The Iron Brigade at The Battle of Fredericksburg
As part of Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s division of Major General John Reynold’s 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the Iron Brigade’s role at the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg was to protect the Union left flank south of the town. The Iron Brigade–consisting of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry regiments plus the 19th Indiana Infantry–had seen its ranks reduced after heavy fighting earlier in the year at the Battles of Brawner’s Farm (also called Gainesville), South Mountain, and Antietam. Help was on the way in the form of the 24th Michigan Infantry, a unit formed in the late summer of 1862 and assigned to the Iron Brigade in October. Up to this point, the 24th had not seen action.
On December 12th, Doubleday’s division crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges. The divisions of Generals George Meade and John Gibbon were deployed to the immediate right of Doubleday, and would assault the Confederate lines of General A.P. Hill’s division of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps. That evening, the Iron Brigade set up camp on the grounds of the Arthur Bernard house.
On the morning of the 13th, as the assaults along the Federal front commenced, Doubleday’s division marched south along the Rappahannock to secure the flank. The cavalry and horse artillery of General J.E.B Stuart covered the Confederate right. The Union advance halted at a wooded area where Stuart’s men were firing muskets and artillery at the approaching Federals. After shelling the woods with artillery fired, Doubleday ordered Brigadier General Solomon Meredith, commander of the Iron Brigade and former commander of the 19th Indiana, to take the woods and clear out the Confederates.
Eager to show that it could fight, the 24th Michigan was placed in the front line, along with the 7th Wisconsin. “They were exceedingly anxious to go always to the front, and resting upon our hard earned laurels, we were generously willing that they should do so” wrote Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin. The 19th Indiana and 2nd Wisconsin formed a line behind them, with the 6th Wisconsin backing them up.
The brigade advanced into the woods and took the position. Resistance was relatively light, and the 24th Michigan had achieved some success fighting with the veterans of the brigade. With the woods cleared out, the brigade advanced to a point about three quarters of a mile from the Massaponax River, which emptied into the Rappahannock. Stuart held the ground on the other side of the Massaponax. The Iron Brigade established a defensive line but was under constant artillery fire, some of which inflicted gruesome casualties, including the decapitations of some men of the 24th Michigan. As it often did, Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, supported the Iron Brigade, and it returned fire in the artillery duel.
The brigade was ordered to change positions as battlefield conditions warranted, and when Meredith was perceived by Doubleday to move too slowly on carrying out his orders for one of these repositionings, he was replaced by the 6th Wisconsin’s Colonel Lysander Cutler. It may have been a misunderstanding, as Meredith was restored to command following the battle.
The men of the brigade spent a miserable night of the 13th to 14th, shivering in the cold without fires, and with Confederate artillery and musket fire opening up from time to time.
December the 13th had been a disaster for the Federals, with their attacks repulsed all along the line, and most memorably, with the multiple and near suicidal assaults on the stone wall below Marye’s Heights just to the west of Fredericksburg. The Iron Brigade and the rest of the Union Army remained in place until the night of December 15th-16th, when Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered a withdrawal back across the Rappahannock.
General Meredith filed this after action report on the Iron Brigade at Fredericksburg:
HEADQUARTERS FOURTH BRIGADE, December 22, 1862.
SIR: I beg leave to submit the following report of the part taken by the Fourth Brigade in the battle of Fredericksburg, on the 13th instant:
We crossed the Rappahannock on the 12th instant, and passed down the south bank of the river nearly 2 miles, where we went into camp near a stone house, known as Bernard’s, and remained there until the next morning. Previous to reaching the house, and during the afternoon, while the brigade was closed en masse by division, we received the first fire of the enemy. The firing was of short duration, and I have but one casualty to report in this instance. A private of the Seventh Wisconsin was instantly killed.
At sunrise on the 13th, I received orders to form my brigade in column by regiments, and advance with the division line of battle. The Twenty-fourth Michigan, being a large regiment, its right wing was formed on the right, the left in rear of the right; the remaining four battalions 100 paces in the rear, and with an interval of 100 paces between the brigade on my right and the right of my command. We moved forward in this manner about half a mile, when we approached a ravine, where we halted and deployed the Twenty-fourth Michigan into line, their left reaching the river, supported by the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana, formed in column by division. At this time the enemy opened upon us with artillery, but, owing to a heavy fog, his range was imperfect, which resulted in no injury to any one of my command. The skirmishers to my front and right had met the skirmishers of the enemy, and the musketry revealed the fact that they were opposing our advance. I then received orders to advance and form a line of battle on the opposite side of the ravine. The order was promptly executed by a movement by the flank across the ravine, when the brigade was deployed into line, supported on the left by the Sixth Wisconsin.
