Standing like pillars of adamant: the 61st Ohio at Freeman's Ford


The Battle of Freeman’s Ford, Virginia was fought August 22, 1862 along the banks of the Rappahannock River in one of the opening thrusts of the campaign which culminated with the Second Battle of Bull Run. Stonewall Jackson was busily working his way along the south bank of the Rappahannock in an attempt to get around the right flank of General John Pope’s Army of Virginia when scouts reported the movement to General Franz Sigel. Sigel directed divisional commander Carl Schurz to reconnoiter across the river to determine the enemy’s strength, and if possible, to disrupt the movement of Confederate forces.
Major General Carl Schurz

“I selected Colonel Schimmelpfennig’s 74th Pennsylvania,” wrote General Schurz. “Schimmelpfennig forthwith forded the river, the water reaching up to the belts of the men, ascended the rising open field on the other side, crossed a belt of timber on top of it and saw a large wagon train of the enemy moving northward apparently unguarded. He promptly captured eleven heavily-loaded pack mules and several infantrymen, and also observed troops marching not far off. His booty he sent to me, with the request that the other two regiments of the brigade be thrown across to support him if he were to do anything further, and to secure his retreat in case the enemy should try to get between him and the river.”

Schurz had the two remaining regiments of General Henry Bohlen’s brigade at hand at Freeman’s Ford (the 8th West Virginia and 61st Ohio) and sent them over to reinforce Schimmelpfennig’s line. “Although in the regular order of things I was not required as commander of the division to accompany the brigade in person, I followed an instinctive impulse to do so, this being my first opportunity to be with the troops of my command under fire. I placed a mountain howitzer battery on an eminence to sweep the open field and the roads on the other side in case of necessity and then I crossed with some members of my staff,” wrote Schurz.

Earlier that morning, General Schurz had honored the 61st Ohio by presenting the regiment with the divisional colors. “While yet four miles distant from the battleground, General Schurz presented the 61st Ohio with his divisional colors and said he hoped we would do them honor,” remembered Private Samuel Rau of Company D. “We proudly took them, and gave three hearty cheers as the ample folds of the good old flag were unfurled over our heads.” Colonel Newton Schleich entrusted the colors to Sergeant William Kirkwood of Company C. “The Colonel called for me and told me that he assigned to me the part of honor, and that I must never let these colors fall,” wrote Kirkwood. “I promised him they never should until I fell with them. The Colonel then called on the boys to never disgrace him, their regiment, or their colors.” The regiment soon had ample opportunity to win their laurels.
Colonel Newton Schleich, 61st OVI

Private Rau continues the story. “The Rappahannock is fordable at this point. We were however obliged to wade through the water and mud almost waist deep and protected our guns and ammunitions from the wet by holding them at arms’ length and over our heads. After emerging from the water we were obliged to climb a steep, shrub-covered embankment in order to gain the level meadow above. Upon gaining the level space beyond the river, we formed into platoons and slowly proceeded to the edge of a wood on a gently sloping hill and halted.”

Crossing the Rappahannock at the head of its regiment as it entered its first fight, Colonel Schleich soon disappeared. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen J. McGroarty reported that the colonel, “shortly after the opening of the fight, could not be found, and the regiment, being without a head, was led on by Captain Koenig of General Schurz’s staff and myself.” Colonel Schleich was not alone; several weeks later McGroarty reported in his official after action report of the campaign that the colonel and seven lieutenants were also “unaccountably absent since the skirmish at Freeman’s Ford. I hope, general, that you will find it convenient to inquire into the reason of the absence and general conduct of the named officers.” General Schimmelpfenning did so inquire, and by mid-October 1862, Schleich and all seven lieutenants had either been discharged or had resigned their commissions.
Colonel (later Brigadier General) Alexander Schimmelpfennig, 74th Pennsylvania Infantry

While some of the officers sloughed off into the brush, the remainder of the regiment stood their ground. Private Rau wrote that “we were only a few minutes in the woods until our skirmishers commenced a brisk fire, and soon after were forced to fall back upon us for support. The enemy at first tried to draw us into an ambush, but finding that General Sigel would not bite at the bait, set in upon us with the ferocity of devils incarnate.”
 
The "devils incarnate" that gave the 61st Ohio the most trouble at Freeman's Ford was the three regiments of General Isaac R. Trimble's brigade. The "tail end Charlie" of Jackson's column, Trimble was tasked with defending the wagon train and his regiments were the first on the scene to confront the 74th Pennsylvania. Trimble bided his time until reinforcements from the head of Longstreet's column (two brigades from John Bell Hood's division) approached late in the afternoon. Trimble then sent two of his regiments off through the woods to strike the Union right flank and made a hard push with the 21st North Carolina. His attack was quite successful; the 8th West Virginia bolted at the first shot and the 74th Pennsylvania was not long in following. In his after action report, Trimble gave scant credit to any of Hood's men for the success at Freeman's Ford, claiming the victory belonged solely to his troops.
 

