A Tight Spot for the 23rd Ohio at Giles Courthouse

For much of the early part of the Civil War, Rutherford P. Hayes served under the immediate command of Eliakim P. Scammon, a West Point-trained officer who frequently clashed with Hayes during their years of service together. Scammon felt that Hayes was bold to the point of rashness, and that assessment played out in early May 1862 at a place in western Virginia called Giles Courthouse. 

    Lieutenant Colonel Hayes with the 23rd Ohio had pushed east from Princeton, Virginia on May 6, 1862 to occupy the town but unwittingly stirred up a hornet's nest of trouble in the form of General Henry Heth's brigade. As intelligence arrived that Stonewall Jackson was on the move in the Shenandoah Valley and that time had come for the Federal forces in the region to concentrate for action, Hayes and his men at Giles Courthouse came under sudden attack by Heth's men. It was a short fight, and Heth's superior numbers knocked the 23rd Ohio out of the town without much difficulty. But Hayes rallied the regiment and conducted a fighting retreat, exclaiming, "It's all right boys, it's all right. We will fall back on something before night so that we can give them hell."

   Hayes and the 23rd Ohio behaved magnificently under fire, but it was a tight spot, and one of Hayes' own making, but his men lauded his performance . He had met the test of a "good colonel;" he showed concern for his men, was brave, and didn't get rattled when things got rough. In a private letter, Hayes attributed the regiment's escape from capture or destruction to a "miracle" and confessed to his uncle that "our impudence saved us." During the fighting, Hayes sustained the first of three wounds he would receive during the war, a slight flesh wound on his right knee. 

    The following letter was written by Private Charles N. Hartman of Co. A of the 23rd Ohio describes the Battle of Giles Courthouse and praises Colonel Hayes. "We are ready to follow Colonel Hayes wherever he chooses to lead; he has the confidence of the entire regiment." Hartman's account was published in the May 29, 1862 issue of the Cleveland Morning Leader

Period CDV depicting the battle-torn national colors of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Camp No. 7, mouth of East River, Giles Co., Virginia

May 12, 1862

            My last letter was dated the 9th from Pearisburg or Giles C.H. Then we expected to be in Newbern by this time, but we were destined to be disappointed for our reinforcements not arriving, we were obliged to fall back before superior numbers to within three miles of this point where we were reinforced by the 30th Ohio and McMullen’s battery of howitzers. I will give you the skirmish in detail.

            Friday evening, we expected a reinforcement. They had been sent for as we were in hourly expectation of an attack. At length, the long-looked-for approach of the enemy was announced. At 6:30 Saturday morning, the advance of the enemy came within sight, closely followed by their main column of between 4,000-5,000 strong with five pieces of artillery: two 3-pdr, two 6-pdr, and one howitzer. Our mounted riflemen were soon acting as skirmishers under cover of a fence on the outskirts of town. Our boys fired upon them before they were aware of our presence. They advanced with three battalions in line, our boys keeping them in check until our little column of a trifle over 500 were firmed in line of battle to the rear and right of the church used by the Rebels and ourselves as a commissary department. (We burned this church before we fell back with all that it contained.)

            About this time, the Rebels opened on our skirmishers with their artillery, throwing shot and shell in abundance but doing little or no damage as their artillerymen were, luckily for us, deficient in practice. The infantry and mounted men acting as skirmishers slowly retired under a heavy but ineffective fire, the shells bursting before they reached within 200 yards of us. At this time the enemy was trying to flank our little band both upon the right and left, the whole column of five battalions was closing upon us in the form of a half moon. But our lieutenant colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, now in command of the regiment, is always ready for an emergency and saw their intentions and ordered a retreat. Our riflemen kept them in check by an effective fire, and we quickly fell back with Colonel Hayes bringing up the rear with our riflemen covering us.

Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes

            We went on the double quick for about a half a mile to pass a ravine where the road wound around so as to bring us under a raking fire, but we were too late. The enemy had reached the upper end of the ravine and planted one of their heaviest pieces of artillery. Soon their shells came thick and fast but doing little damage. Soon we turned a bend in the road and were out of range. We fell back to the bridge across Wolf Creek five miles from town and halted for a rest. Half an hour later we again fell back to the pass called The Narrows. Here Company A deployed as skirmishers upon the side of the mountain with instructions to hold the place is we could. We laid among the rocks for upwards of an hour, most of during that time taking a forenoon nap. We were ordered from this place to another a half mile further down the road where we were again deployed upon the side of a mountain commanding the road.

After a half hour spent cracking jokes, a battery opened on us from the opposite side of New River. The Rebels had boats brought from the opposite shore by their accomplices and immediately sent a battery of two guns across to play upon us as we fell back. Our boys engaged the battery, and at one time we silenced them, but they soon opened on us again, throwing shell and grape too fast and thick for us and we were obliged to fall back. We were soon out of range and commenced sharpshooting with their skirmishers across the river. Our Enfields proved too much for them, for they soon learned to respect our fire and took considerable pains to keep out of range, but occasionally one would venture down to get a chance shot when he we get tumbled over.

Our loss as far as I can ascertain is ten killed, wounded, and missing. One of our boys, Tagerdine, had a bullet from a shell pass through his cap and lodge therein. The boys behaved like veterans. There was no confusion, nor could there be any confusion where Lieutenant Colonel Hayes or Major Comley are in command. At every report of a cannon the boys would point out to where the shell had burst in the air and make exclamations. “I wish McMullen’s boys were here, they would show them how to throw shells.” Colonel Hayes is, in the estimation of the boys, another Siegel. The retreat was conducted in the best manner possible as nobody seemed to be in a hurry. All the time we were under fire the boys throughout the battalion were continually joking and laughing, all in the best possible spirits, making remarks something like these. “The Rebel scamps are most confounded careless with their fireworks.” At one time the bullets came like hail, doing no damage as most of them passed over and the rest fell short. It would amuse you to hear the boys talk. “I don’t care for shell now, I used to fear them,” quipped one while another said, “By jingo, wasn’t it fun to hear them come buzzing along and see the boys fall down, then get up and call the Secesh for more?”

Captain Carlos Sperry of Co. B with a sergeant and private of his company.

Our boys wasted little or no ammunition but made nearly every shot tell. The enemy’s loss is reported by citizens and contrabands to be 60 killed and 80 wounded. We are now lying and waiting orders from headquarters. Our regiment to a man is ready to go forward and we are ready to follow Lieutenant Colonel Hayes wherever he chooses to lead. He has the entire confidence of the regiment.


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