The Prisoner Who Never Surrendered: The Adventure of John J. Geer, 48th Ohio Infantry

Virginia-born John J. Geer was a hard-hewn “sunburnt, hard fisted, and plain worded” minister of the Gospel, and leader of the George Street Methodist Protestant Church in Cincinnati when the Civil War began in April 1861. “When the news of the outrage was received at the Queen City, he vowed that he was a United States soldier until either himself or the rebellion should be crushed,” his friend Rev. Alexander Clark wrote in 1863. “He engaged in the war not for position or popularity, but as a soldier.” Geer was commissioned a lieutenant in the 48th Ohio Infantry, and shortly after taking the field he was appointed assistant adjutant-general on the staff of Colonel Ralph P. Buckland of the 72nd Ohio Infantry. Buckland commanded an all Ohio brigade consisting of the 48th, 70th, and 72nd Ohio regiments.
First Lieutenant John J. Geer, Co. K, 

48th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Lieutenant Geer ably tells the story of his capture two days before the Battle of Shiloh when the men of Buckland’s brigade took part in a fight with roving Confederate cavalry just two miles from the brigade encampment near Shiloh Church. Geer, wounded and captured during the engagement, spent nearly a year in Confederate custody and wrote Beyond the Lines; or a Yankee Prisoner Loose in Dixie in 1863 from which the following account is drawn. Geer resigned his commission in February 1863 then went on a speaking tour with fellow POW William Pittenger (of Andrews' Raid fame) during the spring of 1863. The following year, Geer was commissioned as the chaplain of the 183rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and saw action at the Battle of Franklin and later at Nashville. He served with the regiment for the remainder of the war, but died in 1867, his health broken by his period of imprisonment. 

On the 17th of February 1862, the 48th Ohio regiment of volunteer infantry under command of Colonel Peter G. Sullivan left Camp Dennison, landing at Paducah Kentucky and on the 4th of March was ordered to Savannah, Tennessee. As our fleet made its way up the river, it was a sight at once grand and beautiful. It was composed of 100 large steamers laden to the guards with soldiers, cattle, and munitions of war. The river was at high water mark. Through its surging waters our noble vessels ploughed their wat sending forth vast volumes of smoke which shadowed and sooted the atmosphere from hill to hill across the river valley. Over our heads waved proudly the old banner- emblem of the free. All hearts seemed anxious to strike down that flag and the hopes and liberties of which it is representative. A cry was heard on board that the enemy was near. A moment more and he opened fire upon us, to which we very promptly replied and with good effect, for he soon dispersed while none of our men received injury.
Beyond the Lines Frontispiece

Continuing our way onward we stopped at Hamburg on the 11th of March; but, owing to the great freshet, were unable to disembark and the next day were obliged to fall back to Pittsburg where we effected a landing on the 13th. In the meantime, I was appointed on the staff of Colonel Ralph P. Buckland then acting as brigadier of the Fourth Brigade under General William T. Sherman who commanded the First Division. Most of us landed by the 15th and parties were sent out every day to reconnoiter and many returned, reporting fights with the enemy and the capture of prisoners, horses, and other valuables.
Fort Anderson at Paducah, Kentucky. While stationed in Paducah, the 48th Ohio was organized into a brigade with the 70th and 72nd Ohio regiments. 

On the 28th, we had quite a bloody conflict in a cotton field belonging to Mr. Beach who was the owner of a small lot of cotton. The Rebels had robbed him of all his horses, pork, and wheat, leaving him nothing but the cotton and a small amount of corn which the government intended to purchase. But when we were dispatched for it, we found that the Rebels (who were now in full retreat) had rolled the cotton against a corn crib and set both on fire. The next day we had a fight near the same spot. Again the next day, a reconnaissance showed the enemy to be in full force. On the 3rd of April, the Fourth Brigade was sent out and the skirmishers who were deployed were soon fired upon. Colonel Buckland then sent me forward to order the two companies to retreat. One of these I found was already doing so under the command of the Major (Leroy Crockett) who was in advance. The company belonging to the 72nd Ohio stood their ground awaiting orders.
Colonel (later Brigadier General) Ralph Pomeroy Buckland of the 72nd Ohio Infantry. Geer was serving as Buckland's assistant adjutant-general before the Battle of Shiloh. 

