Not German Poltroons: The 61st Ohio Explains Chancellorsville

Following the unsuccessful conclusion of the Chancellorsville campaign, a number of eastern newspapers (led by Horace Greeley who edited the widely read New York Daily Tribune) laid the blame for the failure to defeat Robert E. Lee's army squarely at the feet of the conduct of the 11th Corps on May 2, 1863. "If the 11th Corps had held its ground, the defeat and destruction of Jackson would have been inevitable, but when they fled, it became necessary to recall Sickles and the whole maneuver was foiled. General Howard who commanded it is a brave and skillful general, but neither his efforts nor those of General Devens and General Schurz could arrest the panic. We trust that swift justice will overtake the regiments that broke; that if it be deemed too rigid to shoot them all, they may at least be decimated and then dissolved.” 

General Carl Schurz described the effect this type of "publicity" had on his troops, exhausted and bloodied after a hard campaign. "“Every newspaper that fell into our hands told the world the frightful story of the unexampled misconduct of the 11th Corps, how the ‘cowardly Dutchmen’ of that corps had thrown down their arms and fled at the first fire of the enemy, how my division led in the disgraceful flight without firing a shot, how these cowardly Dutch like a herd of frightened sheep had overrun the whole battlefield and come near stampeding other brigades or divisions, in short, the whole failure of the Army of the Potomac was owing to the scandalous poltroonery of the 11th Corps. We procured whatever newspapers we could obtain- newspapers from New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee- the same story everywhere. I was thunderstruck." 
Major General Carl Schurz
Commanding Third Division, XI Corps

Major General Oliver O. Howard, soon after his return to camp, couldn’t help but notice the damaging news coverage and the pronounced effect it had on the men of his command. He issued the following general order touching upon the recent disaster at Chancellorsville and expressing his confidence in the men:

Headquarters, Eleventh Army Corps, May 10, 1863
General Orders No. 9
As your commanding general, I cannot fail to notice a feeling of depression on the part of a portion of this corps. Some obloquy has been cast upon us on account of the affair of Saturday May 2. I believe that such a disaster might have happened to any other corps of this army and I do no mistrust my command. Every officer who failed to do his duty by not keeping his men together and not rallying them when broken is conscious of it and must profit by the past.

I confidently believe that every honorable officer and every brave man earnestly desires and opportunity to advance against the enemy and to demonstrate to the army and to the country that we are not wanting in principle or patriotism. Your energy, sustained and directed under the Divine blessing, shall yet place the Eleventh Corps ahead of them all.

O.O. Howard, Major General, commanding

While the eastern newspapers howled at the cowardly Germans of the 11th Corps, the native-born Ohioans of the corps took to the pages of their local newspapers to make the case that they were being made the scapegoats for command negligence on the part of Hooker and Howard. Today's blog post features two accounts from soldiers serving in the 61st Ohio Volunteer Infantry that make this point. 

The 61st, along with the 82nd Illinois,  68th and 157th New York, and the 74th Pennsylvania, formed Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelfennig's First Brigade of Carl Schurz's Third Division. The 82nd Illinois, 68th New York, and 74th Pennsylvania were predominantly German in character, while the 61st Ohio was composed of typically Anglo-Saxon farmers, shop keepers, and mechanics from throughout Ohio. The two letters aim to put the 61st Ohio in a better light than its brigade mates, claiming that the Buckeyes held their ground while its German neighbors fled. 

