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.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Memorial Day Tribute to General Joshua W. Sill

Last week I traveled to Chillicothe, Ohio where I presented a talk to the Ross County Historical Society entitled "Death of a General: The Final Days of General Joshua W. Sill." 
General Joshua Sill gravestone

Chillicothe is an important place to me as it is the hometown of my great grandfather, and also the burial place of one of my Civil War ancestors. I can truly say that this ancestor inspired me on this path of researching the events of the Civil War. It started in the late 1990s when my grandmother gave me a Civil War discharge certificate of someone named James Morrow. "I know that we're related to him somehow, but I'm not sure how," she said. "Can you dig into and let me know what you can find out?" 

After establishing our familial connection with him (he was my grandmother's father's grandfather), I started researching his Civil War service with the 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. The more I read about their service, the more I became intrigued with the life of the common soldier in that conflict. Learning about Morrow's wartime experiences also inspired me to dig further into our family's history and I soon learned that Grandpa Morrow wasn't our only Civil War vet- three other direct ancestors served in the war (two from Ohio and two from Indiana), all of whom survived the conflict. I also found numerous other relatives (uncles, brothers, brothers-in-law, etc.) that served in the war, a few of whom did not return. It was fascinating and sobering at the same time. 

I had a little time before the talk at Ross County Historical Society to tour the downtown districts of Chillicothe; this included a drive-by visit of great-great-great grandpa Morrow's house on Hickory St. (still standing) and a visit to Grandview Cemetery where he is buried. A quick visit to the downtown library also gave me the exact locations of grandpa Morrow's grave site as well as that of General Sill. 

The name of the cemetery (Grandview) was certainly apt as it is located atop a hill overlooking Chillicothe; the view was likely considerably more 'grand' when General Sill was buried there in 1863 as the view today is accented by an unsightly cell phone tower and an equally unsightly smokestack for the local paper mill. 
Private James Morrow, Co. H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry gravestone at Grandview Cemetery in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Grandpa Morrow's stone was in good shape. We are fortunate in that the writing on his stone faces northward so it isn't exposed to the weather all of the time. Other having a fair amount of moss growing on it, it cleaned up nicely just with some mild scrubbing. His stone resides in a family plot; the graves of two of his sons (both died at age 18) are there and his wife (my great-great-great grandmother) rests there in an unmarked grave. There are two other unmarked graves on the plot: one for his daughter Lida (my great-great grandmother) and one of her sons who died young. 

After paying my respects to the family, I drove over to section 5 to visit General Sill's grave. As discussed in a previous blog post (see General Sill, a native of Chillicothe, was killed on December 31, 1862 while leading his brigade at the Battle of Stones River. He was beloved by his men for his kind disposition and competence; General Sill was a spiritual man who loved the Lord and it was something of a surprise that he chose the military profession instead of becoming a member of the clergy. 

General Sill's gravestone is in decent shape but I learned at the end of my talk that the local Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War camp had succeeded in raising enough money to restore the monument; that work should be done by next Memorial Day. 
This plaque was placed on General Sill's monument by the
officers and men of Fort Sill; the fort was named by
General Phil Sheridan for his dear friend Joshua Sill. 

One surprise that I found at Grandview Cemetery lay beside General Sill's grave: that of a Confederate officer named Charles Taylor Mason. Major Mason, an engineer in the Virginia service, was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and was part of one of the prominent families of the South. Mason enlisted early in the Civil War and at one time served as as escort for Varina Davis, the Confederacy's First Lady. Following the war, Major Mason moved to Chillicothe, Ohio and married Susan James. His postwar career was devoted to civil engineering and his finest professional accomplishment was building a bridge across at the Ohio River at Parkersburg, West Virginia. "Major Mason was a gentleman of the highest type of Virginia cavalier," his obituary stated.  "He was most polished in his manner and his kindly humor and consideration of others made him beloved by all who knew him."

