The 25th Ohio and the Camp Allegheny Skedaddle

Today's blog post features three letters giving, shall we say, opposing views of the same story. The first letter was written by Captain Jeremiah Williams of Co. C, 25th Ohio Infantry regarding the fight at Camp Allegheny, Virginia that occurred on December 13, 1861. While Williams missed the fight, his letter tells a compelling story obtained from fellow members of his regiment who were there. It was published in the New Year's Day edition of the Woodsfield Spirit of Democracy from Monroe Co., Ohio. The second letter was written by an Ohioan serving in the 9th Indiana Infantry. Loren Caldwell wrote of this same fight but from a different perspective; Caldwell's letter was published in the January 2, 1862 edition of the Williams County Leader in Bryan, Ohio, in the far northwest corner of the state near the Indiana border.

The key point of contention is how did the 25th Ohio behave at Camp Allegheny? Caldwell charged in his letter that the "25th Ohio did not stand but one fire" before bolting to the rear. How he knows this with the 9th Indiana being located out of sight of the 25th Ohio throughout the engagement is left unstated. One guesses that it was camp fire talk among the Indianans. Captain Williams, understandably, preferred to focus on the valor of the men who stuck to their colors but conceded that at the very outset of the engagement, a number of men fled after running into a Rebel ambush, "some of them never returning to the ranks." 

To be sure, the regimental performance was mixed.  Colonel James A. Jones of the 25th Ohio, who commanded a detachment consisting of his own regiment, a portion of the 32nd Ohio, and several hundred men from the 13th Indiana, admitted as much in his official report (the only Union report of any substance that made it into the O.R.) when he stated that "some of the men behaved very badly" but noted that it was "not confined to any one regiment." Likewise, Jones blamed the failure on the expedition on the late arrival of the 9th Indiana and 2nd Virginia who had been sent to flank the Rebel camp. 

The last letter is a preview of an upcoming book I'm releasing in the spring entitled The Seneachie Letters: A Virginia Yankee in the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. It contains an account from Corporal William M. McLain of Co. B, 32nd O.V.I. of this same fight- the 32nd Ohio was close enough to the 25th Ohio to witness what occurred and McLain makes no reference to the 25th Ohio bolting at the first fire. McLain, rather, lays the failure of the expedition on the hair-brained leadership offered by General Robert Milroy, a colorful Indiana 'political general' whose mixed combat record in the Civil War has been the subject of a fine book by Jonathan Noyalas entitled My Will is Absolute Law
General Robert Milroy, Federal commander of the ill-fated Camp Allegheny expedition in December 1861

State rivalry no doubt played a role in this narrative; prior to Camp Allegheny several officers of the 32nd Ohio sent a protest letter to Governor William Dennison decrying being forced to serve under an Indiana officer (Milroy). Milroy, as colorful a character as he was, did not enjoy a chummy relationship with the Ohioans he commanded; as the war progressed, the longer they served under his command, the less they liked it. 

