An Interview with The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter author Lance Herdegen
: You have been researching and writing about the Iron Brigade for decades. What is your fascination with this organization?
LH: I think it is because many of the soldiers were just regular folks from my home state who played such a key role in the Civil War. I can drive past their old farms and homesteads and through their hometowns on the same roads they traveled. I can stand at their gravesides. At speaking engagements in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters and other relatives come up to say hello. Often they know only a little of what their ancestors did between 1861 and 1865 and I have the wonderful opportunity to share information I have uncovered. The Black Hats left a remarkable record of service and patriotism at a critical time in American history and they deserve to be remembered.
: Why did you decide to write The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory?
LH: I had been thinking about a new and complete history of the Iron Brigade for many years. I was finishing a journalism degree at Marquette University when Alan Nolan was writing his excellent The Iron Brigade: A Military History. He published it in 1961 and it was a huge success. I had provided some minor information to him at the time and we became lifelong friends and walked a lot of the battlefields together. It is difficult to grow up in Wisconsin and not be drawn to the story of the Iron Brigade, which included three Wisconsin regiments in addition to one from Michigan and one from Indiana. Over the years, I wrote a couple of books on the Black Hats that covered only a narrow portion of the story and expanded on Nolan’s work with information that has come to light since 1961. Alan pretty much ended his book after the Iron Brigade lost its all-Western makeup in 1863, and included only a few pages on the rest of the war. I began thinking seriously about completing the story about five years ago under the persistent badgering of my publisher, Ted Savas. So much new information had become available and I wanted as well to take a long and hard look at the 1864 and 1865 role of the brigade in the closing days of the Civil War.
: Let’s step back a moment. How did you become interested in the Civil War?
LH: I blame my father. When I was about 12, he brought home an 1864 rifle-musket and cavalry sword he found while helping a neighbor clean out an old shed. I was totally entranced and I began to read everything I could find on the Civil War. I also became interested in shooting small arms and artillery of the era and was soon active in competitive shooting with the North-South Skirmish Association. My team was Company F, the Citizens Corps, 6th Wisconsin, of the famous Iron Brigade. I still shoot a little even today and I think being familiar with the weaponry helps you better understand—if even on a small scale—battle and the reality of executing tactics under fire.
: You were in the news business most of your life. Did that influence your take on history and the Civil War?
LH: It surely did. I was a reporter for the United Press International (UPI) news wire service for most of my adult life. As a reporter, I am a product of the Vietnam era and I tend to be generally distrustful of official materials. I am not interested in looking at events from the top down. I am interested in looking at events from the ranks up because it is a very different view. A generic report that the Army of the Potomac was “short on supplies” does not match in hard reality an account of a hungry private soldier chasing a cow across a field in an effort to get a canteen full of milk. A professor of mine at Marquette University, Dr. Frank Klement, who wrote four good books on the Civil War, said reporters always have the first chance to write history. He liked to add with a smile, however, that most reporters got it wrong. I guess what I am doing now is just an extension of my UPI days. 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. I like to say my coverage zone just slipped from the 1960s to the 1860s.
: What makes The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory unique?
LH: First, there is no other book at all like it on the Iron Brigade. And my UPI experience, as I mentioned a moment ago, gives me a different perspective. I like to write about how people are affected by history, both good and bad. And when you do that, and work from the bottom up, these men flesh out into individuals with feelings, thoughts, emotions, families, pain, suffering. They bleed, cry, are footsore, hungry, tired, cold—just like all the rest of us.
: You bring them alive. . .
LH: I try to do that, yes. I want readers to identify with them and think about them when they close the book. I covered several presidents and dozens of political campaigns as well as much of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movement for UPI. It taught me about the complexity of the world around you and how unexpected violence can be, and how difficult it is to deal with it emotionally. One of my first jobs at UPI’s Milwaukee bureau was contacting the families of Wisconsin soldiers killed in Vietnam. Each Friday afternoon for two years, when the lists were released, I would call the families to get the details of the lives of their fallen sons and brothers. At first I was horrified at the thought of such an intrusion, but I soon discovered the families were more than willing to talk to me . . .
: Why was that?
LH: I think they needed to have someone recognize the sacrifice of their loved ones and to make sure everyone knew what they were all about before they were killed. I think about that sometimes while writing about some Black Hat killed at Gettysburg and or elsewhere. He is obscure to us today. Odds are we don’t have his photo and know very little about him. But he was someone’s son, father, husband, brother, uncle. Someone knew him back then, and someone grieved when they learned of his fate.
: What is it about this study of the Iron Brigade that you think will interest readers who have read your other books on the same unit?
LH: That’s a good question and I actually address that in the Introduction. I get asked that a lot, too. Where to begin. First, as I noted earlier, no other study goes past Gettysburg in any depth. I think there are something like 150 pages just on 1864 and 1865. All of the attention has been the early part of the war, and especially their stand at Gettysburg. How the survivors reacted and performed in the 1864 and early 1865 fighting is a completely different story of a different kind of courage. The idealistic young men of 1861 are hardened combat veterans fighting a different kind of war. So I think this new book offers a conclusion—a final ending—to the endlessly interesting and revealing story of the Black Hats.
: That sounds interesting. I take it there are several other aspects to your new work. . .
LH: Yes, there are. Next, I think the book develops the changing understanding of the war by the soldiers and then, long after the fighting, how they dealt with what they saw and how it changed their lives. The question they tried to understand and answer was whether the result of the long war was worth the cost in deaths, suffering, destruction, and loss. It is easy to forget in writing military history the soldiers were real people. I finally had enough material to really root out answers to those questions.
: Did they conclude it was worth the terrible cost?
LH: Yes, as a whole I think so, but some of these men really suffered emotionally after the war. I am not sure they were completely convinced.
: Does an example jump readily to mind?
LH: Yes. Rufus Dawes. He was an officer, fought through the entire war, and afterward was elected to Congress. When he was leaving Washington, he wrote a moving letter to his wife about spending days search through Arlington to find the graves of those who died under his command and as a result of executing his orders. And then he described many of them. Dawes was never wounded. I think he had what we call today “Survivor’s Guilt.” I think he was really torn up inside. It is not hard to understand why. That story, in much greater detail, is in the book.
: What else do you think readers will enjoy about this study?
LH: Over the years, descendants have given me letters, diaries, photos, journals, and such. It was all this new material, plus some wonderful newspaper article most historians have ignored, that made this book possible. The book also includes dozens of previously unpublished photos. Taken as a whole, these men finally come alive in a way that was simply impossible to create in the past.
: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.
LH: You're welcome.