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Forgotten Leaders of the American Civil War – John Gibbon, Leader of the Iron Brigade


John Gibbon was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in April 1827. When he was ten years old, his family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated from West Point in 1847, and was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd US Artillery.
After the Mexican War, Gibbon served in southern Florida, and later taught artillery tactics at West Point. During his time at West Point, he wrote The Artillerist’s Manual, in 1859. This manual was used for gunnery instruction by both sides in the Civil War.

When the Civil War broke out, Gibbon was serving as a Captain of Battery B, 4th US Artillery in Utah. Gibbon was brought up in North Carolina, and his father was a slaveholder. Three brothers, and several other relatives joined the Confederacy.
Despite this, Gibbon choose to remain loyal to his oath to the Union.
After coming to Washington, Gibbon was appointed chief of artillery for Major General Irvin McDowell.After serving at that post for some time, Gibbon was appointed brigadier general of volunteers. Due to the lack of representation in Congress for deserving North Carolinians at that time, he had some difficulty in obtaining the command, but eventually applied to General James Wadsworth, a more politically influential soldier from New York. He was placed in command of the brigade of westerners known as King’s Wisconsin Brigade, which included his former command of Battery B. Gibbon set quite a contrast with the “Bland but genial” former commander of the brigade. He was certainly not bland, and made little effort to be genial.

Gibbon proved remarkably adept at handling volunteers. He did not share the negative opinions some regular army officers held about volunteers, and found his western brigade men to be eager and intelligent. He came to believe that the best way to promote discipline and good order among volunteers was a system of awards to recognize achievement, and penalties designed to hurt their pride. One particular problem when Gibbon assumed command of the brigade was the soldiers’ habit of stealing fences to build shelter or fires. This was against regulations, regardless of who owned the fence. Gibbon’s solution was simple; when a fence was torn down, the regiment nearest it was required to rebuilt it. This undoubtedly caused some grumbling, but fence-stealing was said to be considerably on the wane after this.
Gibbon also found that giving the well-turned out soldiers twenty-four hour passes for blackberrying worked miracles in the appearance and bearing of his men. He further instituted strict regulations regarding the duties of sentries, who were to “walk their posts”, “Be alive” and to salute all officers. The first offender of this order of Gibbon’s was made to sit all day on a barrel in front of the guard tent.

One more typically regular-army aspect of Gibbon’s handing of his men was devotion to drills. A veteran of the brigade recalling the early period of Gibbon’s command stated that there were “early morning drills, before breakfast, forenoon drills, afternoon drills, evening and night drills”. Gibbon initially did not conduct brigade drill, but one day he overheard two of his soldiers talking. According to one of them, the general was “only an artillery officer”, and didn’t know anything about infantry drill. Stung by the remark, Gibbon acquired a manual on brigade drill and was soon proving the soldier wrong.
Probably Gibbon’s most famous move as commander of his new brigade was to order his men to acquire a entirely new uniform. This new uniform was primarily based off that of the regular army, the “dark blue single single-breasted frock coat with light blue collar trim and reaching almost to the knees, and light blue trousers.” The men were also told to obtain white leggings and white cotton gloves for dress. The most famous uniform item they obtained however, was undoubtedly the black felt “Hardee” hat of the regulars, replacing the typical kepi. This would become their trademark, and earn them the nickname of the “Black Hat Brigade”

Gibbon’s brigade first saw real action at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm, during the 2nd Bull Run campaign. Along with the rest of King’s Division, his men were moving in the direction of Centreville. Here, just outside of Gainesville lurked the numerous veteran Confederate making up the command of the (in)famous “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson, concerned that King’s Division and the rest of John Pope’s Army of Virginia might be heading to link up with the arriving divisions of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, determined to attack the portion of King’s column directly to his front. This force was John Gibbon’s Black Hats.
Jackson opened with artillery fire. Gibbon, the former artilleryman, brought up Battery B and responded with his own shelling. This exchange brought King’s Division to a halt. Hatch’s brigade moved past the area, and Patrick put his brigade under cover near the rear of the column, leaving the brigades of Gibbon and Doubleday as the only force Jackson would immediately have to deal with. As according to army commander John Pope, Jackson was at Centreville, and this area had been reconnoitered by Hatch’s men, Gibbon assumed he was dealing with horse artillery, and sent forward the 2nd Wisconsin to deal with the guns. Advancing forward and driving back the Confederate skirmishers, the 2nd soon ran right into the “Stonewall” brigade, who opened fire into their right flank.