When I rode to top of the hill, I could see the enemy about 200 yards distant. The lieutenant of the 72nd was holding his men in readiness and just as I reached them, they arose and opened fire, at which the Rebels retreated to the right evidently intending to flank us. But this was an unfortunate movement for them as they had not proceeded far when they encountered Major Crockett of the 72nd with 200 men by whom they were repulsed with heavy loss.  By this time I had come up with the brigade. Buckland dispatched me immediately to order Crockett to fall back but to continue fighting while retreating.
As I proceeded on my way to Crockett (who indeed was a brave and daring officer) I met a lady of advanced age in great distress. She was wringing her hand and crying, “Oh my son! Oh my son! Save me and my poor son!” I rode forward to Crockett and found that he had repulsed the enemy and was falling back in order. Being alone and in advance of the retreating companies, I again encountered the old lady on the same spot where I first saw her. Inquiring the cause of her grief, I learned that the Rebels had been at her house representing themselves as Union men and that she had expressed herself to them with disguise or reserve. They had thereupon seized her son, tied him to a horse, and bore him away intending to press him into their service.
My heart ached at the recital of this sad story and at the thought of the suffering and agony to which so many families between the two armies would be subjected. My sincere prayer to God was that he would sustain the right and send confusion amidst the foes of freedom and humanity. The old lady seemed very apprehensive they would learn that she had divulged to me the facts alluded to.
We returned to camo and that night we felt confident that our pickets were in danger. The dreary hours passed slowly away bringing at last the light of another morning. Our pickets were then extended and on returning from this duty, I remarked to Buckland that I believed we would be attacked before night. But he thought not and requested me to retire to my tent and seek repose. I went but concluded to write to my wife.
About 2 o’clock that afternoon the Rebels opened fire upon our pickets. I instantly mounted my horse that I had left standing at the door and rode with all speed to the picket line where I discovered that the Rebels had captured Lieutenant Herbert and seven privates. The 72nd, 48th, and 70th were soon rallied; and I thought if no fight now ensued, it would be no fault of mine eager as I was for the fray. So I rode rapidly up the Tennessee River in order to strike the Hamburg Road aware that I could see up that road about one mile and discover what was going on.
As I was proceeding, I perceived at a little distance two Rebels who fled at my approach. I soon reached the road and discovered to my great surprise that it was lined with Rebels as far as I could see. I soon wheeled my horse and with accelerated speed made my way back to Colonel Buckland. He again dispatched me to inform Major Crockett to retreat in order. On my way thither these words greeted my ear: “Halt dar! Halt dar!” I responded by firing my revolver as a signal that I did not deign to comply with the peremptory demand so euphoniously expressed. The words proceeded from two Rebels whom I discovered approaching me.

Company B of the 72nd Ohio was surrounded for a time by this band of Confederate cavalry but by forming a hollow square and taking cover, the company held on until reinforcements arrived. This event represented the first time the 72nd Ohio was under sustained enemy fire and the men acquitted themselves well. The mettle would be truly tested in the ferocious combat of the first day of Shiloh two days later, and the regiment would earn the sobriquet "Sherman's Praetorian Guard." 

They fired and both loads took effect in my horse’s shoulder, but he did not fall. Applying my spurs, he sprang down a little declivity where the Rebels stood with their empty guns. One of them struck at me with his empty weapon. I attempted to parry the blow with my left hand and received a severe wound, having my second finger broken, which was thus rendered useless for life. The instant discharge of my revolver resulted in breaking an arm of this foe and I immediately turned to my second antagonist who was hastily reloading his gun. The contents of another barrel at once disabled him. This was all the work of a moment.
Just at this juncture it began to rain in torrents and before I realized my situation I was surrounded by about 50 Rebels. The rain and the darkness in the woods from the overhanging storm clouds rendered it difficult for the Rebels to distinguish their own men from ours and they made the mistake (fortunately for me but the reverse for them) of firing at each other. Their colonel, however, soon discovered the error and gave the command to cease firing. There was now no possible chance for my escape and I instantly received a blow which felled me to earth.
How long I remained insensible I could not tell. The first thing I recollect taking recognizance of was the act of Colonel Gladden who, dragging me out of a pool of water into which I had fallen, demanded my surrender. I seemed to lose all thought of home, wife, friends, earth, or heaven. The absorbing thought was the success of our army. “Will you surrender?” demanded Colonel Gladden. “I have discharged my last bullet, sir,” I replied.
When Lieutenant Geer came to, the first person he saw was
General Adley H. Gladden who demanded his surrender.
Gladden would die a little more than a week later
from wounds sustained at the Battle of Shiloh. 

He commanded me to mount my horse. I refused. My captors then seized hold of me and throwing me across my wounded horse made a rapid retreat. Our boys were coming at “double quick” and so impetuous was their charge towards the enemy who was now approaching (consisting of Beauregard’s advance guard of 5,000 cavalry) that they began retreating in wild confusion. More than a hundred riderless horses ran dashing past me. The conflict became general and terrific and the might sweeping onset of our brave boys was only stayed by the opening of Bragg’s front battery which incessantly poured forth its shot and shell.
During this interim, myself and guards detailed to take charge of me were located in a ravine and hence the cannon shots passed over our heads. A rifle ball from one of our men, however, at this juncture brought one of the guards from his horse. A Rebel colonel approached him saying, “You are too good a man to die so.” At this moment a second ball pierced the heart of the Rebel colonel and he dropped dead. It was here that my horse fell and died and I felt as if a friend had gone whose place could not be easily filled.
There was a wild and gloomy grandeur in the battle storm raging and booming over our heads like 10,000 thunders; and my heart was tremulous with hope at one moment and with apprehension at another for the fate of our gallant braves. Alas, my soul mourned when I found they had been driven back by the overwhelming force of the enemy.

Geer, John J. Beyond the Lines: A Yankee Prisoner Loose in Dixie. Philadelphia: J.W. Daughaday, 1863.


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