Captain Jeremiah Williams, Co. C, 25th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Huttonville, Virginia
December 17, 1861
          On the 13th inst. occurred the bloodiest battle that has yet been fought in western Virginia. I had not yet returned from home and must give you an account as I learned it from officers and others who were present.
          A number of deserters from the Secesh camp came in a few days before the affair and reported that there were about 3,000 Secesh at Baldwin’s camp on the Allegheny Summit about 8 or 9 miles beyond the old Greenbrier camp, and stated further that half of them were sick and probably not more than 1,000-1,200 were able for duty. Upon the representation General Milroy determined to attack them. Accordingly, detachments were taken from the 25th and 32nd Ohio, the 9th and 13th Indiana, and the 2nd Virginia, in all about 1,500; about 500 of them were from our regiment, the 25th Ohio, all under the command of General Milroy of Indiana. Upon arriving near the Secesh encampment, the detachments from the 25th Ohio, 13th Indiana, and 32nd Ohio under Colonel Jones were to attack on the right while the 9th and 2nd were to attack in the rear.
          When within a few hundred rods of the camp the force under Colonel Jones was fired upon from an ambuscade which threw the men into some confusion and a portion made a stampede, some of them never returning to the ranks. This unmanly flight was greatly to be deplored as had those men stood to their places and fought with as much valor as the majority of their comrades, the result of this engagement might have been different.
          Colonel Jones pursued his way up the mountain and just as his men were formed in line of battle a force of not less than 2,000 Secesh arose within six rods and fired a most terrific volley upon the men. Here, again, some of the men from each of the detachments fled the field. Most of them, noble fellows, stood their ground and fought like tigers. After firing three or four volleys in reply to a perfect hailstorm of buckshot and balls, our men fixed bayonets and charged upon the apparently overwhelming force of the Secesh. On they went through that iron storm, climbing logs, scrambling through bushes, right in the face of the guns which were pouring destruction upon them. On they went without sign of waving. The Secesh saw the determination in their faces and began to retire. On they went and the whole Secesh line with the exception of a company of Georgians hurriedly fell back to their entrenchments. The Georgians stood their ground until the bayonets of our men almost reached them when they followed their comrades. This occurred within from 40-60 yards of the Secesh entrenchment.
          Having secured themselves in their entrenchments the Secesh forced our men to fall back near their former position. The Secesh followed them back some rods and the battle raged with fury. Again Colonel Jones ordered a charge upon them and again they were driven into the entrenchments, but our men were too few to charge them in their fortifications and were again compelled to fall back. Thus the tide of battle fluctuated for near three hours. The number of our men meantime falling off one half- some ingloriously fled, some were wounded, others were carrying them off, and other nobly died at their posts, fighting like heroes. The ammunition of our men was well nigh exhausted when the 9th Indiana and 2nd Virginia commenced the attack from the other side, but it was too late to achieve success but it was barely in good time to allow our broken and thinned ranks to withdraw. The 9th Indiana and 2nd Virginia fought them for some time longer but were compelled to retire before vastly superior numbers.
          During the engagement a number of our men went into the Secesh tents. There appeared to be no deed too daring for them to attempt. I have no hesitation in saying that, notwithstanding the bad behavior of part of the men, there has not been as much valor displayed in any engagement in Virginia. Colonel Jones displayed a coolness and bravery which no man could excel. He passed up and down the lines cheering the men and encouraging them to do their duty. Wherever the iron balls rattled thickest, there he was in the midst of it. The men speak in raptures of his courage and skill as a commander. Colonel Richardson and Major Webster had not yet returned from home.
          The total loss in our regiment was 6 killed, 55 wounded, and 7 missing (68 in all), an unusually heavy loss for so small a force being about one fifth of those we ascended the mountain. The total loss in killed on our side was I believe between 20-30. There is no doubt that the Secesh lost, at least, five times as many. Our men took 28 prisoners.
          This engagement may be considered a defeat by our side because we failed to accomplish the object of the expedition; but it cannot be regarded as a success on theirs for the reason they lost much more heavily than we did and did not find themselves in a condition to pursue our men when they retired. Our General was greatly deceived as to their force by the deserters and in addition to this a fellow named Bill McGee deserted our camp and informed them of the meditated attack. This McGee was in my company for a few days at Camp Chase, but I did not like him and dismissed him.

Private Loren W. Caldwell, Co. E, 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry

Cheat Mountain, Virginia
December 18, 1861
          On the morning of the 12th inst., Cos. I and G went in advance of our main army to reconnoiter in the vicinity of Greenbrier, and when within two miles of the old camp were attacked by a superior number of Rebels in ambush- as they never meet us in the open field- killing one of our band boys and wounded five of Co. G’s men. When our main forces came up they had fallen back to Buffalo Hill or Camp Baldwin. We rested at Greenbrier until 11 o’clock when we divided as follows: the 9th Indiana and 230 of the 2nd Virginia under the command of Colonel Moody and Major John Milroy went to the right on the old gun road while the 25th Ohio and 500 of the 13th Indiana, commanded by General Milroy, went to the left on the Staunton Pike. Our division marched over the hills, through woods, creeks, and fields, and the hill on which the Rebel camp was situated, which we ascended, is one mile high and so steep as to compel us to pull ourselves up by bushes, etc. After gaining the summit, we awaited the approach of day when we made the attack.
As we advanced, I heard the report of two guns which proved to be two Rebels gone up, as I afterwards saw them lying by the roadside. We fixed bayonets preparatory to a charge, which we attempted four different times, but were kept back by heavy artillery and musketry from the rifle pits. They resisted furiously. We were within 30 rods of their trenches, only protected by some fallen timber. We held our post and fought them for eight hours without a moment’s interval. The boys picked off cannoneers most beautifully. We had no cannon with us, thus giving them all the advantage. I must stop and give a word of praise in honor of our gallant Major Milroy who was on the ground rallying and posting men at every available spot.
The loss in our division was 15 killed and from 15-20 wounded, while the loss of the 13th Indiana was 48 killed and a large number wounded. I am sorry to say that the 25th Ohio did not stand but one fire when they came up, not where they should have been but back at Greenbrier. I am a Buckeye, but honor to whom honor is due. The 13th Indiana drove 2,500 from ambush, charged on them, and as they scaled the walls cut off 28, drove them back and took them prisoners at the point of the bayonet.
We then fell back to the summit, being here from Thursday morning until Saturday without sleep and traveling over 50 miles, besides fighting them for 8 hours. They have a pretty strongly fortified place and it will take a good force to take it, but our gallant General Milroy says that he has a flag that must float over Monterey. Monterey is about 35 miles from here.
The health in camp is good, the men are well cared for, warmly dressed, and have plenty to eat. 

