The Iron Brigade in the Chancellorsville Campaign
On January 25th, 1863, Major General Joseph Hooker was promoted to command of the Army of the Potomac. Six weeks earlier, the army had suffered a bloody defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia; following that in January, the army literally became stuck in the mud as it attempted to begin a new campaign, marching on roads that had turned to mud due to heavy rains. The end result was the return of the army to its camps at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg and the a change in commanders from General Ambrose Burnside to Hooker.
Hooker reorganized the army and began planning for a spring campaign. The commanding general’s plan was to march three Corps west from
Falmouth, cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, and then concentrate the forces at a crossroads called Chancellorsville. Two other Corps, the 1st and 6th, would cross the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg and put pressure on the Confederate right. Major General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps would cross at Franklin’s Crossing, and Major General John F. Reynold’s 1st Corps would cross at Fitzhugh’s Crossing, four miles below Fredericksburg. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth commanded the 1st Division of the 1st Corps, which included the 4th Brigade, also known as the Iron Brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan infantry regiments. The brigade commander was Brigadier General Solomon Meredith.
The Iron Brigade had fought in the same area of these two river crossings in the Battle of Fredericksburg back in December. The crossings were to be secured by infantry
crossing the river in pontoon boats under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of April 29th to establish bridgeheads on the other side. Engineers would then construct bridges with the pontoon boats, completing them by dawn. Wadsworth picked the Iron Brigade to cross the river in the boats and secure the south bank of the Rappahannock.
The Iron Brigade was in position at the appointed time, but the boats weren’t there. It was after dawn before the pontoons arrived and were ready for deployment, but by this time, the element of surprise was lost. Confederates of General Jubal Early’s Division could see the Federal engineers bringing the boats down to the shore about 150 yards across the river and opened fire. The 6th Wisconsin, 24th Michigan, and another of Wadsworth’s regiments, the 14th Brooklyn, were ordered to the shore to return fire and drive out the Rebels. The infantrymen were assisted by Federal artillery, but Early’s men were dug in well and could not be displaced.
After an hour of this stalemate, General Reynolds decided more aggressive–and more dangerous–action was needed. Reynolds ordered the 6th Wisconsin and 24th Michigan to cross the river in the pontoon boats and carry the Confederate works. “I confess I never saw anything that appeared so much like certain death as this movement did” recalled a member of the 6th Wisconsin. The 6th’s Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes later wrote “I confess that a shrinking from the proffered glory came over us. To be shot like sheep in a huddle and drowned in the Rappahannock appeared to be the certain fate of all if we failed and of some if we succeeded”.
Nonetheless, the two regiments prepared for the waterborne assault. Three companies of the 2nd Wisconsin ran the boats down to the shore and launched them while the 6th Wisconsin and 24th Michigan jumped into the boats. Each pontoon boat held a company of men, four of which were assigned to row while the others lay down on the bottom of the boat. As they pushed off into the river, the other regiments from the brigade formed a line on shore and provided cover fire, as did Federal artillery. The rowers paddled as fast as they could as shots rained down, with the Federals rising out of the boats to deliver a volley in return. “The scene of wild excitement which then ran high is indescribable” recalled a member of the 6th Wisconsin. “I never saw soldiers so enthusiastic before. The Colonel of the 24th Michigan [Henry A. Morrow] crossed over with Company A and could hardly keep himself in the boat, he was so impatient to reach the opposite shore”
According to a member of the 24th Michigan, it took just seven minutes to cross the river. The 6th Wisconsin’s Rufus Dawes recalled that “When we got across the river, we jumped into the mud
and water, waist deep, waded ashore, crawled and scrambled up the bank, laying hold of the bushes. Very few shots were fired before the rebels were throwing down their arms or running over the plain”. The boats were sent back for the rest of the Iron Brigade, which deployed in line of battle. The engineers completed the pontoon bridges by noon, paving the way for the remainder of the division to cross.