The 2nd did not waver, but responded to the surprise volley from the Rebels with a lethal fire of their own, and a brutal stand-up fight erupted. Gibbon sent forward the 19th Indiana to support the 2nd, and Jackson, personally directing regiments for some reason, sent in three regiments of Georgians. Gibbon called up the 7th Wisconsin to counter these new Confederates, and Jackson threw forward Trimble’s brigade, which Gibbon met with his last reserve, the 6th Wisconsin. There was a gap present between the 6th and the remainder of the Black Hats, but two regiments from Doubleday were hurried forward to fill the gap in response to Gibbon’s requests for assistance, arriving just after dark.
The result was a brutal, bloody stand-up fight of close range volleys. Both sides suffered enormously, with Union forces suffering nearly 1,000 casualties (The vast majority from Gibbon’s brigade of 2,100) and the Confederates suffering even more, closer to 2,000. Jackson put nearly six thousand men into battle against Gibbon’s 2,100 (rising to 2900 counting the later arrival of Doubleday’s men), and was unable to achieve a tactical victory, due to his own piecemeal deployment of troops, and the tenacity of Gibbon’s soldiers. Confederate Brig. Gen. William B. Taliaferro wrote, “In this fight there was no maneuvering and very little tactics. It was a question of endurance and both endured.” Despite this, the battle worked into Jackson’s overall plans, drawing John Pope’s army into the Battle of 2nd Manassas.

Gibbon next saw action at the Battle of South Mountain. At Turner’s Gap, his brigade led the central thrust against the Confederate defenders of the National Raod while other Union forces assaulted the Confederate flanks. His brigade drove the Confederate brigade of Alfred Colquitt back along the road in splendid fashion, causing either army commander George McClellan or I Corps commander Joseph Hooker (Accounts seem to vary) to exclaim that those men must be “Made of iron!”. This earned Gibbon’s brigade their famous moniker of the “Iron Brigade”.
Gibbon continued to lead his brigade for the Battle of Antietam, where his brigade was part of the opening morning assault upon their old nemesis, Stonewall Jackson’s II Corps. Gibbon’s men advanced directly down the Hagerstown turnpike along the edge of the infamous “Cornfield”. After brushing aside the Stonewall Brigade, and advancing into the Cornfield and towards the West Woods, Gibbon’s men were challenged by the charge of Starke’s brigade. The Iron Brigade fought back ferociously, and drove Starke’s brigade into retreat after mortally wounding that general. The brigade drove past the edge of the cornfield and the turnpike, advancing towards the Dunker Church.

The counterattack of Hood and Law’s brigades swept the entire Union advance back through the Cornfield however, with their fire “Like a scythe running through our line”. The Iron Brigade, with Major Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin waving the colors of his regiment, rallied on the northern edge of the cornfield. Gibbon’s guns of Battery B were threatened with capture as they were now depleted of both horses and men. Gibbon ordered Dawes to bring the survivors of the brigade to the guns while he himself ran to them and directed their fire against the advancing Confederate onslaught.
The Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana of Gibbon’s brigade, along with the brigade of Patrick, swung into the flank of the advancing Confederates, cutting them down with enfilading fire. The Confederates fled, but just as the Iron Brigade had, rallied and advanced again, bringing about what John Bell Hood called “The most terrible clash of arms that has occurred, by far, during the war”. The fighting became so desperate that Gibbon himself manned a gun of Battery B in the fighting that ensued. The Confederate assault, finally broken, died back down, and Gibbon extricated his exhausted and bloodied brigade, which had fought magnificently. Following the battle, it was determined that throughout the campaign, Gibbon’s Iron Brigade had no stragglers, with every man returning to the regiment being accountable to the return of wounded and sick from the hospitals. This was a distinction Gibbon was extremely proud of.

Following the conclusion of the campaign, Gibbon was promoted to command the 2nd Division of the I Corps. Gibbon’s first reaction to the offer when General Reynolds made it he described thusly: “My first feeling was one of regret at the idea of being separated from my gallant brigade”. Gibbon recovered himself however, and accepted the promotion. Rufus Dawes, who remained with the Iron Brigade and commanded the 6th Wisconsin at Gettysburg, summed up Gibbon’s character and command thusly: “Thoroughly educated in the military profession, he had also high personal qualifications to exercise command. He was anxious that his brigade should excel in every possible way, and while he was an exacting disciplinarian, he had the good sense to recognize merit where it already existed. His administration left a lasting impression for good upon the character and military tone of the brigade, and his splendid personal bravery upon the battlefield was an inspiration”.