Corporal William M. McLain, Co. B, 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Camp Palmer, near Beverly, Virginia
December 17, 1861

Shortly after the departure of my last letter from Cheat Mountain we received the tidings (reliable this time) that we were really about to leave the mountain. The left wing under command of Captain Palmer left the pass at 8 o’clock Thursday morning and made this place the same evening about 7 o’clock having marched 27 miles through mud ankle deep and (even at this time of the year) with a broiling sun pouring down on us. We came down here to build a new set of winter quarters which we have now nearly completed.

On Wednesday the 11th instant, a detachment from the different companies of the 32nd Ohio making in the aggregate 180 men left here to aid in attacking Camp Allegheny, a post 27 miles westward from Cheat Mountain which was held by 6,000 Rebels. A portion of the 13th Indiana numbering 220 men, 400 men of the 25th Ohio, 500 men of the 9th Indiana, and 400 men of the 2nd Virginia (U.S.) numbering all told 1,650 and barely that were all that were sent and these were but poorly provided with ammunition and had hardly enough provision for a meal in their haversacks. Some cannon went with them but they couldn’t carry them up the mountain on account of the mud.

So on we went in the gray dawn of the early morning or rather I should say before the day star’s clear cold light had chased the night shadow’s gray; on and on, up and up, stealing along stealthily. The detachment of the 32nd Ohio (as usual) had the advance feeling for the enemy pickets for (in my opinion absolute foolhardiness on the part of the directors of the expedition) no scouts had been sent out to discover where these were posted. About daylight the long-awaited challenge came hoarse and harsh, “Halt!” Then bang, bang, bang! Whiz-zz-zz went the bullets right over our heads. Down we go flat on our faces a la Zouave, but hearing the pickets running, up we rise and slowly forward again. No we go cautiously for we are still ignorant of the enemy’s exact whereabouts. As the day grows lighter, we go on faster and about sunup we find ourselves in an ambush with the bullets flying thick upon us from both sides of the road which passed through a gulch with the land rising from both sides. I should have premised that the detachments of the 9th Indiana and 2nd Virginia had left us during the night to make their way by a side road to the enemy’s rear.

It took but little time to form in line (we were marching in column) and then the Rebels made for their breastworks on a hillside. Now the play began. Cheer after cheer went up and on rising a hilltop we came in sight of their camp. There we stood a moment as if balancing in our minds what to do for (and mark it down) not an officer, no, not a single shoulder strap was to be seen. The conclusion they came to seemed to favor an advance for all sprang together over bushes, stumps, logs, and so forth firing as they went down the hill chasing the foe who were now in full flight. On reaching the foot of the hill we were on we stopped not a moment but went on up the slope into their very tents while they took to the blockhouse.

They rallied and now it was our turn to retreat which we did, fighting hard until we reached the skirt of woods on the opposite hillside. Here we halted and began firing on the still-advancing Rebels. From behind logs, trees, and stumps we poured it into them hot and heavy until they took their turn again and back they went to their holes, never firing a fire after they turned to run. With a perfect volley of cheers, we went for them and fought in among the tents again. Here we lost a man of Company G whose body was not recovered. A Secesh put his gun out the door of a tent close to our man’s breast and pulled the trigger while three other of ours nearly as close fired on the Rebel and he and his victim fell almost at the same moment. Poor Pryor! His comrades always called him a coward, but he proved the contrary that day. He fought like a tiger robbed of her cubs until he went down. One of Company B’s boys saw the form of a man pressing out the canvas of a tent- he fired at the form and he says “he don’t know whether he killed the man or not but his bullets made a big red hole in the tent.”

But while we were among the tents, the Rebel artillerists, who with their pieces were masked by a point of fine woods from the hill on which we rallied, had a fair chance to cut us to pieces which they most assuredly would have done had there been any order or regularity in our ranks. But as it was, without any commander, each one went as he saw proper only taking care to use all natural or artificial hiding places for protection from the bullets. Thus we, although just a small force, covered and thickly covered a large space of ground but were too widely scattered to do any execution. Indeed, I am not aware of who was hurt by the accomplishments of the shells. The wounds were all made by bullets.

