Remembering Wisconsin's role in the Battle of Gettysburg - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

Remembering Wisconsin's role in the Battle of Gettysburg

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MADISON, Wisconsin (NEWS RELEASE) Volunteer Soldiers from Wisconsin - whose heritage is carried on today in the Wisconsin National Guard - played an important role in the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago today.

The three-day battle that altered the course of the American Civil War began as an unplanned skirmish west of a small Pennsylvania borough perhaps five miles north of the state of Maryland. Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was continuing its invasion of the North, while the Union Army of the Potomac led by new commander Gen. George Meade sought to intercept the advancing rebels. Once engaged, the skirmish grew to a battle that would involve roughly 160,000 troops combined.

More than 2,100 Wisconsin Soldiers in six volunteer infantry regiments - the 2nd Wisconsin, 3rd Wisconsin, 5th Wisconsin, 6th Wisconsin, 7th Wisconsin and 26th Wisconsin - along with a company of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters known as the "Wisconsin Sharpshooters," were on hand for the pivotal battle of the Civil War. The Union enjoyed early successes as the first day of the battle opened, but Confederate reinforcements soon outnumbered Union troops and forced a retreat through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill. However, without the early Union gains paired with valiant fighting throughout the day, the battle might have concluded July 1 in favor of the Confederates - an outcome that may well have doomed President Abraham Lincoln's goal of restoring the Union.

Union cavalry had occupied Gettysburg and resisted the approach of two Confederate brigades. Union Maj. Gen. John Reynolds directed I Corps troops - which included the 1st Brigade, better known as the "Iron Brigade of the West," as well as the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler of Milwaukee - to engage the Rebels near the McPherson Farm. The 2nd Brigade advanced on Rebel positions in McPherson's Woods, while Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith's Iron Brigade deployed into battle formation, with the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment forming the front of the line. Confederate Soldiers commanded by Brig. Gen. James Archer opened fire upon the 2nd Wisconsin before the "Black Hat" Soldiers had even loaded their rifles. They fixed bayonets and charged Archer's men, prompting a rebel retreat through the woods.

According to legend, upon sight of the advancing Iron Brigade's black Hardee hats, the Confederates realized they were not facing an inexperienced local militia, prompting the following exclamation: "Taint no militia - it's the Army of the Potomac."

"Forward men! For God's sake, forward!" Reynolds urged the men of the 2nd Wisconsin. At that moment, Reynolds fell mortally wounded from his horse.

As the Iron Brigade's 2nd and 7th Wisconsin regiments, 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan regiments pursued Archer's brigade, the 6th Wisconsin Regiment was held in reserve. Many retreating Confederates were cut off by 2nd Wisconsin troops. Archer himself was captured near Willoughby Run by Pvt. Patrick Maloney of Company G, becoming the first general officer of the Army of Northern Virginia to be captured in the war.

Cutler's 2nd Brigade endured multiple assaults at Chambersburg Pike from superior Confederate numbers, and began retreating to Seminary Ridge. In response, the 6th Wisconsin entered the fray and opened fire on Confederate troops who were crossing an unfinished railroad cut. As the 6th Wisconsin and 95th New York regiments converged on the railroad cut, Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes quickly conferred with New York's Maj. Edward Pye on their course of action.

"We must charge," Dawes said.

"Charge it is," Pye replied.

With both regimental commanders shouting "Forward, charge!" the Union troops crossed 400 yards of deadly Confederate gunfire. Dawes maintained his formation with repeated commands to align on the unit colors. A devastating Confederate volley cut down nearly half of the 6th Wisconsin - approximately 240 of the 420 men who began the advance to the railroad cut remained to rush the rebel line with "yells enough to almost awaken the dead."

Cpl. Frank Waller, among a dozen or so Union troops converging on the 2nd Mississippi Regimental colors, wrested the enemy banner from its color bearer. For that deed Waller was promoted to sergeant and would later receive the Medal of Honor.

As men of the 6th Wisconsin ordered hundreds of Confederates remaining in the railroad cut to throw down their weapons, Dawes sought the commander of the enemy regiment.

