Battling Jackson's Legions at McDowell

     At the Battle of McDowell, Corporal Joseph Potts of the 75th Ohio was introduced firsthand to the horrors of Civil War combat. "I saw men shot dead within five feet of me and this is the first time I ever saw a man die," he wrote to his wife a few days after the battle. "I saw brains running all over their faces. The balls came very close to me, but I am here safe and sound yet, but don't know whether I will get off all well the next time but hope I will."

    The 75th Ohio Infantry was raised in southwestern Ohio during the closing months of 1861 and mustered into service one week before Christmas 1861 at Camp John McLean in Cincinnati. Under the command of Colonel Nathaniel McLean, the 75th Ohio went to war in western Virginia and saw its first action at Monterey, Virginia on April 12, 1862. Less than a month later, the regiment played an important role in the Battle of McDowell as is explained by Corporal Joseph L. Potts of Co. H. 

    Potts' account was published in the May 30, 1862 issue of the Pomeroy Weekly Telegraph

The tattered late war flag presented by the citizens of Preble County, Ohio to the 75th Ohio then commanded by Colonel Andrew L. Harris. At McDowell while under the command of Colonel McLean, the regiment held its ground on Sitlington's Hill under the immediate watch of General Milroy who "warmly praised McLean for the gallantry of his regiment." 


Franklin, Pendleton Co., Virginia

May 12, 1862

Dear wife,

          I received your letter this morning and hasten to answer it as I was pleased to hear from you; I received a letter from you a few days ago which I have not had time to answer.

          We have been within 20 miles of Staunton but on May 5th we fell back to Shenandoah Mountain in consequence of an anticipated attack. On the 6th, we fell back to this side of the mountain and on the 7th we were called out and went to the top of the mountain expecting a fight, the enemy having appeared and drove in the pickets of the 32nd Ohio. We remained on the mountain a short time and found they were not coming on very fast, so we went back to our camp and struck our tents preparatory to falling back on our reinforcements at McDowell. There were only three regiments in the advance, and one battery so we were not strong enough to encounter the enemy who were coming on very fast with a heavy force. They captured all the tents and camp equipage belonging to the 32nd Ohio. We fell back from our camp about one mile and a half and waited for them to appear. We could see them coming off the top of Shenandoah Mountain so our regiment and Hyman’s battery [Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery] went back to the ridge overlooking our camp and their extreme advance in our camp. A couple of shells caused them to leave faster than they came in. We then proceeded to McDowell.

          On the 8th, reveille was sounded about 4 o’clock, a hasty breakfast eaten, and then we were ready for a fight. About 8 in the morning our pickets were driven in by the enemy’s skirmishers. We struck our tents, loaded our wagons, and started them on, then took our position on a little knoll. The valley here is very narrow. We were now ready and waiting for the “French gentlemen” to come in. Their scouts appeared on the top of the mountain about 1-1/2 miles from our position. We expected their full force to come upon us soon; but we sent our skirmishers to draw them in, but they would not come. We shelled them on the mountaintop with but little effect; the top of the mountain being so narrow it was very hard to get the right elevation and then they remained on the other side of it.

Brigadier General Nathaniel McLean was the 75th Ohio's first colonel and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in December 1862 following the hard fighting demonstrated by himself and his men at Monterey, McDowell, Cross Keys, Cedar Mountain, and especially at Second Bull Run. His brigade had the misfortune of being one of the first hit by Jackson's flank attack at Chancellorsville and this had the effect of derailing McLean's promising career. He led brigades in the 23rd Corps during the Atlanta and Carolina Campaigns but the shroud of Chancellorsville hung over his army career until the end. 

          About 3 o’clock in the afternoon the 25th and 75th Ohio regiments started for the top of the mountain. In a few minutes the engagement became general and soon men began to fall on both sides. They had the advantage of us for the top of the mountain was covered with brush about three feet high which afforded them a hiding place. In about three-quarters of an hour from when we first engaged them, the 32nd and 82nd Ohio regiments with the 3rd Virginia were sent to our support. In about a half hour from this time we succeeded in getting one six-lb gun up the mountain far enough to throw shells into them. We fought three and a half hours, running every regiment they brought against us. I tell you the bullets whistled about us fast and thick. One of our regiments ran out of ammunition and had to retire. We fought the Rebels until it was so dark we could not see to shoot. We returned to camp bringing our dead and wounded with us. I shot 42 rounds at them.

Lieutenant William J. Rannells
Co. I, 75th Ohio

          The enemy numbered about 7,000 while the force we brought against them was about 4,000. You may know by this that we had to fight very hard. General Schenk got in with his brigade a short time before the fight and had one of his regiments in the fight. When we started out, General Schenk said he would give us 15 minutes to stay on the mountain, but we stayed three and a half hours. The soldiers here say that the 75th Ohio fought better than any regiment they ever saw in their first battle. We took one prisoner who tells us they had 18,000 men, part of whom were to arrive that evening. We had provisions enough only to last us two days and had 500 head of horses that had not had anything to east for 24 hours; consequently, we were forced to fall back towards the railroad so that night about 2 o’clock we started on a northeast course for Franklin.

          When the Rebels found we were retreating, they followed up. We marched about 16 miles the first day and the second day we came to within two miles of Franklin. Yesterday we came in town and had not been in town more than an hour when we were called our as the enemy had attacked Schenk who was in the rear. Our regiment skirmished the woods all afternoon, but we could not get within shooting distance of the enemy. We shelled them all the afternoon which kept them from appearing in any considerable force. So our regiment took position behind Wright’s battery to support it and here we remained until 1 o’clock. Light skirmishing occurred but they would not “come to town.” Our cavalry was sent out who reported that the enemy was retreating and had fell tree across the road to prevent us from following them. Occasionally firing is heard as their still lingers a number of their scouts through the woods.

Captain Andrew L. Harris of Co. C, 75th Ohio numbered amongst the wounded at McDowell but survived. The Eaton, Ohio attorney turned soldier served the rest of the war with the regiment and ended the war as its colonel, gaining much fame for his heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg where he helped hold a critical position on Cemetery Hill on the first day of the battle. He later served as 44th governor of the state of Ohio. A Progressive Republican, Harris ushered through a number of reforms including the state's first pure food and drug act. His prohibition sentiments earned him political enemies who booted Harris from office after one term. Harris retired to his farm near Eaton and passed away in 1915 at the age of 79.

          Our total loss in the battle on May 8th was 105 killed and wounded. Our regiment had five killed and 30 wounded, two of the wounded men being Middleport boys from our company. Russell T. Davis was hit on the collar bone on the right side with either a buckshot or squirrel rifle ball which broke the bone. He is getting along well and staying in camp with us. The doctor says he will not take the ball our for it will make the wound worse and it will never hurt him after it heals. I think he will be sent home soon. John H. Hysell has a severe wound in the right should, but he is in the hospital and doing well.

          I saw men shot dead within five feet of me and this is the first time I ever saw a man die. Poor fellows! I saw they brains running all over their faces. The balls came very close to me, but I am here safe and sound yet, but I don’t know whether I will get off all well the next time but hope I will. Three regiments from Blenker’s Division came to our support last evening and the balance will be in tomorrow with General Fremont which will give us over 19,000 men. As soon as we can get provisions, we will start for Staunton. We have eaten up everything in this place.

          Write soon and often. Give my love to all the family.

 

Your respectfully,

Joseph L. Potts, Co. H, 75th Regiment, O.V.M.


Source:

Letter from Corporal Joseph L. Potts, Co. H, 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Pomeroy Weekly Telegraph (Ohio), May 30, 1862, pg. 2

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