On the warm morning of July 1, 1863, the men of the 6th Wisconsin Regiment of the Iron Brigade were among the closest to danger of the 90,000 Union troops chasing Robert E. Lee’s near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Yet, civilians who turned out by the roads to watch their rescuers pass by might have thought they were some odd multicultural youth group out for a hike had they not been uniformed and carrying muskets.1
“We had a German company…the turners, of Milwaukee, and amongst them were some very good singers, and…they struck up a soul stirring song in German, such as only Germans can sing,” wrote James P. “Mickey” Sullivan of his comrades. The Turners were a Liberal movement among German immigrants with roots in the mother country which combined athleticism, popular education, and a dedication to democratic principles. Sullivan wrote that “we all took step to the time [of the song] and when they had concluded we gave them three rousing cheers.” Next, the farm boys from the Wisconsin prairie began to sing a funny song about a cow “with as much melody as a government mule.” Finally, an Irish soldier led the men in singing a (slightly) risqué song about just what happens at “Paddy’s Wedding,” which promises to tell the story of an Irish wedding “From the churching to the bedding.”2
Songsheet for Paddy’s Wedding, a song sung on the march to Gettysburg.
Mickey Sullivan, writing years later, admitted that it “may seem odd, for men to be marching toward their death, singing, shouting and joking as if it were…a holiday show.” Although the men were on their way to the most deadly battle of the Civil War, they were encouraging and distracting one another with song. Sullivan wrote that “there was a grand chorus in which we all took part, from Captain Ticknor down to the drummers.” Sullivan said that the songs were “kept up from one end of the line down to the other.” The fact that many of the songs were specific to one immigrant group or another, but that all the men either joined in them or kept time indicates an easy acceptance of the different backgrounds within the cohesive unit.3
As they neared Gettysburg a brigade officer rode through the ranks announcing that General Joe Hooker, defeated at Chancellorsville, had been removed from command and George B. McClellan had replaced him. Sullivan wrote “our fellows cheered like mad, glad to be rid of such vainglorious fools as…Drunken Joe.” The Iron Brigade would soon find out that McClellan was not in charge. The relatively unknown General George Gordan Meade was in command. With no time to prepare, Meade took over just as the Union army was about to fight what Sullivan called “the decisive battle of the war.”4
Without much warning, desperate officers rode up as the brigade neared the village and told the regimental commanders of the Iron Brigade that the Union cavalry line west of Gettysburg along McPherson’s Ridge was collapsing and that they needed to move immediately to counter the Confederate attack. Sullivan remembered the 6th Wisconsin scurrying up Seminary Ridge and its men beginning to be hit before they could even understand the danger they were confronting. Confederate troops sheltering in a railroad cut, a ditch dug for railroad tracks, were firing on the Wisconsin men. “[T]hey opened a tremendous fire on us” recalled Sullivan, and men around him went down. Sullivan tried to return fire, but found that the gunpowder caps used to fire his musket were bad. The teen-aged Sullivan had to roll over a dead friend and take his supply to defend himself. The commander of the 6th Wisconsin, Colonel Rufus Dawes, quickly put his men into motion towards the nearly hidden Confederates on the unfinished rail line.5
The Railroad Cut. Monument to the 6th Wisconsin is on right.
As Sullivan got to the edge of the ditch, Colonel Dawes ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the Confederates sheltering in it. Dawes shouted to a nearby New York regiment to join him, and he sent a couple of dozen men scurrying to the opposite end of the cut to seal off any escape. As they cornered the Confederates, they shouted for them to surrender or be shot. Sullivan says that;
Some of the Johnnies [Confederates] threw down their guns and surrendered. Some would fire and then throw down their guns and cry, I surrender, and some of them broke for the rear.