It struck me as a bit ironic that General Sill, struck down in the Civil War, lies buried next to a soldier of the Confederacy, but at the end of the day they were both Americans, regardless of their differing opinions during the war. At first I thought that poor General Sill must be rolling over in his grave at the thought of being buried next to a Rebel, but the more I read of Major Mason's life it dawned on me that had these two men known one another in life, it's quite possible that they would have been boon companions. Both shared a love of engineering and things military; both were remembered for having kind dispositions and gentle spirits. 
Brigadier General Joshua Woodrow Sill
December 6, 1831-December 31, 1862

When I think upon the meaning of Memorial Day, it is the opportunity to lay aside our cares and worries for a moment and remember those who sacrificed their all to give us the country that we have. In a sense, these men and women died for an ideal: it is up to us and each succeeding generation to continue struggling for that ideal to ensure that these men and women did not die in vain. It is a challenge that is central to the responsibilities of citizenship in a republic. It is altogether fitting that we remember and honor those who sacrificed their lives to give succeeding generations a better chance in life. 

This year I'm remembering the life of the gentleman general Joshua Woodrow Sill who gave his life 156 years ago during the Battle of Stones River. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Inside the Crime of Pickett’s Mill: Voices from the 49th Ohio

The Battle of Pickett’s Mill, a relatively obscure battle fought in the opening month of the Atlanta campaign, occurred May 27, 1864 near Dallas, Georgia. It was a brief and ferocious fight and one of considerable importance to my family: my wife’s great-great-great grandfather George Saul was severely wounded during his regiment’s charge upon the Confederate works. Making it more tragic was the fact that Saul went into action with five of his cousins: at the end of the battle, three of them lay dead while he had been wounded. Only two of this group of six men escaped unscathed.
A wartime image of Private George Saul and who I believe is his cousin Corporal John Frees (sometimes spelled Freese)  of Co. F, 49th Ohio Infantry. George is standing at left. This image was taken between February-May 1864. George would be severely wounded at Pickett's Mills while his cousin John Frees was among the slain. (Photo courtesy of Dick Mann)
       George Saul was born March 7, 1845 in Liberty Township in Seneca County, Ohio to George and Mary (McEwen) Saul. In February 1864, 19-year old farmer’s son and resident of Seneca County, Ohio George Saul chose to enlist in the 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 49th Ohio was home on veteran’s furlough, having earned a hard-won reputation of a fighting regiment after participating in the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Liberty Gap, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. The war had also redeemed the reputation of its regimental commander, Tiffin native William Harvey Gibson. Gibson had been forced to resign in disgrace from the office of state treasurer before the war, accused of covering up malfeasance in the office perpetrated by his predecessor who happened to be a relative. Colonel Gibson raised the 49th Ohio from Seneca, Sandusky, Putnam, Wood, Wyandot, and Hancock Counties and took it to war, earning a solid reputation in the army for his courage and leadership. During several engagements he had been called upon to lead a brigade and the talk was that a brigadier’s star was not too far in the future for this superbly eloquent attorney.

          Saul’s decision to enlist in the 49th Ohio may have been inspired by Colonel Gibson’s soaring reputation, but most likely it was family ties that convinced the young man to tie his fortunes with the regiment. In its ranks were six of his cousins on his mother’s side: Privates John W. Frees, Hiram Frees, and William McEwen of Co. E, Corporal John Frees of Co. F, Sergeant George W. McEwen and Private Thomas Clark McEwen of Co. H. George had been on detached service with the Pioneer Corps for more than a year but now had returned to his company and re-enlisted. Thomas, George McEwen’s younger brother, however, elected not to re-enlist.
Colonel William Harvey Gibson of the 49th Ohio poses with his war horse Morgan. Gibson earned a solid reputation as a field commander during the Civil War and was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general in 1865. His fame grew after the war and he was in high demand for his oratorical skills. He is honored with a statue in his hometown of Tiffin, Ohio. 

Service was an important value to the Saul family. George’s older brother John Saul had gone off to war as a Private in Co. F of the 55th Ohio but had died of disease in Baltimore in 1862. His older brother James Saul would enlist a few months later in Co. E of the 164th Ohio, a 100 days regiment.

