Atop the Coaling: the 66th Ohio at Port Republic

As this marks my 50th blog post, I wanted to put together something special to note the occasion and decided to share a sneak preview of a future book that I'm working that shares the experience of William A. Brand of the 66th Ohio Infantry. In a truly extraordinary series of letters that he wrote to the Urbana Citizen and Gazette, Brand documented the regimental experience from the point of view of an ordinary private in the ranks but with a twist: he was detailed to assist his father Joseph C. Brand (who was the regimental quartermaster) in the quartermaster's department. By 1864, the younger Brand took over from his father and served as regimental quartermaster for the duration of the conflict. 

The letter below was published in the June 26, 1862 issue of the Citizen & Gazette and is one of the best accounts of Port Republic I have come across. The 66th Ohio played a critical role in the battle, providing direct support to the Federal batteries arrayed atop The Coaling; the batteries were overrun by the Confederates and in brutal hand to hand fighting, the 66th Ohio recovered the guns, then covered the retreat, losing heavily in the process.  Suffice it to say that my short description hardly does justice to Brand's account, so without further ado, please read below:


Luray, Page Co. Virginia
June 17, 1862
We moved from Columbia Bridge near where my last letter was written on Saturday June 7th and proceeded leisurely southward on some unknown expedition. Some days previous had been involved in mystery, and the men were getting very tired of performing hard and what seemed to them useless labor. We would march forward three or four miles, remains in bivouac long enough to get comfortably fixed, and then ordered to countermarch and back we would go to our old camp or some place near there. 
Colonel Samuel S. Carroll

Nothing of any material interest occurred during that day and we all supposed we were going to Waynesboro near Staunton to intercept Jackson and cut off his retreat. Had the affair of Sunday been properly managed, there is no doubt but that Jackson’s whole force would have been compelled to surrender at Port Republic. Fremont was pushing him up rapidly and on Sunday attacked him and compelled him to retreat with a loss of prisoners and say 800 killed. In the engagement of Sunday morning, Colonel Samuel S. Carroll with a small force dashed through the bridge at Port Republic and was repulsed by artillery and infantry which he found to be too heavy and plenty for him. When he discovered the presence of the enemy in such force, he should have burnt the bridge at all hazards of court martial or low. This he had the opportunity of doing and indeed the bridge was three times fired by our pioneers. But he had orders to the contrary and chose to obey them. The sacrifice of our brigade is the consequence, and upon some shoulders must rest responsibility.

Shenandoah Campaign, including the Battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic- map courtesy of Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

I see by the Baltimore Clipper (one of which has unaccountably strayed into camp) that Colonel Carroll is placed in command on Monday. Such is not the case. General Tyler commanded, and the Third Brigade did the fighting and was not compelled to retire in the manner mentioned in the report. The 7th Indiana was the only regiment of the Fourth Brigade that did any fighting on Monday and they were disabled in the first charge. 

Colonel Erastus B. Tyler


Port Republic is a small village situated between two forks of the Shenandoah or on one end of a long island, I cannot tell which. It is about 12 miles south of Harrisonburg and is in Rockingham County. In giving you my views of the battle, I state only what I saw and what I know to be so. The report I send is not full as there were many movements of the regiment which cannot be described so as to be understood. I will endeavor to give the important details and sufficient to stir up the pride of our friends at home.

On Sunday morning we heard firing in the direction of Port Republic and supposed there was a skirmish going on. Soon word was brought that the Fourth Brigade had been repulsed at the bridge and the command cut to pieces. We were ordered up rapidly. When we reached the ground upon which the battle of next morning was fought, our brigade was halted and formed in line. We were then marched up through the thick laurel bushes and placed in ambush. During the afternoon we were frequently moved about through the woods and over the mountain which ran parallel to the river and finally were brought to a line in ambush, nearly opposite the bridge. We were then hidden from the observation of the enemy who was across the river; but we could see the movements of his army very plainly. For some hours we had heard heavy cannonading and at intervals could hear the rattle of musketry over the river, probably eight or ten miles distant, and we thought then that Fremont was engaging Jackson. This seemed to us more probable from the fact that as soon as the artillery commenced to play upon the Fourth Brigade, the firing in that direction also commenced.
Battle of Port Republic

About 4 o’clock the firing ceased and afterwards we could see plainly the rapid movements of ambulances from the river two miles above us and their slow movement to the same place. From this we judged that the dead and wounded were being borne off the late battlefield. If that was really the purpose of the moving of those vehicles, I am sure that the loss of the Rebels must have been very great. At dusk, the brigade was ordered back to the place where our line was first formed. This was a mile from where we last lay in ambush and was well chosen in two points of view: 1st, the enemy had not yet seen our brigade and 2nd, they lay behind a knoll which served to protect them from the artillery if suddenly abandoned. Here they remained during the night.

