Wisconsin troops set the stage for turning point of Civil War

Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Next week America will remember the Battle of Gettysburg at its 150th anniversary, and much of the attention will be on the final unsuccessful Confederate charge toward Cemetery Ridge on the final day of the battle.

But it was Wisconsin volunteers who made the Union victory possible two days earlier by first staggering and slowing the enemy’s push toward Gettysburg despite being vastly outnumbered.

The delaying action kept Confederates from taking Gettysburg until late on July 1, and the southern army was exhausted and unable to halt the Union concentration on Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill. It saved the ground that became the federal stronghold for the next two days.

Three decades after the battle Rufus Dawes, who had commanded the 6th Wisconsin put it this way:

“We had lost the ground on which we had fought, we had lost our commander and our comrades, but our fight had held the Cemetery Hill and forced the decision for history that the crowning battle of the war should be at Gettysburg.”

The 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, part of the Iron Brigade, was the first union unit to engage Confederate troops near Gettysburg on July 1. It had been among the first groups to answer Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers in 1861.

It would suffer a staggering 77 percent casualty rate in the battle. Other Wisconsin infantry units would be hard hit in the first day. Before Gettysburg was over, the 6th Wisconsin would lose 48 percent and the 7th Wisconsin would lose 42 percent of its men.

How do the losses compare against the backdrop of 19th Century military history? The Iron Brigade’s loss was 64 percent at Gettysburg (the 24th Michigan, a part of the brigade, had suffered a loss of 80 percent.) The charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854 resulted in a 36 percent manpower loss, and it is put at 14 percent for each side the at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The exploits of Wisconsin troops and other units of the Iron Brigade are detailed in “Those Damned Black Hats! The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a 2008 book by former Wisconsin newsman Lance Herdegen. Volunteers from Indiana and Michigan were also part of the Iron Brigade whose distinctive black hats, rather than general issue grey hats, made it stand out both to foes and other Union outfits.

Lt. Col. Lucius Fairchild, commander of the 2nd Wisconsin, would be wounded and his left arm amputated on that July 1. A Lutheran pastor who aided Fairchild would bury the amputated arm in a tin box in his garden.

Fairchild would be active in veterans’ affairs and would serve six years as governor of Wisconsin shortly after the war ended.

“Fairchild went home to a political career helped by the empty sleeve of his coat - a never ending reminder to voters of his selfless service at Gettysburg,” wrote Herdegen.

The book provides an interesting touch in Fairchild’s story. The war hero had been bothered by phantom pain from the amputated limb.

“Acting on a superstitition that such discomfort was caused when an amputated limb was cramped or crooked, he had friends at Gettysburg disinter the tin box containing his arm from the garden and sent to him by express,” Herdegen wrote. The pain gradually disappeared and Fairchild later admitted he was never sure whether the relief came from natural healing or the rearrangement of the amputated arm.

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