The 6th and 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments at the Battle of South Mountain
On September 4th, 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Since taking command of the Confederate Army in early June, Lee had successfully driven the Union Army of the Potomac off the Virginia peninsula in the Peninsula Campaign, and defeated Union forces at the Battle of Second Bull run in late August. It was decided that the time was right to capitalize on these victories and invade the north.
Lee divided his army, with part of it going into western Maryland and another part sent to capture the large Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The Federals went in pursuit of the Confederates, trying to anticipate the objectives of the campaign. Then on September 13th, a copy of Lee’s Special Order 191–essentially, the Confederate battle plan– fell into Union hands.
With this information, Major General George McClellan marched toward western Maryland. He divided his army into three parts to go through three gaps through South Mountain–Fox’s, Crampton’s, and Turner’s. Lee sent troops to defend the gaps and halt, or at least significantly slow down the Federal advance.
Among those Union forces that marched to Turner’s Gap was the 4th Brigade of the 1st Division of Major General Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps. This brigade, under command of Brigadier General John Gibbon, consisted of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry regiments, plus the 19th Indiana Infantry. Late in the afternoon on September 14th, the brigade advanced up the National Road into Turner’s Gap. The 2nd Wisconsin and 19th Indiana marched on the left of the National Road, while the 6th and 7th Wisconsin were on the right of the road. One section (2 guns) of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, was behind the infantry.
Opposing the Federals were Georgia and Alabama regiments under Colonel Alfred H. Colquitt of Major General Daniel Harvey Hill’s Division. The
Confederates had plenty of good cover, including woods, logs, and a stone fence. When skirmishers from the two sides began exchanging fire, Gibbon sent the 19th Indiana forward and to the left and then sent the 2nd Wisconsin to the Indianan’s right. The 7th Wisconsin continued to advance along the right side of the road until encountering enfilading fire from Georgians in the Rebel line deployed behind a stone fence on the left side of the road.
The 7th Wisconsin returned fire, and Captain John B. Callis, commanding the 7th, had his regiment turn at an angle to face the threat. As it did so, Confederates in the woods on the right side of the road opened fire into the now exposed right and rear of the 7th Wisconsin.
The 6th Wisconsin was ordered forward into line of battle to reinforce the 7th. The right wing of the 6th, under Major Rufus Dawes, advanced and fired into the Rebel positions in the woods. The left wing was behind the 7th and could not fire, but as the 6th was emptying its muskets, Bragg had moved the right wing behind it. “The roll of this wing volley had hardly ceased to reverberate, when Bragg said: ‘Have your men lie down on the ground, I am going over you'” recalled Dawes, who ordered “‘Right wing, lie down! Look out, the left wing is going over you!’ was the command. Bragg had brought the left wing behind the right wing and he ordered them forward over the men of the right wing as they laid upon the ground. The left wing fired a volley into the woods, and the right wing advanced in the same manner over them and fired a volley into the woods…There were four volleys by wing given, at the word of command”.
With darkness closing in, the entire line slowly fought its way up South Mountain. The firing on both sides was intense and continued into the night until the brigade began running low on ammunition; Gibbon ordered those who were out of ammunition to hold position with bayonets. When the Wisconsin men slowed down their rate of fire to conserve ammunition, the Confederates attempted to advance. But the 6th Wisconsin had a volley left in it and fired into the advancing Rebels, and Callis ordered the 7th to charge with fixed bayonets.
The Rebels (who could claim a successful delaying operation) finally retreated in some confusion, ending the fighting at about 9 p.m. and the Federals had secured Turner’s Gap. But it was unknown if the Rebels would counterattack, so the brigade was in for a rough night as Dawes recalled:
We did not dare to let the men sleep. Colonel Bragg sent to General Gibbon for ammunition. General Gibbon replied that it was impossible for him to furnish it, but he hoped that we would soon be relieved by other troops. He said we must hold the position we had gained so long as there was “an inch of our bayonets left”…Our wounded were scattered over a great distance up and down the mountain, and were suffering untold agonies..Several dying men were pleading piteously for water, of which there was not a drop in the regiment…The dread reality of war was before us in this frightful death, upon the cold hard stones.
