First Shots at McDowell with the 73rd Ohio

A number of years ago, I indexed the Civil War letters residing in the Perrysburg Journal and the Wood County Independent, and stumbled across this account of the Battle of McDowell. The letter was just signed "Tom," but after doing some more digging I was able to identify the author as Captain Thomas W. Higgins of Co. B, 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Why a letter written from a captain in charge of a company raised in Pike County way off in southern Ohio was published in a Democratic newspaper in northwest Ohio is rather simple: Captain Higgins' brother Ethan Allen Higgins was the editor of the Wood County Independent

The 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was raised primarily in the environs of Ross County, Ohio in the waning days of 1861, and served for the first half of the war in Virginia. The 73rd Ohio was part of General Robert Milroy's forces in western Virginia, then joined Pope's army where it was engaged at Cedar Mountain. As part of the 12th Corps, it took part in both the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before transferring west to join the Army of the Cumberland. 

Captain Higgins was born around 1826, being age 35 when he was commissioned as captain of Co. B on November 20, 1861. His company was mustered into service a few weeks later. Higgins remained a member of the 73rd Ohio until the close of its service, being promoted to Major February 17, 1864. He was wounded in the left side at Resaca, Georgia in May 1864 and sustained a head wound at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina in March 1865. Higgins was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel but was never mustered at that rank, being discharged from the service July 20, 1865. He died September 7, 1922 and is buried at Evergreen Union Cemetery in Waverly, Pike Co., Ohio. 

The following account was published in the May 28, 1862 issue of the Wood County Independent and gives an account of the first shots fired in the Battle of McDowell, Virginia; this battle occurring May 8, 1862. Existing wartime issues of the Independent were few and far between, and I'm doubly glad that I made copies of this letter when I did as the microfilm upon which I viewed it has been missing from the local history department for many years. 

Battle of McDowell, Virginia. Map by Hal Jespersen and featured in one of my previous books Alfred E. Lee's Civil War.

Dear Al:
On Friday afternoon last week, while we were at McDowell, the enemy numbering 12-14,000 advanced and took a position within a mile and a half of our encampment on hills commanding our forces. General Milroy’s force only numbered about 6,000. Jackson and Johnson had united and were both superintending the Rebel forces. At about 11 o’clock, my company (Company B, 73rd Ohio) was ordered to reconnoiter and ascertain, if possible, the position of the Rebel army. I advanced to within a half mile of the enemy’s lines and succeeded in drawing out two companies of skirmishers who attacked me from a wooded hill some two hundred yards distant, firing three volleys at my company. My orders were on leaving camp were to return whenever the bugle sounded and I had just been recalled and commenced falling back when I was fired upon. I continued on toward camp until I met Major [Richard] Long of the 73rd when I obtained leave to return and engaged the two companies that had attacked me. I then deployed my men through wood and unexpectedly to the enemy, opened a brisk fire on them. After the exchange of about a dozen rounds, both companies ran from their position in camp.
The "Grey Eagle" General Robert H. Milroy

I then discovered a company of men on a hill at my right and I at once gave the command to my men to fire upon them. They did so and made them double quick it over the hill out of range of our guns. I then asked and obtained permission to drive the Rebel company from the hill. I at once deployed my men as skirmishers and marched them through an open field, exchanging shots with them while advancing. When about halfway to the hill, I gave the command “forward, double quick, march,” and the men ceased firing and though very tired, rushed forward as fast as they could go. The men neared the top; we opened a galling fire upon them and continued it as long as they were in range of the guns. The commander of the skirmishers was on horseback and some of my men directed their fire at him. When he fell from his horse, they raised a shout of victory and rushed forward, driving the enemy back into his fortifications.

          As we deployed up the hill, we were in view of our forces, some half mile distant and they gave cheer after cheer as we advanced in the face of the enemy. Two guns, covered with blood, were found on the hill, and we saw several of their men, aside from their commander, fall as our guns were discharged. This skirmish lasted some five hours and I was advancing to take a better position when I was recalled. Major Long, during the latter part of my skirmish had taken a position in my rear with two companies to act as a reserve in case I should be compelled to fall back.
Colonel Orland Smith, 73rd Ohio

          My company returned to camp about 4 o’clock when 4 regiments were ordered to attack the enemy at another point. They commenced the attack and kept up a continual fire for about three hours, when our forces retired without being pursued. Our loss is between 30 and 40 killed, and 212 wounded.

          At midnight, our forces were ordered to get ready for a march. Everything was conducted quietly, and by 3 o’clock in the morning we were on the way to this place., some 35 miles from McDowell. The enemy outnumbered us 2 to 1 and McDowell was considered an indefensible place. These were the causes which induced us to retreat. We are now in force, Fremont having joined us, and we feel confident there will be no more retreating for some time to come.


P.S. For the part taken in the McDowell engagement, I received the compliments of both Col. [Orland] Smith and Gen. [Robert] Milroy.


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