Ten Questions with Lance J. Herdegen
by CHRIS C. WEHNER
Lance Herdegen is the former director of the Institute of Civil War Studies at Carroll University, Lance Herdegen was an award winning journalist. He is currently a historical consultant for the Civil War Museum of the Upper Middle West. He is the author of numerous articles and books, among them, Four Years with the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Journal of William Ray and most recently Those Damned Black Hats: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign. He took time from his busy schedule to e-chat about his latest book, Those Damned Blackhats! The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign, published by Savas Beatie, LLC.
Mr. Herdegen was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule and sit down for an e-chat. Here's the transcript:
Mr. Herdegen, this is the fourth book of yours I have had the pleasure of reading and I feel it is perhaps your best. I say this as you really captured the essence of the "Black Hats" at Gettysburg. How long have you been studying the "Iron Brigade" and why did you want to tell this particular story about their experiences at Gettysburg?
That is very kind. Thank you. I became interested in the Civil War when my father brought home an 1864 dated Special Model 1861 Colt rifle-musket from a neighbor’s shed he was helping clean. I was about 12 and the thought that it was from 1864 fascinated me and I began to read everything I could about the war. As a true son of the Badger state, I decided to shoot that musket and that led to a muzzle-loading rifle club near my home and later membership in a shooting team in the North-South Skirmish Association. That led to an awareness of the Iron Brigade and the fact the soldiers who wore the famous black hats used to live just down the street or over in the next town. In 1990 just before I left the wire service news business and United Press International, I wrote (with William J.K. Beaudot) an account of the charge of the 6th Wisconsin on the unfinished railroad cut. I never thought much about going back to write about Gettysburg again, but new material began to surface. I was director of the Civil War Institute at Carroll University in Wisconsin at the time and people were always sending me copies of family letters, diaries and journals along with photographs of their ancestors. No one has ever written a book-length account of the Black Hats at Gettysburg and I became interested in examining their role over the course of the campaign.
There seems to have been some controversy -at least with the New Yorkers as you explained in the book- over the name associated with the brigade as the “Iron Brigade,” please share that with us?
There was some confusion over the name as early as 1862, and you can still get into a heated exchange even today as my good friend Tom Clemens, one of the best of the Civil War scholars, will attest. A brigade in the same division as the Western regiments and consisting of the 22nd, 24th, 30th New York (all which enlisted for two years), and the 14th Brooklyn (a three-year regiment), began calling itself the “Iron Brigade.” An officer in the 24th New York said the name “Cast Iron Brigade” was first attached to his brigade following a hard march that covered 50 miles in two days. However, Wisconsin and Indiana soldiers never believed there was any confusion and that the name was attached to the Western regiments by George McClellan at South Mountain in 1862. McClellan himself liked to tell the story. Jerome Watrous of the 6th Wisconsin said the name was first attached to his brigade by a correspondent for a Cincinnati newspaper who was at McClellan’s headquarters that day. In writing about the 2nd Wisconsin losses on September 14, 1862, the reporter concluded “The brigade has done some of the hardest and best fighting in the service. It has been justly termed the Iron Brigade of the West.” From the very beginning, I should note, the Wisconsin and Indiana boys were always careful to make a reference to their Western origins—it was never simply the “Iron Brigade,” but always the “Iron Brigade of the West.” The New Yorkers in the old soldier newspapers after the war always claimed the name was stolen from them. The wrangling produced some wonderful newspaper columns well after the war.
Did the men of the brigade prefer “Black Hats” or “Iron Brigade” and why? Did any of them write much about either identification and did it take on a special meaning for them?
During the war, the Westerners were generally known in the Army of the Potomac (and even in the Confederate army) as the Black Hat brigade because of the distinctive Model 1858 felt dress hats they were issued when the grey militia Wisconsin and Indiana uniforms and caps were finally discarded. The boys in ranks generally referred to themselves as the “Big Hats” during their soldier days. It was only late in the war the name Iron Brigade became generally attached to them, although there are individual letters in which reference was made to the fact “McClellan calls us his Iron Brigade.”
