Though soldiers from Western states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana were not rare in the Army of the Potomac at Antietam, the vast majority were from Eastern states, particularly Pennsylvania and New York.
Probably the most famous of brigades of Western men was the Iron Brigade of General John Gibbon – who opened the fight at Sharpsburg with their attack through the Miller Farmstead and along the Hagerstown Turnpike into the cornfield at dawn of day. This brigade was comprised of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, along with the 19th Indiana. They were the 4th Brigade (of 4) within Doubleday’s 1st Division (of 3) within Hooker’s 1st Army Corps.
Today, we don’t think of these states as the West. But in the mid 1800s, these were often men from the frontier – probably some pretty tough guys. They fought exceedingly well!
A story I like to frequently tell while parked along the west side of the cornfield is of the style of fighting of Western men as compared to Eastern men; and I do this by referencing an account by Abner Doubleday in his journal.
Though Gibbon’s Iron Brigade of Western men was fighting under Doubleday at Antietam on September 17th, just three days earlier on South Mountain, Doubleday was a brigadier general on the same level as Gibbon (Doubleday being promoted to divisional command during the action at South Mountain). A part of Doubleday’s brigade at South Mountain was the 7th Indiana.
Doubleday was clearly impressed with the tenacious nature of their fight, as he wrote the following anecdote in his journal:
The men of the 7th Indiana fought differently from the Eastern men. Instead of loading and firing in silence, they constantly encouraged each other by calling out, “Give it to them, Issac” . . . “Stand up to them, Bill” . . . “ Don’t give way, John”, etc.
When it became evident that our shots were being wasted on the rocks while the Rebels were crouched down in safety saving their ammunition, orders were given to stop firing. One Western man who was fighting with great fury, with his hat off and long hair falling over his neck, could not be induced to stop for some time. At last he called out angrily, “Who says stop firing?” “Gen. Doubleday says so, as says the staff officers.” “Then let him make those big boys over there stop shooting at me . . . they began it!”
Doubleday’s after action report on South Mountain further describes some of the fighting at this juncture of the battle:
Here General Hatch was wounded and turned over the command to me, and as during the action Colonel Wainwright, Seventy-sixth New York Volunteers, was also wounded, the command of my brigade subsequently devolved upon Lieutenant-Colonel Hermann, Fifty-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers. Phelps’ brigade being few in number, and having suffered severely, I relieved them just at dusk with my brigade, reduced by former engagements to about 1,000 men, who took position beyond the fence referred to, the enemy being in heavy force some 30 or 40 paces in our front. They pressed heavily upon us, attempting to charge at the least cessation of our fire. At last I ordered the troops to cease firing, lie down behind the fence, and allowed the enemy to charge to within about 15 paces, apparently under the impression that we had given way. Then, at the word, my men sprang to their feet and poured in a deadly volley, from which the enemy fled in disorder, leaving their dead within 30 feet of our line.
Doubleday really enjoyed leading men from these Western states, and he had a profound respect for their fortitude in battle.