Hello H-CivWar subscribers,
Today we’re joined by Andrew Roscoe, a recent graduate of Norwich University’s graduate program, to chat about his Gettysburg Magazine article, “Who Commanded the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg?” You can follow Roscoe on Twitter at @RoscoeHistorian.
Hello Andrew, thanks for joining us. Before we get into your essay, could you briefly explain to our readers how you came to this work? What is your positionality that led to your interest in the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg? Was this essay part of your research for your M.A. thesis?
AR: Hi, John. Thanks for inviting me to chat on your platform. This article came out of something I found while doing my research for my MA thesis at Norwich University. I researched the 24th Michigan, who fought in its first major battle at Gettysburg with the Iron Brigade, and examined the various factors that resulted in the regiment giving such a stellar combat performance in its first major action and compared and contrasted it to other regiments in the Army of the Potomac. Being from Metro Detroit, I have always had an affinity for the 24th Michigan, but have often found that as an additional replacement assigned to the Iron Brigade after it had already earned fame, it has been often marginalized by histories of the brigade.
Along the way, I found a reference on a website purportedly containing letters written to the Governor of Wisconsin from Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth, and another First Corps brigade commander and Iron Brigade alumnus, Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler. In their letters, they discussed the actions of a member of the Iron Brigade staff in the battle up to essentially commanding the brigade after Meredith was wounded. Since it was not particularly germane to my capstone, I set it aside as something for later. It was an uncited source on a website and we all know that while the internet is a great tool for historians, it requires a high degree of skepticism.
Later, I set out to track down the original letters. Even though I could not trust the website, the letters felt authentic in their composition and tone. I contacted the Wisconsin State Archives to see if they could find the original letters in their files, since official letters to Governors are in their collections, but they could not find either. When I reached out to the historical society that administered the website, they pointed me to the source. It was a Grand Army of the Republic—the primary US veterans’ organization after the war—publication The Soldiers and Sailor's Album of Biographical Record for Wisconsin. The book gives brief biographies of notable natives of Wisconsin who fought for the Union.
From there, I started digging into the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion to examine the correspondence and reports surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg. Interestingly, I found in Wadsworth's account that he had to actually order the ranking colonel in the brigade, William Robinson of the 7th Wisconsin, to take command of the brigade. Importantly, Wadsworth recorded that he did this only after the First Corps had been driven back to Cemetery Hill late in the day and after fighting had ceased. As I started to read through the reports of other commanders, I could sense there was something that had happened that no one was willing to discuss.
So, who commanded the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg? Based on your research, what’s the central argument you’re making in this Gettysburg Magazine article?
AR: It appears that after Meredith was wounded, the second most senior colonel, Henry Morrow of the 24th Michigan, and Richardson, together directed the brigade during the critical hours of combat on July 1st 1863. Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, then the acting corps commander, recalled in his memoir of the campaign that he directed Morrow to take charge of the regiment, as he mistakenly thought Morrow was the next senior officer after Meredith. Morrow was a veteran of the Mexican War and proved himself to be a talented commander. Later in the war, he rose to command the Iron Brigade and led it ably in combat in the winter of 1864-5. After the war, he was offered a Regular Army commission as a lieutenant colonel and eventually rose to colonel before his death. Morrow also definitely still continued to command the 24th Michigan directly, as is clear from his after-action report and the accounts from his unit. From the 24th Michigan's position in the center of the brigade's position on a knoll, he could easily see the entire brigade. Additionally, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Flannigan and Major Edwin Wight of the regiment were already wounded by that point, so perhaps he felt he had to do both jobs at the same time since there was no officer of sufficient experience to take over the unit if he was commanding the brigade.
I think Morrow knew he wasn't supposed to be in command of the brigade, and did his best to do so while not appearing to actually take command. I can find nothing that talks about if Robinson was told he was in command and refused to do so or if he simply did not know that Doubleday was directing orders to Morrow by mistake. Either way, Richardson seems to have aided and abetted Morrow. He was active and moving among the brigade, and delivered orders to the regiments. Robinson recounts Richardson relaying an order to withdraw the 7th Wisconsin back towards Seminary Ridge as the fighting progressed.
It is impossible to tell if Morrow and Richardson were actually working in concert or in parallel, but they certainly were not at cross purposes. Morrow was wounded immediately before the brigade made its final stand in front of the Seminary, and at that point, Richardson was as close to a brigade commander as the brigade would have until they reached their rally position. Cutler and Wadsworth's letters mostly refer to his actions in this part of the fighting.
Where do you see the future of military history moving to? What’s the importance of studying the units that fought and died during the Civil War, in addition to other important themes of the Civil War, like social, cultural, and environmental history?
AR: While models like "War and Society" are in vogue right now within the field, I think that insightful studies of units, campaigns, battles, and actions will always be the bedrock of military history. It is important to look at the broad, national topics that W&S examines, because it has led to greater understanding of many society forces at work during a war. The influence it has had on traditional military historians has been a positive force as well. My own capstone used the lens of demography and social forces to examine the 24th Michigan. I found that the unit was older and more middle-class on average than the typical Civil War regiment. I think that it led to a group of men who recognized more clearly what they were willing to sacrifice and through some superior leadership at the regiment and company levels, translated into battlefield success.
However, I think there is a disconnect between W&S and the actual soldiers who did the fighting and with the main audience that consumes military history. Broad societal studies tend to overlook the service of individuals and units in favor of demographic groups. A great unit study should take the reader into who this group of men were, and drive home the complexities of their experience. They were individuals, with their own stories, and the regiment, the brigade, the corps were part of their identity in the army. I think it is important to understand the place of the war in society and within the culture, but it cannot come at the expense of overlooking the stories of the soldiers and civilians caught in the actual fighting.
There is an ongoing discussion over the place of military history and if traditional military history or "New Military History" glorify war by simply discussing combat at all. The recent article by Max Hastings in Bloomberg News illustrates this divide. As a historian, I find myself motivated by going to the battlefields and wanting to understand what happened. I dig into a primary account and hear the voice from someone who died long before I was born and feel a living connection to that person, and I want to see what I can do to articulate that story. I think that is a visceral reaction for many people who study and consume history. There is always going to be that person who goes to a place like Chickamauga or Gettysburg and wonders what happened there and who were the people who fought there. If we cannot lose answering those questions as we address the broader cultural and social questions of the war, then the entire field will continue to be relevant to the public and will continue to make new insights into the past. But if we fail to answer those questions as a field, military history will become a niche field that will not be sustainable going forward.
Thanks for joining us, Andrew. Keep an eye out for future interviews on graduate student, postdoc, or early career historian’s research—we have quite the line up scheduled.