An Interview with Those Damned Black Hats! Author Lance J. Herdegen
: What started your interest in the Iron Brigade?
LJH: As a true son of Wisconsin, it is difficult to escape not being interested in the Iron Brigade even though my own distant kinsman was killed with the 14th Wisconsin at Shiloh. I was first drawn to the war when my father brought home a rifle-musket he found while helping a neighbor clear out a shed. I was 12 and was totally entranced. I began reading everything I could find about the Civil War. One of the first books I discovered was Rufus Dawes’ Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers. I first met Alan Nolan while in college and he was writing his powerful Iron Brigade which appeared in 1961. I had some material I gave him and he encouraged me as well by giving me some of his research. It led to a lifelong friendship and I miss him since his passing. I only wish he would have had a chance to read my latest work on the Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg campaign. It would have led to wonderful discussions and challenges about my conclusions.
: How is your book different from others written about the Iron Brigade?
LJH: Besides some new and important primary source material, I think this book is colored by my background. I was a reporter for the United Press International wire service most of my adult life. As a result, I am sure I am influenced by the events I covered during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was a front row seat to history. I got to see five presidents up close as well as cover many of the important stories of those years. As a result, I tend to be generally distrustful of official materials. I am not interested in looking at events from the top down through the writings of what one private from my home state called “the big bugs.” However, I am interested in looking at events from the ranks up. It is a very different view. Reports that the Army of the Potomac was short on supplies do not match an account of a hungry private soldier chasing a cow in a field to get a canteen full of milk. I try to give readers a sense of immediacy and to make the soldiers I am writing about real people. A professor of mine at Marquette University, Dr. Frank Klement, who wrote four good books on the Civil War, said in a class once that reporters always got the first chance to write history. I guess what I am doing now is just an extension of my earlier UPI work. When I start writing about a battle or incident from the Civil War, I pretty much let the actual sources take me where they will.
: Many of the stories about the officers and soldiers had a distinctly personal element. How did you find the letters, diaries, journals, and newspapers you talk about in the introduction? Were any of them from family archives?
LJH: My first book on the charge of the 6th Wisconsin on the unfinished railroad cut at Gettysburg (with William J.K. Beaudot) was published in 1990. I never thought of going back to Gettysburg again. I was working at the time as director of the Civil War Institute at Carroll University and soon my mailbox started to be filled with accounts, letters, journals, and photographs sent to me by people with ancestors in the Civil War. Many of those accounts involved the Iron Brigade and I used a lot of them in The Men Stood Like Iron (1997), which concentrated on the battles in which the brigade won its name— Gainesville, or Brawner’s Farm, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam. I had a lot of new material on Gettysburg left over. A good friend and a Civil War expert in his own right, Charlie Foster, told me I had to write about Gettysburg again because if I did not so many of the soldiers who fought there would be forgotten. He was right, and it was then I started to write again of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg.
: I was impressed with the number and quality of the photos in the book and enjoyed seeing them as I read the stories of these men. How did you find the photos that are in the book?
LJH: Most of the photos are in public collections, although a good number are held in families and by collectors. All were very good about giving me permission to use them. The only regret I have is that there are other photos of Iron Brigade men that did not make it into the book because they did not play a role at Gettysburg. I think the photos I found in the Chicago Public Library are among the most significant. They belonged to Charles McConnell of the 24th Michigan. He sponsored the Iron Brigade tent at Gettysburg in 1913 dedicated to the Iron Brigade and to Pettigrew’s Brigade, their old foe of July 1, 1863. He died in Chicago a short time after the 50th anniversary reunion and his photos and a few clippings were placed in the library’s Grand Army of the Republic file without any reference to the Iron Brigade. The library staff was very helpful in getting me good quality copies of those photographs.
: Where did you conduct your research?
LJH: I searched the state repositories in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan and county museums as well as files at the battlefields where the Iron Brigade fought. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the material came from families and private collectors. I also spent hours walking the actual battlefields, especially the ground the Black Hats fought over. If you go to those places early in the morning, or just before dusk, you can almost visualize the fighting around you.
: I found the description of the battle at the railroad cut to be particularly vivid and tragic. Why do you think this was such a defining movement for the Iron Brigade?
LJH: Actually, I think there were two defining moments for Iron Brigade regiments at Gettysburg. One is the charge of the 6th Wisconsin on the unfinished railroad cut just before noon on July 1, 1863. The regiment fought separated from the brigade the rest of the day along with Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery. The other defining moment is the final defense of McPherson’s Ridge by the 2nd, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan in the late afternoon. The soldiers in the 6th Wisconsin had different memories of the opening of the battle of Gettysburg than those in the other four regiments. The common memory, of course, is the retreat through Gettysburg. The survivors always felt their service at Gettysburg was their most important of their war service. They also recognized the fighting of July 1, 1863, destroyed them as an effective fighting force for the rest of the war. They remembered Gettysburg with pride in their accomplishments, but it was a bittersweet memory as well.
: Many times you told of stories involving the regimental flags and the men who carried them into battle. Were there any of these, in particular, that stood out to you?
LJH: I think all of the stories involving the soldiers who carried the battle flags of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg are examples of heroism. The flags of the Wisconsin regiments are held at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. About 25 years ago, I was fortunate to watch and help as the Iron Brigade flags were unrolled for the first time in more than three quarters of a century so they could be restored and conserved. It was an emotional moment for me, especially when they opened the Gettysburg flag of the 7th Wisconsin. The flagstaff had been shattered by a piece of shell late on the first day and the soldiers on Culp’s Hill that night cut a sapling to use as a make-shift flag staff. The flag was still attached to that sapling cut and trimmed the night of July 1, 1863. It had never been replaced. I like to believe that occurred because the soldiers wanted it as a reminder of their service at Gettysburg.
: Why do you concentrate your writing on the Iron Brigade?
LJH: I write about the Iron Brigade because of the wealth and depth of the material available to me, but I also use the story of the Black Hats to really take a look at other important questions about the Civil War: How did the Western men of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan regard slavery? How did they define patriotism? Why did they go to war? How did they feel about Abraham Lincoln? How did they feel about George B. McClellan? How did their service change them? Just as important, I am writing about fellows who lived just down the road from my home in Wisconsin. I can still see their old homesteads and drive past their barns and out buildings. Among my friends is Bill Upham of Milwaukee, whose father was shot at Bull Run serving with the 2nd Wisconsin. He tells stories told him by his dad, who, as a new lieutenant from West Point, guarded Jefferson Davis while the Confederate president was a prisoner after the war. I also spent a couple of days with the son of James Patrick Sullivan, “Mickey of Company K,” in the 6th Wisconsin. The younger Sullivan (who was near 100 when he visited Wisconsin) has since passed away. A few weeks ago at the Sauk County Historical Society at Baraboo, I came face to face with a great-grandson of one of the Sauk County Rifles, Company A, 6th Wisconsin. My wife has an ancestor wounded with the Iron Brigade at Second Bull Run. The Black Hats are still close to me.
: Thank you for your time, Mr. Herdegen. I know the Civil War community will enjoy your book.
LJH: Thank you.
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