At the outset of the Civil War, both sides faced the challenge of equipping a large number of soldiers in a short amount of time. Often, this meant furnishing the men with local militia uniforms, regardless of the color. When the first large scale battle occurred at First Bull Run in Virginia in July of 1861, some Union troops like the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry wore gray uniforms, while some Confederates were clad in blue. This led to predictable confusion–and casualties–on the battlefield.
On the afternoon of July 21st, 1861, the 2nd Wisconsin was brigaded with the 13th, 69th and 79th New York Infantry regiments, and a battery of artillery under the command of Colonel William T. Sherman. The brigade was ordered to attack Henry Hill, the scene of much intense fighting that day. The 2nd Wisconsin was positioned along the Sudley Road when the order came to advance to the east and up Henry Hill. The regiment began taking fire from the top of the hill. The fire was returned but “it was impossible to push our line forward against the evidently superior forces massed in our front” recalled Captain Thomas Allen.
The 2nd Wisconsin began to slowly fall back. As they did so, they were hit by fire from the rear. Other union troops from the brigade mistook them for Confederates after seeing the regiment’s gray uniforms. Officers scrambled to stop the shooting, and the 2nd Wisconsin returned to its starting point along the road.
Ordered forward again, the 2nd Wisconsin advanced on the double quick up Henry Hill and fired at the enemy at the top. A Confederate flag was visible at the top of the hill, but in the smoke from the gunfire, it was easily confused for a U.S. flag. Shouts went out that the Wisconsin men were firing at their own soldiers. The 2nd Wisconsin held its fire and slowed its advance up the hill. Confederate defenders then opened a devastating fire on the advancing Federals.
With no reinforcements supporting them, the men of the 2nd Wisconsin retreated back down hill in disorder. When they came into view of the 69th and 79th New York regiments, the New Yorkers again thought the gray uniformed soldiers were Rebels and opened fire. More Wisconsin men went down before they were identified and reached safety.
The 2nd Wisconsin lost 23 men killed, 65 wounded, and 63 missing at the First battle of Bull Run. Though it is not known how many, at least some of these were due to the confusion caused by their gray uniforms. Soon, those uniforms would be replaced and the in the Fall of 1861, the 2nd Wisconsin would be brigaded with the 6th and 7th Wisconsin, and 19th Indiana Infantry regiments to form what would later be called the Iron Brigade.
A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas (The American Crisis Series, Book 7)by Ethan S. Rafuse. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Books 2002.
The Maps of First Bull Run: An Atlas of the First Bull Run (Manassas) Campaign, including the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, June-October 1861by Bradley M. Gottfried. New York: Savas Beattie, LLC 2009.
“The Second Wisconsin at the First Battle of Bull Run” by Thomas S. Allen. In War Papers of the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol 1. Milwaukee, WI: 1891.
Wisconsin In The Civil War: The Home Front And The Battle Front, 1861-1865
by Frank L. Klement. Madison,WI; The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997.