After advancing some distance, the skirmishers reported a force of cavalry and infantry concealed in a piece of pine wood skirting the river, immediately in my front. Battery B, Fourth Artillery, Lieutenant Stewart, shelled the wood, and, with the assistance of a battery of heavy guns on the opposite side of the river, succeeded in driving the enemy from their naturally strong position. The brigade then advanced in two lines upon the wood, the first line composed of the Twenty-fourth Michigan and Seventh Wisconsin; the second of the Nineteenth Indiana and Second Wisconsin, the two lines supported by the Sixth Wisconsin. As the first line approached the wood, some of the enemy were discovered, when the Twenty-fourth Michigan pushed forward, and captured a number of prisoners and horses. In passing through the wood, fortifications were discovered, constructed for the purpose of commanding the river. Our left advanced to within three-fourths of a mile of the Massaponax, when we changed front and held a line running parallel with the Bowling Green road. By direction of the general commanding, our line was frequently changed; but we were under fire during the entire day.
Late in the afternoon the cannonading was terrific. One of the enemy’s batteries was placed within 500 yards of my command, and was worked with great precision. It was here our heaviest losses occurred. At night we held the same relative position that we did during the day, having gained over 1 mile since morning.
I cannot close this report without reference to the officers and men of my command. The Twenty-fourth Michigan, commanded by Col. Henry A. Morrow, is a new regiment, having never been under fire before. They showed themselves to be worthy of the praise they have received, and of association with the old Iron Brigade. Their line of battle upon entering the wood was splendid, showing both courage and discipline.
The Nineteenth Indiana, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, behaved handsomely during the entire day.
The Seventh Wisconsin, Colonel Robinson; Second Wisconsin, Colonel Fairchild, and Sixth Wisconsin, Colonel Cutler, displayed the patience, endurance, and cool courage for which they are justly noted, and fully maintained the high reputation they had previously so nobly won. During the evening the command of the Sixth Wisconsin devolved upon Lieutenant-Colonel Bragg–an able and gallant officer, and one who well deserves any promotion at the hands of the Government Colonel Cutler having retired, in consequence of indisposition from wounds previously received at Gainesville.
A large cavalry force was discovered on our left in the afternoon, supposed to be at least a brigade, their design being evidently to break our lines; but, discovering the disposition of our troops, withdrew, as there were serious doubts of success in that quarter.
I can recommend for promotion Col. L. Cutler, Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, who is a faithful and meritorious officer. Col. L. Fairchild, of the Second Wisconsin, is an accomplished
officer, and managed his regiment with great skill upon this occasion, as well as all others during the battles of Virginia and Maryland I recommend him to the favorable consideration of the Government. Colonel Robinson, of the Seventh Wisconsin, is a splendid and deserving officer, and deserves a promotion from the hands of the Government. Colonel Morrow, of the Twenty-fourth Michigan, behaved handsomely during the battle. He is a gallant and brave officer and I can consistently speak of him as worthy of a higher position than he now holds. Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, of the Nineteenth Indiana, did his whole duty, and I earnestly recommend him to the Executive of Indiana for a promotion. Major Dudley, of the Nineteenth Indiana, assisted me as member of my staff, and displayed courage and ability in transmitting orders. He has been in all the battles of Virginia and Maryland, and behaved with great gallantry upon all occasions. First Lieutenant and Acting Assistant Adjutant General Shafer was prompt and active in the discharge of his duties, and has been recommended to the Governor of Indiana for promotion to a captaincy. First Lieut. and Actg. Adjt. James D. Wood, of the Second Wisconsin, served as volunteer aide upon my staff, and behaved with great courage and gallantry during the entire day. Lieuts. Samuel H. Meredith and J. M. Howard, jr., members of my staff, behaved handsomely, and were of great assistance to me. I take this opportunity of returning my thanks to them for their disinterestedness and prompt manner in which they discharged their duties, regardless of personal injury, and can only say they have won for themselves the title of “soldiers.”
The detailed account of losses has been heretofore furnished by the surgeon-in-chief of the brigade, and amounts in the aggregate to 10 killed, 33 wounded, 7 missing ; total, 50.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Capt. E. P. HALSTEAD,
Assistant Adjutant-General, First Division.
Meredith’s casualty figures were later changed to nine killed, 40 wounded, and 16 missing or captured, for a total of 65.
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly
History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade by O.B. Curtis
The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXI
Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes