The Last Stand of the Iron Brigade

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Tonight a section from one of my Gettysburg text chapters. This one is about the stand of the Iron Brigade on the ridges west of Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1st 1863.

Have a great night,


Padre Steve+


Harry Heth launched his two uncommitted brigades, those of Pettigrew and Brockenbrough to wrest control of the Herbst Woods from the Iron Brigade. The battle around the seminary and in Herbst wood ahead of it was fierce and the casualties enormous. The Iron Brigade still held on to Herbst Woods and was attacked by Pettigrew’s brigade of Heth’s division and it’s commander Solomon Meredith ensured that his veterans would hold the woods as Doubleday had instructed, “at all costs.” “At the apex of the curved line of the Iron Brigade in the woods stood the 24th Michigan. Straight ahead, ascending the slope was the 26th North Carolina, a huge regiment of 850 officers and men. For the next twenty minutes, hell enveloped both regiments.” [1] In the maelstrom of musketry the Confederates suffered heavily, a North Carolina sergeant recalled “could not even begin to estimate the number of “deadly missiles [that] were sent into our ranks, which mowed us down like wheat before the sickle.” [2]

Despite their immense losses the Confederates finally drove the Iron Brigade back to the seminary but it was at great cost to both sides. The battle for the woods was a wholesale slaughter, the 26th North Carolina lost “549 out of the 843 men it had lined up that afternoon; its regimental flag went through thirteen sets of hands” [3] in a fight where “seven out of every ten men on both sides fell killed or wounded.” [4] The 26th North Carolina lost its commanding officer, the young Colonel Henry Burgwyn Jr., who had picked up the regimental colors when the color guard was shot down. “He called out to the regiment to “dress on the colors.” He turned to hand the colors to a private, only to be hit in the left side, puncturing both lungs; the impact twisted him around and entangled Burgwyn in the flag.” [5]

But by now the outnumbered soldiers of the Iron Brigade were being flanked by part of the 11th North Carolina, which had worked its way around the left. These North Carolina troops began raking the Union line with their musket fire, and a soldier of the 19th Indiana noted, “The slaughter in our flanks became frightful beyond description,” [6] Even so the 11th North Carolina lost heavily in the attack, its losses included its colonel and senior major, the Iron Brigade “inflicted such heavy losses on the Confederates that there were not enough men left even for a successful bayonet charge.” [7]

Harry Heth’s division had finally wrested the McPherson’s Ridge from the determined Yankees but it was now a spent force. Archer and Davis’s brigades had been shattered in the morning fighting and now Pettigrew and Brockenbrough’s were shattered and his men were out of ammunition. Heth claimed “his division had lost 2,300 men in thirty minutes. Pettigrew’s brigade, which had borne the brunt of the afternoon’s fight had lost over 1,000 men killed and wounded.” [8]

Solomon Meredith was among the wounded and the Iron Brigade, now under the command of Colonel Henry Morrow of the 24th Michigan were forced to withdraw back to the seminary. The westerners fought stubbornly and withdrew “step by step, contesting every foot of ground.” [9] They withdrew “by echelon of alternate battalions, turning and stopping six times to beat back the Confederate pressure.” [10] On Seminary Ridge the survivors joined with the remnants of Biddle’s and Stone’s brigades and Wainwright’s artillery. The gallant First Corps was now but a shadow of its former self formed near the seminary for a last stand against the advancing Confederates. “Ordered to hold onto the ridge as long as possible, “the shattered remnants of the Iron Brigade” – Doubleday’s description – moved in behind the barricade to face the onslaught to come.” [11]

Abner Doubleday had ordered his troops to hold their positions “at all hazards” and when the assaulting waves of the Confederates “neared Willoughby Run, the Union ranks exploded in a gale of musketry.” [12] These Confederates from Dorsey Pender’s division were fresh and ready to fight, having taken the lead as Heth’s battered formations were given time to reform. Pender chose the North Carolina brigade of Alfred Scales and the South Carolina brigade of Abner Perrin for the assault, but the Carolinians encountered the same stubborn resistance from the depleted Federals as Heth’s men had earlier in the day. Doubleday remained at the Seminary directing the action and contributed his own headquarters guard company to the defense and “lent a hand sighting the artillery.” [13]