About midnight the 7th Wisconsin, along with the 2nd Wisconsin and 19th Indiana, were relieved by regiments from the 2nd Corps. But the 6th Wisconsin remained on the field, and the promised relief did not come. A soldier in the 6th Wisconsin’s Company A recalled “we lay that night where we were when the fight stopped and the ground was so rough and rocky that more than one of the boys had to use his dead comrade for a pillow”. The commander of the 6th Wisconsin’s relief refused to send his men up the mountain in the dark, despite assurances from the regimental adjutant that he would lead the way. The 6th Wisconsin remained in place until relieved at 8:00 on the 15th.
The 6th Wisconsin listed its casualties at the Battle of South Mountain as 11 killed, 79 wounded, and 2 missing or captured, while the 7th Wisconsin reported 11 killed, 116 wounded, and 20 missing or captured. The brigade as a whole had 37 killed, 251 wounded, and 30 missing or captured.
Lt. Col. Bragg filed this report on the 6th Wisconsin’s action at the Battle of South Mountain. He also had some sarcastic remarks about the regiment that finally relieved the 6th, the 2nd New York State Militia, also known as the 82nd New York Infantry:
GIBBON’S BRIG., HDQRS. SIXTH REGT. WISCONSIN VOLS.,
In the-Field, September 20, 1862.
SIR: In compliance with circular from headquarters, I have the honor to report that at the battle of South Mountain, on the 14th instant, the Sixth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers moved up the mountain gorge to the right of the turnpike, in support of the Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers, who were moving in front, supporting a line of skirmishers. The skirmishers soon found the enemy in front, and an irregular fire commenced. This was past twilight. The Seventh moved to the support of the skirmishers, and was soon engaged with the enemy, who was concealed in a wood on their left and in a ravine in front. So soon as the Seventh received the fire of the enemy and commenced replying, I deployed the Sixth, and with the right wing opened fire upon the enemy concealed in the wood upon the right. I also moved the left wing by the right flank into the rear of the right wing, and commenced a fire by the wings alternately, and advancing the line after each volley.
At this time I received an order from the general, directing me to flank the enemy in the wood. The condition of the surface of the ground, and the steepness of the ascent up the
mountain side, rendered this movement a difficult one; but without hesitation the left wing moved by the flank into the wood, firing as they went, and advancing the line. I directed Major Dawes to advance the right wing on the skirt of the wood as rapidly as the line in the wood advanced, which he did. This movement forward and by the flank I continued until the left wing rested its right on the crest of the hill, extending around the enemy in a semicircular line, and then moved the right wing into the wood so as to connect the line from the open field to the top of the hill. While this was being done, the fire of the enemy, who fought us from behind rocks and trees, and entirely under cover, was terrific, but steadily the regiment dislodged him and kept advancing. Ammunition commenced to give out, no man having left more than four rounds, and many without any. It was dark, and a desperate enemy in front.
At this moment I received an order from General Gibbon to cease fire and maintain the position, and the battle was won. I directed my men to reserve their fire, unless compelled to use it, and then only at short range, and trust to the bayonet. No sooner did the time of fire erase than the enemy, supposing we were checked, crept close up in the wood and commenced a rapid fire. I directed a volley in reply, and then, with three lusty cheers for Wisconsin, the men sat cheerfully down to await another attack; but the enemy was no more seen.
I held the ground until daylight, when I threw out skirmishers, and soon found the enemy had withdrawn in the night, leaving a few dead on the field, and a large number of muskets also.
Soon after daylight my regiment was relieved by the Second New York, from Gorman’s brigade, who had been lying in the field, under cover of a stone wall, at a safe distance in the rear, refreshing themselves with a good night’s sleep, after a long and fatiguing march of some 10 miles.
The object accomplished, and the time and place of doing it, speak all that need be said for officers and men of the regiment.