What would you describe as the overall Esprit de Corps of the Iron Brigade?
I think the brigade’s Esprit de Corps was displayed in its very first action at Gainesville or Brawner’s Farm on August 28, 1862, when it was surprised and attacked by General Thomas Jackson as the Federals marched along the Warrenton Turnpike near the old battlefield of Bull Run. The regiments formed battle lines and for the next 90 minutes stood up to Stonewall’s veterans and ranges of 50 yards. One Badger called it “a roaring hell of fire.” Retiring never an inch, he wrote later, “with no confusion, now standing up, now flat upon the earth, now swaying backwards or forwards to get advantage of ground, the devoted 1800 blazed with fire. Line after line of the rebels confronted them, and was swept away, or broke in confusion.” The men “loaded and fired with the energy or madmen, and a recklessness of death truly wonderful… [The] wasting fire of the enemy “literally mowed out great gaps in the line, but the isolated squads would rally together and rush up right into the face of Death.” That notion of a stand up, prideful style of fighting lasted even to Gettysburg and the stand on McPherson’s Ridge the afternoon of July 1, 1863. That night, as they rallied on Culp’s Hill, the Black Hats for the first time in the war threw up earthworks to use in a defense position.
The Iron Brigade lost the highest percentage of its men (than any other Union brigade during the war), with that in mind are they the greatest or at least hardest fighting unit of the war?
It is difficult to just use just percentage of losses to evaluate a brigade’s fighting qualities. I think the numbers, however, are a clear reference the Iron Brigade was hard used when it finally got into action. It opened with the toe-to-toe fight at Gainesville on the fields of John Brawner. It served as the rear guard at Second Bull Run, fought up the National Road at South Mountain, and opened the assault on the Corn Field at Antietam. Finally, at Gettysburg, it was pretty much destroyed as a major fighting force. The brigade won fame, I would argue, because it was a good fighting unit and ended up taking part in important phases of each battle. “Were we N.Y. troops,” one 2nd Wisconsin man wrote bitterly after Gettysburg, “we would be taken home, or at least relieved from the front. But we have no friends at home to speak for us, and our Generals know very well that the Wis. Boys will fight and not run, they just shove them ahead like a lot of cattle going to slaughter. Well, it will take but one more shove for the Second, and the ‘jig is up.’ Then, some man who saw us fight will be promoted to Brigadier General as a reward for our gallantry.” It was a mighty and effective force because of the quality of the recruits—energetic Western boys; the quality of its volunteer officers, and for the year the volunteers were given to learn to be soldiers during the first months of the war. Those are some of the reasons why Rufus Dawes could ask after the war: “Where has the firmness of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg been surpassed in history?”
Day 1, Gettysburg, does the Iron Brigade get enough credit from historians for their defense of McPherson’s Ridge and the Railroad Cut?
The veterans of the Iron Brigade who survived Gettysburg always felt their role on that battlefield was never given the credit it deserved. Charles McConnell of the 24th Michigan said that result was in part due to the fact the first day was regarded a Union defeat and the second and third days resulted in a Federal victory. Another part of that whole issue came after the war. The major soldier reunions were most held in the East and it was there Eastern soldiers made much of their service at Gettysburg. Overlooked was the hard fighting of Union men on the first day, especially a brigade of Westerners from faraway states. In an unusual twist, that lack of attention proved a boon for myself and others writing of the Iron Brigade. The veterans wrote a lot to each other about their war service and much of that correspondence survived. The old men who once were young soldiers in an Iron Brigade were convinced no unit did better service. One said there would not have been a prolonged battle at Gettysburg had it not been for the delaying action of July 1, 1863. The bloody fighting kept the Confederates from seizing the town until late in the day. By that time, the Southern army was disorganized and exhausted and unable to either halt the Union army’s concentration on the Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge line, or mount an attack to drive them off. It was that ground that formed the backbone of the Union position. As for the charge of the 6th Wisconsin on the railroad cut, James Sullivan of that regiment lamented that the “steady, cool straight-forward advance against a superior force [was] forgotten by all, except the few veterans and cripples, and the wives and mothers who lost all they held dear.”
