Sunday, October 13, 2019

Give 'Em Hell by the Acre: The 21st Ohio Earns its Laurels at Stones River

Captain Arnold McMahan of Company C, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry sat beneath a cedar tree attempting to tabulate the casualties suffered by his company in the fight of that morning. It was a sobering experience for the young Captain- he could now put his hands on less than half of the men that marched into battle under his command that morning. One man he knew to be dead; three of his five Sergeants had been wounded to one degree or another. At least ten of his Privates had been hit and he was attempting to send the worst wounded to Nashville for medical treatment. With so many of the men, no one knew where they were. Were they wounded? Captured? Lost or had they fallen in with another Federal regiment? Answers were few and questions many.
Captain Arnold McMahan, Co. C, 21st O.V.I.

The company was nearly out of ammunition, as indeed the regiment was that evening; the ordnance train had been caught up in the general maelstrom of the battle and had drifted away. The company was also short of food; the supply wagons had been stationed in the rear of the army and rumors had circulated that Wheeler’s cavalry had captured or burned most of it. Men only had what was left in their knapsacks or what they could scrounge on the battle field. Already a few men had made comments about cutting horse steaks from a dead horse that lay tantalizingly close to Federal lines.
The regiment had fought well, even gallantly that morning. McMahan had not been in many battles, but he knew that despite the regiment’s efforts, they had been bested.
Proud veterans of the 21st O.V.I. from a reunion photo taken in the 1920s. The flag of the regimental reunion association lists all of the engagements that the regiment took part in during the Civil War. The Battle of Stones River was among the bloodiest and most memorable of the regiment's four years' service and it was at Stones River that the men earned their laurels as a fighting regiment. 

The Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General William Starke Rosecrans, marched from their camps around Nashville on December 26, 1862 with the intention of driving Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee away from the rich foraging area of middle Tennessee. As part of the Third Brigade, Second Division, Center Corps, the 21st Ohio served under some of the best regarded officers in Federal service. Colonel John F. Miller, formerly of the 29th Indiana, was commanding Third Brigade. James S. Negley, a prominent Pennsylvania horticulturist before the war was in command of the Second Division. The corps commander was Major General George Henry Thomas, better known as “Pap” to his troops.
Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Army of the Cumberland
Major General George Henry "Pap" Thomas, commanding the Center Corps
Brigadier General James Scott Negley, commanding the Second Division, Center Corps
Colonel John Franklin Miller, commanding the Third Brigade, Second Division, Center Corps

The march through inclement weather and on poor roads became legendary within the annals of the Army of the Cumberland. Private Wilson Vance, a 17 year old Findlay native of Company B, serving as an orderly at brigade headquarters left an apt description of the experience: 
“We had several days of marching and skirmishing, of wading through rain-soaked, ploughed fields and the mire of country roads. Cut up and turned into long, narrow sloughs of deep, sticky mortar, of nights spent sleepless on the picket post or vidette duty, or comfortless on the water saturated earth, of the almost hourly recurrent call to arms to await the enemy or reconnoiter, of the frequent and hurried foray over hills and fields, through woods and swamps, and the breathless return from a fruitless enterprise.”
The cedar forest in which the 21st Ohio fought during the first day of the Battle of Stones River is preserved at the Stones River National Battlefield Park. The above shot dates from May 2016 when Federal reenactors portrayed the 21st Ohio during a park event.  My fourth great uncle James A. McLargin of Co. C suffered a severe head wound in these woods on December 31, 1862 and died in Nashville two weeks later. It was a powerful experience to be in the same woods where my ancestors had fought.

For three days, the 21st Ohio marched southeast towards Murfreesboro. On December 30th, the regiment arrived at the 3 mile post along the Nashville Pike and deployed. The entire division advanced into a cedar brake just west of the Pike and sharp skirmishing commenced as the Federal lines rolled forward. Upon halting for the night, the Pioneer Corps busily cut a series of “roads” behind the Center Corps to facilitate communications and supply. In the end, these roads would prove the salvation of many in the Federal army.
Sergeant John H. Bolton, Co. F

Sergeant John H. Bolton of Company F takes up the story:
This morning we were relieved from picket duty before daylight by another regiment and we went to the rear about a fourth of a mile and made our breakfast upon warm coffee and army biscuits which we had scarcely finished when it was evident that General McCook commanding our extreme right was being driven back by the enemy. The continuous roar of musketry and the more deafening sound of artillery gradually moving nearer and nearer told us but too plainly that the conflict has commenced in terrible earnest and in a few moments, we all would be engaged.”
Map showing the location of Miller's brigade on the morning of December 31, 1862. The 21st Ohio held the left of the brigade line just east of McFadden Lane.
Map courtesy of Lanny Smith