Our loss was 11 killed and 79 wounded; total, 90.
I have the honor to be, respectfully,
EDWD. S. BRAGG,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Sixth Wisconsin.
Lieut. FRANK A. HASKELL,
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.
Captain John B. Callis also filed an after action report on the 7th Wisconsin at the Battle of South Mountain. Callis was in command because all the officers of higher rank in the regiment were wounded in previous fighting.
HDQRS. SEVENTH REGIMENT WISCONSIN VOLUNTEERS?
Near Boonsborough, Md., September 15, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report the part taken by the Seventh Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers in the action of the 14th of September, 1862, at South Mountain, Md.:
About 5 o’clock p.m. the Seventh Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers formed in line of battle on the north side of the turnpike. Skirmishers were thrown in advance of us, and soon encountered the skirmishers of the enemy. A sharp skirmish fire ensued. The regiment then broke by the right of companies to the front, and advanced, keeping 100 paces in rear of the line of skirmishers. We advanced in this way through a cornfield for half a mile, and came out into an open field. Here the skirmishers met such a sharp fire from the sharpshooters of the enemy, that it was difficult for them to advance farther, the open field affording no shelter or protection against the sharp fire from the bank. The regiment then formed a line of battle, and advanced, our left touching the pike, our right extending north to the edge of the woods on the slope of the mountain. The enemy opened a destructive enfilading fire from a stone fence on our left, at a short range, which drew the fire from our regiment to the left. We kept advancing and firing until another enfilading fire from the woods on our right, and a direct fire from behind a stone fence in our front, showed our close proximity to the enemy’s line of battle. Our men returned the fire with great vigor. The Sixth Wisconsin Regiment was then in line in our rear some 50 paces. Colonel Bragg, seeing the destructive fire under which we were fighting, double-quicked the Sixth Wisconsin Regiment to our right and opened on the enemy, thereby drawing the enfilading fire hitherto received by us from the woods on our right.
Colonel Fairchild, of the Second Wisconsin Regiment, at this juncture was a little to rear and left of the pike, with the Second Wisconsin Regiment. He also seeing our perilous condition, brought his regiment forward on our left, and commenced a fire that relieved us from further annoyance from the left, thus leaving us to contend against a direct fire from behind a stone wall in our front. The firing was kept up without ceasing until about 9 o’clock at night, when our ammunition became exhausted. The fact was made known to General Gibbon. His answer was, “Hold the ground at the point of the bayonet.” Our men were ordered to lie down; the cartridges were taken from the boxes of the dead and wounded, and distributed among the men who were destitute of ammunition. I then gave them orders to load, and reserve their fire for a close range. The enemy coming to know our condition, commenced advancing on us in line, whereupon I ordered the regiment to rise up, fix bayonets, and charge on the advancing column. Our regiment had not advanced farther than 20 feet when we fired. This broke the enemy’s lines, and they retired in great confusion.
Our loss was heavy in killed and wounded. The aggregate of killed, wounded, and missing was about 147. The regiment went into the action with 375 muskets. The officers and men of the regiment all fought well, doing their whole duty. About 10.30 o’clock the regiment was relieved by part of General Gorman’s brigade, the Fifteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers.
I have the honor to be, your most obedient servant,
JNO. B. CALLIS,
Captain, Commanding Seventh Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers.
FRANK A. HASKELL,
Aide.de. Camp and Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., Gen. Gibbon’s Brig.
Though the exact details are murky, it’s generally accepted that Gibbon’s brigade was nicknamed the Iron Brigade in a conversation between Generals Hooker and McClellan while they observed the brigade in action in the Battle of South Mountain. The Iron Brigade would have no time to rest; it and the rest of the Army of the Potomac would be back in action west of South Mountain at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th.
Forcing Fox’s Gap and Turner’s Gap by Jacob D. Cox. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
History of the Sauk County Riflemen Known as Company A, Sixth Wisconsin Veteran Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865 by Philip Cheek and Mair Pointon
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 XIX, Part 1
Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes