Until Victory is Ours: The Bullet Magnet of the 41st Ohio Survives Chickamauga

Bullet magnet: anything or anyone that is prone to draw gunfire on their position. ~ Urban Dictionary

    While not a term commonly used in the 19th century, if the 41st Ohio Volunteers had any particular soldier who was a bullet magnet, it was Captain James W. McCleery of Co. A. The young Ohioan had his clothing clipped at Rich Mountain on July 11, 1861, lost his right arm at Shiloh on April 7, 1862, then took a severe hit in his leg at Stones River on December 31, 1862. Now serving on the staff of Brigadier General William B. Hazen as his assistant adjutant general, one wonders after reading his account below of the ferocious fighting of September 19, 1863 how McCleery escaped a third wound at the Battle of Chickamauga. 

    James McCleery was born December 2, 1837 in Mecca, Ohio and prior to the outbreak of the Civil War was a budding attorney attending Oberlin College, a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment in northeastern Ohio. Upon the attack on Fort Sumter, he returned home to Bazetta in Trumbull County and enlisted as a sergeant on April 27, 1861 in the Trumbull Rifles under Captain Norman A. Barrett; the company became Co. C of the three-months' organization of the 19th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Despite its short time in service, the 19th Ohio built a solid reputation in the wilds of western Virginia, taking a prominent part in the Battle of Rich Mountain, Virginia where McCleery came under fire for the first time. "The 19th Ohio stood under fire patiently waiting their time and at last it came," remembered Captain Barrett. "At the word, we wheeled into line of battle, delivered our fire, and marched on over fences, rocks, trees, and brush, making our way until about 150 yards for the enemy. There we halted and delivered our fire with terrible precision. Strange as it may seem, not a man of the 19th was injured though several had their clothing cut by the balls of the enemy." McCleery was one of those, but in his first encounter with the Confederates, he literally "dodged the bullet." In future engagements, he would be less fortunate. 

    Upon mustering out of the three-months service on August 29, 1861, McCleery decided to go into the field again and joined a new company being formed by local farmer Seth A. Bushnell of Hartford. With his education and previous field experience, McCleery was commissioned the second lieutenant of Co. A of the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry to date August 20, 1861, the company formally mustering into service August 26th at Camp Wood in Cleveland. Captain Bushnell proved military non-entity and soon resigned, his place taken by a man whose exploits in the Western Theater would become quite remarkable: Emerson Opdycke of Opdycke's Tigers fame. 

    By the time of Shiloh, McCleery had been promoted to be first lieutenant in the company and it was here that he took his first wound. It was about 11 a.m. on April 7, 1862 when the 41st Ohio was ordered to charge a Confederate line. "I saw our flag bearer had been shot and our flag was lying upon the ground," wrote Captain Opdycke. "I ran and caught it up calling out 'Forward 41st! Your flag is in advance of you!' The whole regiment followed grandly it and it seemed to me that a thousand bullets flew within an inch of my head every moment but one we went amidst that storm of balls and canister. I had carried the flag about 40 rods when Captain Aquila Wiley, seeing me have it, claimed it as his right to carry it being my ranking officer. He soon fell with a ball in his leg. Lieutenant McCleery seized the flag when Wiley fell. We soon came to a little field where the batteries had fair aim at us and also the musketry in front of is. There I found McCleery stretched upon his back. Great God, I thought, is he gone, too? But no, a canister shot had nearly torn through his wrist and paralyzed him for an instant. I wanted to stop and assist him, but he cried out, "Go on, captain, you shan't help me. You shall not until victory is ours!' 

    The wound was horrific, and it cost McCleery his right arm, but within months he was back in the ranks and upon the promotion of Opdycke to command of the 125th Ohio that summer, by right of seniority, McCleery would assume command of Company A. But Colonel William B, Hazen of the 41st Ohio had other plans for this brave Ohioan, and that fall when Hazen became a brigade commander, he appointed McCleery as his inspector general, essentially he became Hazen's right-hand man. Hazen had a reputation as a no-nonsense Regular, and imbued his 41st Ohio with a strict brand of discipline that made them and the other regiments of Hazen's brigade some of the finest soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland. And Hazen would need to draw upon all of that discipline and skill to maintain the critical position he was tasked with holding at Stones River, that of the Round Forest. And it was there that McCleery's bullet-magnet proclivities struck again.

    It was late morning of December 31, 1862 when the four regiments of Hazen's brigade took their position in the Round Forest, entrusted with holding the position at all costs. As the right wing and center of the Federal army fell back before a series of ferocious Confederate attacks, the remainder of the army was taking position along a slight ridge to the east of the Nashville Pike and the left flank of the new line was Hazen's position at the Round Forest. Repeated Confederate assaults piled up casualties like cordwood in Hell's Half-Acre, but Hazen's position held, helped no doubt by the heroics of his staff. Several had their horses shot from under them; Hazen himself was struck by a spent ball and lost his horse and, true to form, a Confederate bullet struck Captain McCleery in the leg. Despite the painful wound, McCleery limped through the rest of the battle and gained favorable mention in Hazen's after-action report for assisting in bringing forward ammunition even after he was struck. 

