General John Gibbon’s Report on the Iron Brigade at the Battle of Antietam
North Carolina native John Gibbon was a West Point graduate and career U.S. Army officer who remained loyal to the Union even while three of his brothers joined the Confederate army. He would hold several commands during the war, advancing to Corps command in 1865. In September of 1862, Gibbon was in charge of the 4th Brigade of the 1st Division of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac. This brigade consisted of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin infantries, plus the 19th Indiana Infantry—the Iron Brigade. As U.S. forces attempted to stop the Army of Northern Virginia’s invasion of Maryland, Gibbon’s brigade had been heavily engaged in the Battle of South Mountain on September 14th, and would again see ferocious fighting on September 17th at the Battle of Antietam.
That morning, the Iron Brigade and the rest of the 1st Corps was camped around the Joseph Poffenberger near the Hagerstown Turnpike, north of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The brigade received Confederate artillery fire as the battle opened and the Federals advanced. About a half mile south of the Poffenberger farm was the farm of David Miller, and about a half mile south of that was the white Dunker Church building, standing on the highest ground in the area, making it a strategic location for control of this part of the battlefield.
As the brigade reached a cornfield on the Miller farm, Gibbon had the 2nd and most of the 6th Wisconsin advance through it while deploying the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana across the turnpike to protect the brigade’s right flank. The brigade was also supported by Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery, which just happened to be a former command of Gibbon’s. Union forces here were opposed by Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps, and intense fighting raged back and forth through the cornfield and beyond, and then back again. With ammunition running low and casualties running high, the brigade couldn’t quite get to the Dunker church. Gibbon finally ordered his men to pull back. At one point Gibbon himself helped man the artillery as the casualties mounted.
Gibbon filed this after action report:
Headquarters Fourth Brigade,
Camp near Sharpsburg, September 20, 1862.
Sir: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of my brigade during the action of the 17th near this place:
The brigade was, by direction of Major-General Hooker, detached from the division, and ordered to advance into a piece of wood on the right of the Hagerstown turnpike, toward the village of Sharpsburg. The brigade advanced in column of divisions on the left of the turnpike until the head of it reached an open space, when the Sixth Wisconsin was deployed and rushed forward into a corn-field in our front, the Second Wisconsin being deployed and formed on its left, while a section of Gibbon’s battery, under Lieutenant Stewart, was brought into action in the rear, to fire over the heads of our men in reply to one of the enemy’s batteries in their front. The Sixth and Second pushed gallantly forward, supported by the Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana, when, finding the enemy was likely to flank us on the right in the wood, which extended down in that direction, I ordered up Stewart’s section, and directed the Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana to deploy to the right of the line, and push forward rapidly into the woods. The whole line soon became hotly engaged, and the enemy, heavily reenforced from the woods, made a dash upon the battery. This attack, however, was successfully repelled by heavy discharges of canister from the guns, the fire of the few remaining men of the Second and Sixth Wisconsin, and the flank fire poured in by the Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana, which had been brought around to sweep the front of the battery with their fire, Captain Campbell having in the mean time joined Stewart’s with the other four pieces of the battery.
In this severe contest Lieutenant-Colonel Bragg, Sixth Wisconsin, and Lieutenant Colonel Allen, Second Wisconsin, both commanding their regiments, were wounded and taken from the field. The gallant Lieutenant-Colonel Bachman, commanding the Nineteenth Indiana, fell mortally wounded, and Captain Campbell, while gallantly serving his guns, was stricken down by a ball through the shoulder. Thirty-eight of the battery men were killed and wounded, 27 of the horses killed, and, finding the guns almost deprived of support of cannoneers to work them, I ordered them to limber to the rear and fall back, followed soon after by the infantry of my brigade, much reduced in numbers and scant of ammunition. The loss of the brigade is again an evidence of its well-earned honors.
While referring to the regimental reports for special mention of meritorious individuals, I beg leave to call attention to the steadiness and
gallantry of both officers and men, and especially to the coolness and bravery of Lieutenant-Colonels Bragg, Bachman, and Allen; Major Dawes, Captain Callis, and Captain Campbell, and Lieutenant Stewart, of Gibbon’s battery. My aides, Lieutenants Haskell and Hildreth, were, as usual, prompt and active in conveying my orders, and the former, while carrying a message to General Hooker, had his horse killed under him.
The loss in the brigade is as follows: 61 killed, 274 wounded, 45 missing; total, 380.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Capt. B. P. Halstead,
Assistant Adjutant- General, King’s Division.
The Iron Brigade’s casualty totals were revised to 68 killed, 275 wounded, and five missing, for a total of 348. The brigade had suffered heavy casualties in the battles of Brawner’s Farm in late August as well as South Mountain and Antietam. Reinforcements in the form of the 24th Michigan Infantry would join the brigade later in the fall. In November, General Gibbon was promoted to command of the 2nd Division of the 1st Corps, ending his time as commander of the Iron Brigade.
Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner
The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan
Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XIX, Part 1.
Additional posts about the Iron Brigade units at Antietam:
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