For students of the American Civil War, the name Rufus Dawes will be forever associated with the famous Iron Brigade of the Union Army—that hardy and courageous assembly of regiments from the western states whose steadfastness in the thickest of battlefield conflicts earned them their descriptive nickname. Born in 1838, Dawes was just 23 years old when the Civil War broke out and he became a captain in the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, the regiment he would, in time, come to famously command. Dawes was always an ardent and aggressive battlefield commander. He served with the regiment at Groveton, Antietam, Fredericksburg and through the Chancellorsville campaign. At Gettysburg he notably led the counter-attack on Davis’s Confederate brigade sheltering in a railway cutting and there took some 200 prisoners. Dawes served at Mine Run, the Wilderness Campaign, the sieges of Petersburg and Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor in 1864. Worn out physically and mentally, Dawes was mustered out after three years of the most intensive combat—he was just 26 years old. The following year he was promoted to brevet brigadier general. This book, Dawes’ own account of his regiment of ‘Black Hats’ of the Iron Brigade, is an acknowledged classic of the period.
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General Lysander Cutler’s brigade was now upon our right. This was our position when the general attack was made by the rebel army corps of Hill and Ewell combined, at half past one o’clock in the afternoon. The first brunt of it struck the gallant brigade of Bucktails. They were fighting on Pennsylvania soil. Their conduct was more than heroic, it was glorious. I cannot describe the charges and counter-charges which took place, but we all saw the banner of the One Hundred and Forty-Ninth Pennsylvania planted in the ground, and waving between the hostile lines of battle, while the desperate fight went on. This colour was taken by the enemy.<br>
Under pressure of the battle, the whole line of Union troops fell back to the Seminary Ridge. I could plainly see the entire movement. I saw Captain Hollon Richardson who acted as an aide to Colonel W. W. Robinson, now in command of the “Iron Brigade,” carrying on his horse and waving aloft, the colours of the Seventh Wisconsin, as the proud brigade slowly drew back from the McPherson Woods to the Seminary Ridge. We received no orders. Being a detached regiment it is likely that we were overlooked. The enemy (Ewell’s corps) advanced so that the low ground between us and the Seminary Ridge in our rear was swept by their fire.<br>
It would cost many lives to march in line of battle through this fire. I adopted the tactics of the rebels earlier in the day, and ordered my men to run into the railroad cut. Then instructing the men to follow in single file, I led the way, as fast as I could run, from this cut to the cut in the Seminary Ridge. About a cart load of dirt was ploughed over us by the rebel shell, but otherwise not a man was struck. The ranks were promptly reformed, and we marched into the woods on the Seminary Ridge to the same position from which we had advanced. The whole first army corps was now in line of battle on the Seminary Ridge, and here that grand body of veteran soldiers made a heroic effort to stay the overwhelming tide that swept against them.<br>
Battery “B,” Fourth U. S. artillery, under command of Lieutenant James Stewart, came up, and General Wadsworth directed me to support it with my regiment. James Stewart was as brave and efficient a man as ever fought upon a battlefield. His battery was manned by men detailed from the volunteers, many of them from our brigade. And now came the grand advance of the enemy. During this time the attack was progressing, I stood among the guns of battery “B.” Along the Seminary Ridge, flat upon their bellies, lay mixed up together in one line of battle, the “Iron Brigade” and Roy Stone’s “Bucktails.” For a mile up and down the open fields in front, the splendid lines of the veterans of the army of Northern Virginia swept down upon us. Their bearing was magnificent. They maintained their alignments with great precision.<br>
In many cases the colours of regiments were advanced several paces in front of the line. Stewart fired shell until they appeared on the ridge east of Willoughby Run; when on this ridge they came forward with a rush. The musketry burst from the Seminary Ridge, every shot fired with care, and Stewart’s men, with the regularity of a machine, worked their guns upon the enemy. The rebels came half way down the opposite slope, wavered, began to fire, then to scatter and then to run, and how our men did yell, “Come on, Johnny! come on!” Falling back over the ridge they came on again more cautiously, and pouring upon us from the start a steady fire of deadly musketry. This killed Stewart’s men and horses in great numbers, but did not seem to check his fire.<br>
Lieutenant Clayton E. Rogers, aide on General Wadsworth’s staff, came riding rapidly to me. Leaning over from his horse, he said very quietly: “The orders, colonel, are to retreat beyond the town. Hold your men together.” I was astonished. The cheers of defiance along the line of the first corps, on Seminary Ridge, had scarcely died away. But a glance over the field to our right and rear was sufficient. There the troops of the eleventh corps appeared in full retreat, and long lines of Confederates, with fluttering banners and shining steel, were sweeping forward in pursuit of them without let or hindrance. It was a close race which could reach Gettysburg first, ourselves, or the rebel troops of Ewell’s corps, who pursued our eleventh corps. Facing the regiment to the rear, I marched in line of battle over the open fields toward the town.<br>