          The 49th Ohio has been on campaign for three straight weeks by the time they arrived in the vicinity of Pickett’s Mill. Ambrose Bierce, then serving as a topographical officer on General William B. Hazen’s staff, wrote a short story on the 24th anniversary of the battle entitled “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.” Bierce had a front row seat in one of the shortest and sharpest engagements of the war, and one that the principal authors of the attack (namely Generals William T. Sherman and Oliver O. Howard) chose to forget rather than remember.
Indiana lieutenant Ambrose Bierce was a topographical
officer on General Hazen's staff at Pickett's Mill.

          Bierce sets the scene for this doomed assault: “For three weeks we had been pushing the Confederates southward, partly by maneuvering, partly by fighting, out of Dalton, out of Resaca, through Adairsville, Kingston and Cassville. Each army offered battle everywhere but would accept it only on its own terms. At Dallas Johnston made another stand and Sherman, facing the hostile line, began his customary maneuvering for an advantage. General Wood's division of Howard's corps occupied a position opposite the Confederate right. Johnston finding himself on the 26th overlapped by Schofield, still farther to Wood's left, retired his right (Polk) across a creek, whither we followed him into the woods with a deal of desultory bickering, and at nightfall had established the new lines at nearly a right angle with the old--Schofield reaching well around and threatening the Confederate rear.”

The attack at Pickett’s Mill was spearheaded by General William B. Hazen’s brigade which consisted of the 6th Indiana, 5th, 6th, and 23rd Kentucky, 1st, 6th, 41st, 93rd, and 124th Ohio. Hazen’s men took heavy casualties and didn’t make a dent in the Confederate lines. Colonel William H. Gibson’s brigade followed up Hazen’s foray and was similarly shellacked: it consisted of the 25th and 89th Illinois, 32nd Indiana, 15th and 49th Ohio, and the predominantly Scandinavian 15th Wisconsin. Both brigades belonged to General Thomas J. Wood’s Third Division of the General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps.

          Attacking entrenched Confederate troops in the thick and twisted woods of northern Georgia was not for the faint of heart. The heavy foliage and lack of knowledge of the location of the enemy contributed to the fog of battle. Bierce wrote that “as to the rank and file, they can know nothing more of the matter than the arms they carry. They hardly know what troops are upon their own right or left the length of a regiment away. If it is a cloudy day they are ignorant even of the points of the compass. It may be said, generally, that a soldier's knowledge of what is going on about him is coterminous with his official relation to it and his personal connection with it; what is going on in front of him he does not know at all until he learns it afterward.”

          Bierce continued: “At 9 o'clock on the morning of the 27th Wood's division was withdrawn and replaced by [David S.] Stanley's. Supported by [Richard W.[ Johnson's division, it moved at 10 o'clock to the left, in the rear of Schofield, a distance of four miles through a forest, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon had reached a position where General Howard believed himself free to move in behind the enemy's forces and attack them in the rear, or at least, striking them in the flank, crush his way along their line in the direction of its length, throw them into confusion and prepare an easy victory for a supporting attack in front.”

          The plan was for Wood’s division to stage the assault as a column of brigades: Hazen’s brigade in the van to be supported by Gibson. The hope was to strike the Confederates in flank and by surprise. It didn’t work. The Federals had moved too slowly and the perceptive Confederates had redeployed their line, transferring troops headed by the able General Patrick Cleburne to head off the threatened danger. Wood’s division wouldn’t be striking a lightly protected flank screened by cavalry- they would be marching smack into an entrenched line of some of the staunchest fighters in the Confederacy. It was a recipe for slaughter.
Map showing the assault at Pickett's Mill- the map can hardly convey the terrain at this field which remains wild and tangled. (Map courtesy of American Battlefield Trust)

General Hazen directed Lieutenant Bierce to perform a perfunctory reconnaissance of the ground in front of them before the brigade stepped off. Bierce wrote that the ground in their front was “uphill through almost impassable tangles of underwood, along and across precipitous ravines. I had pushed far enough forward through the forest to hear distinctly the murmur of the enemy awaiting us.” He duly reported this to Hazen but the command was given to drive the Confederates from their works. 