Private Samuel A. “Sol” Linton of Company I continues:
Orders came to fall in and we were soon on the move for the front. We changed position two or three times and as we passed by where a beef had been killed and partly skinned, I stopped and cut off a piece. The regiment moved past and moved to a fence between the cedars and cotton field. We were ordered to lie down.”
Private Henry Foust, Co. G
Photo courtesy of Rob Tong

Sergeant George Thomas Squire of Company E continues:
The battery belonging to our brigade occupied a little knoll to the right of our regiment and they were hard at work. Right in front of us was a little strip of woods between us and another open field and as soon as we got to our place in the field, we were ordered to lie down. Pretty soon the other regiments of our Brigade opened with small arms; we laid still and heard the bullets whistle over us. A flock of wild turkeys came running out of the woods towards our regiment and stopped. They were so frightened they could not fly and some of the boys laid down their guns and caught three or four of them. And rabbits came trotting along and would not try to get out of our way. It seemed as through the very wild animals were terrified at the unearthly uproar.”
Captain Silas Canfield, Co. K

Captain Silas Canfield, commanding Company K continues:
Withers massed his division by brigades and moved to the attack of General Negley’s division, about the time Sheridan’s men became engaged. A corn field was in the front of the 21st Ohio and as soon as the Rebels came in range, the infantry opened a deadly fire on them. More persistent courage on the one hand or greater coolness on the other could hardly be displayed. Openings through the serried ranks were several times made by canister shot, still they came boldly on. Men fell at every step and still they pressed forward. ‘Gosh, I got a dead one on him. He’ll never kill any more Yanks. This gun never deceives me. I know right where she carries. Such are some of the expressions made by the men of the 21st during the heat of battle. When the enemy was about 30 yards distant, the order was given to fix bayonets; but at about this time, they broke and fled, followed by a volley as a parting salute.”
Sergeant Robert H. Caldwell of Company I continues:
It was truly sublime, the fierce roar of the artillery and the sharp rattle of musketry made an almost indescribable din. I had the pleasure of firing about 10 rounds and I flatter myself that I never pulled trigger without first getting a good sight. I took a regular squirrel sight on them before firing.”
Private Liberty Warner, Co. H

Private Liberty Warner of Company H continues:
The Rebs came up 2 or 3 columns deep, screeching and yelping like hounds. We rested our guns across the fence and made them yell another tune. I was as cool as a cucumber and took steady aim at the cloud of flash and smoke. I believe some of my lead came near enough for them to hear it whistle, if nothing farther.”
Private Jacob Adams of Company F continues:
This being the first heavy fire the regiment was ever under, the boys stood under it in fine shape, and were greatly encouraged and enthused when Colonel Jim as we called Colonel Neibling went up and down the line repeating ‘Give ‘em hell by the acre boys!’ We were elated in our success in holding our line intact against assault after assault by enmassed columns.”
Captain Canfield of Company K again:
Our front clear, we had a chance to view the ghastly sight. Colonel Neibling came along the regiment and said, ‘My God, boys, we gave them hell didn’t we?’
Lieutenant Colonel James M. Neibling of Findlay assumed command of the 21st Ohio in the summer of 1862 following an unsavory episode where Colonel Jesse S. Norton was caught associating with Alabama secessionists, then made false charges against his division commander General Ormsby M. Mitchel. Upon further investigation, it was found that Colonel Norton had never been properly exchanged following his capture at Scary Creek in July 1861. His charges against Mitchel fell apart and by December Norton had resigned his commission. "Colonel Jim" was beloved by the men of his command; Neilbing proved a tenacious fighter but a poor disciplinarian. But at Stones River, his dauntless enthusiasm was the marvel of his men who presented him with a beautiful sword in the spring of 1863 engraved "Give 'em hell by the acre." Both the presentation sword and the sword Neibling carried at Stones River are in private hands; I once had the opportunity to hold Neibling's original sword that he carried at Stones River. It was a powerful experience. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Rebel View of Chickamauga: Benjamin Williams of the 47th Georgia

This remarkable personal memoir of the Battle of Chickamauga was penned by Benjamin Stuart Williams, the former adjutant of the 47th Georgia Infantry, for the Charleston Sunday News and was published in the October 29, 1911 issue of that newspaper. 

The 47th Georgia was part of Brigadier General Marcus A. Stovall's Brigade of Major General John C. Breckinridge's Division of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill's Corps. Benjamin Williams moved to South Carolina after the war and lived to the ripe old age of 87, passing away May 13, 1931. He is buried at Beech Branch Baptist Cemetery in Allendale Co., South Carolina. 


Saturday, September 7, 2019

“My God! Leave me here, George, and save the battery!"