The 24th Michigan had 21 men killed or wounded in the crossing; the 6th Wisconsin had 16 casualties. The 2nd, and 7th Wisconsin, and 19th Indiana had a total of 20 while providing cover fire. General Wadsworth, who had crossed with the first wave, had two bullet holes in his hat but was otherwise unscathed. For the next two days, the Federals remained in place as the two sides exchanged artillery fire.
On May 2nd, General Hooker ordered Reynolds to take his Corps and march west to Chancellorsville. The Iron Brigade, as the rear guard of the movement, was the last of the division to cross. The brigade reached the Rappahannock crossing of United States Ford at 10:00 that evening; it then set out for the Union right flank at 2:00 a.m. on May 3rd, arriving there around sunrise and deployed to left of the 5th Corps. While General Robert E. Lee attacked the Union 2nd, 3rd, and 12th Corps to the left of the 5th Corps that morning, the 1st Corps was not engaged. Hooker went entirely into defensive mode, and the Confederates scored a big victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
The 1st Corps remained in place until the early morning hours of May 6th, when the Army of the Potomac began a withdrawal. The 1st Corps once again crossed the Rappahannock at United States Ford, with Wadsworth’s division acting as rear guard. The Iron Brigade crossed the river at about 8:00 a.m.
Although the Battle of Chancellorsville was a Union defeat, the Iron Brigade had successfully fulfilled its mission. Colonel Edward S. Bragg filed this after action report for the 6th Wisconsin:
IN THE FIELD,
May 10, 1863.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit a report of the part taken by my command in the recent engagements along the line of the Rappahannock.
On the night of April 28 (ultimo), I received orders to move my command from its encampment near the Fitzhugh house to the crossing of the Rappahannock in front of the house and between Deep Run and the Massaponax, and, in conjunction with the Twenty-fourth Michigan Volunteers, supported by the Second and Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers, force a passage of the river at that point, seize the enemy’s rifle-pits on the opposite bank of the river, and hold the brick house on the right, to cover the construction of a bridge and the passage of the troops.
The command was in motion about 11 p.m., and advanced under the cover of the night near to the bank of the river, but was delayed by the tardiness of the pontoon train until daylight, when the enemy discovered our position, and opened a sharp fire of musketry upon the train, which was abandoned in a great measure by the men in charge and the boats left lying along the bank and some of them in the water. I then received orders to advance my command under cover of a stone wall to the river bank and reply to the fire of the enemy, which was done, but with little effect. After maintaining this position for two hours, I withdrew my command under shelter of a ridge a few yards to the rear of, and parallel with, the stream.
About 9 a.m., April 29, I received orders to cross the river and execute the movement previously arranged for the night attack. My command advanced to this perilous duty without faltering, and under cover of the fire of the Second and Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers, and the skirmishers of the Fourteenth Brooklyn, moved by the right of companies down the bank and crossed the river. During the whole time the enemy were within easy range, and, protected by trees and rifle-pits, kept up a constant fire, but fortunately did us comparatively little damage by reason of the incessant fire kept up by the regiments and skirmishers before named. One boat, loaded with men from the Twenty-fourth. Michigan, crossed at the same time with my command, followed by the regiment so soon as facilities for crossing could be procured.
Without discredit to any regiment, I have the honor to report, without the fear of contradiction, that the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers first scaled the bank and their colors first caught the breeze on the southern bank of the Rappahannock on the morning of April 29.
Quite a number of prisoners were captured along the bank and in the rifle-pits and sent to the opposite shore. I then advanced upon and took the brick house on my right, threw out my skirmishers and pickets, and held the position until relieved by the Second Brigade, General Cutler commanding, when I rejoined my brigade, on the left of the line, where I remained, in connection with the other regiments of the brigade, intrenching and strengthening the position against attack, until the morning of May 2, when the position was evacuated and the river recrossed.
During the whole period of our presence on the south side of the river, the enemy annoyed us at intervals with his artillery, but did little injury.
The conduct of every officer and man in my command was splendid. Individual cases cannot be noticed where all did so well, without in a degree reflecting upon others, and for this reason I forbear.
My loss was 3 enlisted men killed and 1 officer and 12 enlisted men wounded.