Early next morning (Monday June 9th) after rations were issued, but before the men had time to cook or eat anything, the ball was opened. I was standing at the battery which, for convenience, I will call the first (Battery L, 1st Ohio Light Artillery under Captain Lucius N. Robinson), and which was placed on a slight elevation overlooking the entire ground. Immediately on the left and bending around to the right in front and running nearly directly back was a mountain covered with timber, brush, and bushes. Near the battery was a thick undergrowth of laurel and scrub oak. A deep ravine ran up into the mountain from behind the battery and in front was a deep depression into the side of the hill. On the right and a little in front was a stone or brick house, surrounded by numerous small buildings. Beyond and around the house were open fields running forward towards the river. It was evident that the position of the enemy had been changed during the night and I was endeavoring to discover them but to no purpose. Suddenly a puff of smoke flew out from the woods where the evening before our regiment had lain, and a few seconds afterward the loud, sharp bark of the Rebel gun and then the whiz-z-z-z-z of a shell passing over our heads told us to look out next time. Colonel Daum sprang to his gun and quicker than I write it, three guns opened on the Rebels and a rapid artillery engagement was kept up for half an hour.

Our brigade was then in line in the fields to the right and rear of the battery and behind the knoll I have mentioned. Soon another battery was erected on the knoll in front of our brigade and I will call this the second battery. The original plan, I think, was to have our brigade support the second battery and the Fourth Brigade support the first battery. But it soon became apparent that the Fourth Brigade was useless, as it had been hidden away and could not be found, excepting only the 7th Indiana regiment.
Colonel Charles Candy, 66th Ohio Infantry

The first infantry movement of the enemy was discovered to be an attempt to flank us on the left. Company B of our regiment and Co. C of the 5th Ohio were ordered into the woods on our left as skirmishers and have not since been seen. Lieutenant McDonald who was with the company says they moved about in the hills until the retreat was ordered, but that they did not know it had been ordered. They were starting out to rejoin the regiment, supposing that our forces had been victorious and had 15 prisoners with them. He and five others alone reached us.

During half an hour’s heavy firing from the batteries, the 7th Indiana and a portion of our regiment was formed upon the right and stretched through the grain fields towards the river. The enemy opened upon them from a battery near the bridge and cavalry and infantry were suddenly discovered advancing towards our columns. Musketry was then in a continuous roar for two hours and although the enemy had the advantage in position and were sheltered behind fences, they fell thick and fast before the steady fire of our soldiers. A charge was ordered and our whole line advanced in good ordered, firing as they went until they were within 50 yards of the enemy and where they could distinctly see and some recognized the Rebel Jackson. The Rebels gave way and marched a rapid retreat towards the bridge. Our force pushed on in pursuit until they found themselves flanked by a bridge of the enemy emerging from the timber along the river. The 5th Ohio and 7th Indiana were surrounded and cut their way out as best they could. They were so terribly cut up that they were unfit for further service. 

At this time, our regiment was stationed on the side of the mountain in support of Captain Robinson’s battery, the first described, and had an opportunity of witnessing the terrible conflict going on below them, and little thinking that soon the time would come which would find them engaged in a conflict ten times more deadly. Suddenly two regiments were seen advancing down the road and out of the timber upon the battery we were supporting. Two other regiments approached upon our left flank, making four regiments in all. The 66th Ohio was ordered to countermarch in double quick time and formed across the road behind the battery, which was done promptly and before the enemy could be seen from that point. They immediately took up the position we had left and poured a most terrific fire upon the battery, killing one half of the artillerists and horses. The horses being left to themselves turned suddenly towards our line and ran with fury upon and through our line, crushing men, with wagons, caissons, and guns. The 66th stood the shock with wonderful coolness, although some did give way for a moment but they were rallied immediately by the field and staff. Imagine now, if you please, one regiment numbering about 600 men, standing before two regiments and upon the right of two regiments, all of whom were pouring in their most deadly fire upon us, and who were endeavoring to capture five guns then in our possession. Let your people forget for a moment the agony which the contest I now describe caused and think of that brave regiment standing under such a fire and doing their utmost to protect those guns, and then rejoice that you sent heroes to represent you in the battlefield.