"Surrender, or I will fire," Dawes said. The Confederate officer handed over his sword without a word, and his men threw down their weapons. In addition to sparing the lives of hundreds of Confederate Soldiers, the 6th Wisconsin prevented the loss of Union positions at McPherson Farm - an important part of the Union defense that afternoon.

As the Iron Brigade was returning to battle formation after routing the Confederates, a cannon shell exploded near Meredith, wounding him in the head with shrapnel and killing his horse, which fell on him and crushed his right leg and side. The general's fighting days were over, but the Iron Brigade would continue pitched fighting against Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew's North Carolina Brigade. At one point, opposing brigades fired upon each other across a span of barely 20 paces.

The 26th Wisconsin - part of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, XI Corps - arrived at the battlefield in the early afternoon and took position to the left of Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow's 1st Division. Barlow's decision to occupy a knoll forward of the Union line resulted in gaps that the Confederates exploited. The 26th Wisconsin, already holding its ground against a heavy frontal attack, found itself overwhelmed on its exposed right flank as Barlow's division collapsed and retreated.

After hours of hard fighting, reinforced Confederates outflanked their foes and forced Union troops into retreat through the streets of Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill.

Col. William Robinson, commander of the 7th Wisconsin, helped safeguard the Union retreat by turning every 150 to 200 yards to engage the Confederates, providing cover for other retreating regiments. As the 7th Wisconsin reached Gettysburg, the enemy surrounded the retreating Union Soldiers to the north, east and west.

William Harries, a member of the 2nd Wisconsin's Company B, recalled the perilous retreat through Gettysburg.

"I know that when I passed up the street leading to Cemetery Hill, the rebels had appeared at each end of the cross streets, and it was like running a gauntlet as the bullets came from both sides," Harries said. "At Cemetery Heights the artillery having a good position, our troops naturally concentrated, and a stand was made which the rebels did not seem to care to contest, and the first day's battle at Gettysburg was ended."

Pvt. Maloney, who captured Brig. Gen. Archer earlier in the day, was killed during the retreat to Cemetery Hill. Another member of the 2nd Wisconsin, Capt. Nathaniel Rollins, was one of many Iron Brigade Soldiers who were outflanked in Gettysburg and taken prisoner by the Confederates.

Robinson was directed by Gen. Meade to take command of the Iron Brigade at Cemetery Hill. The proud Iron Brigade was reduced to the size of a small regiment by day's end, and positioned on the north flank of Culp's Hill to the right of the Baltimore Pike, where they supported Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery.

On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, delays by Gen. Lee's subordinates in carrying out his attack plan allowed Union Soldiers to improve their positions. The 3rd Wisconsin Regiment - part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, XII Corps - used the time to build defensive positions on Culp's Hill in the morning. They reinforced the Union's left flank around Little Round Top after the Confederates attacked around 4 p.m. When the 3rd Wisconsin returned from that engagement, they discovered their breastworks occupied by Confederates.

As Gen. Meade directed resources to shore up the Union's left flank, the right flank at Culp's Hill was left under the protection of Brig. Gen. George Greene's 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, XII Corps. When Confederate forces assaulted Greene's brigade shortly after 7 p.m., the 6th Wisconsin was directed to assist. Lt. Col. Dawes recalled firing two volleys into complete darkness before ordering his regiment back to its original position.

Lee resumed his plan to break the Union line on day three. Union Soldiers reestablished their hold on Culp's Hill, using an artillery barrage to dislodge the Confederates who had occupied the breastworks built by the 3rd Wisconsin. That position guarded a road that led to the Union rear and also served as a communications route, and its loss to the rebels would have severed the Union front from its supply and information source.

