Going Zouave on the Rebs at Scarey Creek with the 12th Ohio

    The Battle of Scary Creek, Virginia was fought July 17, 1861 upon a series of hills along the banks of Scary Creek at the junction with the Kanawha River in western Virginia. Confederate forces under Captain George S. Patton had emplaced a masked battery that commanded the river road and an important bridge over Scary Creek in days previous to check the Union advance up the Kanawha. Patton commanded a force of several independent companies in Virginia state service, along with a few cannon from Hales Artillery under Lieutenants James Welch and Charles Quarrier, the entire force numbering roughly 800 men.

    Union Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox determined to send out a reconnaissance force of roughly 1,000 men consisting of the 12th Ohio Infantry under Colonel John Lowe, about 100 troops from two companies of the 21st Ohio Infantry under Colonel Jesse S. Norton, a cavalry company under Captain John S. George, and two rifled cannon under Captains William S. Williams and Charles S. Cotter. Colonel Lowe commanded the expedition and was ordered to locate the enemy and determine the size of his force- its mission was not to get into a fight, but a fight it had.

    First Sergeant John U. Hiltz,, author of the lengthy account of Scarey Creek posted below, was among those who took part in the engagement. Serving in the "Union Guards" (Co. C) of the 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Hiltz and his comrades had recently changed from a 90-day enlistment to a three years' enlistment. The regiment was among the first from the state to be armed with Miles Greenwood muskets, being armed with old .69 caliber U.S. Model flintlock muskets altered to percussion. The 12th Ohio would serve exclusively in western Virginia throughout the war, and Scarey Creek proved to be a tough introduction to combat in that theater. Hiltz's account was originally published in the August 7, 1861 edition of the Clermont Courier.

Regimental colors presented to the 12th Ohio on August 27, 1862 by the citizens of Warren County, Ohio. By August 1862, the 12th Ohio had taken part in numerous engagements, but their first was the battle at Scarey Creek, Virginia in July 1861. 

New Richmond, Virginia

August 1, 1861

          You were no doubt ere this informed of the glorious victory achieved by our 12th regiment at Camp Scary, four miles above our camp at Pocadillo, up the Kanawha River, but still I presume it may be interesting to some of your readers to hear some more particulars, as Company C boys all belong to this county. Marching away from camp near Redhouse, we were informed of some batteries being planted further up the road and we therefore moved very cautiously some ten miles when inquiries were made, and some Negroes informed us that we were approaching some batteries; inquiring as to distance, some said one and a half while other placed it at four miles. The order to halt was given, when General Jacob Cox and staff, together with our regimental officers held a council. Soon after, one colonel advanced making observations with his spyglass but without any success. A heavy rain was pouring down on us at the time, while resting on a beautiful spot used as a pasture. Finally orders were given to cross over the river and our boats having arrived, we were conveyed across the river, marched into a beautiful wheat field and pitched tents, as did the 21st Ohio, part of the 1st Kentucky; part of the 11th Ohio having had their tents pitched about a mile further up. Our commissary having neglected us very much for a few days’ past, our boys enjoyed themselves in getting a few secession chickens, geese, and a few turkeys. Soon our boys caught some secessioners; their ghastly physiognomies gave them a rather suspicious look; although they avowed to be Union men, took the oath of allegiance, whereupon they were released.

          During this time, inquiries were made by our head officers in regard to the batteries and we received all the necessary information as to the distance as well as the position of the batteries. So on Tuesday July 16, orders were received to draw two days’ rations, as our regiment had been selected for the work. As all our boys were anxious for a fight, they commenced cooking and baking, which lasted until midnight. During the day, however, the second part of the 1st Kentucky together with the 2nd Kentucky had arrived, and the presumption prevailed that they were to assist us in taking the battery, which, however, proved to be a mere presumption. On the morning of the 17th, we were ordered to put our knapsacks aboard the boat, also our tents, and to be in readiness at any moment. At 9 o’clock a.m., the 12th Ohio and two companies of the 21st Ohio, in all about 900 men, crossed the river and instead of taking the river road, which the Rebels no doubt expected, we took what they termed the middle road; a road that leads along the river, through the woods, and joins the river road just at Camp Scary. Three companies were sent ahead as scouts, and as they experienced great difficulty in getting through the thickets, passing over creeks and timber, the column down in the road advanced very slowly.

Veteran's badge from Private John Klein of Co. E of the 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. John Hiltz served briefly in Co. E while a second lieutenant in early 1862. (Heritage Auctions)

          About 1 o’clock p.m., our scouts reached the outlet and being observed by the Rebels, they immediately gave the signal. Our column then halted and everything placed in readiness. Our skirmishers with their Enfield rifles [21st Ohio] were ordered to advance, as also our cavalry and artillery. Our field officers soon took a view of the field with their spyglasses, but did not seem to have discovered the exact place of their battery; so we marched down the road, passing a barn, then turning straight forward a few hundred yards when as soon as the rear of the column had reached the turn, the whole column marched in parallel line with the enemy’s battery. They opened on us, the report was heard, and to place ourselves in as safe a position as possible, the whole column squatted down, when the next moment, the grape flew over our heads like hail; we were about to raise when another one came whistling over our heads; no damage yet.