May 2.–Having recrossed the river we moved to the United States Ford, and on the morning of the 3d crossed the river and moved up to the Ely’s Ford road, where we went into position and remained until the morning of May 6, when we recrossed the river in safety, having had no casualty in the regiment. The weather was inclement a portion of the time that we were in position on the Ely’s Ford road, but the men bore the storm and fatigue of the march without a murmur. A disposition to engage and beat the enemy so occupied their minds that no other feeling had an opportunity to obtain a foothold. I commend them to you as brave and fearless in action, patient and enduring under hardship, men who may have equals, but do not admit superiority.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
EDW’D S. BRAGG,
Colonel, Commanding Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers.
Capt. J. D. WOOD,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Fourth Brigade.
Although Bragg was adamant in his report that the 6th Wisconsin planted its flag first, members of the 24th Michigan insisted they were the first to plant their colors on the opposite shore after crossing.
General Solomon wrote this report on the brigade’s action at Chancellorsville:
CAMP NEAR FITZHUGH’S CROSSING, VA.,
May 28, 1863.
CAPTAIN: In compliance with orders from headquarters First Division, First Army Corps, I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my command, the Fourth Brigade, in the recent operations of the Army of the Potomac against the enemy:
The brigade, consisting of the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers, the Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers, and the Twenty-fourth Michigan Volunteers, broke
camp near Belle Plain Landing at 12 m. on April 28; marched west, passing near White Oak Church, to within 2 miles of the Rappahannock, at Fitzhugh’s Crossing, where we were halted until 12 midnight, when I received orders to move my command to the bank of the river and prepare for an aggressive movement. The brigade, however, moved slowly, in consequence of the delay in getting forward the pontoons. It was not until daylight that we got upon the river bank, at the place selected for our crossing, and, fortunately, a heavy fog, obscured us from view until sunrise, when the enemy opened a brisk fire upon us from their rifle-pits, which continued for some time, and interfered with getting the boats to the bank and into position for a crossing. At this juncture the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Colonel Bragg, and Twenty-fourth Michigan Volunteers, Colonel Morrow, were ordered to the front, and to deploy along the bank of the river and return the fire. The movement was promptly executed, and a brisk engagement ensued, which lasted for a few minutes. At this time the troops engaged in laying the pontoons had fallen back in great disorder, when the Second and Seventh Wisconsin and the Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers were deployed, under cover of a slight crest running parallel to the river, and ordered to lie down, by which means they were to some extent protected from the enemy’s fire. The Fourteenth Brooklyn being deployed as skirmishers and moving toward the river, the Sixth Wisconsin and the Twenty-fourth Michigan fell back to the position occupied by the other three regiments of the brigade.
At 9 a.m. the brigade was ordered to cross the river in boats and drive the enemy from their position, the Sixth Wisconsin and Twenty-fourth Michigan moving in the advance, immediately followed by the Second and Seventh Wisconsin, and the Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers moving up in double-quick. A part of the Second Wisconsin had been ordered to bring forward the pontoons, which it performed in fine style, under a shower of musketry. The Second and Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers opened fire on the enemy, which was continued for a few minutes, until the pontoons could be placed in the water, when the whole brigade crossed, under a direct and enfilading fire, charged the rifle-pits, killing 30, wounding a large number, and capturing nearly 200 prisoners.
The cool courage displayed by Colonel Bragg, of the Sixth Wisconsin, and Colonel Morrow, of the Twenty-fourth Michigan, and the officers and men of their commands, in crossing the river and charging the enemy’s works, entitle them to the highest praise. The Second Wisconsin, Colonel Fairchild; the Seventh Wisconsin, Colonel Robinson, and the Nineteenth Indiana, Colonel Williams, in promptly supporting the Sixth Wisconsin and Twenty-fourth Michigan in their rapid and enthusiastic movements in crossing, are also entitled to the admiration of their superior officers.