Around 1 p.m. Lee sought to weaken the Union line with the largest Confederate artillery barrage of the war, followed by an infantry assault on the center of the line. As many as 170 Rebel cannons fired on Union Soldiers for about two hours. Union artillery held their fire for a time, and then responded with only 80 cannons. Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery, commanded by 21-year-old 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing of Delafield, Wis., lost four of its six cannons in the Rebel barrage - two cannons were destroyed by direct hits. The battery had no long-range ammunition, and Cushing himself was wounded in the shoulder and groin. In spite of this, Cushing brought his guns to the front lines of Brig. Gen. Alexander Webb's Philadelphia Brigade to meet the 12,500 Confederates advancing to a bend in the Union line - a sharp turn in a stone fence known as the "Angle" - as part of "Pickett's Charge."

"I'll give them one more shot," Cushing told Battery B 1st Sgt. Frederick Fuger, as he pulled the lanyard. The roar of the cannon masked the sound of the Confederate bullet that took his life at that moment. Wisconsin Congressmen Ron Kind and Jim Sensenbrenner have introduced legislation to award Cushing the Medal of Honor.

The day's most intense fighting centered on Cushing's ruined battery in front of the Angle. The Confederates succeeded in breaching the Union line at the Angle, but the gain was only temporary and the rebel attack was driven back.

Lt. Frank Haskell of Madison, Wis., aide to 2nd Division, I Corps commander Maj. Gen. John Gibbon - who had commanded the Iron Brigade during the battles of Brawner's Farm, Second Battle of Bull Run, and South Mountain - recognized the need for the 72nd Pennsylvania Regiment, part of the Philadelphia Brigade, to charge the rebels and ordered the color bearer forward.

"The color sergeant of the 72nd Pennsylvania, grasping the stump of the severed lance in both hands, waved the flag above his head and rushed towards the wall" Haskell wrote. "Almost halfway to the wall, down go color bearer and color to the ground; the gallant sergeant is dead. The line springs ... with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load- men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass. It rolls to the wall. A moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots and undistinguishable conflict..."

Unable to dislodge Union troops from their positions and suffering heavy losses, the Confederates withdrew, and the next day departed Pennsylvania en route to Confederate territory.

The human toll at Gettysburg was staggering. The Union suffered 23,055 casualties - 3,155 killed and 5,369 captured or missing in action. Of that number, Wisconsin Soldiers accounted for 150 killed, 551 wounded and 170 captured or missing. The losses were steeper for the Confederates - an estimated 28,000 casualties including 4,708 killed and 5,830 captured or missing.

Haskell was struck by the carnage wrought by the savage fighting.

"Oh, sorrowful was the sight to see so many wounded," he wrote. "The whole neighborhood in rear of the field became one vast hospital of miles in extent ... Every conceivable wound that iron and lead can make - blunt or sharp, bullet, ball and shell, piercing, bruising, tearing - was there, sometimes so light that a bandage and cold water could restore the soldier to the ranks again; sometimes so severe that the poor victim in his hopeless pain, remediless save by the only panacea for all mortal suffering, invoked that."

Dawes reflected on the battle in a letter to Mary Gates.

"I am entirely safe through the first three days of these terrible days of the bloody struggle," he wrote. "On July 1st, our corps was thrown in front, unsupported and almost annihilated. My regiment was detached from the brigade and we charged upon and captured the second Mississippi rebel regiment. Their battle flag is now at General Meade's headquarters...

"The Sixth has lost so far 160 men," Dawes continued. "Since the first day we have lost only six. O, Mary, it is sad to look now at our shattered band of devoted men. Only four field officers in the brigade have escaped and I am one of them. I have no opportunity to say more now or write to anyone else. Tell mother I am safe. God has been kind to me and I think he will spare me."

The Confederate withdrawal marked the limit of their Northern invasion. The outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg, combined with the Union victory at Vicksburg on July 4, doomed the Confederacy's hopes of gaining official European recognition.

Gettysburg also marked a turning point for the Iron Brigade. Pennsylvania regiments fortified the brigade, which suffered 96 killed, 372 wounded and 127 captured or wounded at Gettysburg. While the Iron Brigade would continue to serve gallantly, its distinction as a western brigade was gone.

Lincoln's famous Gettysburg address, given at the dedication of part of the battlefield as a final resting place for the battle's fallen, captured the enormity of the battle.

"[I]n a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground," Lincoln said. "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract ... It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

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