How the Iron Brigade was Wrought: Gainesville through Antietam with the 2nd Wisconsin

    Captain George H. Otis of the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers sat down on Sunday morning September 21, 1862 overlooking the bloody battlefield of Antietam, and struggled to convey to his father his experiences over the last month. His regiment had participated in four significant engagements since August 28th, including two of the bloodiest battles of the entire war (Second Bull Run and Antietam); his regiment and company had been decimated, yet Otis escaped without a scratch. "My lieutenants are both gone," he wrote. "I am comparatively alone with 12 or 14 men, and I assure you I feel lonesome and at times moan and pine for old Wisconsin. I have seen so much, passed through such terrible fields of strife, that my heart sickens against war. I would gladly grasp the old stick and pick the types “as of yore.” [Otis was a typesetter before the war] But I came here to perform a part and that part, whatever it may be, I shall cheerfully perform to the end."

    The horrors of the battle of September 17 still were fresh in his mind, and the horrific wound suffered by one his lieutenants Oliver Sanford was perhaps the worst of all. "Lieutenant Oliver Sanford of my company had fell wounded in the head with his brains partly protruding, when I had him put in a blanket and carried to the rear," Otis noted. "I had Lieutenant Sanford carried to the hospital but the doctors gave him up. He is now at Keedysville under the care of George H. Legate. He is about the same and as yet unable to speak and at times is out of his head. The surgeons all agree that he cannot live." In less than a month, the Iron Brigade has suffered 1,700 casualties; the 2nd Wisconsin was reduced to a bare handful of men. 

    Captain Otis' letter to his father covering the battles of Gainesville, Second Bull, South Mountain, and Antietam was published on the first page of the October 8, 1862 edition of the Mineral Point Weekly Tribune


Captain George H. Otis, Co. I, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Camp of 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers, Battlefield of Sharpsburg, Maryland

September 21, 1862


Dear Father,

The first opportunity offering, I avail to write you a long letter of our doings in Maryland. I doubt not but what the telegraph has informed you of our brilliant victories of Sunday and Monday last. They were, indeed, victories that this country may well be proud of. The newspapers have doubtless given you the meager accounts of the fights of Gainesville and Manassas. I cannot say that our was very much benefited in those three days’ struggles- but of the part that the Wisconsin troops took, I believe was performed with honor to themselves and the state.

Colonel Edgar O' Conner
2nd Wisconsin
Killed in action August 28, 1862

In the battle of Gainesville, our brigade suffered most terribly with a loss of 720 killed and wounded. Our brave little Colonel Edgar O’Conner was killed while he was cheering on his men to greater exertions. His last words to his men were “Boys, you’d nobly done your part. Stick to the old flag, fight, and if needs be, die for it.” He was buried close by the field and his place marked. In this battle our brigade was under fire one hour and ten minutes. My company suffered a loss of three killed and twelve wounded. Our boys done well and showed themselves capable of performing wonders. A braver, nobler set of men never held a musket.

We left the Gainesville battlefield at 2 o’clock Friday morning, leaving our wounded men to fall into the hands of the enemy and our dead on the field unburied. It was hard to fall back to Manassas then, but there was no help for it. On Friday, we marched to the old Bull Run battlefield where a year ago a great battle had been fought, the results of which are undoubtedly familiar to all the world. During Friday, while the fresh troops were in battle, we were under the fire of the enemy’s artillery. It seemed rather hard to lay flat on one’s belly and hear those missiles drop and burst all around you.

General John Gibbon once said that to be successful "an army commander must be as near a despot as the institutions of his country permit." 

Friday morning our regiment was consolidated with the 7th Wisconsin under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lucius Fairchild, making a regiment about 500 men strong. On Saturday, our division was marched up to engage the enemy’s center, our brigade taking possession of an orchard and supporting Gibbon’s battery. Here our brigade was forced to undergo the terrors of a thorough rain of cannon balls, shells, and cannister. Our brigade’s loss in this engagement was 250 in killed and wounded. The brigade held its position until late at night covering the retreat of our forces to Centreville, where we were relieved by some of Smith’s division.

