The Ridge Top
A solitary figure on horseback emerges from the woods, turns to his right and begins to slowly ride along the line of trees towards a white farmhouse. His butternut Gray uniform is shabby and his equally shabby cap is pulled low, making his face appear as though it is all beard. In the shadow that the bill of his cap casts over his face are two deep blue pools of light, his eyes, which gaze with great intensity at the long column of blue clad soldiers trudging slowly along the distan Warrenton Turnpike. The blue column has gaps in it, indicating that the men in it are tired of marching in the hot, afternoon sun. The rider reaches the farmhouse, turns his horse around and retraces his route, this time at a trot. The rider enters the woods at the same point he exited earlier. A circle of men, also dressed in butternut Gray, abruptly stop their animated conversation and turn to watch the approaching rider. The rider, Major General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson reigns up in front of the group of men and says “Gentlemen, you may lead your men forward”. The group of men run and leap on their mounts, heading off in different directions to their commands. Jackson can hear them shouting to their men to form up and prepare to attack, the 20,000 Confederate soldiers who had been waiting in the woods unstack their rifles and begin to organize in lines of battle. Jackson turns his horse and, followed this time by his staff, trots back to the edge of the woods to watch the progress of the attack.
The Warrenton Pike
Riding at the head of his brigade on the Warrenton Pike, Union Brigadier General John Gibbon is somewhat anxious. His division commander, General Rufus King, has suffered an epileptic seizure, is incapacitated and riding in an ambulance, division command has been passed to General John Hatch. The division is relatively inexperienced and gaps have developed between the brigades. Gibbon is nervous that if the marching column were attacked, it would be time consuming to get the individual brigades arranged so they could provide support to each other. Gibbon’s brigade is rather unique in that all 4 regiments are from the mid-west – the 2nd, 6th & 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana. What makes them stand out further are their uniforms; the black felt, regulation full dress uniform high crowned hats, a blue frock coat reaching to mid-thigh, and tan leather gaiters covering their boots. The high crowned hats result in Gibbon’s brigade being named “The Black Hat Brigade”. Their tight formation and crisp marching cadence indicate, that despite being untested in battle, they are a well trained and highly disciplined unit. Gibbon’s anxiety is heightened when he spots a a single Confederate riding slowly along the ridge off to the left of the marching Union column. He sees the rider disappear into the woods and looks at the map in his hand to try and gauge how much farther the division has to march to their goal of Centerville, Virginia. Gibbon looks up from his map and turns to his left to gaze back at the ridge where the solitary rider had been. He sees more riders now on the ridge. “Probably Reb Cavalry watching us” he thinks. He rides a short distance into the field on his left to get a better look. He observes a flash of light and on the ridge top and realizes what he sees is the reflection of the late afternoon sun of the brass barrel of an artillery piece! He turns to warn his brigade but he is too late, he hears the far off bark of the cannon, the scream of the shell as it draws near, then the explosion of the shell just on the other side of his column.
The Battle Is Joined
After the initial shot, two Confederate artillery batteries (8 guns total) now open up on the Union column strung out on the Warrenton Pike. Men, horses and wagons begin to scatter about to escape the falling shells. The brigade of New York troops trailing the Black Hats break and run away. They will not be part of this fight. Gibbon orders the artillery battery he used to command, Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, to unlimber and return the Rebel fire. Gibbon then begins to move his brigade towards some woods towards his left front to gain some protection from the Rebel artillery and to try to flank them.
The fire from the 4th U.S. Artillery proves to be accurate and effective that it forces the Rebel artillery to withdraw from the field. Unaware that there are 20,000 Rebel soldiers in the woods to his front, thinking he his being harassed by only artillery, Gibbon sends the 2nd Wisconsin infantry regiment to fully drive them from the field. As the 2nd Wisconsin emerges from their strip of wood, an entire brigade of Confederate infantry emerges from the woods to their front, it is Jackson’s former command – The Stonewall Brigade. The legendary, seasoned veterans now number only 800 men, but they still outnumber the 2nd Wisconsin by a 2 – 1 margin. Both lines approach each other, the Black Hats undeterred by the superior numbers of Rebels. At 100 yards, the 2nd Wisconsin unleashes a volley that staggers and halts the Stonewall Brigade. It is 6:00 PM.
Over the next two hours Stonewall Jackson will pour more and more soldiers into the battle, extending his line to try and overlap the Union left. John Gibbon is able to anticipate Jackson’s moves and has sent the remaining Black Hat regiments into line, extending his left to avoid being flanked. This frustrates Jackson. The Union and Confederate lines close within less than 50 yards of each other. The untried Black Hat regiments fire volley after volley into the Rebels, and vice versa. Men fall like mowed hay. Gibbon commits his last regiment to this maelstrom and has no more troops to extend his left. The fire from the Black Hats has stymied the seasoned Rebels, but they try to exploit the fact that Gibbon has now committed all of his men. At this critical point, the lead regiments of Union General Abner Doubleday’s Brigade arrive on the field and provide support to Gibbons left. The time is now 8:00 PM, daylight is diminishing to where it is becoming difficult to tell friend from foe. Firing becomes sporadic and eventually ends. The only Yankee and Confederate soldiers moving on the field now are those crawling wounded, or those trying to collect the wounded. The cost has been fearful. Stonewall Jackson and his men were fought to a standstill. Grudgingly they acknowledge the stubborn stand by the Black Hats as causing the fight to end in a draw. From this day forward, the Black Hat Brigade of mid-westerners will be honored with a new name – The Iron Brigade.
I have wanted to visit the Bull Run battlefield since I was a child. Barb and I went there this weekend. I was fortunate to get a personal tour from a very knowledgeable Park Service Ranger. I was deleighted in our exchange of knowledge. So many things to see, but I desired to visit the Brawner’s Farm portion of the Bull Run National Park. The Iron Brigade of mid-western troops has been one of my favorite Civil War units. I have seen the field where they where almost annihilated, Gettysburg, I wanted to see the field where the legend was created.
I have several books about the Iron Brigade, but Alan Nolan’s “The Iron Brigade” provides the best description of the unit at Brawner’s Farm. From the Confederate side, John Casler’s “Four Years In The Stonewall Brigade” is an outstanding unit history. John J. Hennessy provides an overall analysis of the 2nd Battlemof Bull Run, and covers Brawner’s Farm , in his book – “Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of 2nd Manassas”. I read this excellent book this past summer. Much is owed to my wife, Barb, for indulging my interest in the Civil War and for traipsing over the muddy fields of Bull Run and Brawner’s Farm, dodging rain drops.