The two regiments in front advanced and surrounded our guns and the two other regiments closed down upon the left flank of our regiment and showered the bullets upon our boys. Two batteries were opened upon us from the open fields and still the 66th Ohio refused to yield one inch of ground and so constant was the rattle of musket balls around the Rebels that they could neither turn the captured guns upon us nor remove them from the field. For two long hours this fight continued until Colonel Candy ordered a charge. Forward and into the very ranks of the Rebels rushed our brave boys with shouts and telling, mixing in hand to hand, bayoneting and shooting their antagonists. Terror stricken, the enemy gave way and the guns were ours again. And then, great God, what a spectacle for civilized people! Piled up in heaps around the guns lay the ghastly gory bodies of the slain Rebels, so thick were the dead that our boys could not stop for them, but rushed along over the bodies. The guns were loaded with canister and three rounds were poured into the retreating host, plowing lanes through their confused ranks. The rout seemed to be complete, and our men followed up to the brick house and outhouses, some putting their guns through the cracks in the houses and killing men inside. A corn crib was filled with Rebel soldiers who had taken shelter there. They came out through a small hole one by one and were shot as soon as they reached that gap.

Our victory seemed complete at this moment when the enemy received reinforcements of cavalry and infantry who approached rapidly from the bridge. They were in great numbers- indeed whole fields seemed covered with them. Our hard-earned victory was suddenly turned into a rapid retreat. The order to retreat was given, yet the 66th Ohio, holding the key to the position, remained upon the ground, fighting inch by inch, until the entire brigade had passed out of the open fields into the road over the mountain. Five batteries were turned upon us and for six miles a perfect storm of shells fell in and amongst us. The Rebel cavalry was not useful to them or we must have suffered more than we did. They approached our rear regiments with great caution and only aimed to get our straggling soldiers. The remnants of the difference regiments were halted in the fields probably two miles from the battlefield, formed in line, and two of Robinson’s guns were opened upon our pursuers. They were thus checked, and our men moved in good ordered until they met the first brigade ten miles from the field. And thus has the 66th Ohio been introduced to war. They went on to the field in good order, and as they went on, so they came off. Colonel Candy halted his men about 200 yards from the battery when occurred the most deadly fight, and notwithstanding the fierce attack of the cavalry, formed his men in column and marched off the field.
Quartermaster Joseph C. Brand, 66th Ohio Infantry

And to whom does honor belong for bravery and courage when all acquitted themselves so nobly? Not an officer is there in the regiment but deserves the name of hero. Colonel Candy, in his position, sat as carelessly upon his horse in the rear of his regiment during the musket fight as though there was no deadly strife going on. Major Eugene Powell who, from the beginning chosen to fight on foot, performed his duty well. His presence and his valor encouraged all around him and he was conspicuous in the final charge. Adjutant William M. Gwynne and Quartermaster Joseph C. Brand enacted a part in this great conflict which deserves more than a passing notice. The adjutant rode along the left and the quartermaster along the right wing, each about four companies. They were on their horses above the men and were conspicuous marks for the enemy who at times were within 30 feet of them and all the time in full view in front and to the left. They rode along the lines immediately behind the men, giving orders, cheering, and encouraging them. Their voices were heard above the din of battle and they were the theme and admiration of those who looked on from a distance. Each seemed unconscious of the showering hail and iron pouring in around them, and with dead and wounded men around and under them, they moved along the lines, preserving them unbroken. Adjutant Gwynne’s military genius and reckless bravery made him a tower of strength. Quartermaster Brand, without any knowledge of tactics, seemed to have received an intuitive military education for the purposes of the day, and gave orders with such precision and determination, that secured their instant execution.