Hazen’s 1,500 men marched forward in tight ranks- veteran troops determined to do their duty. “We moved forward. In less than one minute the trim battalions had become simply a swarm of men struggling through the undergrowth of the forest, pushing and crowding,” Bierce wrote. “The front was irregularly serrated, the strongest and bravest in advance, the others following in fan-like formations, variable and inconstant, ever defining themselves anew. For the first 200 yards our course lay along the left bank of a small creek in a deep ravine, our left battalions sweeping along its steep slope. Then we came to the fork of the ravine. A part of us crossed below, the rest above, passing over both branches, the regiments inextricably intermingled, rendering all military formation impossible.”

“Suddenly there came a ringing rattle of musketry, the familiar hissing of bullets, and before us the interspaces of the forest were all blue with smoke. Hoarse, fierce yells broke out of a thousand throats. The forward fringe of brave and hardy assailants was arrested in its mutable extensions; the edge of our swarm grew dense and clearly defined as the foremost halted, and the rest pressed forward to align themselves beside them, all firing. The uproar was deafening; the air was sibilant with streams and sheets of missiles. In the steady, unvarying roar of small arms the frequent shock of the cannon was rather felt than heard, but the gusts of grape which they blew into that populous wood were audible enough, screaming among the trees and cracking their stems and branches. We had, of course, no artillery to reply.”

“Standing at the right of the line I had an unobstructed view of the narrow, open space across which the two lines fought. It was dim with smoke, but not greatly obscured: the smoke rose and spread in sheets among the branches of the trees. Most of our men fought kneeling as they fired, many of them behind trees, stones and whatever cover they could get, but there were considerable groups that stood. Occasionally one of these groups, which had endured the storm of missiles for moments without perceptible reduction, would push forward, moved by a common despair, and wholly detach itself from the line. In a second every man of the group would be down. There had been no visible movement of the enemy, no audible change in the awful, even roar of the firing--yet all were down. Frequently the dim figure of an individual soldier would be seen to spring away from his comrades, advancing alone toward that fateful interspace, with leveled bayonet. He got no farther than the farthest of his predecessors.”

“As the wreck of our brigade drifted back through the forest we met the brigade (Gibson's) which, had the attack been made in column as it should have been, would have been but five minutes behind our heels, with another brigade five minutes behind its own. As it was, just 45 minutes had elapsed, during which the enemy had destroyed us and was now ready to perform the same kindly office for our successors. Neither Gibson nor the brigade which was sent to his relief accomplished or could have hoped to accomplish anything whatever,” Bierce acidly concluded.
Pumpkinvine Creek on the Pickett's Mill battlefield in an image I took in the pre-digital camera days on 2001. It is a haunting place to visit. 
George Saul and the remainder of the 49th Ohio moved forward through the debris of Hazen’s shocked and begrimed survivors. The scene could hardly have been inspiring: Federal dead lay strewn along the hillsides and scores of bloody wounded men streamed back to the rear. The woods, clouded with the blue smoke of thousands of black powder muskets punctuated by the bright flashes of muskets and artillery, had to be a scene of unknown terrors. The roar of battle must have been deafening and unrelenting. The men deployed from marching by file into two ranks, and as the officers dressed the line, George lined up shoulder to shoulder with his comrades and prepared to charge.

It was not George’s first experience with battle; that had occurred three weeks before at Tunnel Hill. It had cost him one cousin already. This had all the makings of a first-class disaster. As a 19-year-old recruit, I can only imagine the thoughts that went through his mind. Perhaps he looked to his cousins, all veterans of some of the toughest battles of the war, for encouragement. Perhaps he spied Colonel Gibson as he encouraged the men, or perhaps he looked to his company officers and NCOs for courage. Perhaps he prayed, turning his fortunes over to the God of battles. He may have shook with fear or been a cool as a cucumber eager to cross bayonets with the Rebels. All is speculation. One thing we do know was that he was hungry. Family lore passed down the story that he had not had an opportunity to eat that day. He soon would have cause to be grateful for that inconvenience.
General Hiram Granbury's Texans held back both assaults
on his line at Pickett's Mill, inflicting very heavy losses on
Wood's division. 