"Turning to me with the revolver cocked, he demanded my firearms. We looked at each other. I told him that I had none, that I was a cannoneer.  He then said, “I’ll not take your young life, but take off your overcoat and hand it up here,” and with it went the mittens that warm and noble-hearted Charley Barnes had loaned me early in the morning..."

A Wisconsin Cannoneer Remembers the Battle of Stones River

The following account was written by Private Charles Cunningham of the 5th Wisconsin Battery and published in the September 27, 1888 issue of the National Tribune until the title of "A Cannoneer's Story: The Third Gun, 5th Wisconsin Battery." This is one of my favorite Stones River accounts as it emphasizes the personal nature of combat and the bonds formed by men under fire together. Private Cunningham writes of the men that operated gun No. 3- his job was to bring up ammunition from the caissons. The men of Pinney's battery risked being overrun by the Confederates and commenced a helter-skelter retreat in which Cunningham was captured by a trooper from the 8th Texas Cavalry before General Jefferson C. Davis and his staff arrived on the scene and gave Cunningham the chance to escape back to Union lines. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

When the lightning flashed, I could see the bodies of three Confederates lying only a few yards from me

"The ground had been fought over a day or two before and when the lightning flashed, if I looked a little to my left, I could see the bodies of three Confederates lying only a few yards from me."

A Wisconsin Sergeant Remembers the Battle of Stones River 

The following account written by Sergeant Edward Fenton McGlachlin of Co. K, 1st Wisconsin Infantry was featured in the December 24, 1929 issue of the Stevens Point Journal (Wisconsin); it is notable as being one of the few published accounts from the 1st Wisconsin of the Stones River campaign and was one of the last accounts from an eyewitness to see publication. 

McGlachlin was born in Watson, New York in 1840 and moved to Wisconsin in 1857. He served three years with the 1st Wisconsin, and spent over a year in Confederate prisoner of war camps after being captured on the second day of Chickamauga in September 1863. After the war, he returned home to Wisconsin, learned the printer's trade, and garnered a solid reputation as a newspaper editor. His son and namesake Major General Edward Fenton McGlachlin II graduated from West Point in 1889 and led the First Division of the A.E.F. in World War I. The senior McGlachlin died in 1931 at age 90 in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

"God Alone Knows the Degree of Their Misery" An Ohio officer at the Crater

Archibald Johnson Sampson was born June 21, 1839 in Cadiz, Harrison County, Ohio. He grew up on the family farm and attended the local schools, then attended Mount Union College graduating on his birthday in 1861. By then, the war had commenced and he enlisted in Co. C of the 43rd Ohio Infantry as a Private, serving with the regiment until June 1862 when he was discharged for disability. By that time, he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. Returning home to Uhrichsville, he was elected the superintendent of schools but the lure of army life proved too strong and he enlisted as a private in Co. C of the 5th Independent Battalion of Ohio Cavalry in 1863. The 5th Battalion was later merged with the 4th Battalion to form the 13th Ohio Cavalry regiment. Sampson was promoted to regimental commissary sergeant.
Lt Archibald J. Sampson, Co. H, 27th U.S.C.T.

In April 1864, Sampson was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 27th U.S. Colored Troops and joined the regiment in Columbus, Ohio before it left the state. He was assigned to Co. H. Lieutenant Sampson was on detached duty during June/July commanding a detachment of recruits at Point Lookout, Maryland and during this period requested staff duty with Brigadier General Barnes. Sampson cited several generals who could attest to his qualifications including prominent Ohio Republicans James A. Garfield and Robert Schenk, both generals then serving in Congress.

He served with the 27th U.S.C.T. until late November 1864, taking part in several battles including the Crater and Hatcher's Run. He came ill with a heart condition and rheumatism in his right shoulder and was hospitalized in December 1864. In January 1865, he wrote a letter to Major General Silas Casey in Washington, D.C. seeking an appointment to Casey's staff. “I have been one of Uncle Sam's boys for two years but I am not physically qualified to endure active field service any longer,” he wrote. “I will be compelled to leave the service which I do not want to do. I can do as much work as ever as long as I don't expose myself too much.” General Casey chose not to act on Sampson's letter and Sampson was given an honorable discharge February 4, 1865. In 1867, he was given a brevet promotion to captain for “gallant and meritorius services during the war.”

After the war, Sampson moved to Missouri with his younger brother Francis and set up a law practice in Sedalia. He married Kate I. Turner, the daughter of Judge A.C. Turner of Cadiz in 1866, but she died in December of 1886 in Denver. He later re-married to another widow, Mrs. Frances S. Wood of Joliet, Illinois. "For some time, even in the camp as a soldier, Mr. Sampson pursued the study of law and on his return home, having passed the requisite examination, was admitted to practice at Mount Vernon, Ohio. He was subsequently graduated from the Cleveland Law School and in 1865 located at Sedalia, Missouri where he began a successful practice. While a resident of that city, he served as county superintendent of schools, as attorney for the State Board of Education for the 5th Congressional District, and as city and county attorney. In 1872 he declined the appointment of the United States consul to Palestine to which he had been appointed by President Grant. In 1873, Mr. Sampson removed to Colorado and located at Canon City where he resumed the practice of law and served one term as county attorney. In 1876 he was nominated and later elected attorney general of Colorado, receiving one of the largest majorities on the ticket," it was written in the Historical & Biographical Record of the Territory of Arizona in 1896. "He is a courteous, affable, and most agreeable gentleman."

