“The last terrible battle has reduced this brigade to a mere skeleton; there being scarcely enough members to form half a regiment, the 2nd Wisconsin, which but a few weeks since, numbered over nine hundred men, can now muster but fifty-nine. This brigade has done some of the hardest and best fighting in the service. It has been justly termed the Iron Brigade of the West.”
– Cincinnati Daily Commercial, September 22, 1862
Comprised of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry, as well as the 19th Indiana, General John Gibbon’s ‘Black Hat Brigade’ of Western men, earned the more famous moniker, “The Iron Brigade of the West”, over the course of three weeks during the early fall of 1862. From the brigade’s first true baptism of fire on the evening of August 28th at the Battle of Gainesville (known more familiarly today as Brawner’s Farm), the rearguard action on August 30th at the Second Battle of Bull Run, it’s determined assault on the evening of September 14th at the Battle of South Mountain, and culminating in the dawn battle through the bloody cornfield on the morning of September 17th at the Battle of Antietam, the brigade paid for the distinguished nom de guerre at a heavy price.
Having spent most of its service up to that point in camps outside of Washington and Fredericksburg, the brigade had truly only experienced any significant loss in its ranks due to illness and disease – a result of the doldrums of garrison duty. By the time the Cincinnati Daily Commercial Reporter penned the quote above, (considered to be the first publicized reference to the brigade’s historic nickname) the experiences of the men in the ranks had changed dramatically. No longer were the concerns of the men on if they’d ever get a chance to prove their worth in battle instead of simply performing guard duty. Similarly, no longer were the ranks of the brigade as full as they had been only three and a half weeks before.
Private Asahel Gage’s collection held in the archives of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum gives us a wonderful representation of the mindset and experiences of the rank-and-file of the “Iron Brigade” during the significant weeks of the brigade’s history.
Having enlisted days after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, 25 year old farmer Asahel Gage joined with others from the Janesville area to form what would become Company D of the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Uniformed in State militia gray frock coats, Gage and his comrades took part in the 1st Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Writing to his brother on September 18th of that year, Gage mentions some of the monotony of garrison camp life that he and his comrades were starting to get used to, “We have bin making fortification There is nothing of importance a goin on”. As the year 1862 arrives, Gage begins to track his daily experiences in a small pocket diary. Most of his entries describe the weather, their drill routines, how many miles marched, and items of small importance that were happening around camp. To the modern reader, these may seem unimportant entries, however it is
important to realize that these entries can give us a unique window into the lives of an everyday soldier during the Civil War. Every day was not a battle. Every day was not a significant event in history. But to the young men in wool uniforms and with only a canvas tent between them and the elements every single day, the weather was a significant portion of their experience. Similarly, the amount of time that their day was occupied by the officer’s barking orders at them on the drill field was also perhaps the singularly most memorable part of their day-in and day-out experiences.
By the early fall of 1862, Asahel’s diary begins mentioning items such as how many miles marched, the intensity of skirmishes witnessed or heard while on the march, and the idea that they would soon be participants in a coming battle seems to loom on their horizon. Little did Gage know, however, the historical significance of the actions he and his comrades would have in the coming battles. Little did he and his comrades know the cost of what price they would have to pay to earn the name of the “Iron Brigade.”
Unfortunately for Gage, he would never know the famous moniker that he and his comrades sacrificed for. Killed instantly by a shell striking him in the head and breast during the Battle of South Mountain in the evening of September 14, 1862, Asahel became one of the many casualties that lent themselves to the heroic sacrifices in blood and lives that followed the Iron Brigade in every battle they engaged in from those days through the rest of the war. Before the men were ordered into battle that fateful Sunday evening, Asahel wrote one last diary entry that reflects on the innocence of a soldier that only history can tell its significance:
Sunday September 14, 1862:
Cool in the morning
Marched at 6 oclock
Marched through the city of
Frederick – a pleasant city
Heavy cannonading in the afternoon