The 49th Ohio charged against the Confederate works held by Hiram Granbury’s hard fighting Texas brigade consisting of the 6th, 7th, 10th Texas Infantry regiments along with the dismounted 17/18th and 24th/25th Texas Cavalry regiments. Unfortunately, there are few accounts from the 49th Ohio giving their experience at Pickett’s Mill: roughly half of the regiment’s 400 men were shot down in the engagement. But the best account comes from Corporal William S. Franklin of Co. H who crafted the following account for the National Tribune in 1898.

During the day we were marching and halting and moving over high hills and deep gullies heavily timbered. Late in the afternoon our division was halted for some time and many of the boys took a nap. When they awoke to march, some said that they had presentiments of a calamity before us. But our column had orders to march and soldiers under marching orders cannot stop for presentiments. In our front was a high ridge covered with timber. We ascended this, then marched down the other side into a deep gully some 80 rods from the top. As we were descending a Rebel battery just to our right poured grape and canister, shot and shell into the right flank of our brigade, dealing out destruction.

At the top of the other ridge we had to ascend were two lines of Rebel breastworks, hastily thrown up, one just on the summit and other one nearer us down the slope, so the second line was the most exposed and they could not reinforce the first line after the heavy firing from our musketry began. As we advanced, I heard out boys say they saw white flags waving, that our men had the works. “Let us go on,” they said, and we did, over rocks and other obstructions that required all our courage and strength to overcome. When the battle line got within a few feet of the Rebel breastworks, the enemy arose and opened a terrific fire of musketry into our ranks. Our men replied with great fury and for an hour at least death and destruction reigned supreme. Those of who lived through that struggle cannot forget what surrounded us.

The regiments of our brigade, like most all others, had been greatly reduced in numbers, yet our loss in the division was 1,600 men. Our regiment went into the charge with 414 and it came out with 207 men; fifty percent of our men were thus numbered among the killed, wounded, and missing. After the charge, we held our line near the enemy’s works that we failed to take and kept up a continuous firing so that the Rebels had to keep closely behind their works. It was during the first half hour of fighting that so many of our boys lost their lives. When darkness came over that bloody scene, the firing ceased and our soldiers lay in line of battle with one load left in their guns and with fixed bayonets waiting for orders. Finally a faint whistle was sounded all along the line for us to fall back. We were in too dangerous a place to have retreat sounded from the bugle. We fell back into the hollow and marched up the slope northward where the 14th Corps had built heavy works. General Wood’s division, or what was left of it, was marched to the rear for rest.

It was afterwards ascertained that 19 of my company were dead. [Sergeant George McEwen was one of them.] Those soldiers who survived that conflict fired about 100 cartridges each. Our gun barrels were hot all the time, so that we were compelled to hold the stock while loading and firing at the enemy. We had 60 rounds of ammunition each to start with and many of the officers emptied the cartridge boxes of the wounded and dead to distribute among the fighters. Lieutenant [Francis R.] Stewart, afterwards Captain, gave me four boxes full of cartridges and I fired all but one charge. My tongue became thickly swollen from biting off the ends of the cartridges for loading purposes and I could hardly talk for several days afterwards.

When our men were leaving the slaughter pen in the darkness, those of our comrades who were severely wounded raised dismal cries and appealed to us to take them along to the rear, but we could not, for we were nearly helpless ourselves.

Colonel William Harvey Gibson, 49th Ohio

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

“Wipe out Perryville!” The 121st Ohio’s Redemption at Chickamauga

The 121st Ohio Volunteer Infantry was among the last of the regiments raised in the state of Ohio during the summer of 1862. Following the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, state and federal authorities in the Ohio Valley were scrambling to muster in troops to prevent the Confederacy from reaching the Ohio River. This regiment, raised from six mid-Ohio counties, was mustered into service at Camp Delaware, Ohio on September 10, 1862 with 985 men and immediately sent down to Cincinnati to bolster the city’s defenses. The regiment was armed with a mix of weapons, including “worthless Prussian muskets.” [The 1862 annual report of the state quartermaster general of Ohio shows that the regiment was provided with “900 Austrian muskets, .54 caliber.”] After a few weeks of uneventful guard duty around the city, the regiment was dispatched to Louisville, Kentucky to reinforce General Don Carlos Buell’s army. “Up to this date, the men had not been drilled an hour and, of course, were totally unfit for service in the field,” wrote Whitelaw Reid.