Still the camp became too hot for us to hold long and again we retreated to our hilltop. As soon as they saw us falling back, the Rebels rallied stronger than ever and cheered louder than before.  We halted as before on the top of the hill among the trees and kept up the fire upon them as they recrossed the open ground. They came partway up the hill and then suddenly turned and broke- not as before toward the camp, but toward a thick pine grove on the edge of which they stacked or threw away their arms and hurried into the bushes. This was an unexpected movement and some of our boys prepared to take what they considered advantage of it. But some wise ones, although young lads, were not to be caught by such chaff such as that, for it required no very vivid imagination to see within the woods’ dark recesses several hundred men all armed and ready to pounce on us if we followed those unarmed men, and indeed our natural vision could occasionally see a quick glimmer than didn’t look like pine boughs but rather resembled cold steel.

So we sat tight and fired a volley into this extemporized ambuscade which quickly unmasked its real character. The next effort the Rebels made was to outflank us but a steady charge of bayonet made more like regular troops than raw recruits was more than they dared wait for and they fled again to their old den, losing several (nearly a score) prisoners who, not having been in the Rebel army so long as their comrades, were thus cut off and captured. Again for the third time our men charged up to their tents passing over heaps of bodies slain before.

This was our last effort when we again retreated to the rallying hill as our ammunition was nearly all gone and a single determined charge of one half the force in the camp would have discomfited us. They seemed to know this and a larger force than before sallied out to charge us. Our boys seemed to know intuitively that the day was gone and some of the faint at heart had already taken the backtrack and the rest prepared to do it speedily when suddenly we heard the boom of a cannon on the further side of the camp followed by the rattle of musketry. The force which was marching on us ran to their works again and we hurried with all the wind we had left for we knew that at last the 9th Indiana and 2nd Virginia had come. But we could nothing to aid them. Our ammunition all gone, and the men hot and wearied, what could we do to aid them? It is true that a determined charge of the bayonet by our whole force might have been successful but where were the officers to lead us? No, the only thing we could do was put the dead and wounded into ambulances and wagons at the foot of the mountain and sending them ahead, march “bootless home and weather-beaten back.” This we did although we could hear the cannon and small arms keeping up their rattle the whole afternoon. The 9th Indiana and 2nd Virginia got back to Cheat Summit a long time after we did having gotten into the fort (as I am told) but were unable to hold it for lack of ammunition. 

The fatal loss on our side is estimated at 150 killed, wounded, and missing. Some of our officers say it exceeds that of the Rebels but I don’t know how they know it. The 32nd Ohio lost three killed and thirteen wounded, my company has three wounded. Charles Pryor of Union County is badly wounded in the foot. Another has buckshot in the leg above the knee and is a severe wound of its class, but the plucky fellow (Isaiah Hamilton) of West Liberty wouldn’t stop fighting for it and even walked back here to Beverly without having it dressed. The third (I won’t give his name) is wounded in his feelings as a bullet torn the sleeve off his only coat and he don’t know where to get a new one to sport amongst the ladies of Beverly with.

On the other hand, we killed and wounded a number unknown and took 29 prisoners who are now en route for Columbus where the curious may have a peep at them. I suppose the official report will dub this matter an armed reconnaissance but I, in my blissful ignorance of the mysteries of red tapeism and also of the technical military expressions, called it a severe if well-deserved defeat, a regular thrashing, and one well-merited on account of the absolute foolhardiness of the expedition. If we had 20,000 men here and 10,000 Rebels were to be attacked in a well-fortified position, I believe “the powers that be” would simply detail a scouting party with one day’s rations and half a dozen rounds of cartridges to take the place. The fact is that our commanders underrate their foe. Whenever we catch them out on the road, we only get a glimpse of their coattails and so are led to suppose that every man in our ranks is a Gideon and all we have to do is sit down under the walls of their Jerichoes and down they come tumbling. We don’t even take the trouble to take the rams’ horns with us. One of our commanders told our boys when (before the battle) they wanted more ammunition, than ten rounds would be amply sufficient yet some of them shot away between 40 and 50 rounds.

This war can never terminate successfully in this part of the country until this kind of thing ceases and all patriots, as well as those who are fighting for their land and its liberties, should pray that men may be sent here and these monkeys in brass in blue may be kept home to command Home Guards and such like institutions. There are too many of these latter here now and it will take a year of such bushwhacking as that the other day and a winter on Cheat Mountain Summit to make them give up their gripe on the loaves and fishes. It would be salvation to the cause if such men could be all taken prisoners and held until the war is over and they are well aware of that fact and take special precautions against such an event. The doctors in this country are another class that should be mentioned but it would lengthen this letter too much to give them their dues so I close.


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