In the next few posts, I will be reviewing books pertaining to the American Civil War. In this post, I will be discussing Lance J. Herdegen’s Those Damned Black Hats: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign. As many people know, the Iron Brigade of the West was a unit composed completely of men from three Western states (Western for the time period) – Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan – that served their entire enlistments in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War.
The main focus of the book is on the brigade’s actions in and around the Battle of Gettysburg. But, Herdegen also chronicles the actions of the brigade after the battle, including its role in the Battle of the Wilderness, and the lives of some of the men after the War.
The brigade and another infantry brigade from the same division were the first Union infantry to reach the field of battle on July 1. Many historians credit the brigade with providing the Army of the Potomac the opportunity to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia by buying time for Union reinforcements to fortify Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and Cemetery Ridge – holding these positions proved to be the key to the victory.
As many Civil War enthusiasts know, Herdegen does not write as much about the tactics used in a battle, but about the soldiers and field officers who fought in the battle. He draws upon letters to capture the essence of the men who fought and died.
I love both types of military history – those that discuss tactics and strategy and those that describe the experiences of the common soldier. If you want to completely know the history of a battle, I think it is best to read both types of history. You can read all you want about the tactics and strategy involved in a battle, but that does not tell you anything about what it was like to fight in hot, humid weather (the conditions at Gettysburg). Conversely, you can understand what it was like to fight while surrounded by dead and dying comrades, but that does not bring a full understanding of a battle unless you know why they fought in the location that they did.
With all of that said, Herdegen brings to life the story of the men who sacrificed so much on that hot, July day in Gettysburg. The stories of courage on that day are countless. For example, Herdegen explains the importance of a unit’s flag – it was not just a symbol of the unit, but it also showed the men where to rally and which way to go on a confusing battlefield. Thus, it was a great honor to be in the color guard. It is amazing to read the eyewitness accounts of how some of the regiments in the Iron Brigade lost their entire color guard – sometimes as soon as a man picked up a dropped flag, they were killed or wounded.
Herdegen is able to weave all of the letters and personal accounts into a seamless story that is hard to put down. He includes at least three dozen black and white photos of the men who fought in the various regiments of the Iron Brigade. In addition, he includes a number of maps that follow the actions of the brigade in the battle. I have only one note of annoyance – there are a number of grammar and proofing errors – that disrupt the reading.
This book is a great tribute to the men who served in one of the most famous units in the Civil War – the Iron Brigade of the West.