About John Gibbon
Major General John Gibbon was in command of the Union's "Iron Brigade" in the US Civil War and played a major part in the Indian Wars, present at both "Pickett's Charge" and "Custer's Last Stand". Gen. Gibbon's mother and the mother of Confederate General James Johnston Pettigrew were first cousins, making Gibbon and Pettigrew second cousins. Generals Pettigrew (CSA) and Gibbon (USA) faced each other at the Battle of Gettysburg where Gen. Pettigrew (CSA) commanded one of the three Divisions that participated in "Pickett's Charge" on July 3, 1863.
The secession of the South posed a deep personal dilemma for Gibbon. His parents were Democrats and slaveholders from North Carolina and his wife was from Baltimore (then considered a Southern city). When the war broke out, being from North Carolina, many expected Gibbon to "go South" to find a command. However, the career artilleryman 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. John Gibbon heard for the last time from his family in North Carolina while enroute to his first Union command. His three brothers were soon to enter the Confederate army (one was to be brigade surgeon for Gen. Lane's Confederate brigade at Gettysburg). Gen. Gibbon's family disowned him as a traitor. A family reunion was not to occur until 1865.
In action leading up to the Battle of Antietam, Maj. Gen. Gibbon commanded "The Black Hat Brigade". During their strong uphill charge at the Battle of South Mountain, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker exclaimed that the men "fought like iron". From then on, the brigade was one of the Union Army's most famous units and was known as the "Iron Brigade."
At the end of the council of war on the night of July 2, 1863, Union army commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade took Gen. John Gibbon aside and predicted, "If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be on your front." And his division did bear the brunt of fighting during the defense against Pickett's Charge on July 3, when Gibbon was wounded for the second time in the war.
After the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Gibbon reverted to the rank of Colonel in the regular Army. His service was mainly against Indians on the frontier. He was first on the scene after "Custer's Last Stand" and later lead forces against Chief Joseph in the Nez Perce War.
By 1876, he was again headed for battle. Federal authorities had order the Lakota chiefs to report to their reservations by January 31, 1876. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others defiant of the American government refused. General Philip Sheridan ordered General George Crook, General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon to drive Sitting Bull and the other chiefs onto the reservation through a combined assault. Colonel Gibbon was given command of the infantry for this operation.
The original plan for defeating the Lakota called for three forces under the command of Gen. Crook, Col. Gibbon, and Lt. Col. Custer to trap the bulk of the Lakota and Cheyenne population between them and deal them a crushing defeat. On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse and 500 warriors surprised General Crook's troops on the Rosebud River, forcing them to retreat. On June 25th, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, part of General Terry's force, discovered Sitting Bull's encampment on the Little Bighorn River. Gen. Terry had ordered Custer to drive the enemy down the Little Bighorn toward Gibbon's forces, who would soon be waiting at its mouth. Custer split his 7th U.S. Cavalry into three pieces and then advanced too quickly. When he charged the village, Custer discovered that he was greatly outnumbered. Hundreds of Lakota warriors overwhelmed the troops Custer commanded, killing them to the last man, in a battle later called "Custer's Last Stand". This destruction occurred two days before Gibbon's slower-moving infantry could reach the battlefield.
Gibbon shared no blame in Custer's headstrong conduct at Little Big Horn. He arrived in time only to rescue survivors of the other two pieces of Custer's command and bury the dead. News of the massacre shocked the nation, and Gen. Sheridan flooded the region with troops who methodically hunted down the Lakota and forced them to surrender. Sitting Bull, however, eluded capture by leading his band to safety in Canada.
The next year Gibbon was again involved in a critical battle when, on August 9, 1877, his forces attacked Chief Joseph's unsuspecting camp at Big Hole, Montana. It was a strategic victory, although the Nez Percé fought Gibbon's forces off and were able to make a successful retreat. Due to an old Civil War wound, the Nez Perce called Gibbon "he who limps." After suffering another wound in the Battle of the Big Hole, they called him "he who limps twice."
During his time as an Indian fighter, Gibbon continually complained about the fallacy of pursuing the world's finest horsemen with foot soldiers. Nevertheless, his overall conduct of operations was highly commendable.