Sampson enjoyed good political connections dating back to his Civil War service and they served him in good stead throughout his long career. He gained popularity as a stump speaker advocating for the Republican Party and was very active socially with memberships in the G.A.R., M.O.L.L.U.S., and the Masons. With the election of President William Harrison in 1889, he was appointed to a consulship in Paso Del Norte, Mexico where he learned to speak and read Spanish. In 1892, he moved with his family to Arizona and took up ranching and managing other business interests such as mining. With the election of fellow Ohio Civil War veteran William McKinley to the Presidency in 1897, Sampson was appointed Minister to Ecuador and served in that capacity until 1907. He died of kidney disease and pneumonia on Christmas Eve 1921 in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 82 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. 

The 27th U.S. Colored Troops was comprised of men of color, many of whom were Ohio residents at the time of their enlistment. The regiment mustered into service January 16, 1864 at Camp Delaware (Delaware, Ohio) and was assigned to the Army of the Potomac in April. The regiment served with the army supply train until July when it was sent to Petersburg and took part in the siege operations being conducted by the Army of the Potomac. At the Battle of the Crater, the regiment formed a part of the First Brigade (Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried commanding) along with the 30th, 39th, and 43rd U.S.C.T. regiments. General Edward Ferrero was the division commander.
Battle of the Crater as depicted by artist Alfred Waud in 1864

The following letter written by Lieutenant Sampson was published in the August 9, 1864 issue of the Tuscarawas Advocate.

In the trenches of Petersburg, Virginia
August 2, 1864

Editor Advocate:
Thinking a few words in regard to the late battle at this place would not be uninteresting to the readers of the Advocate, and having a few leisure moments, I hasten to prepare you a few notes. Long ere this reaches you, the North will be aroused with the intelligence that a great battle has been fought and numerous statements will be made in regard to it, the most of which will vary more or less from the truth.

As an eyewitness and participant I shall strive to give a correct account, but not full in detail as I would not likely be able to complete it were I to commence such. On Saturday morning at 4:30, the desultory firing of the pickets and sharpshooters from noon till night and from night till noon was for variety of program changed so as to all all the privilege which the pickets and sharps had heretofore enjoyed, and one of the most bloody battles of the war was fought. Soldiers of many battles say they never saw one equal to it.

“The ball opened” by the explosion of our mines and sending the Rebel fort heavenward; throwing many Rebels nearer that place tan they will ever get again. The noise was very slight, nothing but a hoarse growling when the next instant, as estimated by some, the clay was thrown 100 feet high. It was entirely unexpected by the Johnnies, as some of them told me who were in the fort sleeping at the time and taken prisoners. In this explosion they lost 200 men. Had a bold charge been made at this moment, I believe we would today be in Petersburg for the Rebels evacuated a fort which afterwards gave us such an enfilade fire; they also abandoned almost their entire line not knowing how many more mines we had under them. But the unpropitious moment was unoccupied until they became satisfied that there we no other mines and they returned to their posts for duty.
The attack of Ferrero's division at the Crater had the regiments stacked into an attacking column which blundered right into the hole created by the mine explosion. (Map courtesy of American Battlefield Trust)

At last, however, the command came: “charge!” This was done by white and colored troops in a manner that showed their determination. Soon the fort was occupied and on went our brave boys until we had some six or eight stand of colors on the Rebel works. Now came the unpropitious moment for the Rebels opened an enfilade fire from both directions of their line and at the same time about 10,000 Rebels made the charge on our troops yelling like fiends. The colored troops not being properly supported and exposed to such a severe fire retreated. Here were performed deeds of daring and heroism which have never been surpassed. Almost superhuman exertions were made to rally those retreating but all to no purpose. Our regiment (27th U.S.C.T.) stood up bravely to the work until compelled to retreat to save being trampled by the Second Brigade. [Sampson is referencing the Second Brigade of the Fourth Division which was led by Colonel Henry Goddard Thomas and comprised of the 19th, 23rd, 29th, and 31st U.S.C.T. regiments.] White troops as well as colored were compelled to retreat until we now occupy the same positions we did in the morning before the battle.

