Butchered at Bull Run: Milroy's Blundering Costs the 82nd Ohio Its Commander

Robert Milroy comes down from history as one of the more colorful generals from the Civil War: bold, rash, and thoroughly devoted to the cause of the Union. Milroy had a poor combat record in Virginia: he was defeated at McDowell, led his brigade into slaughter on the first day of Second Bull Run, and had his garrison by and large captured at Second Winchester in 1863. Soldiering under Bob Milroy was anything but pleasant for the thousands of Ohioans who served under his command during the war. In the case of the 82nd Ohio, it meant a lengthy casualty list at Second Bull Run that also cost the regiment its commanding officer Colonel James Cantwell.
Milroy's nickname was "The Gray Eagle"
for his gray hair and piercing eyes

Major General Carl Schurz described Milroy as “an Indianan of gaunt appearance and was strikingly Western in character and manners. When he met an enemy, he would gallop up and down his front, fiercely shaking his fist at the ‘Rebel scoundrels over there’ and calling them all sorts of outrageous names. His favorite word of command was ‘Pitch in, boys, pitch in!’ And he would ‘pitch in’ at the head of his men, exposing himself with the utmost recklessness. He was a man of intense patriotism. He did not fight as one who merely likes fighting. The cause for which he was fighting- his country, the integrity of the Republic, the freedom of the slave- was constantly present in his mind.”

General Milroy’s rashness and impetuous nature led to disaster for his brigade at Second Bull Run in August 1862. On the morning of the first day of the battle, Milroy led the four regiments of his brigade (82nd Ohio, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th West Virginia regiments), styled the Independent Brigade of Sigel's First Corps of the Army of Virginia, into a rash and poorly executed attack against Stonewall Jackson's entrenched lines along a railroad embankment. Striking Jackson's line near a location called “The Dump,” the 82nd Ohio took fire from three sides and suffered more than 100 casualties before falling back under heavy fire. Colonel Cantwell was killed here while trying to rally his men. The following accounts from officers of the 82nd Ohio describe what happened.

Captain Francis S. Jacobs, Co. K
Since I last wrote you, we have seen war in nearly all its shapes and phases; have stood off at a respectable distance and heard and seen artillery belching forth shell and shot, have marched in close column by division right under the fire of the batteries, the shells of the enemy bursting all over, around, and amongst us. We have also met the enemy in gunshot range, they not visible as usual, but opening upon us from behind trees and embankments, the meanest kind of bushwhacking style of fighting, and one that an honorable, high-minded foe as they claim to be would not engage in. It is an utter impossibility except at night to get them out of the woods. They do all of their fighting in the woods and are too cowardly and skulking to meet us in the open field. On Friday the 29th, we were ordered to fall in and advanced about a mile when we stopped to breakfast.
Alfred E. Lee
82nd O.V.I.

First Lieutenant Alfred E. Lee, Co. I
Milroy led off in developing the enemy’s position. ‘Fall in boys, we’re going to whip them before breakfast,’ he shouted as he galloped among his regiments, already thoroughly aroused by the cannonade. Throwing away their coffee, just brought to them from the rear, the men fell into their places and the independent brigade moved forward. It had not proceeded more than 500 yards when the enemy’s skirmishers opened fire upon it from the woods in front. Milroy was about to dash into the woods when General Sigel checked him in order that the proper connections might first be established. After a brief pause, the whole line moved forward.

Major Samuel H. Hurst, 73rd Ohio
I remember as Milroy's brigade marched past us. Colonel Cantwell of the 82nd Ohio stopped to exchange courtesies while his men moved rapidly to the front. He was in the fullest enjoyment of health and life and rode one of the finest horses in the army. Little did we think this day was to be his last.

First Lieutenant Alfred E. Lee, Co. I
Pressing steadily from point to point, Sigel’s whole command soon became engaged in a violent infantry and artillery contest. Schurz advanced a mile and Schenk two miles. Milroy was impatient to outstrip both. Pushing two of his regiments into a strip of dense timber, he made ready to charge a Confederate battery. He had no supports and had lost connections both right and left. During the advance, Schurz’s division had shifted a little to the right and Schenk’s a little to the left, leaving the independent brigade alone. These circumstances should have suggested caution to say the least, but that was not a virtue known to Milroy.

