One of Gibbon's admirers.
At Falmouth, Virginia on May 1, 1863, Union Brigadier General John Gibbon was awaiting orders to march against the enemy, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, in what would eventually culminate in the Battle of Chancellorsville (actually, the engagement's first shots were fired that day). That does not mean that there was nothing exciting for him to pass the time. Indeed, word reached him that six companies of the 34th New York had mutinied, stacking their arms and arguing that their agreed upon two years of service had expired, contrary to what the War Department claimed. Gibbon ordered the 34th's brigade commander, Alfred Sully, to this mutiny, but Sully answered he couldn't.
What the mutineers forgot to take into account when they defied authority was John Gibbon- of whose Second Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac the regiment was a part of. He had been born in Philadelphia in 1827 but had grown up in North Carolina. In 1842, still below the academy's minimum age requirement of 16, he joined West Point's class of 1846. The discrepancy, however, was found, and Gibbon moved up to the class of 1847, the one he graduated with. While he missed out on the Mexican War, Gibbon, who had been commissioned as an artilleryman, showed his skill in gunnery to the Seminoles in Florida. On the eve of Fort Sumter, Gibbon was giving artillery lessons at west.
|Maj. Gen. John Gibbon by Matthew Brady.|
Nevertheless, Gibbon soldiered on. His first command in the Civil War was the famous Iron Brigade- a designation the unit received under his command- which he led at Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. What made the formation gain such a formidable reputation among the Rebels- "those damned black-hat fellers" was the phrase they used- was that Gibbon recognized that volunteers had to be handled differently from regulars. Whereas regulars had made a profession out of the army and had as much enthusiasm as they could possibly have, volunteers had not; hence, Gibbon decided to use the psychological technique of reinforcement, granting his Westerners more free time if they met his standard of soldiering on the training ground. As can be inferred from the bestowed upon the brigade, Gibbon was a tough man. He was characterized by one comrade as "Steel-cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling truth no matter whom it hurts."
Now commanding a division, the most American of Americans set out for the New Yorkers' camp, the 15th Massachusettes, which he considered to be one of the Army of the Potomac's best regiments, following. Upon his arrival, Gibbon told the protesters that while they might or might not have good reason to complain, they were mutinying and might as well be in cahoots with "the rebels on the other side of the river." If they did not cease their mutiny, he would have the New Englanders commence firing "and kill every man it could..." To avoid such a dishonorable death, Gibbon added, a mutineer must step forward, signaling his readiness to continue his service.
A couple advanced... then a few more... eventually all of them had stepped forward. Their hurrahs for their division commander were silenced, Gibbon telling them that only after they took up their rifles and equipment would he appreciate their adulations. The mutiny was over.
His work done, Gibbon rode off, "trembling at the thought of what might have happened..."