Patriots shed tears while viewing the field and thinking where we might be if...history will tell that. I do not believe the failure was on account of colored troops, but ask anyone who was in the charge. No heroes ever fought more valiantly than many colored men did that day. This is acknowledged by all. Our dead number about 300, wounded and prisoner I know not how many but both are heavy. On Saturday we sent in a flag of truce to have the privilege of burying our dead and caring for the wounded, but this was refused by those heartless fiends on account of informality on our part, as they said.

While they were parleying, hostilities ceased so that we could get up and look across at the Johnnies only a few rods apart, but could not go over to give water to those who were dying for want of it. One poor fellow raised his tin cup, waved it, and then raised it to his lips, going through the motions of drinking, showing us what he wanted, but by those devils it was refused. There lay our wounded two days, enduring the almost unendurable stench of the dead exposed to the burning rays of a 100 degree sun. God alone knows the degree of their misery.

On Monday morning our flag of truce was accepted and I hastened to the field with water to give to the suffering heroes. Oh, with what eagerness they did drink- thousands of dollars would not be an equivalent for one drink of water I suppose. It is a hard sight to be in battle, listen to the confusion, the dying groans, the pleadings of the wounded, etc., but all this is nothing to compare to the field of the dead. God grant it may never be my lot to behold such another sight as I here beheld. My heart sickens at the sight and I shrink from a further description of scenes. As soon as our flag of truce was hoisted, the Rebel hordes were out by the score robbing our dead, coolly and deliberately before our eyes. At this sight my wrath was kindled a little more than it ordinarily is, but as the field was theirs, we had to silently endure it.

I know of one Tuscarawas boy hurt (Albert Parish of Uhrichsville); he came near being killed by a shell and was severely stunned by it, but now is all right again. It is now unknown what will be our next move, but rest assured there is no inactivity in the Army of the Potomac.

I may write to you again as soon as anything of importance transpires. We still are hopeful of success.

Yours in haste,
Lt. Arch. J. Sampson, commanding Co. H, 27th U.S.C.T.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

“Skinned out for Memphis like Tam O’ Shanter with the devil after him” General Samuel Sturgis, the 72nd Ohio, and the Guntown Disaster

          In the days following the disastrous Sturgis expedition in June 1864, the sight in the Memphis camp of the 72nd Ohio brought tears to the eyes of Surgeon John B. Rice of the regiment. “It is a sad sight to go into our old camp,” he wrote his wife on June 17, 1864. “So many familiar faces are missing, tents are vacant, and the cheerful aspect of everything as it once was is gone. I have delayed writing you in hopes of being able to give you some more favorable news in regard to the loss of men in the 72nd, but the truth compels me to say that the first accounts I wrote you were perhaps not at all exaggerated. The loss in Buckland’s old brigade is as heavy as I have stated and that of the 72nd will be 250 officers and men.” It was an unmitigated disaster.

Surgeon John Birchard Rice, 72nd Ohio Infantry

For the 72nd Ohio Infantry, the Sturgis expedition into northern Mississippi in the opening days of June 1864 proved the most trying days of their Civil War experience. For nine days the regiment had tramped along the boggy primitive roads beset by frequent rain storms and stifling heat. On the 10th day of June they took part in the supremely bungled Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, and while disheartened at how the army had wilted in the heat of a Mississippi summer day, casualties in the regiment had been few. But it was the retreat that truly “tried men’s souls.”


The expedition’s mission was of strategic import: with William Tecumseh Sherman’s army driving the Confederate Army of Tennessee towards Atlanta, a major concern of the Union high command was the security of Sherman’s lengthy supply lines that ran north from Chattanooga to Nashville to Louisville on the Ohio River. Northern Mississippi was the domain of the feared Confederate cavalry raider par excellence General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sherman wanted Forrest kept busy, preferably as far away from his vulnerable Tennessee railroad lines as possible. That job was given to troops from the District of Memphis, specifically to General Samuel D. Sturgis. Sturgis organized a force consisting of about 5,000 infantrymen, 3,000 cavalrymen, and 16 guns accompanied by an immense wagon train. This force set out from Memphis on June 1st and marched cross country into northern Mississippi.


The story of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads has been well-covered in previous posts on this site, specifically in one of my first posts from June 2017 that reproduced an account from Lieutenant Rollin Edgerton of Co. E, 72nd Ohio and a most recent post giving an account from Chaplain Abner D. Olds of the 59th U.S. Colored Troops.  This post will cover another aspect of the campaign, specifically looking at the charges that General Sturgis was both a drunkard and a traitor. This is a story of ‘Black Jerry,’ a headquarters ambulance full of whiskey, and a large group of seriously angry Civil war veterans.