At Fredericksburg, commanding the I Corps’ 2nd Division, Gibbon played a very significant role in the battle. Ambrose Burnside intended for his later reviled assaults on Marye’s Heights to be a diversion while he launched his real assault south of the city against Stonewall Jackson’s lines. Unfortunately, his vague orders didn’t make this apparent to his subordinates. William B. Franklin, commanding half of Burnside’s army, received a vague order indicating he should send at least a division against Prospect Hill. Franklin chose to interpret the order very literally, and told I Corps commander Reynolds to select a division. Reynolds chose Meade’s division, but detailed Gibbon’s to support Meade.
Meade’s division plunged through a gap in Jackson’s line, where Jackson had believed the ground too swampy to be passable. Gibbon hurried to support Meade, but had to attack across open ground. GIbbon’s first two brigades faltered under heavy fire, but Gibbon personally led his final brigade forward to break through the Confederate lines. The battle devolved intro brutal hand-to-hand combat, but Gibbon’s men rallied to break through the Confederate lines and seize the nearby railroad cut. Gibbon’s men continued forward to push the Confederates through some wetlands, but following Meade’s repulse, they were isolated and driven back by Confederate numbers. The Confederates counterattacked, driving the Union men, but were slowed down by the full force of Union artillery, and then driven back themselves once again by Gibbon and Meade’s men. Gibbon and Meade were the only officers to achieve any real success against the Confederates lines at Fredericksburg. Gibbon himself suffered a bad wound to the wrist from a exploding shell, and was out of action for a few months.
Gibbon returned for the battle of Chancellorsville, but his division was held in reserve.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, Gibbon was transferred to command the 2nd Division of the II Corps. One slightly unusual authority George Meade was given during the campaign was the authority to elevate officers more or less at will in complete disregard to seniority. He exercised this authority when he sent W.S. Hancock to Gettysburg ahead of his corps, telling Hancock to leave General Gibbon in command. Once at Gettysburg, Gibbon continued to more or less command the corps, as Hancock was effectively promoted to almost a second-in-command role to Meade. Gibbon was very involved with personally positioning the II Corps’ troops, and these positions would prove to be crucial to the Army of the Potomac’s success. II Corps played a role in repulsing Lee’s final assaults on July 2nd, but the true test of the position would come on July 3rd. Following his council of war the night before the last day of battle, George Meade took Gibbon aside and predicted that Lee would make his assault on Gibbon’s front. It was an astute observation, and Gibbon’s troops would take the brunt of Lee’s blow with Pickett’s Charge. Gibbon and Hancock had done their work well however, and II Corps threw back the Confederate assault, inflicting grievous casualties on the Confederate divisions involved, with the line hardly being breached before it was quickly sealed again. The II Corps showed it’s fighting quality at Gettysburg, and Gibbon had a large hand in it. Gibbon was once again wounded, along with his commander, Hancock. Gibbon’s wound wasn’t serious, and he was back in action with his division for 1864, but not before he had the opportunity to hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.

At the Wilderness, Gibbon’s division participated in Hancock’s virtual rout of A.P. Hill’s III Corps on May 6th. As they continued to drive the seemingly broken Confederates, James Longstreet’s I Corps arrived just in time to stem the tide, and reverse it. After blunting Hancock’s initial drive, and while his men were still rather disorganized, Longstreet launched a flank attack against Hancock’s lines, driving the entire corps back to the Brock Road intersection. Hancock managed to reorganize his troops in time to repulse further Confederate assaults.
During the Overland Campaign, due to his trust in the unit and it’s commander, the Union II Corps was the spearhead of choice for Grant. While a compliment to the unit’s reputation, it also meant that it suffered heavily from this favoritism, just as German stormtroopers did in WWI. The entire corps, including Gibbon’s division, continued to accumulate significant casualties at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. At Spotsylvania, after a spectacular initial assault, the II Corps became too crowded together in a very small area and lost much cohesion, becoming unable to press the offensive from it’s present location. At Cold Harbor, Gibbon’s division, among other II Corps units, suffered heavily in the bloody fighting. On June 7th, shortly after this Gibbon was promoted to major general of volunteers for his valuable service during the Overland Campaign. Shortly after, a amazing change of front by General Grant across the James would transfer the fighting to Petersburg.

