The Iron Brigade played a pivotal role in the fighting west of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. The Confederates were fast approaching from the west with 13,500 soldiers and the only thing that stood between them and Gettysburg was Major General John Buford's cavalry division of only 2,700 men. Buford knew he could not stop the Confederates but instead engaged in a delaying action intended to slow them down until Union troops could arrive.
Around 10:15am, Confederate Brigadier General James Archer's brigade comprised of 1,100 men approached Gettysburg from the west intent on pushing the Union cavalry off the ridges on the outskirts of town. His brigade contained the 1st, 4th and 7th Tennessee regiments and the 13th Alabama. Archer was unaware that the Iron Brigade had entered Gettysburg from the south along the Emmitsburg Road and were now approaching his position west of the Herbst Woods around Willoughby run.
The 1,800 man brigade under Brigadier General Solomon Meredith was comprised of the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin, the 19 Indiana and the 24th Michigan regiments. The units were thrown into the battle as soon as they arrived and made their way west toward the advancing Confederates. The 2nd Wisconsin advanced forward without waiting for the other regiments toward Herbst Woods.
The 7th and 14th Tennessee regiments opened fire on the 2nd Wisconsin and they suffered devastating casualties. At this moment, Major General John Reynolds was killed and although some believe it was at the hand of a Confederate sharpshooter, it may have been from the initial assault on the 2nd Wisconsin. The 13th Alabama obliqued left to put enfilade fire on the 2nd Wisconsin's left. The 7th Wisconsin approached quickly coming to the aid of the 2nd Wisconsin. The 19th Indiana and the 24th Michigan stopped to form their lines then hurried to support the Wisconsin regiments.
When they saw the supporting regiments approaching, the 13th Alabama hastily retreated. Next in line was the 1st and 4th Tennessee regiments and the Iron Brigade quickly closed in. Soon all of Archer's Brigade were in full retreat and the 24th Michigan was able to wrap around the retreating Confederates as the pressure from the front continued to push them back. The Union brigade killed close to 350 Confederates and captured an additional 240 including General Archer himself.
The Iron Brigade saw heavy action again around 3:45pm as they formed a hasty defense along with other Union regiments against the Confederate assault on Seminary Ridge. The Union lines were crumbling north and west of town as the Confederates kept up the pressure. Although the Union lines were stretched thin along Seminary Ridge, they had good artillery support and were ready for a fight. They were lined up against three fresh brigades totaling 5,000 men under Confederate Major General Dorsey Pender.
Fewer then 2,300 exhausted Union troops readied themselves for the inevitable assault behind makeshift barricades and many were out in the open. Four South Carolina regiments (1st, 12th, 13th and 14th) assaulted the Union lines and exploited a gap on the Union left between the infantry and dismounted cavalry defenses. The Union flank was rolled up and one-by-one, the Union regiments retreated back off Seminary Ridge and into Gettysburg.
Although the Iron Brigade was eventually driven from the field, their courage and fighting skill on July 1, 1863 slowed down the Confederate advance into Gettysburg thereby helping secure the high ground south of town.
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