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The Original Iron Brigade by Thomas Reed (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 126-128 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0000

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In The Original Iron Brigade, Thomas Reed writes of a northern unit that fought in the American Civil War. The Eastern or Original Iron Brigade was formed in August 1861 by combining the 22d, 24th and 30th New York Volunteer Infantry regiments with the 14th Brooklyn New York State Militia and the 2d U.S. Sharpshooters. “Original” and “Eastern” have been used since the war to differentiate the formation from Gen. John Gibbon’s Black Hat or Iron Brigade of the West, which inherited the nickname and also served in the Army of the Potomac. Reed maintains that this unit “has been neglected by historians and seeks to tell the story of its organization and how it gained a reputation among its peers as an outstanding brigade” (xi). In doing so, he concentrates heavily on topics like training, travel, weapons, camp life, and how the soldiers’ actions were viewed back home.

In addition to the Official Records, Reed employs regimental histories such as C. V. Tevis’s History of the Fighting Fourteenth, county histories, newspapers, diaries, and collections of letters and papers. Some of the most prominent include the Colonel Walter Phelps Papers, William Hastings Letters from a Sharpshooter, and the genesis of the book, James Reed’s Principal Events of My experience in the War of the Rebellion. The first chapter covers the creation of the regiments and the brigade, the next six deal with its career until demobilization, and an appendix profiles the brigade’s various commanders.

The blue-clad 22d, 24th and 30th formations, three of the thirty-eight New York two-year regiments that volunteered in the spring of 1861, were the core of what was at first called Keyes Brigade. The 14th Brooklyn, later officially redesignated the 84th New York Volunteer Infantry, was added when McClellan took command in the East. The 14th had responded to Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand ninety-day volunteers and fought at First Manassas. It was then activated for three years or the duration of the war and outfitted in “chasseur-a-pied uniforms . . . imitating the uniform of the Algerian Zouaves” (3). The 2d U.S. Sharpshooters, recruited by Col. Hiram A. Berdan, a famous civilian marksman, was added in April 1862. They wore special dark-green uniforms and hailed from Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Reed notes that this grouping of regiments comprised “one of the most unusual brigades in the Army of the Potomac” (33).

The formation got its nickname during the early stages of the Seven Days campaign when, as part of McDowell’s First Corps, on April 17–18 it made a prodigious advance of thirty-four miles in twenty-three hours from Catlett’s Station to Falmouth, Virginia. By then, Christopher Augur was in command, and after the feat Gen. Marsena R. Patrick turned to him and noted how the men must be composed of iron to sustain such marches. The Original Iron Brigade, which for most of its career served as the First Brigade, First Division, First Corps, Army of the Potomac, would go on to cement its moniker during 1862 with heavy fighting at Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.

Throughout, Reed provides pertinent statistics concerning things like the brigade’s 10 percent desertion rate and colors the narrative with thought-provoking opinions. For instance, he calls Lincoln’s directive to McClellan that all Union armies advance on February 22, 1862, “an order only a politician could concoct without regard to the weather and the terrain” (49). He also calls the Emancipation Proclamation “a curious document” that presumed to free the slaves where the president had no power to do so, in the Confederate States, and where it could, did “not free a single slave.” Reed maintains that Lincoln used “the standoff at Antietam as a ‘great Union victory’ that would confer some legitimacy on the proclamation” (117). He then mentions how the Democratic Party attacked the move against slave property and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus “because Lincoln seemed to be setting himself up as a dictator.” He notes that many high-ranking officers in the Army of the Potomac “had openly...

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