“A Stand-Up Combat, Dogged and Unflinching…”
by Phil Spaugy
August 28, 1862. The black-hatted western brigade of Brigadier General John Gibbon, consisting of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, and the 19th Indiana volunteer infantry regiments, fought their first action at Groveton, or Brawner’s Farm, in northern Virginia. For two hours on a soft summer eve they engaged a Confederate division commanded by Stonewall Jackson, which included the famous “Stonewall” brigade, in a fierce, stand-up fire fight at ranges as close as 50 yards. The “Black Hats” held fast, and when night fell they had suffered casualties of 894 killed, missing, and wounded out of 2000 engaged.
Among the fallen was Major Issac May. Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1832, Issac’s family would move to Indiana when he was a youngster. Taking up the trade of cabinetmaker in Muncie, Indiana, before the war, Issac would be commissioned Captain of Company A, 19th Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry on July 29, 1861, and would be promoted to Major on February 6, 1862.
While leading the left flank of the 19th Indiana into action on the evening of the 28th, Major May suffered a head wound when he was shot from his horse near the Brawner farmhouse. Carried to a nearby field hospital, the wound was not initially considered serious; however, he contracted a nasty cold and finally died early in September. Major May was buried on the field, and while every effort was made by his family and friends to find his grave, his remains were never recovered. There is every likelihood that the mortal remains of the gallant Major May lie forgotten today, somewhere among the rolling fields and woods of Groveton battlefield.
The intensity of this combat impressed the soldiers on both sides. Writing after the war, Confederate Major General William Taliferro (who also penned the title of this post and was wounded three times during the action) perfectly summed the up the fierce twilight combat in the following words:
“Out in the sunlight, in the dying daylight, and, under the stars, they stood, and although they could not advance, they would not retire. There was some discipline in this, but there was much more of true valor.”
And for “Johnny the War Horse” Gibbon’s black-hatted western brigade, there would be many more opportunities to test their “true valor” in the upcoming days of September 1862.