The Iron Brigade and Stone’s brigade were in a good position and covered by a “stone wall and some rough fence-rail breastworks and opened a blistering fire on the advancing Carolinians.” [14] Wainwright had eighteen guns concentrated in this sector on a front of less than 200 yards, and they added to the carnage in the Confederate ranks, one battery was enfilading the Confederate left and Wainwright wrote, “round shot, together with the canister poured in from all the other guns, was cutting great gaps in the front line of the enemy. But still they came on, the gaps being closed by regiments from the second line, and this again filled up by a third column which was coming over the hill. Never have I seen such a charge. Not a man seemed to falter….” [15]

The recipients of this blast were the men of Scales brigade and to one of the Confederates the Federal redoubt seemed “a sheet of fire and smoke, sending its leaden missiles…in the faces of men who had often, but never so terribly, met it before.” [16] Colonel William Robinson of the 7th Wisconsin wrote that “the Confederate ranks went down like grass before the scythe” [17] The casualties suffered by Scales’ brigade in their assault on Seminary Ridge were devastating, “Scales was wounded by a shell fragment, and in his five regiments every field officer but one was killed or wounded. Scales had launched his attack that afternoon with 1,350 men. That evening barely 500 answered roll call.” [18]

With Scales and his brigade out of action it was left to Perrin and his South Carolinians to press the fight. These troops were also met with a terrible reception, but Perrin detected a slight gap between Biddle’s brigade and Gamble’s cavalrymen “and drove straight for it. Perrin himself led the charge. Filled with admiration for such courage as defied the whole fire of the enemy,” wrote J.F.J. Caldwell of the 1st South Carolina “…the brigade followed, with a shout that itself half a victory.” [19] Perrin’s troops broke through the Union line just south of the seminary, and once he penetrated the Union line Perrin exploited his advantage and “neatly fanned out his regiments to the left and to the right so as to attack his opponent on the flanks.” [20] By now the 1st and 14th South Carolina had pushed around the flank of the Seminary redoubt, “while the 12th and 13th South Carolina struck Biddle’s brigade through “a furious storm of musketry and shells,” forcing Biddle’s thinned-out regiments to fall back behind the seminary.” [21]

Retreat to Cemetery Hill

By now there was little that could be done by the battered remnants of First Corps to hold on to Seminary Ridge or Oak Ridge. Doubleday and Wadsworth gave the order to withdraw to Cemetery Hill, Wadsworth noted “Outflanked on both right and left, heavily pressed in front, and my ammunition nearly exhausted,… I ordered the command to retire.” [22] The survivors of the corps withdrew under heavy Confederate pressure as the 6th Wisconsin and Battery “B” 4th U.S. Artillery covered the retreat. Doubleday noted “from behind the feeble barricade of rails these brave men stemmed the fierce tide which pressed upon them incessantly, and held the rebel lines…at bay until the greater portion of the corps had retired.” [23] Gamble’s cavalrymen also contributed by so effectively resisted Lane’s brigade that it could not support Perrin in the assault, causing Perrin to complain that it “never came up until the Yankees were clear out of reach.” [24]

“The Iron Brigade and Stone’s Bucktails generally fell back toward Gettysburg under some semblance of control, but this was not as easily done in units with the enemy closing in right at their heels.” [25] These units took more causalities during and lost some men as prisoners while withdrawing, but they were able to work their way through the chaotic streets of Gettysburg, to Cemetery Hill where “the men were re-formed and were ready for service.” [26] The remnants of the Iron Brigade were then directed by Abner Doubleday to Culp’s Hill to support an artillery battery on that vital ground.