“Colonel Schimmelpfennig’s foresight in asking for help proved well founded,” averred General Schurz. “When he proceeded to subject the Rebel wagon train to further annoyance, Trimble’s brigade of Stonewall Jackson’s rear guard suddenly turned about and fell on our right flank, and the two regiments brought to Schimmelpfennig’s aid were at once hotly engaged.” Private Joseph C. Lowe of Co. C of the 61st Ohio stated that the skirmishers “had been out but a few moments when firing became general between them and the enemy, and in less time than I am taking to describe the scene which occurred, the skirmishers came rushing in, firing as they ran, hotly pursued by more than ten times their number. We no sooner discovered this than a line of battle was formed by our brigade in front of the woods on the south side, while the enemy was steadily advancing in front with several whole brigades, firing into our ranks as they advanced, and we, standing like pillars of adamant, not daring to fire for fear of cutting down our own men (the skirmishers) between us and the enemy. No sooner had the skirmishers entered within our own lines than we discharged a volley into the enemy’s ranks and fell back a few steps to the edge of the woods and loaded, preparatory to a second volley, when the 8th West Virginia and 74th Pennsylvania retreated.”
The hard charging Texans of General John Bell Hood's division suffered a total of 10 casualties, all wounded, at Freeman's Ford. Hood had a healthy respect for the plentiful Union artillery on the north bank and after driving Bohlen's brigade across the river, he halted and pulled his men back to safer ground. Law's Brigade suffered no casualties at Freeman's Ford.
 

Schurz reported that the Confederate assault “was fierce, and my 8th West Virginia broke and ran. My first service on the battlefield thus consisted in stopping and rallying broken troops, which I and my staff officers did with drawn swords and lively language.” (Schurz would unfortunately gain much experience in this activity, being with the 11th Corps at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg). The men of the 61st Ohio watched in disbelief as first their skirmishers then entire regiments started to bolt from the field. “The Rebels came out in swarms, the 8th West Virginia ran and never rallied until they got across the river, and the 74th Pennsylvania ran right through our line of battle but we stood our ground like men,” wrote Sergeant Kirkwood with understandable pride.
Battle of Freeman's Ford overlaid on modern satellite image of the battlefield. Companies A and I of the 61st Ohio were sent out as skirmishers and came racing back for the main line when Confederate General Isaac Trimble launched his assault, backed up by the famous Texas Brigade and Evander Law's brigade. The rout of the 8th West Virginia left the 61st Ohio vulnerable on their right flank, while the retreat of the 74th Pennsylvania left them alone against three Confederate brigades and nearly surrounded. (Author's work)

The 61st Ohio was soon hemmed in by Confederate infantry in their front and on both flanks. Private Lowe wrote that “the third time our boys rallied and discharged another volley, when another brigade was discovered on our right flank, firing into our ranks as they advanced. Thus we were almost entirely hemmed in, the enemy being in front and on the right and left flank, and a muddy dirty river in our rear. As soon as this was discovered, we were ordered to fall back; the flight and the pursuit then became general. Our men ran down the hill and plunged into the river at whatever point they happened first to make, some swimming, others running the best way they could, and others trudging through the mud, the enemy’s balls falling in the river and on the opposite bank for which our troops were making, like hail in a violent storm. It is certainly providential and appears almost miraculous that so many of us escaped.”

Battle of Freeman's Ford
 

Sergeant Kirkwood was wounded twice while retreating toward the ford. “I was hit across the head and fell; I gathered myself up and was then struck across the knee cap which came near knocking it off. The colonel then ordered me to be taken to the rear; as I was leaving, they made the third and last rally. I gave the flag to a brave little corporal on my right as I left but he was soon knocked over, but another one of the color guards picked up the flag and brought it across the river safe.”

“The ‘butternut devils’ fought with desperation,” commented Private Rau who was wounded in the leg during the retreat. “Many of them were without coats or hats and look it ala-Bull Run. They pursued us to the water’s edge and many of our brave fellows perished in the river, being obliged to cross below the ferry where the water was too deep to be waded, and where the enemy was playing with musketry. The engagement lasted about an hour, but was most terrific for the numbers engaged.”
 

Brigadier General Henry Bohlen died along the
banks of the Rappahannock amidst the retreating
61st Ohio. "Boys, I am dead, but go on and fight!" he
reportedly said before he died. The Confederates
retrieved the body, misidentifying him as a colonel.

Sergeant Kirkwood witnessed the death of General Bohlen along the river bank. “As I was leaving the field, our general (Henry Bohlen) was shot within 30 feet of me and his horse came near running over the boys that were helping me from the field. Lieutenant Milton W. Junkins, who is a brave little fellow, was knocked down the bank of the river by a smearcase Dutchman belonging to the 74th Pennsylvania; (this regiment had) rallied on the river bank and were pouring a galling fire into our regiment as we were retreating down the hill.” Private Rau also witnessed the death of General Bohlen, stating that “as he fell, he exclaimed, ‘Boys, I am dead, but go on and fight!”

