Memories of the 150th – The Last March of the Iron Brigade



    There is a tendency at Gettysburg National Military Park when we finish a major project or complete a special event to immediately begin to think about and plan for the next project or event that is on the horizon. This might seem a bit surprising because we are a park dedicated to preserving and interpreting something that happened in the past, but things can be relentless here and there is often little time to contemplate or consider what we have done before we move on to the next thing. The wheels of running the park never stop. But Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary was such an extraordinary event that it deserves some reflection. Over a series of posts I hope to share with those who were here as well as those who could not be here some of the memories of what it meant to be a part of it, along with images that captured the moment. One note about the images. They were taken by a special team of Social Media specialists who work for the National Park Service under the direction of Jason Martz and helped us document the 150th. Their efforts and their accomplishments were outstanding.
    My official role in the 150th was to be the branch director of all interpretive operations, which basically meant making sure everyone had what they needed to do their job, and to make sure things ran on time and smoothly. It was unglamorous but necessary. However, on July 1, I was able to slip out of this role and be an interpreter. Dan Welch, a veteran seasonal ranger and I, led the special program we titled “The Last March of the Iron Brigade.” Although the Iron Brigade certainly continued to exist after Gettysburg and made many more marches their approach march to the battlefield on the morning of July 1 was a special moment. The brigade would never be the same again after July 1. That day they would suffer 1,153 casualties, the highest of any brigade in the entire Army of the Potomac for the three day battle. The 24th Michigan, of the brigade, would suffer the highest casualties for any Union regiment in the entire battle (363), and also the highest number killed. The 2nd Wisconsin lost 77.2% of their men that day. Only four other Union regiments lost a higher percentage of their men. If any unit in the Union Army of the Potomac was deserving of having their final march to Gettysburg remembered it was this brigade.
    Composed of five regiments, the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, 24th Michigan, and 19th Indiana, they had earned their nickname for the performance of the brigade at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam in September 1862. They numbered 1,829 officers and men when the brigade assembled to march to Gettysburg on the morning of July 1. They had encamped about five miles south of Gettysburg along the banks of Marsh Creek the night before. The march to Gettysburg on July 1 was expected to be routine and the soldiers were in high spirits at the good food they might get and pretty girls they might see in this northern town. About two miles south of Gettysburg, Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes, commanding the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, had the regiment unfurl their colors and the fifes and drums begin to play in order to make a show when they marched into Gettysburg. Dawes remembered later that the musicians were playing “The Campbell’s are Coming” when they heard the sound of artillery fire and orders came down the brigade to march cross country in the direction of the firing. The brigade’s rendezvous with a deadly destiny had come.
    I thought it would be meaningful if we could find a living history unit that could depict what the soldiers of the Iron Brigade looked like that morning 150 years ago, and even better if we could some musicians who could recreate the music the soldiers heard. Dan Welch worked his connections with the living history community and one of the finer groups in the country, The Liberty Rifles, volunteered to participate. The group researched the uniform and equipment of the 2nd Wisconsin, which was the leading regiment of the brigade, to assure the highest degree of accuracy, and also brought along musicians who could recreate the music of that morning long ago.
    We anticipated we might have upwards of 500 visitors might join us for the two miles march to McPherson’s Ridge. Over 1,300 joined us, which was only 500 some short of the actual strength of the brigade that morning. The energy we all felt that morning as everyone assembled is something I will never forget. People from all across the country were among those that assembled. There was excitement but also a humble respect for what this march meant for many young men and their families 150 years before. The Liberty Rifles also helped set the tone. You sensed every man was honored to be taking part in this event. The weather was almost exactly like the weather recorded for July 1, 1863. It was cloudy and humid and threatened rain. At 9:30 a.m. we formed up and set out, seeking to follow as closely as possible, the same route the soldiers of Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana had followed to McPherson’s Ridge. The musicians struck up “The Campbells are Coming.”

D. Scott Hartwig

The group assembles north of the Codori farm, near the Emmitsburg Road.  NPS

The Liberty Rifles approach.

The Liberty Rifles approach.

Crossing the Emmitsburg Road en route to Seminary Ridge.  NPS

Crossing the Emmitsburg Road en route to Seminary Ridge. NPS

The Living Historians were of tremendous help in organizing the visitors to make the march.  NPS

Park of the group as it marched cross-country from the Emmitsburg Road to Seminary Ridge

Part of the group as it marched cross-country from the Emmitsburg Road to Seminary Ridge

We would form a hollow square when we made stops to do interpretation.  The visitors were fantastic throughout the program.

Marching north along West Confederate Avenue toward our stop at the National Guard armory.  NPS

Marching north along West Confederate Avenue toward our stop at the National Guard armory. NPS

Crossing Route 116, the Hagerstown Road.  Law Enforcement, both NPS, Pennsylvania State Police, and local law enforcement, were critical to the safety of the program.  NPS