Some units did not get the word directly and only found out when supporting units withdrew, such was the case with Wainwright’s artillery. Wainwright was still under the impression that the ridge was to be held at all costs and only withdrew when he found that his infantry supports and already withdrawn, leaving his gunners alone against the advancing Confederates. However, they had already done such damage to the Confederates that the Southerners to their front advanced with caution. One federal artilleryman noted “I was astonished at the caution of the enemy at this time. He seemed utterly paralyzed at the punishment he had received from First Corps, and was literally ‘feeling every inch of the way’ in his advance on our front.” [27]

Wainwright and his gunners executed their guns withdraw from Seminary Ridge under heavy Confederate fire, though the Confederate infantry failed to follow up its success by rushing his guns. He directed his batteries to “move at a walk towards town” [28] as he believed that sending them through at a trot or gallop could panic the infantry. He lost one gun in the retreat, something that as an artilleryman he found upsetting, but he realized that “our getting out of that place as quite a feat, and I wish it could have been without the loss of a gun. The more I think of it, the more I wonder how we got off at all. Our front fire must have shaken the rebel lines badly or they would have been upon us.” [29]

To the north on Oak Ridge the survivors of John Robinson’s division were threatened with complete disaster. Hard pressed on three sides by Rodes’s division and threatened from the east by the collapse of Eleventh Corps and by of the rest of First Corps withdraw from Seminary Ridge. These troops had successfully repelled every Confederate attack and had suffered terribly as they did so. Brigadier General Gabriel Paul’s First Brigade had relieved Baxter’s brigade, which had been withdrawn to replenish ammunition after mauling Iverson and O’Neal’s brigades at the northern apex of Oak Ridge. After its arrival Paul’s excellent brigade beat back an attack by Ramseur’s brigade but in the process lost their commander. General Paul was “shot in the head and blinded” and his place was taken by Colonel Adrian R. Root. [30]

However now, under pressure from the brigades of Daniel, Ramseur and Doles Robinson had to act to save First Brigade. He ordered Colonel Charles Tilden and the 16th Maine to act as a rearguard. Forced to withdraw by overwhelming Confederate numbers “an effort was made to retire in good order, but the pressure was too great.” [31] Tilden’s Maine men were cornered in the Railroad cut they were caught in the crossfire of several Confederate regiments, and for most the only option was surrender or death. Of “the 275 men who entered the battle with the 16th Maine, only 39 reached the hill.” [32] The regiment’s adjutant recalled “They swarmed down upon us….they engulfed us, and swept away the last semblance of organization that marked us a separate command.” [33] To ensure that the regiment’s colors did not become a trophy for the Confederates Tilden ordered his color bears to tear the flags from their staffs and rip them into pieces too small to become souvenirs. Many of the Maine men kept these shreds of their precious colors for the rest of their lives. The gallant 6th Wisconsin which had been at the Railroad cut to turn back the initial assault of Davis’s brigade in the morning which covered the retreat fought its way through town and finally “its men saw “the colors of the Union, floating over well ordered line of men in blue, who were arrayed along the slope of Cemetery Hill.” [34]


[1] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.278

[2] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.225

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.196

[4] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.278

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.196

[6] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.228

[7] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.293

[8] Ibid. Pfanz The First Day at Gettysburg p.292

[9] Nolan, Alan T. The Iron Brigade: A Military History Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1961 and 1994 p.245

[10] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.196

[11] Ibid. Nolan, The Iron Brigade p.247

[12] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.278

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.200

[14] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg pp.193-194 and Coddington p.218

[15] Ibid. Wainwright A Diary of Battle p.236

[16] Ibid. Nolan, The Iron Brigade p.247

[17] Ibid. Nolan, The Iron Brigade p.247 and Sears p.218

[18] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg p.218

[19] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg p.218

[20] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.294

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.201

[22] Ibid. Nolan, The Iron Brigade p.248

[23] Ibid. Nolan, The Iron Brigade p.248

[24] Ibid. Pfanz The First Day at Gettysburg p.318

[25] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg p.220

[26] Ibid. Nolan, The Iron Brigade p.252

[27] Ibid. Gottfried, The Artillery of Gettysburg p.53

[28] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg p.220

[29] Ibid. Wainwright A Diary of Battle p.237

[30] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.233

[31] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.235

[32] Ibid. Pfanz The First Day at Gettysburg p.193

[33] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.235

[34] Ibid. Pfanz The First Day at Gettysburg p.330

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