         Upon arriving at Louisville, the 121st Ohio found itself assigned to a brigade of new troops under the command of Colonel George Webster of the 98th Ohio. They were assigned to General James S. Jackson’s division; Jackson’s other brigade was also a green one led by General William R. Terrill. Webster’s command, designated the 34th Brigade, consisted of the 80th Indiana, 50th, 98th, and 121st Ohio regiments, and the six-gun 19th Indiana Battery; the regiments were all green and would be put through the wringer at Perryville mere days later.

Not only were the troops inexperienced and had had had little opportunity to drill, but the 121st Ohio had another problem: the guns they were issued at Cincinnati were junk. Two days before the Battle of Perryville, while the regiment was passing through Taylorsville, Kentucky, the rifles of the regiment were inspected, and it was found that over 400 of them wouldn’t fire. A correspondent to the Marysville Tribune lamented that some of the guns had bad tubes, a large number had wet loads in them that couldn’t be fired or extracted, others couldn’t burst a cap due to issues with the trigger or hammer.

Despite of the defective weapons, the regiment continued towards its first meeting with the Confederates at Perryville. Captain Aaron Robinson of Co. I described the march to the battlefield. Each man carried “a change of clothes, a blanket, and overcoat but no knapsacks. With these strapped upon their shoulders as best they could do it, together with their gun, rations, and cartridge box they marched 20 miles a day. Some died on the road from exhaustion. The second day was rainy, and the clothing became wet and heavy. They had no tents. The next morning, wearied, they threw away their blankets, overcoats, and hundreds of such articles were piled upon the camp fires and burned. There was no alternative.”

Regardless, the volunteers were eager to meet the enemy. Chaplain Lemuel Drake reported that “on the morning of the 8th of October, we heard that the enemy was near Perryville and awaiting the approach of our army. We left our baggage train and camp equipage and took nothing with us but our medical stores and ambulances. After we had marched about three miles, we could hear very distinctly the booming of cannon in our front. Although our men were tired, hungry, and thirsty, yet when they heard the report of cannon, they were inspired with new vigor and for the time being forgot hunger, weariness, and thirst, and panted to be in the battle.”

Later that afternoon, the regiment was ordered to support a battery which was under intense Confederate fire. Chaplain Drake wrote that “when the order was given the regiment to march on the field of battle, many of them were astounded that they should be compelled to go and support a battery when they knew that their guns could not be used. But our men marched and took their position.”
The situation at Perryville just before 4 P.M. on October 8, 1862. The 80th Indiana, another green regiment like the 121st Ohio, took position in the rear of the Widow Gibson House. Confederates soon struck the Indiana line and sent into pell mell into the ranks of the 121st Ohio which soon broke and retreated. 
(Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen,

           “The country through here is very rolling, even in places rough,” wrote a 121st Ohio veteran. “Imagine a hill running north and south declining from the apex each way gradually about 60 rods. Along the top was a lane fenced in on both sides. Our men were approaching on the left side of the fence marching by the right flank in files of four men, the head of the column fronting to the fence and the enemy. After the head of the column was within 100 yards of the fence, they were halted. There was an Indiana regiment occupying the lane and fence. The Rebels were approaching and pouring a deadly fire into the regiment at the fence,” he wrote. “The Rebels approached so near the fence that the Indiana regiment broke and with wounds all over them, bleeding and frightened, they ran promiscuously through the 121st.”