By the time of Petersburg, the II Corps was something of an exhausted unit, and Gibbon’s division, while a good one, was no exception. At the Battle of Second Reams Station, the II Corps was beaten, and Gibbon was upset by the performance of his division. He was promoted to briefly command the XVIII Corps, Army of the James, before going on sick leave. After recovering, he would take command of the newly formed XXIV Corps, Army of the James. Rufus Dawes, his former subordinate, learning of Gibbon’s promotion, wrote “His honors are fairly won. He is one of the bravest of men. He was with us on every battle field.”
Gibbon’s troops led Grant’s assault in the Third Battle of Petersburg, 1865, and successfully seized Forts Whitworth and Gregg, helping to shatter the final defensive lines around Petersburg. With this victory, Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg and retreat. At Appomattox, Gibbon’s troops were the ones to block Lee’s final route of retreat, and Gibbon served as one of the commissioners for the Confederate army’s surrender.

Gibbon continued his career in the army after the war, reverting back to regular army rank of Colonel. During the campaign against the Sioux in 1876, Gibbon commanded the troops at Fort Ellis in the Montana territory. Gibbon, Custer, and Major General Crook were to launch a coordinated campaign against the Sioux, but Crook was stalemated at the Battle of the Rosebud, and unable to link up with Custer. Gibbon’s command wasn’t yet arrived when Custer launched his fateful attack at the Little Bighorn. Gibbon’s column, with the overall commander General Alfred H. Terry, arrived the next day, causing the Sioux to retreat from the area.
Gibbon was still commanding troops in Montana the next year, 1877, when he received a telegram from General O.O Howard ordering him into action against the Nez Perce. Gibbon took his command and move to engage the natives at the Big Hole Basin. Gibbon ordered his men to take no prisoners. There would be no negotiations. His men moved in, and after shooting a Nez Perce sentry, charged into the camp. Initially, they seemed victorious, and the Nez Perce seemed on the brink of destruction. However, the lieutenant leading Gibbon’s left wing had been shot and killed, and that part of his force had become disorganized, giving the Nez Perce the temporary respite they needed. The battle devolved into a tactical draw, and the Nez Perce slipped away, but only after suffering heavy casualties. General Howard’s forces set out in pursuit, and nearly two months later, Nelson Miles’ men finished the job at the Bear Paw. Gibbon was promoted to Brigadier General in the regular army, and ended up commanding the Army of the Pacific Northwest. GIbbon died in Baltimore in 1896, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Gibbon commanded many thousands of men during the war, in different commands, from the brigade level to corps command. But it was the veterans of his first command, the Iron Brigade, who paid for a monument to their “Loved Commander” at Arlington.

Gibbon was considered deficient in English grammar, having to repeat a year at West Point because of it. He went on to write not only the influential Artillerist’s Manual, but numerous articles and two books that were published posthumously, about his experiences in the Civil War and on the western frontier. Gibbon was something of a colorful personality as well. The man who commanded the Iron Brigade before him, Rufus King, was considered bland and genial. Gibbon was neither of these things, a man of blunt speech and a keen mind who could out-swear most officers in the Army of the Potomac, excepting Andrew Humphreys (Noted by Charles Dana for being one of the top two most fluent swearers in the army) and possibly his long-time superior officer, Winfield Scott Hancock. He was also an exacting disciplinarian, not a man to lightly offend. Despite this, he was generally well-liked and respected by his men, especially for his immense personal bravery, and popular among his fellow officers. Despite spending a considerable part of his childhood in North Carolina, and having three brothers fight for the Confederacy, he remained loyal to the Union, as did his Kentuckian friend John Buford, another distinguished fighting officer.

As a front-line combat officer, Gibbon may well have had no equal in the Army of the Potomac. He was inspirationally brave, and handled troops very well under fire. He molded the Iron Brigade, the finest fighting brigade in the Army of the Potomac, and did such a good job that his then-green troops stood up to a superior number of Stonewall Jackson’s veterans. He was a very effective fighting commander with a division as well, and at Gettysburg, an effective temporary corps commander. His work in positioning the II Corps there shows talent on the defensive, in addition to his undoubted skill as a pugnacious attacker. He didn’t really command a corps long enough to win lots of glory, but he was very effective even in that short time. Clearly the lack of political connections for the North Carolinian slowed down his promotions. He earned every one through sheer merit. He’s probably the closest analogy the Union had to Patrick Cleburne, if you want to draw that comparison. A very worthy officer and soldier.

Main Source: Alan T. Nolan’s The Iron Brigade

Gibbon’s grave at Arlington.



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