The Sixth Wisconsin immediately formed and moved to the right as far as the Bernard house. The Twenty-fourth formed the left, while the Second and Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana Volunteers formed a line to cover the laying of the pontoons. Skirmishers were immediately thrown to the front. As soon as the bridge was completed, the brigade was moved to the left, to prevent a flank movement should the enemy make the attempt, the Twenty-fourth having its left resting on the Rappahannock, and the regiment lying at right angles with the river, the Nineteenth Indiana, with its left resting on the right of the Twenty-fourth, and parallel to the river, the Seventh and Second Wisconsin continuing the line, the Sixth, with its right on the Rappahannock, its left joining the Second. Around this parallelogram was a ditch, in which the men took shelter. The men lay upon their arms all night.
During the forenoon of the 30th the men were busy improving their defenses, which were made quite secure by 4 p.m., when the enemy opened fire upon us from a battery on a hill commanding our position and directly in our front. Two men of the Twenty-fourth Michigan were killed and 2 wounded. Major Finnicum, of the Seventh Wisconsin, was hit by a fragment of a shell, but injured slightly. During the night, intrenching tools being furnished, the men were at work on the intrenchments.
May 1, expecting an attack, the troops were ordered under arms at 4 p.m. in the trenches, and remained there until dark.
May 2, the brigade withdrew from their trenches, and, under cover of the river bank, to the bridge, and recrossed the Rappahannock.
Moved at 9 a.m., resting a few moments to allow the pickets to join us, a part of whom assisted in saving the boats. The brigade moved along the River road to the Catlett road; then to near Hartwood Church; thence to within about 2 miles of the United States Ford, where we were ordered to encamp at 10 p.m.
At 2 a.m. (3d instant), the brigade was again formed, and, crossing at the United States Ford, advanced to the front, where, at 6 a.m., it was deployed in line of battle, the Twenty-fourth, Nineteenth, Seventh, and Second forming in rear of Sykes’ division, and the Sixth 15 paces in rear of the Twenty-fourth. The men were ordered to throw up defenses in front of the line, which were completed at 12 m., the men lying on their arms, momentarily expecting an attack. The Twenty-fourth was here detached and moved to the right, on the Rapidan, where it did picket duty until our forces recrossed the river.
On the 4th instant the men were in position.
On the 5th instant the men in position. Received orders to march at 2 a.m. Moved by a new road cut through the woods to the United States Ford, where we arrived shortly after daybreak, when we were ordered to fall back to the crest, and, forming in two lines of battle, faced to the rear, when I ordered the men to make coffee.
At 8 a.m., the troops in our advance having crossed, I ordered the brigade to move across the Rappahannock. A heavy rain had been falling since dark of the preceding day. We moved to and by the Catlett road to near Hartwood Church, where the brigade encamped at 5 p.m.
At 8 a.m. on the 6th, the troops were again in motion. We marched to White Oak Church, thence to near Fitzhugh’s farm, where the brigade is still encamped.
Of the troops of this command I cannot speak too highly. With heroic fortitude and bravery, on the bloody fields of Gainesville, Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and their late gallant struggle in forcing a crossing of the Rappahannock River, they have won for themselves imperishable honors. To officers and men I wish to award the credit of their noble deeds and thank them for winning for themselves so enviable a reputation. I respectfully request that the general commanding the army make honorable mention of the officers and men of this command for their gallantry in crossing the river on April 29.
I am greatly indebted to the officers of my staffs–Capt. J. D. Wood, assistant adjutant-general; Capt. H. Richardson, acting assistant inspector-general; Lieuts. S. H. Meredith, aide-de-camp, and C. C. Yemans, acting aide-de-camp–for their promptness in the discharge of their duties on the battle-field and on the march.
Accompanying this, please find tabular statement of the casualties of the command.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Capt. T. E. ELLSWORTH,
A.D. C. and A. A. G., First Division, First Army Corps.
Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears
History of the Sauk County Riflemen Known as Company A Sixth Wisconsin Veteran Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865 by Philip Cheek and Mair Pointon
History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade Known as the Detroit and Wayne County Regiment by O.B. Curtis
The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan
The Military History of Wisconsin in the War For the Union by E.B. Quiner
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXV, Part 1
Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes
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