"Of General John Gibbon, I can speak very fluently for there is something about the man that seems striking. He is of medium height, rather slim, fair complexion, and a tolerably good-looking man, what the girls would call passable. He is quite sociable and a man not to be forced into unpleasant predicaments as if he gets in a bad fix he isn't long in finding a way out. He is an old West Pointer and formerly commander of Battery B. He is without a doubt the best brigadier in the service. He thoroughly understands his business and is as cool and collected in the field as battle as when quietly at ease in his tent." ~L.B., soldier in 2nd Wisconsin 

In the forenoon, I had been detailed with a squad of 20 men to go to the field of Gainesville and have all the dead buried, but I had scarcely reached the field when the enemy’s skirmishers opened on us, and a battery sent a shell or two near us. We fell back, receiving orders to wait until the field was cleared, a thing that proved out of the question on Saturday. On Saturday, our brigade marched to Fairfax thence to Upton’s Hill where we remained a week before starting for Maryland. Our march to Frederick was a hard one and considering what our men had already undergone, it was a wonder how they held out.

          At Frederick, we overtook the Secesh and followed them to South Mountain. Our brigade was formed on the turnpike to the right and left and at dark, after having undergone the terrors of artillery duel, we marched up and opened on the enemy at the foot of the mountain. Previous to reaching the mountain, a shell from the enemy’s battery burst in our regiment, killing seven and wounding five. As usual with Jackson, his forces were behind a stone fence and in a ravine at that. After being under fire for some time, our regiment made a wheel, giving us a clear range on the Secesh behind the fence. Here our boys piled them up in heaps, most awful to speak of. The most of the Secesh appeared to be struck in the head. General Robert Lee, son of the Rebel General R.E. Lee, was killed, beside several colonels and majors on their side. We withdrew about 10 o’clock at night. During the time that General Hooker had drove the enemy on the right and General Reno had run them on the left, giving us three hours contest for possession of the field. In this engagement, our brigade suffered a loss of over 400. My company had five men wounded.

This Model 1858 Remington .44 caliber revolver was carried by Captain George H. Otis during the Civil War and recently sold through Cowan Auctions

          In this battle, as in the former, our men behaved most gallantly and nobly held their ground. The next morning [Monday September 15, 1862] we commenced the pursuit of the enemy, often capturing a large number of prisoners. Both Monday and Tuesday were occupied in cannonading and pushing forward close upon the heels of the retreating foes. Tuesday evening, we came upon their lines and lay down without supper and directly under their guns. During the night, heavy skirmishing and continual cannonading was kept up.

At daylight, our brigade was ordered forward to open for the enemy. We were marching in division front and had reached a clump of woods when the enemy opened with a battery on us, but fortunately did not great harm to us but a shell burst in a division of the 6th Wisconsin, killed several and wounding a number, how many I know not. We passed through the woods into an open field and through a cornfield with the 6th Wisconsin on the right and a New York regiment on the left. We slowly crawled through the cornfield while Gibbon’s battery was throwing canister and shell into the enemy.

This map depicts the forest of graves that lay upon the portion of the Antietam battlefield where the 2nd Wisconsin charged on the morning of September 17, 1862. The four regiments of Gibbon's Iron Brigade smashed straight into John Bell Hood's divisional counterattack near the Miller cornfield shortly after 7 a.m. in some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War. 

After passing through the cornfield into the open field, the enemy was discovered in great force on our right and left, leaving their center almost open. Cos. I and A had the first shot of the foe and soon the 6th Wisconsin, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and the New York regiments opened upon them. Then commenced the shower of bullets- volley after volley was poured in by the contending parties. It seemed as if it were a perfect rain of hail. In all battles I have not seen the like. I thought the battle of the 28th bad enough, but this day’s battle seemed most horrible.