On May 2, 1863, the brigade line lay along the Plank Road to the east of General Charles Devens' First Division, Devens' Division being the right flank of the corps and the Army of the Potomac. The 74th Pennsylvania lay to the west of the 61st Ohio, the 68th New York to the east, while the 82nd Illinois and 157th New York lay behind the line in reserve. It is worth noting that the brigade line faced south; when Jackson's flank attack struck Devens from the west, the line was completely flanked and as Devens' units fell back along the Plank Road, the panic spread quickly to the rest of the units caught up in the maelstrom. As Colonel John C. Lee of the 55th Ohio stated, the "rank and file of the 11th Corps are no more to be blamed for the rout than the pins in a bowling alley for falling when struck by the ball.”
Colonel Stephen J. McGroarty, 61st Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Private Henry B. Nichols, Co. K, 61st Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Published in the Wyandot Pioneer, June 12, 1863

Near Brook’s Station, Va.
May 27, 1863

          Editor of the Pioneer:
          Once more I make an attempt to write you a few lines, feeling confident that many readers of your paper would gladly hear from us. There has been many attempts made in some papers which have had but little to do in reference to our corps, which they proclaim did not act exactly right in the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was also sketched by A.R. Waud in Harpers’ Weekly whom, I have no doubt, received his information by hearsay or probably got a bird’s eye view on a hasty retreat. We doubt that the said gentleman remained in those parts long enough to sketch an ox, which he has by some means so gloriously pictured out. If the said artist would get his shoulder at the butt end of a musket, he may find a better chance to display some of his loyalty. Pictures don’t put down the rebellion.
Alfred R. Waud sketch used to produce the print in Harper's Weekly that drew Nichols' ire. Note the ox front and center. "If the said artist would get his shoulder at the butt end of a musket, he may find a better chance to display some of his loyalty. Picture's don't put down the rebellion," Nichols grumped in a letter sent to the Wyandot Pioneer.
          The New York Herald and Washington Chronicle seem to have but little to do. I wonder if they ever saw a hard tack, things men misrepresent very much. However, they may be posted for something to write. Let me state that the 68th New York was the very first to run, and the 74th Pennsylvania next. This is not the first time the 68th New York done the like. At the Battle of Cross Keys they done some very tall walking. Some of them I believe went into the state of New York before they halted. How does the Herald like such fighting? Would it not be better to look at home affairs before opening out so large, because one or two regiments didn’t stand up to the rack, should the whole corps stand the blunt?
Bad Behavior of the Eleventh Corps
          We are aware than when the right or left wing is in the act of being turned, that it is a mighty unhealthy place, and men are few that would not wish to be out, yet where our duty calls us, there we intend to be. And if we are among the unlucky who fall, it is not to be done again. Although our force was small and we had no entrenchments, not a man left until he was ordered back by the commanding officers, except the two regiments I have mentioned and when they left all was confusion. Had the Rebs come when we expected, we should have been ready for them, but they came when we least expected and when our breastworks done but little good. There are many here from Wyandot County in the 55th and 61st Ohio regiments. I wish we had as many more instead of some regiments I know of…

          Major General Howard is beloved by his men for his bravery, and as a good officer, he is worthy of the office he fills. However, he has but one arm which makes it rather inconvenient should he have an occasion to the dry knocks with the Rebs, he will find regiments at his service. I will except one or two regiments for they undoubtedly would be out of hearing.

          The wounded of the late battle across the Rappahannock are getting along fine. I passed through the hospitals a few days ago and they are in good spirits. Many of them will start for home as soon as they are able to travel whilst others only slightly wounded are returning to their regiments and are again ready for the next move. I might mention many from Wyandot County who were taken prisoners, but no doubt your readers have heard from them before this reaches you. They are in Maryland paroled, waiting to be exchanged. Many regiments have left this corps, their time having expired and are now homeward bound marching to the tune of “The girl I left behind me.”

H.B. Nichols

Captain Henry R. Bending
Co. I, 61st O.V.I.

Letter from J.M. Reynolds, member of the band of the 61st Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Published in the Wyandot Pioneer, May 29, 1863

Headquarters, 61st Regt. Ohio Vols., Camp near Stafford Courthouse, Virginia

May 16, 1863

Captain Joseph McCutchen, sir,
          You have no doubt ere this, heard and read a great deal in regard to the recent ten days’ campaign south of the Rappahannock. I suppose our Wyandot County friends have formed various and conflicting opinions in regard to the conduct of the 11th Corps to which our regiment is attached. Having been with the army on the whole march and witnessed with my own eyes every moment of the battle, I believe it due to the public to state the facts as they transpired and leave the consequences and results to the public opinion, which, when truthfully made upon solid and substantial facts, is never wrong.

