In 1861, Rufus Dawes formed a volunteer unit that would soon become attached to the Union Army as Company K of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was a major by the time he climbed the fence into the notorious cornfield at Antietam. In the midst of the “terrible battle,” he took command of the regiment when Colonel Edward Bragg was injured. Dawes and the 6th, along with the rest of the Iron Brigade, engaged the Confederates with “demoniacal fury,” as men on both sides fell by the dozens (91).
Dawes would fight in several storied battles to come as an officer in the Iron Brigade. Lieutenant Colonel by the time the 6th Wisconsin arrived at Gettysburg, he commanded his men as they charged from the turnpike fence to the railroad cut, losing 240 of 420 soldiers in what he later found to be a distance of about 175 paces (168). They forced the surrender of the remaining men of the 2nd Mississippi before being forced into retreat by an advancing line of Confederate soldiers. The time they had bought the Union Army would contribute to its victory at Gettysburg and beyond.
Dawes was eventually appointed brevet brigadier general and went on to serve in the House of Representatives. In addition to his distinguished career as a military officer and congressman, he contributed to American history as the father of several notable sons. Among them was Charles G. Dawes, 30th Vice President, Nobel laureate, and author of the Dawes Plan, a stop-gap measure to ease the economic crisis caused by Germany’s default on war reparations.