Our men had been standing in the position in which they halted waiting for an order. The side of the hill our men occupied was thinly timbered and in the rear of it was a cornfield in which our battery was stationed. Our battery was playing over our heads and a Rebel battery was returning the fire with the shells whistling in every direction. The men could not fire without killing their own men, so under these circumstances some of the men broke from the ranks and stationed themselves behind trees and opened fire. When the Indiana regiment broke through them and the Rebels were gathering behind the fence, the men anxiously inquired what they should do. Just then the Colonel [William P. Reid] gave the order to retreat. When they were ordered to retreat, they at once became confused and the ranks were broken,” wrote a 121st Ohio soldier.
The situation at Perryville around 4:30 P.M.
(Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen,

The result was another Federal battlefield disaster. Generals Jackson and Terrill were killed on the field, as was Colonel Webster. His brigade suffered 645 casualties and the 121st Ohio garnered an unenviable reputation for bolting from the field. Reid wrote that the 121st Ohio fought at Perryville “at great disadvantage and did not win for itself much reputation for military efficiency.”

The 121st Ohio remained behind in Kentucky on guard duty for several months, the morale of the regiment shaken by their poor performance in battle. The regiment buried the dead of the Perryville and attended to this grisly task into November 1862. Gradually the men replaced their lost clothing; the guns were either repaired or disposed of and new weapons issued. The following spring, Lieutenant Colonel William S. Irwin resigned and Lieutenant Colonel Henry B. Banning of the 125th Ohio was detailed to take charge of drilling the regiment. Banning’s leadership proved a tonic for the regiment: it soon became one of the best drilled regiments in the brigade.

           In 1863, the regiment joined the Army of the Cumberland at Murfreesboro, Tennessee and was assigned to the Reserve Corps under Major General Gordon Granger. The 121st Ohio, along with old brigade mates the 98th Ohio, were assigned to Colonel John G. Mitchell’s Second Brigade of General James B. Steedman’s First Division.

The Reserve Corps went into action at Chickamauga about midday on September 20th, marching in support of General George H. Thomas’ position on Horseshoe Ridge. Steedman’s Division arrived just in the nick of time to protect Thomas’ right flank, and the 121st Ohio took full part in this action. Although considerably reduced in numbers (21 officers and 214 men went into action on September 20th), the regiment was a far cry from the poorly armed and nervous rookies that took the field at Perryville.
Lt. Col. Henry B. Banning, 121st O.V.I.

Regimental leadership certainly made a difference. “Let me especially mention the gallantry and bravery of our lieutenant colonel Henry B. Banning who so bravely led the regiment into action,” Sergeant David Clifton wrote. “While making a charge his horse was shot and he was severely stunned by the fall, so much as to be compelled to remain behind awhile. But as soon as he had somewhat recovered, he joined the regiment again in their bloody work.” The months of drill and discipline were about to pay off.

Sergeant David H. Clifton of Co. D, who was serving as the regimental clerk during the battle, relayed his experiences at Chickamauga. “On the morning of the 20th of September, our regiment was ordered from a point on the Ringgold road to the support of General Thomas who was some three miles to our right. After marching about two-thirds of the distance, the enemy opened a battery upon us from the woods on our left. They, however, did us no damage as their shells passed over our heads and exploded some distance from us. Our battery came up and engaged them for a short time which drew their attention from us, and we marched on and formed junction with Thomas who commanded the Center Corps.”

Captain Aaron Robinson continues: “Although the regiment had been active from the 17th until after the battle and were in several skirmishes during that time, it was about 1 o’clock of that memorable Sabbath when its raised the fearful war cry [“Wipe out Perryville!” as reported by Whitelaw Reid] and made the first charge upon the advancing columns of Rebels. It was the work of but a few minutes to utterly rout them and drive them in confusion before us.”
Colonel John G. Mitchell

Sergeant Clifton: “Hardly had we got into position ere we were met by a bold charge from the enemy; but with that firmness that would have done honor to veterans, our boys handsomely checked them and soon sent them flying back. Several successive assaults were made upon our front which were likewise bravely met and repulsed. The regiment then charged at one time upon the 22nd Alabama and captured their colors, driving them from the hill. On the colors were inscribed “22nd Alabama Regiment, Shiloh and Murfreesboro.” They have been sent to Governor Tod to be deposited with the archives of the state. We also captured stand of colors but the man who was carrying them off was wounded and they were left with him upon the field.” The 22nd Alabama was part of Zachariah Deas’ Brigade of Hindman’s Division and lost five color bearers and 175 casualties out of 400 men engaged at Chickamauga.
Colonel John G. Mitchell's brigade held the far right of Thomas' position along Horseshoe Ridge.
(Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen,

We held our position during the entire engagement and after exhausting the last round in our cartridge boxes and all that could be gathered from the boxes of our dead and wounded comrades, night had begun to throw her sable garment around us and we retired in good order,” wrote Clifton.

