Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes Describes the Fighting of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry at Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg began on the morning of July 1st, 1863 when Brigadier General John Buford’s  cavalry engaged Major General Henry Heth’s Confederates outside the northwest corner of the town.  Buford’s objective was to delay the Rebel advance long enough for Union infantry to arrive and set up defensive positions on favorable ground.  Major General John Reynolds’ 1st Corps was the first Federal infantry to arrive.  One of these 1st Corps units was the Iron Brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan infantry regiments. 

Upon arriving at the scene of the fighting, the Iron Brigade regiments with the exception of the 6th Wisconsin were ordered forward into  the Herbst Woods to engage the Tennessee and Alabama regiments of Brigadier General James Archer’s brigade.  The 6th Wisconsin was ordered to cross the Chambersburg Pike (also referred to as the Cashtown Road) on the right and support Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s brigade as it faced Brigadier General Joseph Davis’  brigade of Mississippi and North Carolina troops.

Lt. Colonel Rufus Dawes was in command of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry that day.  Dawes wrote some excellent postwar accounts of his experiences in the Iron Brigade.  Here are some excerpts from one of his accounst of the 6th Wisconsin at Gettysburg.

The regiment halted at the fence along the Cashtown Turnpike, and I gave the order to fire. In the field, beyond the turnpike, a long irregular line of yelling Confederates could be seen running forward and firing, and our troops were running back in disorder. The fire of our carefully aimed muskets, resting on the fence rails, striking their flank, checked the rebels in their headlong advance. We could see the thin regiments of Cutler’s brigade, beyond the turnpike, were being almost destroyed. The rebel line swayed and bent, and the men suddenly stopped firing and ran into the railroad cut, which is parallel to the Cashtown Turnpike. I now ordered the men to climb over the turnpike fences and advance upon them. I was not aware of the existence of a railroad cut, and mistook the maneuver of the enemy for a retreat, but was soon undeceived by the heavy fire which they began at once to pour upon us from their cover in the cut. Captain John Ticknor, a dashing soldier, one of our finest officers, fell dead while climbing the second fence, and others were struck, but the line pushed on. When over the fence and in the field, and subjected to an infernal fire, I saw the Ninety-fifth New York regiment coming gallantly into line upon our left…Farther to the left was the Fourteenth Brooklyn Regiment, but we were ignorant of the fact. The Ninety-fifth New York had about one hundred men in action. Major Edward Pye appeared to be in command. Running hastily to the major, I said, “We must charge,” and asked him if they were with us. The gallant major replied, “Charge it is,” and they were with us to the end. “Forward, charge!” was the order given by both the major and myself. We were now receiving a fearfully destructive fire from the hidden enemy. Men who had been shot were leaving the ranks in crowds. Any correct picture of this charge would represent a V-shaped crowd of men, with the colors at the advance point. moving firmly and hurriedly forward, while the whole field behind is streaming with men who had been shot, and who atr struggling to the rear or sinking in death upon the ground…Meanwhile the colors were down upon the ground several times, but were raised at once by the heroes of the color guard. Not one of the guard escaped, every man being killed or wounded. Four hundred and twenty men started as a regiment from the turnpike fence, of whom two hundred and forty reached the railroad cut. Years afterward I found the distance passed over to be one hundred and seventy-five paces. Every officer proved himself brave, true, and heroic in encouraging the men to breast this deadly storm, but the real impetus was the eager, determined valor of our men who carried muskets in the ranks.  The rebel color would be seen waving defiantly just above the edge of the railroad cut…Corporal Eggleston, of “Co. H,” a mere boy, sprang forward to seize it, and was shot dead the moment his hand touched the color. Private Anderson, of his company, furious at the killing of his brave young comrade…swung aloft his musket and with a terrific blow split the skull of the rebel who had shot young Eggleston…Into this deadly melee rushed Corporal Francis A. Waller, who seized and held the rebel battle flag. His name will remain upon the historic record, as he received from Congress a medal for this deed.

It would require many pages to justly recount the heroic deeds of all, but one incident is so touching in its character that it should be preserved, Corporal James Kelly, of Company B, turned from the ranks, and stepped beside me, as we both moved hurriedly forward on the charge. He pulled open his woolen shirt, and a mark where the deadly minnie ball had entered his breast was visible. He said: “Colonel, won’t you please write to my folks that I died a soldier?”

My first notice that we were immediately upon the enemy, was a general cry from our men of : “Throw down your muskets. Down with your muskets.” Running quickly forward through the line of men, I found myself face to face with at least a thousand rebels, who I looked down upon in the railroad cut, which was here about four feet deep. Adjutant Brooks, equal to the emergency, had quickly placed men across the cut in position to fire through it…I shouted: “where is the colonel of the regiment?’ An officer in gray, with stars on his collar, who stood among the men in the cut, said: “Who are you?” I said: “I am commander of this regiment. Surrender, or I will fire on you.” The officer replied not a word, but promptly handed me his sword, and all his men, who still held them, threw down their muskets…

The 6th Wisconsin captured 232 prisoners in the action in the railroad cut.  The regiment was then ordered to a new position on Seminary Ridge to support Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery. But Confederate forces were advancing in great strength from both the west and north, and it was time for the 1st Corps to withdraw.

Lieutenant Clayton E. Rogers, an aide on General Wadsworth’s staff, came riding rapidly up to us. Leaning over form his horse, he said, very quietly:  “The orders colonel, are to retreat beyond the town. Hold your  men together.” I was astonished …But a glance over the field to our right and rear was sufficient. There the troops of the Eleventh Corps appeared in full retreat, and the long lines of Confederates, with fluttering banners and shining steel, were sweeping forward in pursuit…

–Rufus Dawes, “With the Sixth Wisconsin at Gettysburg” in Sketches of War History 1861-1865 Papers Prepared for the Ohio Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Vol. III.

The 6th Wisconsin retreated through Gettysburg, exchanging shots with Rebel soldiers  in the streets, and finally reaching Cemetery Hill.  The regiment was then ordered to Culp’s Hill, where it rejoined the rest of the Iron Brigade.  The 6th Wisconsin saw some light action on July 2nd, and received artillery fire on the 3rd, but saw no more large scale fighting in the battle.  Casualty figures vary slightly by source, but the regiment had about 167 total casualties, including 30 men killed, out of 340 engaged.

The actions of the of the 1st Corps  helped delay the Confederate advance, and bought the Army of the Potomac valuable time to arrive and prepare a strong  defensive position, setting the stage for the Union victory on July 3rd.

Additional Sources:

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

Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes

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