We were north of the railroad, and our direction separated us from other regiments of our corps. If we had desired to attack Ewell’s twenty thousand men with our two hundred, we could not have moved more directly toward them. We knew nothing about a Cemetery Hill. We could see only that the oncoming lines of the enemy were encircling us in a horseshoe. But with the flag of the Union and of Wisconsin held aloft, the little regiment marched firmly and steadily. As we approached the town, the buildings of the Pennsylvania College screened us from the view of the enemy. We could now see that our troops were retreating in a direction at right angles to our line of march. We reached a street extending through Gettysburg from the college to Cemetery Hill, and crossed it. We were now faced by the enemy, and I turned the course toward the Cemetery Hill, although then unconscious of the fact. The first cross street was swept by the musketry fire of the enemy. There was a close board fence, inclosing a barn-yard, on the opposite side of the street. A board or two off from the fence made what the men called a “hog-hole.” Instructing the regiment to follow in single file on the run, I took a colour, ran across the street, and jumped through this opening in the fence. Officers and men followed rapidly. Taking position at the fence, when any man obstructed the passage-way through it, I jerked him away without ceremony or apology, the object being to keep the track clear for those yet to come. Two men were shot in this street crossing. The regiment was re-formed in the barnyard, and I marched back again to the street leading from the Pennsylvania College to the Cemetery Hill. To understand why the street was crossed in the manner described, it should be remembered that men running at full speed, scattered in single file, were safer from the fire of the enemy than if marching in a compact body. By going into the inclosure, the regiment came together, to be at once formed into compact order.<br>
It was in compliance with the order, to keep my men together. The weather was sultry. The sweat streamed from the faces of the men. There was not a drop of water in the canteens, and there had been none for hours. The streets were jammed with crowds of retreating soldiers, and with ambulances, artillery, and wagons. The cellars were crowded with men, sound in body, but craven in spirit, who had gone there to surrender. I saw no men wearing badges of the first army corps in this disgraceful company. In one case, these miscreants, mistaking us for the rebels, cried out from the cellar, “Don’t fire, Johnny, we’ll surrender.” These surroundings were depressing to my hot and thirsty men. Finding the street blocked, I formed my men in two lines across it. The rebels began to fire on us from houses and cross-lots. Here came to us a friend in need. It was an old citizen with two buckets of fresh water. The inestimable value of this cup of cold water to those true, unyielding soldiers, I would that our old friend could know.<br>
After this drink, in response to my call, the men gave three cheers for the good and glorious cause for which we stood in battle. The enemy fired on us sharply, and the men returned their fire, shooting wherever the enemy appeared. This firing had a good effect. It cleared the street of stragglers in short order. The way being open I marched again toward the Cemetery Hill. The enemy did not pursue; they had found it dangerous business. We hurried along, not knowing certainly that we might not be marching into the clutches of the enemy. But the colours of the Union, floating over a well ordered line of men in blue, who were arrayed along the slope of Cemetery Hill, became visible. This was the Seventy-Third Ohio, of Steinwehr’s division of the eleventh army corps. With swifter steps we now pressed on up the hill, and, passing in through the ranks open to receive us, officers and men threw themselves in a state of almost perfect exhaustion on the green grass and the graves of the cemetery.<br>
The condition of affairs on Cemetery Hill at this time has been a subject of discussion. If fresh troops had attacked us then, we unquestionably would have fared badly. The troops were scattered over the hill in much disorder, while a stream of stragglers and wounded men pushed along the Baltimore Turnpike toward the rear. But this perilous condition of affairs was of short duration. There was no appearance of panic on the Cemetery Hill. After a short breathing spell my men again promptly responded to the order to “fall in.” Lieutenant Rogers brought us orders from General Wadsworth, to join our own brigade, which had been sent to occupy Culp’s Hill. As we marched toward the hill our regimental wagon joined us. In the wagon were a dozen spades and shovels. Taking our place on the right of the line of the brigade, I ordered the regiment to in trench. The men worked with great energy. A man would dig with all his strength till out of breath, when another would seize the spade and push on the work. There were no orders to construct these breastworks, but the situation plainly dictated their necessity.<br>
The men now lay down to rest after the arduous labours of this great and terrible day. Sad and solemn reflections possessed, at least, the writer of these papers. Our dead lay unburied and beyond our sight or reach. Our wounded were in the hands of the enemy. Our bravest and best were numbered with them. Of eighteen hundred men who marched with the splendid brigade in the morning, but seven hundred were here. More than one thousand men had been shot. There was to us a terrible reality in the figures which represent our loss. We had been driven, also, by the enemy, and the shadow of defeat seemed to be hanging over us. But that afternoon, under the burning sun and through the stifling clouds of dust, the Army of the Potomac had marched to the sound of our cannon. We had lost the ground on which we had fought, we had lost our commander and our comrades, but our fight had held the Cemetery Hill and forced the decision for history that the crowning battle of the war should be at Gettysburg.<br>
It is a troubled and dreamy sleep at best that comes to the soldier on a battlefield. About one o’clock at night we had a great alarm. A man in the Seventh Indiana regiment, next on right, cried so loudly in his sleep that he aroused all the troops in the vicinity. Springing up, half bewildered, I ordered my regiment to “fall in,” and a heavy fire of musketry broke out from along the whole line of men. At three o’clock in the morning, according to orders, the men were aroused. The morning of the second day found us lying quietly in our breast works near the summit of Culp’s Hill. We were in the shade of some fine oak trees, and enjoyed an excellent view of nearly the whole battle field. Our situation would have been delightful, and our rest in the cool shade would have been refreshing, if it had not been for the crack, crack, of the deadly sharpshooters on the rebel skirmish line. Owing, probably, to the crooked line of our army, the shots came from all directions, and the peculiarly mournful wail of the spent bullet was constantly heard.