“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 but 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, www.cwmaps.com)
  “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, www.cwmaps.com)
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, www.cwmaps.com)

“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.

Sources:
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



Comments

  1. Enjoyed this page. I have been researching this regiment for a number of years.

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  2. Very interesting. Ever look into the 41st OVI?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I have several posts about the 41st Ohio which can be found here: https://dan-masters-civil-war.blogspot.com/p/dan-masters-civil-war-research-log.html

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