Captain Robinson remembered that “the Rebels finally rallied in such numbers and with such fury to regain their lost ground as made the contest long and fierce beyond description. Our brave boys one after another were carried away among the wounded. Still the grounds were contested inch by inch until the whole line gradually gave way and fell back to a position in the rear. It became necessary then for us to abandon our position, but still our boys reluctantly yielded to the advancing foe and proudly taunted them with the flag of the 22nd Alabama which they had captured and bore away with them from that sanguinary field. It was indeed painful to leave that field, consecrated with our blood and endeared by our fallen comrades. The entire command fell back in good order to our old camp at Rossville, three miles to the rear of the battle field and rested for the night in perfect security, the Rebels never offering to molest us. Our lieutenant colonel (Henry Banning) however is the idol of his boys and was in the thickest of the fight and won the admiration of all. I will only add that the friends of the 121st need have no fears for the reputation of the regiment for it is destined to rise above all opposition and win a place in the history of this war. It is made up of heroes brave and true.”

The regiment had salvaged their reputation, but it came at a heavy cost: nine killed, 82 wounded, and seven missing, a casualty rate of 41%.
Lieutenant Robert F. Fleming of Co. I, 121st O.V.I. was killed in action September 20, 1863. 

Solomon Fish of Co. C captured the Polk-pattern flag of the 22nd Alabama Infantry. It is an interesting story as to how this flag was captured. This version comes from Reverend W.M. Jones who visited a 121st Ohio reunion in 1888 and talked with several the veterans regarding the flag. The 22nd Alabama regiment had gone into action on September 20th and had lost several color bearers, including one just as the sun was setting. “The color bearer was mortally wounded through the hips and lower part of the trunk. When he (Fish) and his comrade came to the color bearer, he was gripping the flag with one hand and with the other was trying to get the folds under his body so as to hide them. He and Fish drew the flag from under the Confederate, who was too weak to resist, and must have died very soon after.”
22nd Alabama Infantry flag captured at Chickamauga

Another member of the 121st Ohio told me that Fish said he did not want the “dirty rag” and asked what he should do with it. A young man who had been recently appointed sergeant for bravery on the field [Andrew Stephens of Co. C] said, “give it to me, I want it.” When he got it in his hands, he began waving it and cheering. He was admonished of the danger in attracting the attention of the Rebels who were then slowly retreating and firing, but he would not heed them and was soon shot and fell with the flag.” [Stephens had been appointed to sergeant but was reduced to the ranks and died of his wound October 22, 1863.] Solomon Fish was appointed corporal the following spring and at one time served as the color bearer of the regiment. He was mustered out with the regiment in 1865. Fish lived to the ripe old age of 87 (1841-1929) and is buried at Bokes Creek Cemetery in Delaware Co., Ohio.

The captured 22nd Alabama flag was presented to Governor David Tod of Ohio in 1863 and was displayed at the State Capitol in Columbus until 1972. It was then returned to the state of Alabama where it has been conserved and resides today.

Letter from Chaplain Lemuel F. Drake, Cincinnati Commercial, November 8, 1862, pg. 1
Letter from Captain Aaron B. Robinson, Marysville Tribune, October 29, 1862, pg. 2; also October 14, 1863, pg. 2
Letter from unidentified member of 121st OVI, Marysville Tribune, November 19, 1862, pg. 2
Letter from Sergeant David H. Clifton, Delaware Gazette, November 6, 1863, pg. 2
The Twenty-Second Alabama Regiment,” Troy (Alabama) Messenger, September 20, 1888, pg. 8