          It is needless to saw much of our march over the river. We arrived on the ground near where the battle was fought on the 30th of last month at 6 p.m. Here we encamped for the night. Next morning, which was Saturday, we were ordered into line of battle, our corps being the extreme right wing of the army but little skirmishing was going on all day in the woods in front of our lines. All the news we received during the day was that the enemy was retreating towards Gordonsville. We expected to follow them as soon as the facts could be ascertained. No one dreamed of anything but an easy and decisive victory and a perfect success. The officers and men of our regiment were, without exception, so far as I could discover, in better spirits than I ever saw them before.
General Oliver O. Howard's 11th Corps Headquarters flag
          The right wing was defended by the First Division; the 74th Pennsylvania of our brigade was on the right of our brigade and the 61st were in front facing south. Between 3 and 4 o’clock we heard considerable skirmishing near us on our right, and supposed it was nothing more than playing with a few of the enemy’s cavalry. Not expecting an attack from that quarter but being prepared to receive them should they make their appearance in front, we were ready to give them such as reception as they would remember during the war.

But in a moment as it were without the slightest notice, with the exception of a little skirmishing spoken of above, as we were standing in line in the road, the balls came whistling down the road parallel with our lines. At almost the same moment, or immediately after, the 74th Pennsylvania which was stationed on the right of our brigade came rushing through our ranks and over us. The other regiments from the First Division, who had been stationed to guard the flank, were seen flying in every direction. The enemy of not less than 20,000 came rushing after at full speed, carrying their cartridges in their pockets with no load save their gun, without coat, cartridge box, knapsack, or anything of the sort, firing and yelling as they ran. 
General Alexander Schimmelfennig

During the confusion and the complete surprise, the 61st Ohio stood as firm as a rock, the ground in front of us plowed up by shells, our artillery flying through our ranks without firing a shot. The artillerymen had been picked off by the Rebel sharpshooters. Colonel McGroarty rallied his regiment, and every officer and man was in his proper place and never budged an inch until the command came to fall back. This was done in good order by taking a near road which had been cut that morning by the order of General Schimmelfennig of our brigade.

11th Corps position along the Plank Road on the evening of May 2, 1863

The public mind may be already full of false rumors in regard to the recent conduct of the 11th Corps, but the matter must be righted. There are hundreds of Ohio troops in the 11th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. I have witnessed the conduct of these troops on other occasions. No man lives who dare stand up and charge them with cowardice. Speaking not for myself, but for them. I am not a soldier in the ranks, neither am I an officer. I am a member of the band, but I have had the luck to be in every battle the regiment has ever been in, sharing with them the honor of success and sympathizing with them in all our reverses. Are the officers or the men of a single regiment to blame for our surprise? Was it not the business of the commanding generals to see to it that our right wing was properly supported?

On whom then does the blame rest? General Hooker was in command of the army, General Howard in command of the corps, Carl Schurz of the division, and Schimmelfennig of the brigade. Let the facts be ascertained and let the blunder rest where it belongs. One thing is certain: there is no blame to be attached to any regiment from Ohio. The 61st Ohio I have been with for 12 months and they have been in many warm places. They never yet were known to flinch and this was the hottest place we ever yet were in, but I never knew officers or men so cool or determined and willing to do their duty. All our field officers were present: Colonel McGroarty, Lieutenant Colonel H. Brown, Major Becket, Adjutant Williams, and all acted nobly. So it was also with our line officers and all the men. They never exhibited more bravery or more heroism than on this occasion. Our regiment lost 130 men killed, wounded, and missing. Hue B. Thatcher is one of the missing, but the Little Sandusky boys came out all right.

Yours respectfully,
J.M. Reynolds


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