With the Iron Brigade at Chancellorsville

The Iron Brigade of the Army of Potomac is rightly famous for its demonstrated heroism at Brawner's Farm, Antietam, and Gettysburg where the brigade suffered 61% casualties. Lost in the mix of the Iron Brigade's history is its participation in the Battle of Chancellorsville, a battle perhaps receiving less attention because the casualty list for Chancellorsville (at least as far as the Iron Brigade is concerned) was relatively small. 

    The following account, written by Augustus F. Muller of Co. C of the 6th Wisconsin, was written to a cousin in Illinois who provided the letter to the editor of the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph; the letter was published in their May 21, 1863 issue, the editor commenting that the letter "places before our minds in a few words how the thing is done." Muller's description of forcing the Rappahannock River crossing under enemy fire is indeed a superb description of "how the thing is done."

In camp four miles from Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 12, 1863

    On the 28th of April, we left Belle Plains about noon and marched ten miles and camped at sunset within a mile of the river. At 11 p.m. that same night, we were aroused and went silently to the river and all night long the pontoons moving to where we were posted. At daylight on the 29th, the Rebel riflemen opened fire from their entrenchments at the horses and drivers of the pontoon trains which created considerable confusion, scaring the horses and drivers a great deal more. Order was restored, the horses unhitched and taken to the rear; Co. G and our company were posted behind a stone wall and engaged the Rebel riflemen. A heavy fog lay upon the river. Our captain and a private of our company were wounded at this place, that is behind the wall. The fog lifted about 9 a.m . and we could see plainly across the river. 

    The Rebels had rifle pits all along the crest of the opposite bank which was a great deal higher than the bank we were on. At 10 a.m., three companies of our regiment were detailed to cross the river in pontoon boats and drive the Rebels from their pits. They were companies G, C, and K. We were divided into two parties with orders to make a rush for the river, seize two pontoon boats that had been launched before the Rebels opened fire, row across the river, break for the nearest spot of fresh earth we could see, and drive the Rebels out and hold the pit. It was a dangerous undertaking and I expected as much as could be that my time had come. Well, the order was given and off we started at the double quick which was the signal for 700 Rebel riflemen to commence firing which they did and kept it up until we struck the opposite shore.\

    One of my comrades directly in front of me fell dead at the first fire of the Rebels, shot through the head. We got to the shore at last, tumbled into the boats, and in two minutes we were across the river. In three minutes more we were in the Rebel rifle pits and the Rebels were running over the flat towards the hills like a flock of sheep. We were supported while crossing by the balance of the brigade drawn up on the bank of the river and drawing part of the Rebel fire, which they answered with interest. As soon as we were across, the pontoons were all launched and were moved across. In ten minutes from the time our three companies started, the whole Iron Brigade was drawn up in line on the crest of the bank where the Rebels had been. They now began to lay the pontoon bridge. In half an hour, two bridges were across and the balance of the First Division commenced crossing. 

A pontoon boat atop its wagon; the 50th New York Engineers were the Army of the Potomac's specialists at assembling pontoon bridges.


    We rested after the line formed, nothing happening during the rest of the day. At night, it commenced raining hard and continued all night. I was on picket post all night again, no sleep making the second night without. On the 30th, we were busily at work all day and part of the night building trenches which were finished about 3 a.m. I had four hours sleep on May 1st; nothing happened but some vigorous shelling from the Rebels behind trenches but this was mere sport for us. At noon, I went on picket again and remained until midnight and didn't go to sleep until 4 a.m. 

    About 8 a.m. on May 2nd, we recrossed the river and marched to the right and camped two miles from U.S. Ford at about 9 p.m. We commenced marching at 3 a.m. on May 3rd, crossed the river before daylight at the above mentioned ford on a pontoon bridge. About 8 a.m. we reached the front shortly after which the Rebels made one of their fierce attacks on the forks of the plank road and the road from Gordonsville. From these roads they received their supplies which our possession stopped. They were repulsed with terrible slaughter. Our men had rifle pits and reserved their fire until they could count the buttons on the Rebels' coats; the artillery had double charges of canister which they delivered at the most effective distance of about 400 yards. 

    On May 4th and 5th, nothing important occurred except four or five Rebel attacks on the crossroads, in which every one they were sent back broken and bleeding. One of their attacks was terrible. They advanced in seven long successive lines at a charge uttering terrible yells, besides which nothing could be heard. Not a shot was fired by our side until the first line of Rebels emerged from the woods some 150 yards from our rifle pits. Then came a crash of musketry which shook the ground. At the same time, 60 pieces of artillery opened their canister on the other line which kept steadily on, almost to the cannons' mouth. A great many Rebels were taken and those who saw them state that some were staggering drunk. 

    Do not think we were in any of these engagements; we were just on the right of them in a piece of woods. On the 6th of May, we retreated across the Rappahannock and on the 7th camped near the place where we crossed on the 29th. There is more confidence in General Hooker than General McClellan ever enjoyed. This last move of Hooker's is considered a master stroke although defeated in its object. I think him, and so do all of our brigade, the best commander the Army of the Potomac ever had...

    The 6th Wisconsin lost four men killed and twelve wounded during the Chancellorsville campaign. Augustus F. Muller was severely wounded July 1, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg and was absent sick when the 6th Wisconsin mustered out in 1865.


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