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Civil War Veterans’ Reunions: The Iron Brigade and the Construction of Memory

Memory is a tricky thing. After the North won the Civil War, the nation began to focus on Reconstruction, the process of putting the country back together. This process required both soldiers and civilians to construct their memories of the conflict in such a way that neighbors who had been at war could now coexist peacefully. This reconstruction of memory meant a commemoration of sacrifice and bravery and a downplaying of divisive and painful issues, like slavery and the the brutality of war. For veterans, this process was facilitated through reunions.  Civil War historians have often discussed the role that reunions played in how veterans constructed their memories of the conflict. In the course of researching the Iron Brigade to write a review of the marker that stands in Porter County, I discovered that the men of this brigade, like many others, held reunions and created badges that helped them codify their wartime memories.

The Iron Brigade was originally composed of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiments. They received their nickname after their valiant fighting at the Battle of South Mountain in September 1862. At that time, the Midwest was considered the west, and these four regiments prided themselves on their western identity, especially since they fought with the Army of the Potomac in the eastern theater of the war. The brigade was unusual in that its commanders wanted to preserve the brigade’s western makeup. When it became evident that an additional regiment was needed to remedy losses due to casualties, Brigadier General John Gibbon requested that a regiment from the west join their ranks. Army command agreed to this request; the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry joined the brigade and soon proved themselves worthy of sharing the veterans’ hard-won reputation. At the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, the brigade suffered such massive casualties that army command was forced to brigade other regiments with these veterans to make up for their severe lack of numbers. However, these new regiments were composed of easterners from Pennsylvania and New York, and the Iron Brigade’s western identity was no more. The brigade’s original regiments continued to fight through the end of the conflict in 1865 and their reputation remained intact, but the brigade was never the same.

Immediately after the war, soldiers were understandably reticent to meet and reminisce about the horrors they had witnessed. However, as time passed and the immediacy of the conflict began to fade, veterans expressed an interest in gathering to remember. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the national Union veterans’ organization, hosted its first encampment in Indianapolis in 1866, and soon individual regiments began organizing their own reunions. The 19th Indiana met for their first regimental reunion in August 1871. In the early 1870s, members of the Iron Brigade regiments discussed a reunion of the whole brigade; that dream was finally realized in 1873. Their discussions before the reunion and creation of a brigade badge present fascinating insight into the creation of Civil War memory.

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Members of the Iron Brigade and their families pose in front of the Milwaukee armory during an Iron Brigade reunion in September 1887. Wisconsin Historical Society, Henry Hamilton Bennett, “Reunion of the Iron Brigade,” Image ID 10695. Viewed online at Reunion of the Iron Brigade.

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Members of the Iron Brigade and their families at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin during an Iron Brigade Reunion in 1896. Wisconsin Historical Society, E.R. McCollister, “Reunion of the Iron Brigade,” Image ID 76006. Viewed online at Reunion of the Iron Brigade.

In post-war correspondence, the men of the Iron Brigade thought that organizing a brigade-wide reunion among men from three states would prove too much of a challenge. Instead, they decided to create a brigade badge to commemorate their service. From the description in the Wisconsin State Register, this badge was a sight to behold: intended to be worn “as a decoration suspended from a cross bar and buckle of gold,” it was 15.5 inches wide, made of black silk with an inch of yellow fringe at the bottom, and listed the brigade’s dates of service (1861-1865), commanders, regiments, and major battlefield engagements. The badge did two things: it proclaimed that the men of the brigade had fought in battles throughout the conflict, and reserved usage of the moniker ‘the Iron Brigade’ solely for the regiments brigaded together before Gettysburg. These men wanted to celebrate the fact that they served throughout the entire conflict. They also wanted to remember the time they had spent fighting together, instead of when casualties forced them to accept the assistance of additional regiments from the east. These badges allowed them to do both simultaneously. When the brigade decided to organize a reunion in 1873, they did not invite regiments who joined the brigade after July 3, 1863. This practice, and its perpetuation in the creation of later brigade badges, allowed the original members of the Iron Brigade to reconstruct their Civil War memories in the way they desired.