The Iron Brigade (also known as the Black Hats because they wore the hats of the US Regulars) in the Union Army of the Potomac initially consisted of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin Infantry and the 19th Indiana Infantry. Battery B, 4th US Artillery was attached to the brigade. The brigade after severe losses at Antietam was brought up to strength by the 24th Michigan Infantry.
The brigade earned its nickname at Turner’s Gap during the Battle of South Mountain where it was said the men stood like iron in a vicious firefight. The name stuck and the brigade re-earned their nickname in each engagement it was involved.
The Iron Brigade was part of the 1st Division of the 1st Corps in the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Gettysburg which began on July 1st, 1863 and among the first Union Infantry to arrive on the scene.
Michael Eisenhut’s, Brothers of War-The Iron Brigade at Gettysburg (a historical novel) is, as it states on the book cover, an epic Civil War story of individual soldiers, courage, and brotherhood.
I would agree with that assessment. The book features “a Civil War squad” which by the time of Gettysburg consisted of 4 close friends, Hawk, Henry and two brothers by the names of James and Solomon, “Sol” for short. They serve in Company B of the 19th Indiana. The 19th is populated by historical characters as well as “made up” characters to flesh out the story that leads to the devastation that the 19th Indiana and the rest of the Iron Brigade suffered on the first day of Gettysburg.
As an amateur Civil War historian, myself and a Wisconsin resident who has read extensively about the Iron Brigade, I would not hesitate to say that the first day of Gettysburg essentially wrecked the brigade and it was never quite the same after that.
Eisenhut makes that clear from the 19th Indiana’s point-of-view, noting that the regiment brought 308 officers and men to Gettysburg and suffered 210 casualties, a loss over 68 percent. Of the thirty-two men in company B who started on the morning on July 1st, only five remained with the regiment when they reached Culp’s Hill that evening. The Wisconsin and Michigan regiments suffered similar losses at Gettysburg.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Eisenhut in his first novel, makes you care about the main characters of Hawk, Henry, James, and Sol. You witness the camaraderie, the brotherhood of soldiers, the griping about the army (timeless), the joking, the marching, the camping and eventually the utter brutality of war as well as how the main characters react to the carnage. If you’ve studied the Civil War and its armies, I think you would agree that Eisenhut gets it right.
At one point in the battle two of the main characters go for water in the “run” where much of the action took place. At the same time, a young Confederate soldier is also getting water. They look up at each other and simply go about their business in getting water too exhausted to care they are enemies. Musket fire erupts a slight distance away and again they look at each other as if to say, “not our fight, not now.” The rebel soldier fills his canteen and backs away from the stream and one of the Union soldier’s comments on the soldier’s youth and says, they are just like us.
Civil War armies fought at close quarters even though the weaponry of the period could kill at much longer ranges than earlier “musket period” wars. Nevertheless, the soldiers rarely got close enough to recognize that they were indeed, just like themselves, young and amid a terrible war.
Suffice it to say I don’t want to include any spoilers so all I can say is the book is a page turner as you learn to care about the characters and wonder as to their fate at Gettysburg. As someone familiar with the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg I wondered from the start who would survive and who would not.
Eisenhut drew his initial inspiration for the book from visiting the Union Cemetery in Gettysburg and noting a name on a grave. This prompted him (a resident of Indiana) to research the 19th Indiana more deeply and enabled him to write a story of individual soldiers, incredible courage, and the brotherhood of war.