In 1897, Private William H. McEnally of Co. G, 72nd Ohio wrote an intriguing article giving his experiences during what he called “the Guntown Raid.” McEnally had been placed on detached service at headquarters at the outset of the expedition and was ideally placed to comment on the doings at headquarters. He bunked with a mysterious if extraordinary character, a scout he named ‘Black Jerry.’ This scout said that he was the sole surviving member of Jessie’s Scouts, a hard riding company of scouts organized by General John Fremont in the opening days of the war in Missouri. They were named after the general’s wife Jessie. “Jerry was dressed in Rebel uniform and rode a sorrel mare equipped with a Mexican saddle,” remembered McEnally. “His duty consisted in going ahead every day to ascertain the movements and force of the enemy. At night he would return and report to General Sturgis. He tented and messed with me while on the raid and of course he confided in me so I knew as much about the situation in front as the generals,” McEnally proudly reported.

Private William H. McEnally, Co. G, 72nd Ohio

But Black Jerry’s seedy appearance aroused the suspicions of another frequent guest at headquarters: Lieutenant Colonel DeWitt C. Thomas of the 93rd Indiana. He visited General Sturgis’ headquarters during the campaign and “while there saw a man, an out-and-out Johnny (a Rebel), with the hair, clothes, etc., peculiar to the people of that section who appeared to be very familiar about headquarters and my attention was therefore attracted to him. He had an old plug of a horse and the general appearance of the guerillas we so often saw thereabouts. I distrusted him at sight and inquired who he was; was told he was one of the scouts and spies. I answered that he might be all right but I would watch him as I believed he was a Rebel spy.” Colonel Thomas’ suspicions were further aroused a few days later when Black Jerry acquired a new horse then went out on a scout, only to return “on an old horse and in old clothes claiming that the Rebels had captured and robbed him.” Someone had told Black Jerry that Colonel Thomas suspected he was a spy and any time the two men saw one another Jerry “looked as if he would like to meet me in the bush.”

Colonel DeWitt Clinton Thomas, 93rd Indiana

Black Jerry confided to McEnally what happened: while out on this scout he had ridden into Forrest’s lines and found evidence that a mighty host awaited Sturgis. “He said that Forrest had 35,000 mounted infantry and was waiting for us,” McEnally said. “Jerry said he had reported to General Sturgis who would not believe him and said he would go on.” The following day, Colonel Thomas saw ‘Black Jerry’ riding his horse back towards Memphis. The scout saw the colonel and rode up him. Thomas expected trouble. “He moved his horse up near to me and said as he leaned over its neck, ‘You will catch hell soon,” Thomas wrote. At this point, Black Jerry disappears from the narrative of Brice’s Crossroads. One suspects that he apprehended the danger that lay ahead and thought well to return from whence he came…


But Black Jerry’s appearance and disappearance helped fuel rumors that General Sturgis was in cahoots with his Confederate antagonists. Years after the expedition, survivors from the thousands of men captured after Brice’s Crossroads loudly charged that Sturgis had sold them out, going so far as to write that they had seen Sturgis (or heard the rumor) that he had sat under a tree with Forrest the day before the battle to work out the particulars of how he would hand over the rich wagon train to the Rebels. It was the purest bunk but the story gained wide circulation and given the men’s utter hatred for General Sturgis, it was evidently widely believed. “Many of the 72nd who were at Guntown charge that Sturgis was not only drunk and a coward,” wrote General Ralph Buckland in 1882, “but that he was a traitor and purposely sacrificed his command.”

Major General Samuel D. Sturgis. The survivors of his botched expedition gave him a number of nicknames, among them "Old Sturgis" and "The Guntown Imbecile"

General Sturgis’s poor judgment at Brice’s Crossroads aroused indignation in his troops, but his conduct prior to the commencement of the campaign had already been fodder for many a camp fire talk. Sam Sturgis loved his whiskey and loved it to excess. Just before the expedition left Memphis, General Sturgis went on a very public bender. Surgeon John Rice of the 72nd Ohio wrote to his wife that “Sturgis was crazy drunk the night before the expedition left. He went about the city going like a mad man. He broke half the chandeliers at the Gayoso House and conducted himself like the beast generally. After the expedition had been gone many hours, at the latest moment he was aroused from a drunken sleep to take charge of a body of troops of whose organization and equipment he was ignorant and reckless.” It didn’t stop there. A private in the 120th Illinois witnessed what happened when Sturgis got off the cars at Collierville east of Memphis. “I saw orderlies take the commander [Sturgis] out of the car hopelessly drunk, put him on his horse, and one [orderly] rode on each side to keep him from falling from his horse.”

General Sturgis was reportedly so drunk that he broke half of the chandeliers in the Gayoso
Hotel while on a bender before the Guntown expedition. How he broke the chandeliers
is open to question...