Soon our regiment charged directly on the first company, giving us a crossfire on the enemy. Major Thomas S. Allen was wounded and had to leave the field, leaving Captain George B. Ely of Co. D in command. Our men were falling fast; our ranks were thinned to where it seemed that we had scarce some 40 men left to defend our colors. All around me, men were falling, some begging to be carried off the field, others giving their last requests to some comrade. For once while standing there with but six of my own company left with the bullets flying all around me and man after man dropping here and there, I thought of the awful carnage of this dastardly work of taking the lives of human beings.

The 14th Brooklyn, New York boys came up and with a cheer, our boys turned to them and asked them forward. With a hurrah they rushed through our ranks and opened on the enemy, our boys joining them. But it seemed as if the Secesh rose from the ground, for all of a sudden, a whole brigade of fresh Rebels and poured in on our distracted men volley upon volley of Minie balls. Then and not till then did it seem that the old brigade would give way. But alas, it slowly, gradually fell back till it passed through a column of fresh Union troops who marched forward to meet the exultant foe. Lieutenant Oliver Sanford of my company had fell wounded in the head with his brains partly protruding, when I had him put in a blanket and carried to the rear. Lieutenant Alexander Hill of Co. G was also wounded and carried to the rear as also was Lieutenant William W. Jones of Co. A. Our men what could served the wounded. As many as possible rallied around the old colors, and as soon as we reached the woods, a column was formed to stop stragglers coming from the field.

"I beg to add this endorsement the expression of my great admiration of the conduct of the three Wisconsin regiments in General Gibbon's brigade. I have seen them under fire acting in a manner that reflects the greatest possible credit and honor upon themselves and their state. They are equal to the best troops in any army in the world." ~ Major General George B. McClellan

My orderly sergeant William Noble (and a braver man never shouldered a musket) stuck by the colors and did his whole duty. He has been all to me, and his course and manly bearing has taught me to love the man. For his noble conduct, he deserves an honorable promotion. I had Lieutenant Sanford carried to the hospital but the doctors gave him up. He is now at Keedysville under the care of George H. Legate. He is about the same and as yet unable to speak and at times is out of his head. [Sanford lingered until October 13, 1862 when he died.] The surgeons all agree that he cannot live. I have sent by telegraph for some of his relations to come to him.

Post-war image of Captain George H. Otis, 2nd Wisconsin. The captain later wrote a series giving the regimental history of the 2nd Wisconsin which was later published as a book. 

During the balance of the day, we lay in the open field and at night again underwent the tunes of a cannonading. This battle all day, the enemy being driven at all points. The number killed and wounded in our brigade was over 400. In the four battles, our brigade has suffered a loss of some 1,700 killed and wounded. What the loss can be of our army I cannot tell but it must be great. The Rebels have certainly in this last battle lost two to our one. The Rebels, under the cover of a flag of truce to bury their dead (which they failed to do), retreated across the river, leaving their wounded in our hands. But on the Virginia side, they run into the old Dutchman Sigel and undertook to cross back when they were met by our forces and brought to a standstill. As the thing now stands, the Secesh are in a bad fix and likely to be annihilated. Their whole army is here, and the thing must decide the fate of our government. It is either Confederacy or no Confederacy. Maryland and Pennsylvania are safe enough.

Our late battle is an awful spectacle as only our troops have been buried. The Wisconsin boys were nicely interred and a fence built around their graves, the place marked, etc. If you should pass over that field, you would never go over another. The dead are so disfigured, swollen and black as ebony. If would seem out of the question for human beings to be treated so, but be it said, war has its evils. Strange to say, I have passed through all these battles without getting a scratch. My lieutenants are both gone. I am comparatively alone with 12 or 14 men, and I assure you I feel lonesome and at times moan and pine for old Wisconsin. I have seen so much, passed through such terrible fields of strife, that my heart sickens against war. I would gladly grasp the old stick and pick the types “as of yore.” But I came here to perform a part and that part, whatever it may be, I shall cheerfully perform to the end.


Dunker Church in the background of this image looking across the Miller cornfield. Image courtesy of Phil Spaugy. 


Letter from Captain George H. Otis, Co. I “Miners Guards,” 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Mineral Point Weekly Tribune (Wisconsin), October 8, 1862, pg. 1


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