Having set up our camp at the McMillan Campground on Seminary Ridge, we waited out a brief rain shower by visiting the Gettysburg National Park Museum. It is an extraordinary experience and as one student said, “this would be an excellent way to start the trip” because the exhibits provide such a thorough overview of the war’s causes and war itself. I would suggest watching the visitor center’s movie and cyclorama display as well. All of these experiences pay dividends later when walking the park.
We started our Gettysburg tour on McPherson’s Ridge near the Railroad Cut. There stands an impressive monument to the Iron Brigade which is a great place to discuss their role on Gettysburg’s first day.
The group discussed Buford’s determined strategy to hold the high ground and the Iron Brigade’s quick march up the Emmitsburg Road to reinforce his outnumbered cavalry. We recalled our visits to Brawner’s Farm, Turner’s Gap and Antietam to remember how the Black Hats had built a strong reputation and name up to July 1st, 1863. After a brief discussion of the Cut, we headed down across Chambersburg Pike to Willoughby Run where southern soldier’s seeing who had arrived on the field, shouted, “It is those Damn Black Hat devils of the Army of the Potomac!” There we made the connection that the 24th Michigan fought July 1 to gain the respect of its peers just as the original regiments of the Iron Brigade had done at 2nd Manassas.
After a brief walk down a trail to Willoughby Run, we met up again at Reynold’s Woods on McPherson’s Ridge, which is a few hundred yards west of the Lutheran Seminary. By mid-afternoon, the Iron Brigade had begun to fall back from their forward positions and were running out of ammunition. Hearing his comrades were in dire straights, Watrous who was an Ordinance Sergeant for the Brigade, volunteered to lead 10 wagons carrying 70,000 rounds of ammunition to the fields west of town. Refreshed with ammunition, the Iron Brigade fought on longer into evening even as northern soldiers north of town were retreating. This brave action provided the bulk of the Union army more time to solidify their hold on what would be called the Fishhook east of town.
Lance Herdegen describes what would be called Gettysburg’s “Mule Train Charge”:
“Then the wagons were out into the open field beyond the Seminary building under the fire of at least a dozen Confederate artillery pieces. But Watrous and his train soon reached the area behind the Union battle line where he found regiments of the Iron Brigade and other units. With the drivers rolling the wagons along the line, the extra men tumbled off one wooden box of ammunition after another. Running behind the wagons came Watrous, who used the blunt end of an axe to splinter open the boxes so the bundles of cartridges cold be rushed to the fighting men. Three wagonloads, almost 75,000 rounds, were distributed, O’Connor said. “All this time the rebels were shelling us to kill. Nearly every wagon cover was hit with a shell, slid shot or Minnie ball while we were there.” (Herdegen)
Questions to consider: Just the night before his mule train charge, Watrous learned in a letter that his brother was killed in another battle. Was he thinking of his brother when he volunteered for this action? Did he want revenge for his death? Or was he simply doing his duty to help his midwestern brothers in arms?
Following their brave action July 1, the remnants of the Iron Brigade was placed on Culp’s Hill in the vicinity of the 27th Indiana and our friend Barton Mitchell.