Reverend Wilson R. Parsons bravely assisted in taking off and relieving the wounded- his horse and himself both receiving slight wounds. His industry and energy saved many a poor fellow from being left on that ill-fated field. Dr. Thomas P. Bond and Assistant Surgeon Jesse W. Brock were busy and performed their duty well. The company officers stood firmly up to the ranks and pursued their men closely to the work. Not one is there who shrank from the conflict, but all acted bravely and nobly.

Incidents are plenty and a few of them may be given. Many of our men were cut off from the regiment on the retreat and had to escape to the mountains. Three of our regiment were thus wandering about until they reached the top of the Blue Ridge and found themselves within a half mile and in full view of Jackson’s camp. They were then in company with 26 others and being hungry, one from each of three regiments (including our own) went into a log house to get something to ear. Upon entering they found seven Secesh soldiers eating breakfast. A member of the 5th Ohio called upon them to surrender and one of the Rebels cried out, “I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t have shot you if I had met you in the woods. You look like a Union soldier.” The man replied, “I am a Union soldier, God damn you, and you are our prisoners.” Stepping around in front of their guns, our boys raised their muskets and called again to them to surrender. They gave themselves up and at the point of the bayonet piloted to where they found our division.

“Scotty,” an institution of the 5th Ohio, charged alone upon the colors of the Louisiana Tigers and shot them down three times. He pursued them for several hundred yards, and finding himself unable to capture them, he suddenly turned and charged upon a Rebel battery and alone he took it, and brought it off the field. Captain Vesalius Horr (Co. I), who was reported missing, returned on Friday evening in company with Sergeant Harrison Davis. They remained in the river under a pile of driftwood from Monday afternoon until Wednesday morning when they escaped and found their way through the pickets to the mountains and thence to camp.

On Wednesday morning in company with Reverend Parsons and Adjutant Gwynne, I started out to accompany a flag of truce to the battleground. When about ten miles out, we were informed that owing to some neglect in making out the truce, we had been omitted and would not be permitted to accompany the flag. We continued on our course, however, and with J.T. Wilson, Israel Deer, and Townsend Walker, we proceeded with horses to obtain the wagon the baggage of the field and staff officers which had been abandoned on the retreat. When within ten miles of the battlefield we discovered the presence of the enemy. Yet we went further and to within five miles of the battleground where we found the remains of our wagon, it having been burned. We remained a half hour within 250 yards of the enemy’s picket guard and could hear them talking distinctly. We retraced our steps carefully and rapidly and found when we had gone nine miles back that there was another picket post a quarter of a mile to our right and that we had unconsciously gone nine miles into the enemy’s country. A squad of 35 mounted Rebel scouts and had been on the road a few minutes before we came up and were doubtless looking for us as information concerning us had been carried to them by citizens. We pushed out rapidly and arrived in camp Thursday morning, a distance of 38 miles from the spot where the wagon had been burned and brought with us another wagon and a pair of large platform scales that had been abandoned and which we found within a half a mile of the pickets nearest the battlefield. It was certainly a reckless and foolhardy excursion which none of us will soon repeat.
Brigadier General James Shields; in the aftermath of the debacle at Port Republic, his reputation with the men of his division was shattered and he was soon removed from command. 

There is great dissatisfaction amongst the men and officers of the division in regard to our late movements. Our regiment now seems decimated and for the future have no hope of rest unless we are changed from this division. They have had a continuous march of 400 miles over mountains, wading rivers, through mud and rain, sleeping in wet garments on the ground- sometimes marching all day and all night and often 18 hours without stopping. The perils of the battlefield they do not complain of, as it was in the discharge of their duty to their country. Last night I heard singing in camp for the first time in many days. How it awakened the fond memories of our former pleasures. We have yet a little joy left to enliven our worse than solitude, but how long our commander will permit us to be merry in war we cannot say. Our command is now in great danger. Jackson is said to be pushing down the river and Longstreet is at the foot of the Blue Ridge ready at any moment to make a dash at us.

Comments

  1. Interesting account. it is known that Robinson, Battery L 1st Ohio, had one gun to the left of the road up near the Coaling. Clark's guns were in the Coaling. However to the right of Robinson's gun was positioned Battery H 1st Ohio - Capt. Huntington's Battery. Some of Battery H's guns had been sent to the right (wheatfield), but the rest were positioned near the road below the Coaling. When Brand describes Robinson and the "first battery", he is really describing artillery from Clark's, Robinson's and Huntington's batteries.

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