Day 7: Iron Men at Gettysburg

watrous young

Ord. Sgt. Jerome Watrous

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.

Walking the Railroad Cut where members of the 6th WI stopped a Rebel flank attack attempt.

Walking the Railroad Cut where members of the 6th WI stopped a Rebel flank attack attempt July 1.

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”:

SERVICE ON TIME Ordnance Mule Train Charge, Gettysburg, July 1 1863  Don Stivers, Artist

Ordnance Mule Train Charge,
Gettysburg, July 1 1863
Don Stivers, Artist

“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.

We sat on the Peace Light Memorial as the sun fell discussing Gettysburg and our trip leading into Day 8.

We sat on the Peace Light Memorial as the sun fell discussing Gettysburg and our trip leading into Day 8.


3 thoughts on “Day 7: Iron Men at Gettysburg

  1. The aspect that I found most captivating in this post was the importance of terrain. Ever since it was first mentioned in class I was surprised to learn that it played such a vital role in the way this war was fought, even though the tactics were not all that advanced. As discussed very early on in this post Buford paid very close attention to this element and as a result lead to very positive results. Another aspect of this post that caught my attention was the importance of ammunition that this post illustrates. As seen in the post the Iron Brigade ended up achieving victory due to the arrival of the much needed ammunition. As illustrated in the quotation of Herdegen, all the wagons carrying this much desired ammunition was damaged as to show the importance of ammunition and the South’s desperate attempt to impede its delivery.

  2. I would have to say that Watrous’s Mule Train Charge was one of the most important events at Gettysburg. If Watrous had not resupplied the Iron Brigade, then they would have had to retreat allowing the confederates more ground and all the while whittling away at the already little amount of time that the bulk of the union forces had to catch up. Without Watrous’s daring and heroic actions, Gettysburg may have turned out much differently.

  3. The fact that ammunition was so vital and that either side would do anything to stop or gain ammo was what surprised me. Armies will always need a constant supply of ammo but during the war the rush for it was much more drastic than it is today. In today’s war you always have the ammunition you’ll need for the day with you at all times but in the Civil War when you ran out you had to call in more and if your enemy had the high-ground, which in this case the Confederates did, then your ammo will be destroyed before it gets to you. On this particular day the Iron Brigade had to hide in the woods and rush the ammo wagons just to be sure they could resupply themselves which ended up backfiring for most people. Ammunition is an important thing to have during war, obviously, but with how you receive it, it can easily change an outcome of war.

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