Unfortunately, Rice reported that both Sturgis’ staff and his infantry commander were no better than Sturgis. “Colonel [William L.] McMillen holds his position not because of merit but because he is a brother-in-law of ex-Governor [William] Dennison of our state,” Rice grumped. “He is a sycophant to his superiors and a tyrant towards inferiors and a very hard drinker. The first day out he was so drunk that he fell and hurt himself in attempting to get out of the cars,” Rice wrote. “The next day he was so drunk he fell from his horse. He is a vain drunkard and a soulless scoundrel. Under the circumstances it cannot be a matter of surprise that the whole affair was disastrous,” he concluded acidly.

Colonel William Linn McMillen, 95th Ohio

Sturgis’ behavior on the field led many of his subordinates to label him a drunk. “I well recollect that after miles of hurried marching we were halted to allow an ambulance pass to the front,” relayed Lieutenant Isaac Peetrey of the 95th Ohio. “When it passed it proved to be that famous headquarters ambulance loaded with whiskey.” Upon arriving on the field, Peetrey saw “the humiliating spectacle of General Sturgis and others on the ground at the foot of a tree a short distance from Brice’s house all more or less under the influence of liquor. Many were the deep and muttered curses on them.”


The curses continued long after the war- rumors swirled that while on the retreat Sturgis “skinned out for Memphis like Tam O’ Shanter with the devil after him,” but he ran for a very real concern: he was worried that his own men might shoot him. The threats continued after the war: one 72nd Ohio veteran recalled that in 1867 General Sturgis planned to spend his summer on Put-in-Bay, an island located just off the northern shore of Ohio near Port Clinton, “but departed on learning that there were a number of the boys of the 72nd Regiment there, fearing that some of us would kill him.” An Illinois veteran who was captured in the retreat and spent nearly a year in Confederate prison camps proudly wrote that he met Sturgis on the Kansas plains in late 1865 and told him exactly what he thought of him.

Hospital Steward Gustavus Gessner, 72nd Ohio

But if there was any revenge, it came in 1882 when Dr. Gustavus Gessner, who had been captured during the campaign while serving as hospital steward of the 72nd Ohio, launched a letter writing campaign to bring Sturgis’ conduct on that campaign back into the public arena. Sturgis had been relieved after the conclusion of the expedition in June 1864 and had been investigated, but the War Department chose to pigeon hole the report and Sturgis spent the rest of the war in Louisville drawing a brigadier general’s salary without performing any real duties. He remained in the army after the war and eventually became commander of the 7th U.S. Cavalry; he made the mistake of criticizing the conduct of his chief subordinate George Armstrong Custer following the Little Big Horn disaster (this drew forth some spicy correspondence that made its way into the newspapers).


In late 1881 he was given the assignment of command of the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C. This appointment so irked Gessner that in January 1882 he sent a letter to the Toledo Blade (a newspaper of national readership at the time) asking for veterans of the expedition to write to their Congressional representatives to protest the appointment. Gessner’s call elicited a flood of letters from veterans describing their experiences and their opinion of Sturgis (universally they labeled him a drunken, traitorous, cowardly imbecile)- he eventually gathered a number of them in a 70-page pamphlet called “General Sturgis at Guntown” from which most of the accounts in the blog post reside. Sturgis wrote a defense of his actions which the National Tribune published, which only served to prompt a flood of letters from veterans lambasting his defense.

72nd Ohio Reunion held in 1908 in front of General Buckland's home in Fremont, Ohio

General Sturgis asked General William Tecumseh Sherman to conduct a board of inquiry to clear his name; Sherman demurred but allowed Sturgis’ appointment to stand despite the public outcry. Sturgis’ name provoked a hiss or growl whenever mentioned at a 72nd Ohio reunion; the men never forgave him for his actions on that campaign that had cost the lives of so many of their comrades. It’s safe to say that General Sturgis never attended a reunion of the 72nd Ohio…

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

“Remember Fort Pillow!” The 59th U.S. Colored Troops at Brice’s Crossroads

In May 1863, the War Department authorized Major General Stephen Hurlbut, then commanding the District of West Tennessee headquartered in Memphis, to raise six regiments of colored troops from the thousands of freedmen who had surged into the area following the Union occupation of western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. One of those regiments formed later became the 59th U.S. Colored Troops. Captain Edward Bouton of Battery I, 1st Illinois Light Artillery was commissioned colonel, and the white officers of the regiment were chosen from the ranks of the Fifth Division of the 16th Army Corps. Of particular interest to this blog was that a number of the officers appointed came from the 46th, 53rd, and 70th Ohio regiments.
Two soldiers of the U.S.C.T. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

To secure recruits, the local freedmen’s camps were canvassed for volunteers but the army also went into the surrounding area to “appropriate” slaves. Cavalry units would scour the countryside and upon discovering a Confederate plantation, the cavalrymen would “liberate” any livestock as contraband of war and subject to the provisions of the Emancipation proclamation, would also liberate any slaves found. After being freed from their Rebel masters, the former slaves were encouraged to enlist in the army by Bouton’s agents. This method of securing recruits proved quite effective as the regiment was filled by the end of June 1863 and mustered into service as the 1st West Tennessee Infantry of African Descent.
Colonel Edward Bouton, 59th U.S.C.T.

