Iron Brigade Gets Some Michigander Help at Battle of Fredericksburg

Dec 11, 2012

As the country heads to the fiscal brink amid political posturing, it's easy to think that our current political environment is more polarized than it was in the past - that back in the old days, consensus was the norm, politicians didn't calculate with precision their next moves, and war wasn't politicized.

At the outset of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of the Potomac crosses the Rappahannock, under the command of Generals Burnside, Sumner, Hooker & Franklin. (Kurz & Allison)
Credit Image courtesy of Library of Congress

But one has to merely rewind about 150 years to the American Civil War to re-jigger that assumption. In the aftermath of the September, 1862 battles at Antietam and the subsequent penning of the initial Emancipation Proclamation, the political conscience of the country could not have been more fraught with anxiety - shared in great measure by the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln himself.

The voice of our Iron Brigade and Beyond: Wisconsin in the Civil War series and Pewaukee-based Civil War historian Thomas Martin Sobottke says that among the casualties at the arguably Union victory at Antietam was the career of General George McClellan.

Many - including the President himself - felt that McClellan had missed an opportunity after the Battle of Antietam, by not pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee's troops as they retreated to Virginia. McClellan was relieved of his command a week after the 1862 congressional elections.

"This was political," Sobottke says. "You're going to leave this Democratic general, he was a Democrat and the President was a Republican, and 'I'm going to wait to replace McClellan, who is very popular, until after the election' - in which by the way Republicans did horribly, because a lot of people didn't like this idea of emancipation and they also didn't like the way the war was going. It was not going very well."

The new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside
Credit Photo by Matthew Brady, courtesy of LO

He was replaced by the famously whiskered General Ambrose Burnside - for whom sideburns are so named - who led Union troops into a fierce battle at Fredericksburg, Va., 150 years ago today.

Sobottke, who is also the author of the book Across That Dark River: The Civil War Memory, says the Iron Brigade - including its Wisconsin soldiers - were, naturally, right in the thick of it all.

Having lost so many men at Antietam, a new Western regiment was introduced: the 24th Michigan. The original Iron Brigade soldiers were skeptical of the Michiganders. But Sobottke says, "they withstood the fire, hardly flinched, and there was a grudging acceptance: they'll do."

Still the war effort was going poorly.

"Lincoln says at Christmastime, 'If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it,'" Sobottke says.

But he says the President got a small reprieve with Union victory during a battle called Stone's River right before the New Year.

"It is just enough for Lincoln to get through the winter without completely losing his mind."

We'll return with Our Civil War series Friday, Dec. 14th with the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Our series is produced by Stephanie Lecci.