The Destruction of a Tar Heel Brigade
Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson was a Georgia native, who was today leading four North Carolina regiments to battle. The men of Iverson’s brigade were veteran fighters, who outwardly loathed their brigade commander. Iverson was the son of a well to do Senator, who obtained a commission for his 17 year old son directly into the army during the Mexican-American War. After the war, Iverson stayed with the military and served until the outbreak of war. At the outset of hostilities, Iverson’s father obtained him Colonel’s stars and command of the 20th North Carolina. Iverson served admirably through the 1862 campaigns. In November 1862 he was given brigade command and that is when trouble started.
Iverson attempted to bring an outside friend into command the 20th. All 26 officers of the regiment protested and signed a petition against the move. The newly minted brigade commander refused to forward the document to the Confederate War Department. The document was forwarded by the officers behind Iverson’s back. Iverson responded by arresting all 26 officers! A board of inquiry was convened and Iverson did not get his crony to head the 20th, but he did succeed in stymieing the promotions of all those involved.
Iverson kept making matters worse by attempting to go toe to toe with Stonewall Jackson over a denied furlough. Iverson lost.
At Chancellorsville, Iverson’s men fought well, though some attempted to accuse the Georgian of cowardice. Now at Gettysburg Iverson was near the Forney Farm House when he sent his brigade forward into action with the words, “give them hell.” Hell was awaiting the men.
Because the Confederate attack was disjointed, Henry Baxter’s Federal brigade was able to meet the Confederate threat in two distinct actions.
During the first assault, the bulk of Baxter’s brigade faced north/north-east along the Mummasburg Road. Now division commander Robinson refaced the Federal line, ordering the brigade “to change front forward on his left battalion, and to close the interval, toward which the enemy was making his way.” Thus, the battleline shifted from the alignment on the Mummasburg Road to an alignment along the stonewall facing west toward the Forney Farm buildings. A member of the 88th Pennsylvania described the scene, “Behind the stone wall, the Union soldiers, with rifles cocked and fingers in the triggers, waited and bided their time, feeling confident that they could throw back these regiments coming against them.”
The oncoming Tar Heels were fully unaware of what awaited the. “[They} reached and ascended a little gully or depression in the ground and moving on ascended the opposite slope as if on brigade drill.”
A member of the 12th North Carolina wrote, “not knowing certainly where the enemy was, for his whole line, with every flag, was concealed behind the rock wall on their right and the drop in the ground on their left. Not one of them was to be seen.”
With no skirmishers in front, no flank support, and an inactive brigade commander, the Tar Heels marched to their pending doom. Suddenly from their front came a solid sheet of flame and smoke. Nearly 1,500 muskets were discharged at once. Unsuspecting officers and men fell by the scores. “[R]arely has such a destructive volley been fired on any field of battle.”
Load and fire, load and fire was the order up and down the Federal line, “a steady death-dealing fire was kept up, our men loading in comparative safety, and then resting rifle on shoulders before them, would fire coolly and with unerring aim.” wrote Samuel Boone 88th Pennsylvania.
Iverson’s men attempted to press on. “We advanced to a gully about eighty yards in front of the rock wall,” Lieutenant Joseph B. Oliver 20th North Carolina later wrote. “Here we halted, for by this time our ranks were so depleted it was impossible to carry the strong position in front.”
After a few minutes, it was clear that the enemy was stalled. Colonel Charles Wheelock of the 97th New York advanced, “a sully was made by part of the brigade,” wrote Colonel Richard Coulter of the 11th Pennsylvania, “…which resulted in the capture of about 500 of the enemy.”
Survivors surrendered when allowed, which later lead to wholly unwarranted allegations of cowardice. Rodes attempted to remedy these allegation in his report in which he wrote, “Iverson’s left being thus exposed, heavy loss was inflicted upon his brigade. His men fought and died like heroes. His dead lay in a distinctly marked line of battle.
John Robinson succinctly wrote, that the enemy was “handsomely repulsed…”
The death and destruction among the 5th, 20th, and 23rd North Carolina regiments was appalling. The 23rd lost 23 officers and 264 enlisted men out of 316 engaged. The 5th North Carolina lost 289 of 473 and the 20th NC, Iverson’s old regiment lost 253 of 372. Only the 12th NC was sparred, the small ridge line 150 yards in front of the Federal line shielded them from disaster. In comparison the 12th lost only 79 men out of 219 engaged.
Many of Iverson’s wounded were taken back to the Forney home. The colonel of the 23rd N. C. Daniel H. Christie was mortally wounded in the assault. Taken to the rear he Christie was overcome by the reality that he would not live to lead his men back into action, “…but he would see that ‘The Imbecile Iverson never should.’” Robert E. Lee and Robert Rodes saw to this. Iverson was transferred to the western theater, never to fight in the Army of Northern Virginia again.
Still, Rodes and his subordinates were executing Ewell’s plan of rolling in the Federal left poorly. Losses in O’Neal and Iverson’s brigades were appalling given the short period time and the fact that the enemy was still safely ensconced in their defensive position.
Rodes had committed three of his five brigades to dislodging the Federals on Oak Ridge, while this was only his second battle as a division commander; his attack plan was flawed by not committing his best brigades to battle. The fighting men in Iverson’s ranks were brave, but poorly led thus far. Iverson was a weak link in the chain of command, and when he committed his men to battle he did not lead. Edward O’Neal was clearly of the same ilk as Iverson, and it was more than obvious that the brigade and division commander did not respect one another. O’Neal’s pouting, coupled with his laissez-faire command style, and the fact the Federal 11th Corps was materializing on the plain below Oak Hill, rendered his assault futile. Junius Daniel, who was a solid brigade commander and his five regiment North Carolina brigade became disjointed as they attempted to both support Iverson and engage the enemy on two fronts.
While the eventual weight of Confederate numbers would carry Oak Ridge, it came at far to high a price. Rodes was forced to commit nearly his entire division to the task, four full brigades. On top of it all, Rodes had committed his fifth and final brigade to battle on the Gettysburg Plain, assisting Jubal Early in driving in the 11th Corps. Of the nearly 7,900 men Rodes took to battle on July 1, some 2,500 had become casualties, which attests the fighting prowess of their foe, but also the lack of leadership displayed at the brigade and division level. This failure on Oak Hill and Oak Ridge would come back to haunt Ewell in a matter of hours.