The effects of a lifetime of degradation, cruelty, and hard work showed in the recruits. “The average plantation Negro was a hard-looking specimen,” wrote regimental commander Colonel Robert Cowden in 1883. “He had a rolling, dragging, moping gait and a cringing manner, with a downcast thievish glance that dared not look you in the eye. His dress was a close-fitting wool shirt, and pantaloons of homespun material, butternut brown, worn without suspenders and hanging slouchily upon him and generally too short in the legs by several inches.” Men with shoes or boots were the exception and they wore a battered slouch hat if they had any hat at all. “His look, dress, manner, and opinion of himself were all the result of generations in slavery, and he was in no ways responsible for them,” Cowden wrote.

Work began to help transform these men into proud soldiers. The first steps after recruitment were to get the men cleaned up: haircuts and baths were the order of the day and the tattered plantation clothes were burned and replaced with a blue wool uniform. “The plantation manners, the awkward bowing and scraping at two or three rods distance with hat under arm and averted look must be exchanged for the upright form, the open face, the gentlemanly address, and soldierly salute,” wrote Cowden. Months were spent in perfecting drill and discipline and the 59th U.S. Colored Troops soon presented a neat appearance that gave promise to a useful career in the field. In January 1864, the regiment marched through the streets of Memphis and the shocked residents “saw what they had never before seen and had never expected to see- their own former slaves powerfully and lawfully armed for their overthrow and led and commanded by those whom they considered their invaders. The sight must have burned into their very souls.” In March 1864, the regiment was renamed the 59th U.S. Colored Troops at the order of the War Department.
The sharp appearance of these soldiers of the 4th U.S.C.T. was no doubt mirrored by the 59th U.S.C.T. Colonel Cowden opined that the sight of 1,000 armed former slaves marching through the streets of Memphis "must have burned into the very souls" of the city's Rebel residents. (Library of Congress)

Abner Olds was born January 15, 1815 in Strykersville, New York and graduated from Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio)  in 1839. He started his work spreading the gospel, serving in two churches in New York state before spending six years in Jamaica as a missionary. He returned to the states and took charge of the Congregational Church of Jefferson, Ohio until in 1863 he went to Corinth, Mississippi to work with the freedmen. On September 30, 1863 while at Corinth his first wife (Ann Brooks) died. Through his grief, Olds continued to work for the welfare of the thousands of impoverished freedmen scattered in the camps around Corinth. He returned North and in a whirlwind tour visited 26 townships seeking donations to clothe these men, women, and children during the harsh winter months. “In 30 days he collected $700 in money and seven tons of clothing,” Colonel Cowden wrote. “It was stated at the time by the officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau that this was the most remarkable success that had ever been achieved by one person. No marvel that Mr. Olds’ fame soon spread through the camps.” The officers of the 59th U.S. Colored Troops, hearing of Olds’ efforts, approached him in March 1864 and tendered the chaplaincy of the regiment to him. It was an inspired choice.

Olds devoted himself totally to the welfare of the entire regiment: he journeyed north to Cincinnati to purchase a stock of books to further the education of the officers, led weekly worship services and also conducted a school for the basic education of the enlisted men. His new wife (the former H. Adeliza Hawley whom he married October 19, 1864) assisted him with teaching the troops how to read, spell, and write. “It was astonishing to note the eagerness with which the men entered into the work of study,” Colonel Cowden wrote. “Their enthusiasm knew no bounds as one or another came out first or second best in the contests that secured prizes for best spelling, etc. Such intense interest was created that men going on duty were generally seen carrying their spelling books or Testaments under their belts to the posts of duty and spending their time when off post in learning their lessons.”
(Library of Congress)

One would have thought that by June of 1864 the question of whether black troops would fight had been settled: one need look no further for evidence than to consider the gallantry displayed by the 54th Massachusetts during the storming of Fort Wagner in July 1863 to see that black troops were capable of “standing to the mark” when it came to Civil War combat. However, prejudices die hard and slowly and as Chaplain Olds wrote home, even in June 1864 “the question ‘Will the Negro fight?’ is one of great importance to the nation.” The massacre at Fort Pillow in April 1864 rekindled the question and this is the context in which this letter should be read. His letter was written to show that black troops would fight and would fight well even under tragic circumstances as those that prevailed at Brice’s Crossroads. This letter appeared on page one of the July 2, 1864 issue of the Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph.