order I received was to hold the position at all hazards. In a short time the enemy advanced into the wood in our front, lay down behind the crest of the hill and behind the trees, and opened a galling fire. About the same time I discovered he had gained our left and rear, and soon after a small detachment was brought from some other division to attack this latter force of the enemy; but this detachment was too small, and was soon repulsed. The troops on our right had fallen back; the Twenty-fourth and Nineteenth, on the left of the brigade, were being badly cut up by superior numbers; the Second and Seventh were keeping up a rapid fire upon the enemy in front, but, I think, without doing him much injury, as he was protected by the hill and timber. He was rapidly gaining ground on our left; still, no order came to change our position. The Seventh was receiving a galling fire and the Second was being badly cut up, when Captain Richardson brought me the order to retire to Seminary Ridge. I retired by the right of companies to the rear some 150 or 200 yards, halted, and wheeled into line again to support the other regiments in retiring. Then again retired about the same distance, and again wheeled into line, and so on until I reached the foot of Seminary Ridge. On this ridge, directly in my rear, a battery had been placed, and opened upon the advancing foe. Down the slope, some 40 yards in front of this battery, I found a slight breastwork of loose rails, which, I suppose, had been thrown together by some of our troops in the earlier part of the day, behind which I threw the regiment.
During this movement we were exposed not only to the fire of the advancing enemy in front, but also to that from the brigade which had turned our left flank, and was now advancing from that direction in line obliquely to our new position. It was with some difficulty I restrained the men from firing until the enemy got as near as I wanted them. When they were within easy range, the order was given, and their ranks went down like grass before the scythe from the united fire of our regiments and the battery. There were very few, if any, of that brigade escaped death or wounds. The regiment held this position until all the troops on our right and left had retired. The battery had limbered up and retired. The enemy, in overwhelming numbers, had again turned both our flanks, with a line formed on each perpendicular to ours, and reaching a considerable distance to our rear, forming three sides of a square around us, with the open side to our rear and toward the town.
At this time Captain Richardson, of the brigade staff, again brought me the order to retire through the town. I again retired, by the right of companies to the rear, through the orchard over the ridge, and then by the right flank by file left into column, and moved on to the turnpike and through the town to Cemetery Hill, being the rear of the troops from that part of the field.
Immediately upon my arrival at the cemetery, I was ordered by General Wadsworth to take command of the brigade. In retiring from our last position on Seminary Ridge, as I came out of the orchard, I found the enemy advancing in line perpendicular to the left and to the rear of our late position, and within 300 yards of me. They immediately opened fire upon us. To the right of our position and on the opposite side of the turnpike, some little distance from it, was another line of theirs, with their left reaching near the town. This line was stationary and was supported by artillery. In passing out, we were exposed to this enfilading fire from both these lines, as well as from their artillery. It was here I met with the heaviest losses from the regiment during the day.
Throughout the whole engagement–the morning charge, where the regiment captured one of General Archer’s regiments; under the severe artillery fire of the midday, and in the unequal combat of the afternoon; in the steadiness exhibited in retiring and promptness in reforming line, time and time again, under a most galling fire; in the firmness with which they held the last position, and kept up a rapid and well-directed fire upon the advancing enemy until left alone and the order was received to retire—the regiment displayed all the coolness, bravery, and prowess that has won for it honorable distinction previous battles. Every officer and enlisted man performed his whole duty.
I may mention, without the notice being invidious to others, the conduct of Lieut. Col. John B. Callis and Maj. Mark Finnicum. From both these officers I received able assistance. Their conduct was a repetition of their gallantry on previous battle-fields. Lieutenant-Colonel Callis was severely wounded late in the day. Also, Sergt. Daniel McDermott, color-bearer, who was severely wounded just as we were entering the town, retiring, by a charge of grape and canister, the same charge shivering the flag-staff into a number of pieces. McDermott was placed upon a caisson that was moving ahead of us, still hanging to the tattered banner, which he waved in defiance at the foe as he rode off. He has carried this color through every battle in which the regiment has been engaged.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. W. ROBINSON,
Colonel, Commanding Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers.
Capt. J. D. WOOD,
Assistant Adjutant-General, First Brigade
Robinson listed the 7th Wisconsin’s casualties as 26 killed, 109 wounded, and 43 missing.
The 7th had one unusual reinforcement during the fighting at McPherson’s Ridge. John Burns, a 70 year old resident of Gettysburg and a veteran of the War of 1812, fought alongside the men of the regiment. Burns was wounded in the fighting, but survived, eventually becoming a folk hero when the story of his exploits became known.
The Iron Brigade retired to Culp’s Hill on the evening of the 1st, and spent the rest of the battle there. Although there was fighting on Culp’s Hill later in the battle, it was to the right of the Iron Brigade’s position and it was not engaged.
Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried
The Iron Brigade: A Military History
by Alan T. Nolan
The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 13, 1863
by Bradley M. Gottfried
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 1