The Battle of Gettysburg: Day One and the 24th Michigan Infantry
Day One and the 24th Michigan Infantry
On the first day of battle, July 1, Union Cavalry General John Buford had taken a defensive position early in the day. With only two brigades of cavalry, Buford was able to hold off against a Confederate division under General Heth until Union General John Reynold’s 1st Corps of infantry could take the field.
In Gen. Reynolds’s 1st Corps was one of the most elite units in the army, the Iron Brigade. One of the regiments comprising the Iron Brigade was the 24th Michigan, who sustained more losses than any other single regiment at Gettysburg.
During the first day of battle, the Iron Brigade, and more specifically the 24th Mich., was the extreme flank of the Potomac Army on the field.
The commanding officer of the 24th Mich., Colonel Henry Morrow’s official battle report filed on Feb. 22, 1864, drew a picture of what the 24th’s first day of battle looked like.
Morrow and the 24th awoke early on July 1, and marched the six or seven miles to Gettysburg. Upon reaching the town, Morrow repeated being able to hear cannon fire, alerting him to the situation Buford’s cavalry had been in for some time.
Around 9 a.m., the 24th fell into line of battle at the extreme left of the Union line. Without having time to load their rifles, the 24th were immediately given the order to charge. The entirety of the Iron Brigade moved forward and engaged the most advanced unit of the Confederate advance, General Archer’s brigade.
The sudden charge of the veteran Iron Brigade dislodged Archer’s men, and the Iron Brigade took many prisoners. The 24th was then positioned in what was known as McPherson’s Woods.
Upon reforming the line of battle in McPherson’s Woods, Morrow and the 24th began taking artillery fire. Morrow requested repositioning, but the commanding general refused, and ordered Morrow to hold at all costs.
Morrow reported his position as being subjected to heavy rebel fire and advances in attempts to crush his position on the extreme flank. The 24th had lines of battle against their front and left flank.
The 24th had to pull back to the top of a small rise where they made their final stand, the hill they planted the flag in.
After losing many flag carriers, Col. Morrow took the flag for a time himself in an attempt to rally the 24th. Morrow kept the flag until he was wounded, and removed from the field. The 24th held the hill for a small time, but was slowly pushed back, foot by foot, but refusing to entirely give ground.
The last position the 24th held was the barricade of which Buford’s cavalry has initially held. From behind the barricade, the 24th held strong until the entire brigade was ordered to fall back by General Doubleday, commander of the 1st Division.
The Iron Brigade fell back to Culp’s Hill, which it would hold as reserves for the remainder of Gettysburg.
The 24th had arrived at 9 a.m. on the first day with a total strength of 496 men, officers included. By the end of the first day, they had over 300 casualties. They had lost their entire color guard, all officers above the rank of Captain had been wounded or killed. Colonel Morrow himself was taken captive, but reclaimed on July 4.
Only 99 men, just under a fifth of their original strength, were able to hold post at Culp’s Hill.
While under Confederate watch, Morrow reported having been freely conversing with rebel officers who told him, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, one of Lee’s top generals, had said himself of the Iron Brigade and the 24th Michigan that “he had never known the federals to fight so well.”
Had the Iron Brigade been of lesser stock, perhaps the rebels could have rolled the initial Union line like at Chancellorsville, and forced them from their defensive position, and the battle could have been a much different story.
The great sacrifice of the Iron Brigade and the 24th allowed the Union to hold the line and dominate the most defensible positions for the duration of the battle.