Gibbon, at thirty-six, was a lean man of keen intelligence and blunt speech, and one of the ablest division commanders in the Union army. As one of the 19th Maine described him, he "had brown hair and a reddish mustache. He was, upon the whole, a good looking officer, and never appeared nervous or excited." Gibbon's aide Frank Haskell, who wrote a brilliant first-person description of Gettysburg, sketched him thus: "Gibbon is compactly made with ruddy complexion, full jaws and chin, with an air of calm firmness of manner." His manner was cold and restrained on the field of battle. Col. Theodore Lyman, Meade's aide, wrote that Gibbon was "the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling the truth, no matter whom it hurts." To Lyman, he was "a tower of strength, cool as a steel knife, always, and unmoved by anything and everything." While he had the strength of character to admit privately that he was afraid, Gibbon went about his duty showing only calm. His experience had something to do with it--he'd seen plenty of combat and had already proven his courage, enough that he didn't need to prove it further by recklessly endangering himself. He was a man that commanded the respect of his officers and men rather than their emotional enthusiasm. Col. Rufus Dawes of the Iron Brigade described him in action at the battle of South Mountain as "always on the highest ground, where he could see the whole line, giving his orders in a voice so loud and clear as to be heard throughout."
Though he was born in Philadelphia, Gibbon was raised in North Carolina. He was held back a year from entering West Point when he failed to answer correctly a question on the date of Independence Day. He eventually graduated in the bottom half of the Academy class of 1847, which also produced A.P. Hill and lifelong friend Henry Heth, both of whom would stand a few hundred yards away on the other side of the lines at Gettysburg. After graduation, he served in the Mexican and Seminole Wars and on the Great Plains before putting in five years as artillery instructor and quartermaster at West Point, and during that time he wrote The Artillerist's Manual, which demonstrated the force of his intellect. It was a highly scientific work, replete with mathematical formulae. The manual was adopted as an official text by the War Department in 1859, and was used as "The Book" by artillery on both sides during the war.
When the war broke out, being from North Carolina, many expected Gibbon to "go South" to find a command. However, the career artillerist was a remarkably uncomplicated man and basically unsubtle--he had taken an oath of loyalty as an officer of the United States Army, and he set national above state loyalty. His three brothers all served in the Confederate Army (one was brigade surgeon for Lane's Confederate brigade at Gettysburg), and they disowned him as a traitor.
He began his Civil War service as chief of artillery in McDowell's division during the first fall and winter of the war. Promotions in the artillery were slow, however, so he left his familiar guns and his tough Regulars for infantry and volunteers in the spring of 1862, when he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the only all-Western brigade in the Army of the Potomac. To his surprise, he found that he liked his new command. He was that rare officer: a strict disciplinarian who appreciated the qualities of volunteer soldiers. He recognized, as many Regular Army officers like himself refused to do, their quick intelligence, initiative, and ingenuity. He realized that they must be led, because they could not be driven. He admired their courage and realized that they were not susceptible to punishment as a motivator, that praise was more effective. Using his genius for discipline and drill tempered with this understanding, he took his Wisconsin and Indiana troops and forged them into fighters as good as any either army ever possessed. To heighten their morale he saw to it that they were outfitted, beyond regulations, in uniforms with white gaiters and black Western-style hats; hence their nickname, the "Black Hat Brigade." In their first fight, they showed themselves to be the equal of Jackson's Stonewall Brigade in a toe-to-toe slugging match at Brawner's Farm in August 1862, and after they thrilled McClellan with their gritty uphill attack at South Mountain two weeks later, they acquired their famous moniker: the "Iron Brigade." Gibbon commanded them through the Maryland Campaign, where at the climactic battle of Antietam, a brigadier in full uniform, he took time out to serve both as a gunner and No. 3 man for several rounds among the cannoneers in the bloody Cornfield. Afterward he wrote his wife, "I am as tired of this horrible war as you are, and would be perfectly willing never to see another battle field."
On November 5, 1862, Gibbon's ability was rewarded with promotion to command of the Second Division, First Corps. At their head the following month at the Battle of Fredericksburg he was severely wounded in the right wrist, and a bone of the hand was broken by a piece of shell. Taken to Baltimore to recover, his wound healed slowly but he was able to rejoin the army in March 1863, when he was posted to the command of another division, one he would lead for the next year and a half--Second Division, Second Corps. He commanded it at Chancellorsville, but since his men were held across the Rappahannock in reserve and did no fighting there, Gibbon must still have been still uncertain when he arrived at Gettysburg about what the division could and could not do. To add to the uncertainty, he had put two of his three brigadiers under arrest in the weeks before Gettysburg, and went into the battle with unfamiliar newcomers in charge of his First and Second Brigades.
There was another side to Gibbon completely apart from artillery manuals and infantry tactics: he was a family man, with a wife named Frannie whom he wrote about every three days, and three children--two girls and a baby boy. On the morning of 3 July, in the midst of the carnage at Gettysburg, he wrote to his wife, his "Darling Mama," to tell her that he was still well, that God had been good to him, and that she should kiss the children for him and write often.
| Commanding general George Meade, a good friend who had great trust in
Gibbon, gave him command of the Second Corps twice in the first two days of the
battle, despite the fact that Caldwell was superior in rank--on the afternoon
of July 1, when Hancock was sent ahead to act as commanding officer on the
battlefield, and on afternoon of July 2, when Third Corps chief Dan Sickles was
wounded, and Meade expanded Hancock's authority to include the Third Corps and
part of the First Corps. At all times, Gibbon retained control over his own
At the end of the generals' meeting on the night of July 2, Meade took Gibbon aside and predicted, "If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be on your front." Through noon on July 3, it looked like there would be no attack at all. Gibbon lounged through the sultry morning, and at noon gave a luncheon for all the generals near Cemetery Hill. During the intense Confederate cannonade that started around 1 o'clock, he sat down on the reverse slope of the hill in a comparatively safe place, then returned to his lines and chatted with his men while the shells whistled and exploded around them. Until the shelling stopped and the gray lines of Pickett's, Pettigrew's and Trimble's men hove into view, he believed the enemy would retreat rather than attack.
As Pickett's Charge rolled toward him, Gibbon paid last-minute attention to his dispositions. Then, for twenty minutes or so, as the musketry began to rattle and the great roar of the battle rose, the issue was out of his hands. When the Rebel lines bunched together and paused at the wall in his front, Gibbon walked toward Harrow's brigade on the south end of his line to get them to turn and enfilade the mass of Southerners. Just then he was hit by a bullet which entered in the middle of his left arm near the shoulder and passed backward, fracturing the shoulder blade. He grew faint and was helped from the field..
The wound was severe and healed slowly, and Gibbon would not rejoin the army for eight months. His conduct at Gettysburg, meanwhile, was praised by Hancock as "all that could be desired in division commanders." There was no question that Gibbon would remain in command of his Second Corps division in the reorganization of the army from three corps to two in the spring of 1864. After seeing action thro [text missing] n and Blake Magner, "John Gibbon: The Man and the Monument." Gettysburg Magazine 13, Jul 1995