Captain Francis S. Jacobs, Co. K
We then advanced in line of battle probably a mile when we heard heavy volleys of musketry to our right in the woods. We were ordered to march by the right flank to their assistance; the 5th West Virginia on our right, the left of our regiment resting on the bank of the railroad. We had not advanced more than two rods into the woods when a terrible volley was poured in upon us from the front and from behind the railroad embankment on the left, and mowing our men down like grass.

First Lieutenant Alfred E. Lee, Co. I
Deep the woods, the unfinished railway embankment ran along a flat marshy piece of ground. Behind this embankment which was 8-10 feet high [known as “The Dump” as it was the location were railroad workers had dumped stone prior to bringing this section of the line up to grade] , the Confederates lay concealed. Stealthily waiting until Cantwell’s line had approached within a few paces of them, they sprang up from their ambush and with a wild yell poured a deadly volley full into our faces. In spite of this surprise and shock, the 82nd Ohio charged the embankment and even passed it at one point, when a flanking force showed itself upon our right and obliged us to change front.
Solomon L. Hoge
82nd O.V.I.

Captain Solomon L. Hoge, Co. D
We had just gained the woods when General Milroy rode up and said, ‘Go in 82nd and give them hell!’ The enemy opened up a most terrific fire upon us, they having four men to our one. Our boys stood it bravely for awhile but finally fell back in some disorder.

Captain Francis S. Jacobs, Co. K
We fired and fell back a short distance. Colonel Cantwell then ordered me to take Cos. B, G, and K and place them along the bank of the railroad. As soon as done they again opened on us from three different points. Colonel Cantwell then gave the command “Fire, and fall back to the fence!’ which was done in good order, the men loading while falling back. He then commanded ‘Right about and give it to them boys!’ and while cheering them on and encouraging the men in every manner possible, he was shot through the head, the ball entering just below his eye and coming out through the back part of the skull, killing him instantly. His body was taken up and carried about 200 yards when two of the men were wounded and had to leave the body upon the field.

Captain Solomon L. Hoge, Co. D
It was then that I saw the Colonel for the last time. He was urging on his men and telling them to stand fast, when a rifle ball struck him, killing him instantly. He never knew what hurt him. Major Thomson at once took command and brought the men off the field in good order. I did not hear the order to fall back, and when I looked around, I found that I had been left alone with a fragment of a company, the regiment being some 600 yards off and going on the double quick. After running about 400 yards, we filed left then I was wounded in the shoulder and neck and left where I fell. I was determined not to be taken prisoner, so I got up and tried it again and overtook some of the boys who helped me off the field.
Colonel James Cantwell
82nd O.V.I.

First Lieutenant Alfred E. Lee, Co. I
This clumsily managed and bloody affair temporarily disorganized Milroy’s brigade and weakened the whole line. The enemy at once threw forward masses of infantry to take advantage of Milroy’s repulse and Stahel’s brigade had to be brought over from Schenk’s division to Milroy’s support. Meanwhile, the artillery came to our rescue. The battery on Schurz’s left was fortunately so placed as to take the advancing Confederates in one flank while the reserve battery and two of Schirmer’s guns struck them upon the other. Milroy, as brave as he was imprudent, rallied his men on his reserve regiment (3rd West Virginia) and held his ground.

Losses for the 82nd Ohio during the Northern Virginia campaign totaled 24 killed, 99 wounded, and 15 missing, a total of 138 and the vast majority of them being sustained during Milroy’s brief attack on the railroad embankment.

In the fall of 1862, Major Samuel H. Hurst again passed through the Second Bull Run battlefield and was appalled at what he discovered. “I rode out on to the ground where rested the enemy’s left and our right. Here was where that dreaded battery was planted. There is where Milroy charged and tried to take it, and here was a picture such as I had never and may never see again. Our boys had only been half-buried on top of the ground, and the rains of a few months had washed the soil off of them so I looked upon nearly a hundred I should think were partially uncovered. You could judge by their uniforms that they were our soldiers. Some were half and some were wholly decayed, and many lay on their backs and through fleshless eye sockets seemed looking to God and asking for vengeance.” 

Among the graves were men of the 82nd Ohio and 5th West Virginia, sacrificed in Milroy’s foolhardy attack on the first day of Second Bull Run.

 "Many lay on their backs and through fleshless eye sockets seemed looking to God and asking for vengeance,"wrote Major Samuel Hurst of the 73rd Ohio upon seeing the dead of Milroy's brigade exposed from their poorly dug battlefield graves. This photo from another Virginia battlefield gives one an idea of what Major Hurst saw on the Second Bull Run battlefield. 


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