On August 28, 1862, a Brigadier General would lead his novice brigade of Mid-Westerners against Stonewall Jackson’s hardened Veterans. The Battle of Brawner Farm saw the ascendency of one of the best known and hardest fighting units in the Army of the Potomac. There have been volumes written about this brigade, from memoirs to modern brigade and individual regimental histories, their commander, the man who provided the foundation for their battlefield success has been relegated to the pages of obscurity.
John Gibbon was born on April 20, 1827 in what is now a section of the city of Philadelphia. Although hailing from the Keystone State, Gibbon spent much of his childhood in North Carolina. In 1842, Gibbon was appointed to the United States Military Academy. He would count among his classmates George McClellan, George Pickett, and Thomas J. Jackson. Unlike the rest of the famous Class of 1846, Gibbon would not graduate in time to see any of the major battles during the Mexican War. Academic problems caused him to be held back until the summer of 1847.
Upon graduation, Gibbon would be assigned to the Artillery. As an Artillerist, he would perform duties at various garrisons in the East and on the Western Frontier. His travels would take him to Virginia, Texas and Florida. Gibbon would return to his alma mater in 1854 as an instructor of Artillery. His crowning achievement in the ante-bellum years was to author a manual on Artillery tactics. When war broke out between North and South in the spring of 1861, Gibbon elected not to return to North Carolina, but remain in the service of the United States.
Gibbon’s war began in the fall of 1861, drilling troops in the Washington defenses. The following spring, he would be appointed to the rank of Brigadier General and take command of a mixed brigade from the Mid-Western states. Gibbon’s new command consisted of the 2d, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana Infantry. Finding the brigade to be a hard lot, Gibbon set out to instill in them the Regular Army discipline he had known so well before the war. To improve and increase espirit de corps in the ranks, Gibbon decided to outfit his men in infantry frock coats and Hardee hats, along with white knee high gaiters. But, it was not the uniform that made the Soldier, it was Gibbon.
One hundred and fifty years ago tonight, in the opening salvos of the Battle of Second Manassas, Gibbon led his four regiments against Stonewall Jackson’s legions in the fields surrounding John Brawner’s farmhouse. Much to Gibbon’s credit, these novice Soldiers stood their ground, not giving an inch to Jackson’s Veterans and did not withdraw from the battlefield until darkness ended the fighting. The conduct exhibited by the men from Wisconsin and Indiana would later earn them the nickname, “The Iron Brigade”.
Gibbon would remain in command of the Iron Brigade through South Mountain and Antietam. That November, he would be given command of a Division in the First Corps. He would lead this Division at Fredericksburg. There, Gibbon would be wounded during the assaults on the Confederate lines south of the city. Following his recuperation, Gibbon would return to the Army and be given command of a Division in the II Corps. Although he did not see much action during the Chancellorsville Campaign, as fate would have it, Gibbon’s Division would be defending Cemetery Ridge on July 3d at Gettysburg. He would be wounded once again during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge. This wound was much more serious than that suffered at Fredericksburg and Gibbon would spend the next eight months recovering.
The beginning of the 1864 saw Gibbon back in command of his Division in the Second Corps. At the head of the Division, he would lead his men in some of the toughest fighting of the Overland Campaign. In the Wilderness, they would fight for possession of the critical intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads. At Spotsylvania, Gibbon led his men in the famous assault of May 12 on the Mule Shoe Salient. Finally, his division would participate in the assaults on Lee’s lines at Cold Harbor. By the end of the campaigning season, Gibbon would be the only Division Commander left in the Second Corps who remained in his original position from the earlier spring. Gibbon’s performance would earn him yet another elevation, to that of Corps command in the Army of the James. Gibbon would lead the Twenty Fourth Corps in the final assaults on Petersburg and in the subsequent pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox Court House.
In July 1866, Gibbon once again would go west. Like the days following his West Point graduation, Gibbon would spend the next twenty five years in command of various units and outposts on the Western Frontier. Of his many assignments, the most recognized is commanding the Montana Column during the Sioux War of 1876, when he would relieve the remnants of the 7th Cavalry following the disaster at the Little Bighorn. The Veteran of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg would receive yet another wound in August 1877 fighting the Nez Perce at the Battle of Big Hole in Montana. John Gibbon would finally retire from the Army, marking the occasion on his sixty-fourth birthday.
Gibbon would spend his retirement years in Baltimore, Maryland surrounded by his family. Like many of his former comrades, Gibbon engaged in writing his memoirs, not only of his experiences in the Army of the Potomac but also of the Great Sioux War. Gibbon would pass away on February 6, 1896. Four days later, he would be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Although gone, Gibbon was not forgotten, especially by the men he led at Brawner Farm. Veterans of the Iron Brigade paid to have a marker erected above his grave. The inscription on the back reads: “The Iron Brigade rears this block of Granite to the memory of a Loved Commander”.
Adventures on the Western Frontier by John Gibbon, edited by Alan and Maureen Gaff. Indiana University Press, 1994.
Personnel Recollections of the Civil War by John Gibbon. Morningside Books, 1995.