Happy 187th Birthday to “Johnny the War Horse” Gibbon
by Phil Spaugy
Today (April 20th) is the 187th birthday of the man that General Meade’s aide-de-camp, Lt. Colonel Theodore Lyman, described as…”steel cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up and down manner of telling the truth no matter who it hurts.”
John Gibbon was born in Philadelphia in 1827. At the age of 11, young John moved with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina. He was appointed to West Point and graduated in 1847. He saw action against the Seminole tribes in Florida and later returned to West Point to serve as an artillery instructor. While instructing at the academy, he penned “The Artillery Manual” which, while never formally accepted by the U.S army, became widely used by both sides during the American Civil War.
The firing on Fort Sumter found Gibbon as a captain, commanding Battery B, 4th U.S Artillery, in far-off Camp Floyd, Utah. Ordered east with his battery, John made the agonizing decision to stand by his oath as an officer in the United States Army, even though he had three brothers and a first cousin (J. Johnston Pettigrew) who would remain loyal to the “Old North State” and fight for the Confederacy.
Appointed as General Irvin McDowell’s Chief of Artillery, Gibbon despaired of advancing in grade or command. As a southerner staying with the Union, he was lacking in political connections so necessary for advancement. Finally, in May of 1862, and due in part to the recommendation of the influential New Yorker, James Wadsworth, Gibbon was appointed a Brigadier General of Volunteers. He was given command of a brigade of western troops consisting of the 19th Indiana and 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin regiments of infantry, along with his old command, Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery. Under his firm hand and tutelage, these troops would become known as the famed “Iron Brigade of the West.”
The story of Gibbon’s “Black Hat” brigade and their heroic actions and sacrifice between the Battle of Brawner Farm (or Groveton) and Antietam is well known and beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that in those 20 days, from August 28 to September 17, 1862, Gibbon led his men through some of the most severe combat and horrific losses ever experienced by one unit on this continent. On the morning of August 28th, the brigade muster rolls showed 1950 men present for duty. When the sun finally set on bloody fields of Antietam the battered “Black Hat” brigade barely mustered 400 men, many who had been wounded at least once in this three week period.
Ever after, the men of the “Iron Brigade of the West” who had resisted his tough Regular Army ways had a unbounded respect and love for him that remained in their hearts and souls until the the end of their days. They showed this new found admiration and high regard by calling him by the nicknames of “Boss Soldier” or “Johnny the War Horse.”
By November of 1862, Gibbon was gone from his beloved brigade. Assigned to the command of the 2nd division of the First Army Corps, he was wounded at Fredericksburg. Later, while in command of the 2nd division of the Second Army Corps, he received another wound while commanding his troops at the famed “Angle and Clump of Trees” on the 3rd day at Gettysburg. Eventually gaining the second star as a major general of volunteers in 1864, Gibbon would end the war commanding the 24th Army Corps of the Army of the James.
After the war, Gibbon reverted to the regular army rank of Colonel. While leading one of the three columns looking for the Sioux, he arrived on the battlefield of the Little Big Horn in time to relieve the embattled survivors of the battalions of Benteen and Reno, and to hastily bury the dead troopers of Custer’s ill-fated command. He would also go on to lead troops against the Nez Perce tribe of Indians under Chief Joseph where he was wounded yet again at the Battle of Big Hole in Montana.
Gibbon retired from the army as a brigadier general in 1891, and wrote a book on his Civil War Experiences, “Personal Recollections of the Civil War”. This consummate American soldier died in 1896, and lies buried in Arlington National Cemetery under a monument of solid granite erected by his “Boys” of the Iron Brigade. The inscription simply reads:
“The Iron Brigade Rears This Block Of Granite To the Memory of A Beloved Commander”
In 1988, the “Boss Soldier” was honored with a statue on the Gettysburg battlefield. Erected near the spot where he was wounded, the bronze statute depicts the General, binoculars in hand, stepping forward to stem the tide of the Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble charge.
Herdegen, Lance J The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory, El Dorado Hills, California, Savas Beatie, 2012
Giants in Their Tall black Hats, Essays in the Iron Brigade, Various Contributors, Bloomington Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1998
Gibbon, John Personal Recollections of the Civil War, Dayton, Ohio, Morningside Press, 1977