Losing the Colonel: The 68th Ohio at Champion Hill

    A few facts are abundantly clear: Lieutenant Colonel John S. Snook of the 68th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was killed in action May 16, 1863 at the Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi. His loss was widely lamented throughout the regiment; Snook was a beloved commander and remembered as a fervent Christian gentleman. The surviving accounts amply attest to how his death cast a gloom over the regiment despite the victory at Champion Hill. But how did he die? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Tattered national colors of the 68th Ohio Veteran Volunteers with the battle honor for Champion Hill in the third red stripe. (Ohio History Connection)

    John S. Snook was born December 5, 1814 in Deerfield, Warren County, Ohio and prior to the war had settled in Paulding County, Ohio, relatively unsettled territory still largely covered by forests. John Snook was a community leader, raised and led Co. G of the 14th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the three months’ service in 1861, then worked to raise the new 68th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the fall of 1861. The. 46-year-old  was commissioned major of the 68th Ohio on November 29, 1861, was promoted to lieutenant colonel July 5, 1862. At Champion Hill, Snook had command of the regiment in the absence of Colonel Robert K. Scott. 

    The 68th Ohio was part of Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett's "Flying Brigade" comprised of the 20th, 68th, and 78th Ohio regiments along with the 30th Illinois. Leggett, the former commander of the 78th Ohio, was part of "Black Jack" Logan's Third Division of James B. McPherson's 17th Corps. The regiment went into action near midday at Champion Hill and it was in the early afternoon hours that Snook met his demise.
Corporal John Kigar of Co. A, 68th Ohio
Find a Grave

    According to Corporal Myron B. Loop writing years after the war, Snook was shot when he took a soldier's musket and was trying to shoot down a Rebel color bearer. "We were still holding our position with a death-like grip, momentarily expecting a renewed assault by the enemy. "Hold your fire," shouted Major George Welles, "until you are sure of your man." Directly in our front was observed a Rebel flag. "Hand me your gun," said Lieutenant Colonel Snook, "I believe I can stop the bearer of that Rebel rag." But the next moment our lieutenant colonel was struggling in the agony of death. In his death the flag of our country lost a gallant defender and the 68th Ohio an officer who was like a father to his boys. Many brave boys fell on that fateful day, whose loss was just as much felt by comrades and friends, but who were not as widely known as Snook." 

    Second Lieutenant Samuel R. Adams of Co. A was also there and agreed that the Rebel "rag" attracted Snook's attention. "While directing the fire of the men upon a 'Rebel rag' that floated defiantly over the heads of the Rebel regiment just in advance of us, he was shot through the breast and expired in a few moments without a word or a struggle. We knew him and loved him as a true Christian, a good soldier, and a brave man who offered himself a willing sacrifice for his country's good. The joy of victory was clouded by the thoughts of our brave though unfortunate comrades who fell during the fight."

    Utilizing the maps in Timothy B. Smith's superb book Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg, Leggett's Brigade faced off against General Stephen D. Lee's brigade of  Alabama troops, including the 20th, 23rd, 30th, 31st, and 46th Alabama regiments. The "Rebel rag" in question likely belonged to one of those five regiments although which one is entirely speculative. 

The "Rebel rag"? This flag belonging to the 30th Alabama of Lee's Brigade
was captured at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 and likely flew at Champion Hill.
(Alabama Department of Archives & History)

     A few years ago, I posted a story containing a captured letter from one of General Lee's staff officers Stephen Underhill who was present at Champion Hill. Underhill wrote the following regarding the fight: "At first our men stood up the work gallantly and vigorously returned the deadly fire than thinned their ranks. They went down by dozens before the Yankee artillery and musketry, but many a Yankee bit the dust. There were two distinct lines respectively of blue and brown, marking where the dead of either army lay where they had fallen when the fray began. This unequal contest lasted several hours but though wearied almost to death and though pressed by overwhelming odds, the Second Brigade still held out, patiently awaiting the arrival and aid of our other two brigades or those of Loring or Bowen. It did not come, however, and one of Cumming’s Georgia regiments being hard pushed broke and took shelter in the woods. It was like a bank crumbling away before the action of a torrent to watch our lines at this juncture. The panic seemed contagious and as it ran down the lines, regiment after regiment caught it toll both brigades were in full retreat, leaving all their artillery and all dead and wounded in the enemy’s hands," he stated. (Underhill's entire letter can be viewed here.) 

Major George E. Welles, 68th Ohio
Find a Grave

    Regardless, it fell to Major George E. Welles of the 68th Ohio to compose the following letter which was sent to Colonel Snook's wife in Antwerp, Ohio. In this letter, Welles presents his own version of the closing moments of Snook's life. 

Headquarters, 68th Regt., O.V.I.
Rear of Vicksburg, Mississippi
June 5, 1863

Mrs. Snook,
It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of your noble husband Lieutenant Colonel John S. Snook of the 68th Regiment who died at his post on the battlefield of Champion’s Hill May 16, 1863. The regiment having been constantly on the march ever since and neither officers nor men having their baggage or any facilities for writing must be my apology for my seeming delay in notifying you of this great bereavement. The fact of our being in the heart of the enemy’s country and all of our communications via Grand Gulf being cut off by the enemy in our rear and not yet having opened communication to the Yazoo River, we were unable to send his body north and were obliged to inter him on the field. This sad duty was performed by Second Lieutenant Charles Bates of Co. B and Privates [Daniel A.] Covert and [Seymour] Carpenter of Co. C, who took every pain that love and friendship could dictate to bury him properly and mark his grave in such manner that it may be found at any future time if desired by his friends.  [Covert was wounded in this battle and died in Albuquerque, NM in 1920. Carpenter lived until 1889 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Antwerp, same cemetery as Snook’s two children. Colonel Snook was reburied at Vicksburg National Cemetery.]

The regiment became engaged about 11:30 a.m. in this terrible battle. Owing to the broken and hilly nature of the ground, all of the field officers dismounted early in the engagement and our horses were sent to the rear. We were soon moved forward through an open field into the edge of a thick wood and there formed in a small ravine where we remained until the battle closed. From the moment we arrived in this position, the battle raged around us fiercely and for two long hours Lieutenant Colonel Snook gallantly and coolly stood at his post encouraging the men by his words and actions. About 1 p.m. his attention was called to a Rebel flag which could be seen a few hundred yards in front of us. He had no sooner stepped up on the bank and had taken five or six steps to the front when the fatal ball struck him. He immediately turned around and walked slowly back over the hill and fell into the arms of one of the men, which was the first notice we had that he was hurt.

He was immediately carried back towards the hospital but expired before reaching there. He never uttered a groan or spoke a word after he was struck. The ball entered his right breast and passed diagonally through and probably lodged in his heart. This sad event has cast a gloom over the whole regiment and both officers and men fell his loss greatly, and we all deeply sympathize with your and your family in this, your great bereavement. I have carefully gathered up his effects and I shall express them to you at the earliest day possible; at present it is impossible to do so.

With great esteem, I remain very respectfully your obedient servant,
George E. Welles, Major, 68th Regt. O.V.I.
To Mrs. John B. Snook, Antwerp, Paulding Co., Ohio 

68th Ohio regimental colors

Ohio History Connection

Sources:
Myron Loop with Baumgartner, Richard, editor. The Long Road Home: Ten Thousand Miles Through the Confederacy with the 68th Ohio. Huntingdon: Blue Acorn Press, 2006, pg. 85
Adams: Toledo Daily Commercial, July 1, 1863, pg. 1
Welles: Toledo Blade, June 25, 1863, pg. 2

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