You did a marvelous job of capturing how Gettysburg impacted these soldiers, especially in the later chapters, can you share with us any one particular story or letter by one of the Iron Brigade members that best represents what their experiences meant to them during or after the war?
I think there are dozens of good accounts by Iron Brigade Gettysburg veterans that touch on that theme. I like the one from William Dudley of the 19th Indiana. He lost a leg at Gettysburg, and wrote in 1878 in his report of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg that heroism and gallantry “were the rule, and not the exception, among the officers and men…. All did their part manfully and well in this engagement, fully sustained the reputation for steadiness and fearless devotion to duty, earned upon many hard fought fields, and the fearful losses sustained by the brigade, on this one day, attest with what fidelity they discharged the trust imposed upon them.”
On page 172 you talk about one soldier of the Iron Brigade who experienced some very kind help from a Confederate soldier after being wounded, yet these types of stories were not unusual. Why is it that these men, sworn enemies, could treat each other with such compassion just hours, minutes sometimes, after trying to kill one another? We rarely see this in civil wars.
In many ways, the soldiers of both sides had more in common than what separated them. I think that examples of kindness between foes occurred with some regularity, but that did not mean both sides didn’t try their best to kill each other. The stories of a Confederate soldier helping a Yank or a Yank helping a Johnny were seized upon by the veterans after the war as examples to be used in bringing the country back together. The stories of compassion were accepted and highlighted and the cruelty of combat put aside. It was all part of the great healing process. I think that is why we see so many of these romanced incidents in 19th century accounts.
Why is the Iron Brigade so special to you?
I think I find the Iron Brigade fascinating in that many of the soldiers were just regular common folks from my home state who played such a key role in the Civil War. They were always convinced they had been called to be soldiers by the thump of history’s drum. It is pretty difficult to be a son of Wisconsin and not be interested in the Black Hats. I can drive past their old farms and homesteads and through their hometowns on the same roads they did. At speaking engagements in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters and other relatives come up to say hello. Often they know only a little of what their ancestors did from 1861 to 1865 and I have the wonderful opportunity to give them the information I have uncovered. The Black Hats left a remarkable record of service and patriotism at a critical time in American history and they deserve to be remembered.
If you HAD to pick one soldier or officer who best represents the Iron Brigade, who would that be and why?
That is a tough one because there are so many. I would greatly appreciate a chance to talk with Henry Morrow of the 24th Michigan or Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin or Sol Meredith of the 19th Indiana or Lucius Fairchild of the 2nd Wisconsin. But the one old soldier I would like to spend time with is Private James Patrick Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin, an Irish immigrant who wrote under the penname “Mickey, of Company K.” He was wounded three times and injured twice while in uniform. Mustered out after having a toe shot off at South Mountain in 1862, he reenlisted and then veteranized with his regiment in 1864. He was intelligent, brave and wrote with a light touch. But I always found under the humor in his writings there was a dark and stark realization of what the war cost him and his comrades. His great-grandson Robert Sullivan of La Crosse and his wife, Pat, have been a source of information on “Mickey” as well as giving me their friendship. I also got the chance to spend a day with old soldier’s son, James F. Sullivan, who was still spry and bright near the age of 100. He has since passed away, but he was much the soldier as his father—a veteran of General Billy Mitchell’s 2nd Bomb Group before World War II. J.F. had not seen his dad’s writings of the Civil War (his father died when he was 5) and it gave me great pleasure to give him Mickey’s account of Gettysburg and watch him read it. “Ah, Dad, I’m proud of you,” he said finishing his father’s remembrance of Gettysburg.
That's our question limit, thank you Lance!