The Battle of Scarey Creek overlaid upon a contemporary satellite view of the ground. (Author's work)

          We were now ordered to break the force to the left of the road, but this seeming too slow a job, we made the best way we could. Here another ball came along, but still too high and another one striking a wheat shock about 30 yards to the rear. At this juncture we reached a steep run, the hills on the side covering us entirely from any danger. For about five minutes everything seemed confused, but through the exertions of the officers, the companies were formed in good order. During this time our artillery, having with the cavalry advanced pretty close to their battery and having observed the exact position besides enjoying the advantage of placing themselves near a church, our gallant cavalry made a splendid charge, while our noble cannoneers played away with the ten-pound rifled cannon. Every shot told, and we could easily distinguish them. A perfect roaring of cannon ensued. Meanwhile our boys were formed, marched up the hill, arrived at the level towards the entrenched enemy. Here the contest began.

"Companies I and Co. G were on the left flank on the bank of the river in the hottest part of the contest. The secessionists had fortified some log houses along the bank of the river from which they were firing, and we were ordered to rout them out. We charged upon them and they ran like sheep. We fired so often that our old muskets got so hot that mine burnt my hands and so dirty that I had to pound down the cartridges with a club." ~ Private James A. Gorsuch, Co. I, 12th Ohio Infantry

          A heavy discharge of musketry was at once opened on our boys, but firmly returned; the skirmishers began to play Zouave on the enemy by lying down and firing. The field here had been admirably contested on both sides. All agree that the Virginians fought with desperate courage and resolution, but their artillery proved ineffective. Our noble artillerists (a company from Cleveland) proved to be too good a shot for them, knocking their battery in less than half an hour all to smash, besides, killing most of their cannoneers; those remaining retired hastily with their broken pieces. Their evident purpose was to make a stand there and risk the fortunes of Charleston upon the hazards of the day. We promptly accepted their challenge and though they had occupied all the few buildings, a church, a schoolhouse, cooper shop, and a couple of log houses, a frame building down in the bottoms, besides the many ravines, of which they disputed every inch, and fought here with the utmost desperation, yet a few of our ten-pound balls soon brought them out. The house down in the bottoms served as their magazine and was most desperately defended as they fired from the house through loopholes, but a sure shot from our artillery nearly upset the house, scattering the Rebels like chaff. When they found it impossible to hold their ground any longer, they fell back, until they reached the big hill at the foot of the road which leads to Charleston, and at which place they had their battery planted.

          The final attack was then directed upon the hill, which was so steep that persons unencumbered by anything had the greatest difficulty in climbing it, so you may imagine what it was for our boys with their haversacks, canteens, and blankets. Add to this difficulty a rather scorching July sun, and a dense mass of the enemy ahead of them. At this juncture of the game, our boys discovered that they were nearly out of ammunition, besides the approach of the enemy’s reinforcements. Having observed that most of our men on the other side of the battlefield had left, the command was given to retreat. Our gallant boys retired slowly and steadily towards the outlet from the woods. The enemy’s reinforcement did not pursue them, the same being well covered, as our two rifled cannons had meanwhile been planted on the side of the outlet and in excellent range of the enemy.

Colonel John Williamson Lowe of the 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Lowe, a veteran of the Mexican War, led the regiment at Scarey Creek but his reputation was severely tarnished by charges of cowardice (made by Colonel Jesse Norton of the 21st Ohio) that made their way into the newspapers. Lowe was killed in action September 10, 1861 at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, Virginia. 

          The companies all being formed, they marched towards camp; when about halfway, we were surprised by the coming of the eight companies of the 21st Ohio together with some 30 cavalry to assist us, but they were at least an hour too late. Upon consultation with the officers, they retired with us to camp. We left seven poor fellows dead on the battlefield, besides having 35 more or less wounded. Very poor preparations had been made for our wounded; only one two-horse wagon was prepared to take about half a dozen most dangerously wounded; others had to walk all the way to camp, a distance of four miles. Two of our wounded died next day. One of our artillerymen who had part of his hip carried off and who, besides one cavalryman killed, were the only ones struck by the enemy’s battery, died since at the military hospital in Gallipolis.

    Of Company C, none were hurt but myself, receiving a shot on the top of my head, knocking me senseless to the ground. The wound is slight. We were placed on board the boat and our wounds dressed. On Friday the 19th we were sent to the military hospital at Gallipolis where we arrived towards evening. We were well received there. The ladies of Gallipolis attended to the wants of the wounded soldiers at the hospital with the greatest care and solicitude. Coffee, pies, rice, toasted bread, blackberries, lemons, and all the little comforts that tend to render the sick room less irksome were sent to these men who had fought so nobly in defense of the Union and the Constitution.

John U. Hiltz was born around 1830 in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. around 1850. He enlisted in April 1861 as a private in Co. C of the three-months’ 12th Ohio Infantry and was soon appointed third sergeant. On June 3, 1861, he enlisted as the first sergeant of Co. C of the three-years’ 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was wounded on the head at Scary Creek. At the solicitation of 17 officers from the regiment, he was promoted to second lieutenant of Co. E January 9, 1862 and transferred to date February 28, 1862. He was promoted to first lieutenant June 20, 1862 and transferred to the 23rd Ohio Infantry July 1, 1864. Assigned to Co. C, he was badly wounded in the left leg at the Third Battle of Winchester September 19, 1864 and the leg was later amputated. He mustered out with the company July 26, 1865. Disabled by his wound, Hiltz was admitted to the Southern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers at Hampton, Virginia in 1881. He died February 11, 1902 in Hampton, Virginia and is buried at Trinity United Methodist Church in King George, Virginia.


Letter from First Sergeant John U. Hiltz, Co. C, 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Clermont Courier (Ohio), August 7, 1861, pg. 3

Letter from Private James A. Gorsuch, Co. I, 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Darke County Democrat (Ohio), July 24, 1861, pg. 2


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