“Many of us were saved by the timely energy of Schenk’s and Milroy’s men on this side of the river who, as soon as our men were supposed to have arrived, covered our retreat by a galling fire upon the enemy who had followed us to the water’s edge,” wrote Private Lowe. “I myself had plunged in the river at the first place I came and after swimming perhaps some 20 feet found that my haversack, canteen, cartridge box with 50 rounds, and heavy clothing were weighing me down in deep water, when I made my way back to the shore, and laid there in the mud under the bank until the fire on both sides, which continued for the space of half an hour over my head, had ceased, and the enemy had retreated.”

General Schurz stated that “when our regiments were out of the woods, they went down the field to the river at a somewhat accelerated pace. Forthwith our artillery opened to keep the enemy from venturing into the open, but they pushed a skirmish line to the edge of the woods to send their musket balls after us. General Bohlen fell dead from his horse, shot through the heart. I thought it would not do for the division commander and his staff officers to retreat in full view of his command at a gait faster than a walk. So we moved down to the river in a leisurely way. I did not cross the ford until my regiments were all on the other side. When I rode up the bank, the brigade drawn up there in line received me with a ringing cheer. I met General Sigel, who watched the whole operation. His first word was “Where is your hat?” I answered, “It must be somewhere in the woods yonder. Whether it was knocked from my head by a Rebel bullet or the branch of a tree, I don’t know. But let us say a Rebel bullet. It sounds better.” We had a merry laugh. “Well,” said Sigel, “I am glad you are here again. When I saw you coming down that field at a walk under the fire from the woods, I feared to see you drop at any moment.”
Corps commander Franz Sigel met General Schurz
and his staff after they retreated safely across the
Rappahannock. His first words to Schurz were
"Where is your hat?"
 
“This Freeman’s Ford fight amounted to very little as it was,” wrote Schurz. “But it might have been of importance had it been followed up by a vigorous push of our forces assembled at and near Freeman’s Ford to break into the Rebel column of march just at the point where Jackson’s wagon train passed along and only his rearguard and Longstreet’s vanguard were within supporting distance.”

That evening, Private Rau was loaded in an ambulance and set out for Washington. “Late in the evening of the day of battle, we left for Rappahannock Station with sixteen ambulances full of wounded, and from thence on Saturday morning for Alexandria, where we arrived at 4 o’clock Sunday morning. Washington and Alexandria are literally filled with sick and wounded. Private houses, churches, and even parts of the Capitol building are being converted into hospitals. Everything is excitement and bustle.”

Freeman’s Ford was a battle of beginnings and endings for both the 61st Ohio and for General Carl Schurz. For the regiment and the general, it was the first exposure to the rigors of combat, and both would see much more of it before the war would come to a close. The 61st Ohio gained a reputation for its steadiness under fire at Freeman’s Ford. Whitelaw Reid wrote that the 61st Ohio “was always a reliable regiment and was ever found where duty called it. Its losses by the casualties of the field were so numerous that at the close of its service a little band of only about 60 men and officers remained to answer it last roll call.” Sergeant Kirkwood offered that Freeman’s Ford “will never be forgotten by any of us, for we may get into 50 fights before we get through and never get into as hot a place as we did that day.”
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen J. McGroarty led the 61st Ohio at Freeman's Ford after Colonel Schleich went "unaccountably absent." He would lead the regiment for the rest of the war.
 
But the battle also proved to be the beginning of the end of Colonel Newton Schleich. He rode across the Rappanhannock with the regiment into the engagement but then unaccountably disappeared for the remainder of the battle, and for several days afterwards could not be found. Having charged Sergeant Kirkwood with never disgracing the regiment, Schleich’s actions during and after the battle became subject to wide comment with the opinions being that Schleich was either a drunk or a coward.

In his post entitled “A Tremendous Little Man” featured on Emerging Civil War on August 30th of this year (see: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2017/08/30/a-tremendous-little-man-newton-schleich-in-the-civil-war/) Jon-Erik Gilot opined that Schleich was “arguably one of the worst political generals produced by the state of Ohio during the Civil War” and it is hard to disagree with that assessment. With rumors swirling that he had been either drunk or a coward at Freeman’s Ford (as well as charges of negligence and outright desertion) and finding his regiment again under the command of his old nemesis George B. McClellan, Schleich offered his resignation on September 20, 1862 which was accepted a few days later.
 

 
Letter from a member of Co. B, 74th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry published in the September 9, 1862 issue of the  Pittsburgher Volksblatt describing the fight at Freeman's Ford.

 

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