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The Iron Brigade: A Military History (1961)

af Alan T. Nolan

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I am immensely impressed... this particular Brigade needed a book of its own and now it has one which is definitely first-rate.... A fine book." --Bruce Catton One of the '100 best books ever written on the Civil War.'" --Civil War Times Illustrated ... remains one of the best unit histories of the Union Army during the Civil War." --Southern Historian ... The Iron Brigade is the title for anyone desiring complete information on this military unit..." --Spring Creek Packet, Chuck Hamsa This is the story of the most famous unit in the Union Army, the only all-Western brigade in the Eastern armies of the Union--made up of troops from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.… (mere)
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The Iron Brigade, the legendary Black Hats, was one of the most famous fighting unit in the Union Army. Its major claim to popular fame arises from its “last stand” on July 1st, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. There, rushing to the rescue of John Buford’s cavalry who were holding off Heth’s Division of the confederate Army, the Iron Brigade fought to preserve McPherson’s Woods and then later Seminary ridge until the major part of the Union Army could concentrate at Getysburg. They were successful—but at enormous cost. The Brigade suffered the most losses of the Union Army in that battle; the 24th Michigan had the highest losses of any regiment in that battle—an unimaginable 80%. Overall, the Iron Brigade lost nearly 2/3 of its men in that battle.

But the Brigade was already famous long before Gettysburg. Nolan describes in detail the history of the Brigade, from its beginnings in the 2nd Wisconsin volunteers in May, 1861, answering Lincoln’s calls for volunteers to preserve the Union; the Brigade consisted entirely made of Western regiments: the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin volunteers, the 19th Indiana, and last but not least, the 24th Michigan. They were justifiably proud of their reputation and their position: "the First Brigade of the First Division of the First Corps" of teh Union Army. Shattered at Gettysburg, the Brigade lost its identity with the incorporation of Eastern conscript regiments in late July, 1863; subsequently, after more losses, the regiments were consolidated and the Brigade broken up in order to incorporate the stronger regiments into other brigades.

One of the advantages of a unit history such as this one is that the author can give in much more details than any general history an account of the engagements fought by the unit. Nolan, although a lawyer by profession rather than a historian, does an outstanding job in this regard. We learn about the battle at the Brawner Farm, the prelude to 2nd Bull run, where the Iron Brigade got its real baptism of fire under its new commander, John Gibbon. We learn how the Iron Brigade got its name and why—at Turner’s Gap, prior to the horrors of Antietam. And then Gettysburg, since the Iron Brigade did not see significant action at Fredricksburg.

Nolan, better than some professional historians, does a skillful job of weaving excerpts from letters and diaries of both officers and soldiers of the different regiments into the main narrative; these do not hang up the narrative thread the way such excerpts do, say, in Harry Pfanz’s otherwise excellent volumes on Gettysburg. Because Nolan is a very good if not outstanding writer, he does not get in the way of the material itself; the only problem I found is that by the nature of the history—that of a unit—and due to the casualties, there is sometimes a confusing array of names that wind up in the narrative, as the Brigade, like others in the Union Army, sought to fill gaps caused by battle.

The maps serve, although it is annoying to have to flip back and forth in the book since text in the last 2/3rds of the book may be dependent on a map on p. 48. The diagrams of the actual fighting are excellent; the movements of the regiments are very clear. Thus, together the maps and diagrams are more than adequate, unusual for a Civil War history where the constant complaint is a lack of such; the organization could have been somewhat better.

The Appendices list the regiments, their officers, and the counties in the three states from which the members of the iron Brigade came. The notes are well done.

All in all, this is an excellent book, quite professionally done, and written in such a way as to be accessible to a reader who has, say, read Shelby Foote’s narrative general history of the Civil War and who wants a more detailed look at a legendary regiment that played a critical part in the high drama of Gettysburg.

Highly recommended. ( )
  Joycepa | Oct 6, 2008 |
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At 4:30 A.M. on April 12, 1861, a mortar shell burst over Fort Sumter.
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I am immensely impressed... this particular Brigade needed a book of its own and now it has one which is definitely first-rate.... A fine book." --Bruce Catton One of the '100 best books ever written on the Civil War.'" --Civil War Times Illustrated ... remains one of the best unit histories of the Union Army during the Civil War." --Southern Historian ... The Iron Brigade is the title for anyone desiring complete information on this military unit..." --Spring Creek Packet, Chuck Hamsa This is the story of the most famous unit in the Union Army, the only all-Western brigade in the Eastern armies of the Union--made up of troops from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

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