In the chaotic confusion in the railroad cut, with hundreds of Union troops shooting or capturing Confederates, and Rebel soldiers trying to run or fight, a Confederate officer surrendered to Sullivan, handing the teenaged immigrant his sword. Sullivan, having no time for formalities, chased another Confederate escaping from the pit. Seeing one enemy soldier scampering away, Sullivan called for him to halt. When the man would not stop, Sullivan threw the sword at him. Just as he did, he wrote, “a bullet hit me on the left shoulder and knocked me down as quick as if I had been hit with a sledge hammer.”6
Sullivan’s sergeant Albert Talbox ran to his aid and said “they got you down Mickey, have they” when he was hit too “and then fell forward dead.” The sergeant had been shot by a Confederate soldier who had already surrendered. 7
Sullivan found himself disoriented by his wound. He wrote later that “like a true Irishman I spoke to myself to see if I was dead or only speechless, and finding it was only the latter, I picked up my gun and tried to shoulder it, but I found that my left arm was powerless.” By now the Wisconsin men and their New York allies had captured most of the Confederates in the cut. The action had been quick. Sullivan estimated that “it was not more than fifteen or twenty minutes from the time we saw the rebels until we had them, officers, colors and all.” 8
The 6th Wisconsin men and their New York allies took hundreds of prisoners. To their south, another Iron Brigade immigrant, Private Patrick Maloney, captured Brigadier General James J. Archer. Archer was the first Confederate general captured in the war. Maloney was an immigrant from Ireland. The Irish private was killed later that same day.9
Sullivan tried to join a line of soldiers escorting the Confederate prisoners to the rear, but he soon “felt sick and faint and the blood was down inside of my clothes and dropping from my pants leg and my shoe was full and running over [with blood].” The wounded Sullivan was taken to a makeshift hospital at the Gettysburg courthouse. There he saw many of his friends badly wounded, some with arms or legs missing, others dying.10
Nearly half of the men in the regiment had been killed or wounded in less than half an hour. They would later be credited with helping to save the Union line long enough for reinforcements to come up, but many of the men would not live long enough to enjoy the praise of newspapermen and stay-at-home neighbors. Sullivan’s Company K of the 6th Wisconsin suffered horribly. Of its 34 men who went into battle that day, only eight were still whole enough to report for duty the next day. Five were killed on the field and two more died soon thereafter from their wounds. Fourteen more were so badly wounded that they never returned to the army, many suffering pains from their wounds for the rest of their lives. The other wounded men suffered less disastrous destruction.11
The Adams County Courthouse in Gettysburg where Sullivan was cared for.
Unfortunately for Sullivan, the hospital itself was a trap. In the afternoon, a second large Confederate force arrive north of Gettysburg and overran the XI Corps under “Puritan” General O.O. Howard whom Sullivan described as a “bible thumping hypocrite.” Sullivan and the other wounded Wisconsin men, who had participated in the first great prisoner-taking of the battle, were now prisoners themselves.12
According to Sullivan, the ordinary Confederate soldiers were “good to our wounded boys.” He criticized them for robbing the civilians of just about anything they could carry, but he said that they shared their stolen food, tobacco, whiskey, and bread “freely” with the wounded Union troops. Sullivan was taken to a saloon that was also used as a hospital and he and other Union troops were mixed in with Confederate casualties. The teenager found a place for himself on one of the few mattresses in the place, although he had to share the bed with a dead officer whom he was too weak to push off the mattress.13
After two days in captivity, hearing the distant reports of the battle, on the afternoon of July 3 Sullivan heard two cannons fire “bang, bang..and then such a roar of artillery as I have ever heard.” The cannons signaled the opening of Pickett’s Charge.14
Video: Gary Gallagher on Leadership at Gettysburg Part III:
Sources:(Complete list to be posted)
1. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 92-96; Service with the 6th Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes; The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter by Lance Herdegen published by Savas Beatie (2012)
2. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 92-96
3. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 94-96
4. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) p. 94.
5. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 94-95
6. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 96-96
7. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 95-96
8. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) p. 96
9. Gettysburg by Stephen Sears
10. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 96-97
11. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 96-97
!2. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 96-97
13. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 96-97
14. The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 96-97
Maps adapted from wikimedia
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites