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The Iron Brigade, also known as the Iron Brigade of the West or the Black Hat Brigade, was an infantry brigade in the Union Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. Although it fought entirely in the Eastern Theater, it was composed of regiments from Western states (states that are today considered Midwestern). Noted for its strong discipline, its unique uniform appearance, and its tenacious fighting ability, the Iron Brigade suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any brigade in the war.
The nickname "Iron Brigade", with its connotation of fighting men with iron dispositions, was applied formally or informally to a number of units in the Civil War and in later conflicts. The Iron Brigade of the West was the unit that received the most lasting publicity in its use of the nickname.
John Gibbon (April 20, 1827 – February 6, 1896) was a career United States Army officer who fought in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars.
When war broke out between the states, Gibbon was serving as a captain of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery at Camp Floyd in Utah. Despite the fact that his father was a slaveholder and that three of his brothers, two brothers-in-law and his cousin J. Johnston Pettigrew served in the Confederate military, Gibbon decided to uphold his oath to the Union. Upon arrival in Washington, Gibbon, still in command of the 4th U.S. Artillery, became chief of artillery for Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell. In 1862, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and commanded the brigade of westerners known as King's Wisconsin Brigade. Gibbon quickly set about drilling his troops and improving their appearance, ordering them to wear white leggings and distinctive black 1858 regular army Hardee hats. The hats earned them the nickname The Black Hat Brigade. He led the brigade into action against the famous Confederate Stonewall Brigade at the Battle of Brawner's Farm, a prelude to the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was in command of the brigade during their strong uphill charge at the Battle of South Mountain, where Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker exclaimed that the men "fought like iron". From then on, the brigade was known as the "Iron Brigade". Gibbon led the brigade at the Battle of Antietam, where he was forced to take time away from brigade command to personally man an artillery piece in the bloody fighting at the Cornfield.
Gibbon (far left) at Lee's surrender at Appomattox (Zoom)
Gibbon was promoted to command the 2nd Division, I Corps at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he was wounded. The wound was minor but kept getting infected, so Gibbon was out of action for a few months. Shortly after returning to duty he learned of the sudden death of his son, John Gibbon, Jr. Gibbon returned for the Battle of Chancellorsville, but his division was in reserve and saw little action. At the Battle of Gettysburg, he commanded the 2nd Division, II Corpsand temporarily commanded the corps on July 1 and July 2, 1863, while Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock was elevated to command larger units. At the end of the council of war on the night of July 2, army commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade took Gibbon aside and predicted, "If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be on your front." And his division did bear the brunt of fighting during the defense against Pickett's Charge on July 3, when Gibbon was again wounded. While recovering from his wounds, he commanded a draft depot in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery and heard Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address with his close friend and aide Lt. Frank A. Haskell.
Gibbon was back in command of the 2nd Division at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. During the Siege of Petersburg, Gibbon became disheartened when his troops refused to fight at Ream's Station. He briefly commanded the XVIII Corps before going on sick leave, but his service being too valuable, he returned to command the newly created XXIV Corps in the Army of the James. His troops helped achieve the decisive breakthrough at Petersburg, capturing Fort Gregg, part of the Confederate defenses. He led his troops during the Appomattox Campaign and blocked the Confederate escape route at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. He was one of three commissioners for the Confederate surrender.
Gibbon stayed in the army after the war. He reverted to the regular army rank of colonel and was in command of the 7th Infantry at of the Montana Column consisting of the F,G,H,L of the 2nd Cavalry under Jams S. Brisbane from Fort Ellis and of his own regiment of 7th Infantry stationed at Shaw, Baker and Ellis in the Montana Territory, during the campaign against the Sioux in 1876. Gibbon, General George Crook, and General Alfred Terry were to make a coordinated campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, but Crook was driven back at the Battle of the Rosebud, and Gibbon was not close by when Lt. Col. George A. Custerattacked a very large village on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. The Battle of the Little Bighorn resulted in the deaths of Custer and some 261 of his men. Gibbon's approach on June 26 probably saved the lives of the several hundred men under the command of Major Marcus Reno who were still under siege. Gibbon arrived the next day and helped to bury the dead and evacuate the wounded.
Gibbon was still in command in Montana the following year when he received a telegraph from General Oliver O. Howard to cut off the Nez Percé who had left Idaho, pursued by Howard. (See Nez Perce War) Gibbon found the Nez Perce near the Big Hole River in western Montana. At the Battle of the Big Hole Gibbon's forces inflicted and suffered heavy casualties, and Gibbon became pinned down by Indian sniper fire. The Nez Perce withdrew in good order after the second day of the battle. In response to Gibbon's urgent call for help, General Howard and an advance party arrived the next day at the battlefield. Gibbon, because of his casualties and a wound he suffered, was unable to continue his pursuit of the Nez Perce.