    Nine months later, Captain McCleery again rode with Hazen into a desperate battle, this time it was at Chickamauga. As related in this letter written to his sister shortly afterwards, McCleery had plenty of close calls but somehow managed to avoid hitting the wound trifecta, but it was definitely on his mind. "Would I pass through unhurt? Would I be slain, or would I be consigned again to the hard conditions of the hospital? Would our army succeed in withstanding the numbers sent against it, or would it be overwhelmed and destroyed?," he wrote.

      It is unfortunate that only half of McCleery's letter survives; the editor of the Medina County Gazette ran the first half covering the actions of September 19, 1863 in his November 7, 1863 issue and promised to run the second half the following week, but no copies of the November 14th issue exist, so one is left to wonder what McCleery would have written about the collapse of the Union line on September 20th.

"Regiments and brigades advanced, entered the storm, and melted away like snow beneath the sun."
Captain James McCleery, 41st Ohio Vols. 

Captain James McCleery, Co. A, 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. After suffering two wounds during the war, McCleery was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general and stayed on in the Regular Army until 1870 at which time he had moved to St. Mary Parish in Louisiana where he had purchased a plantation. The northern Ohio abolitionist worked to improve freedman's education, incurring the ire of locals who ran him off into the swamp. McCleery stuck to Louisiana, however, and was elected as a Republican to Congress for a term starting in March 1871, but McCleery spent little time with the 42nd Congress. Battling liver failure and general poor health, he returned home to Ohio and then to New York City desperate to find medical help. It didn't work- disease and the toll of wartime service had enfeebled his constitution and McCleery died November 5, 1871 in New York at the age of 33.

    At dawn on Saturday the 19th instant, our line of battle extended about three miles in length north and south fronting towards the east, and was composed of the following divisions in the order mentioned beginning on the right: Sheridan, Davis, Wood, Negley, Van Cleve, Reynolds, Palmer, Johnson, Baird, and Brannan. The country was a succession of ridges covered with trees interspersed in many places with a dense undergrowth and occasionally open fields. At 11 a.m., the enemy opened the action by an attack on Brannan's division. The latter held his ground firmly though heavily pressed. Assistance was at once thrown forward to his support, and soon the divisions of Johnson, Palmer, and Reynolds became fiercely engaged.

    These division occupied the left wing of the army, the point against which the enemy massed his troops for the purpose of cutting our communications to the rear. Both armies had quietly strengthened this position of their respective lines. It was mass meeting mass, avalanche encountering avalanche. For five hours the battle raged along the front of these divisions with great fury. Regiments and brigades advanced, entered the storm, and melted away like snow beneath the sun.

    The line of battle as it advanced or receded during the wavering fortunes of these dreadful hours seemed like an immense Tartarian serpent, slowly convolving its fiery folds in the convulsions of some dreadful agony. The roar of musketry exceeded in continuality and rapidity anything I ever hear: Shiloh, Perryville, or Stones River furnish no equal. Every leaf, twig, and atom of matter seemed to give forth a sound. The air seemed to be bursting with reports. At intervals high above the steady roar of the conflict could be heard the murderous battalion volleys of Hazen's brigade, which was slowly driving forward, wedge-like, into the Rebel line. The regiments of this command had been admirably drilled and during the whole engagement fired only by battalions. They would lie down, load their pieces, rise to their feet, and deliver their volleys with terrible effect. 

    The enemy made desperate efforts to advance. With shouts from thousands that could be heard above the din of battle, their masses were hurled in continuous charges against these heroic battalions of Hazen, only to be torn in pieces and driven back. At 2 in the afternoon, a general advance was made by Thomas' left comprising the divisions of Brannan, Baird, Johnson, and Palmer. The enemy resisted stubbornly but were borne steadily back. In this advance, General Willich of Johnson's division made one of the finest bayonet charges with his brigade that had marked the history of this army. In all their charges against us, the enemy came rushing on, yelling like a mob of panthers. With raw troops there is something terrifying on the mingled shouts of advancing thousands, but with the veteran, it seems only to provoke his contempt or excite his mirth.

General August Willich

    There was something appalling to the Rebels as they beheld the long, dark battalions of Willich and Hazen with arms at a trail, bayonets gleaming like burnished silver, without shouts, without confusion, in perfect order and as silent as death, darting swiftly down upon them like an anaconda upon his prey. The enemy having been driven over a mile, General Thomas deemed it prudent to withdraw his pursuing forces and prepare for dispositions which were being made against him in their quarters. The charge on his left had hardly been repelled when the enemy advanced in heavy force against his right. The shock fell on the division of Van Cleve. As the rapid crack of the skirmishers' rifles in front of his division, like the first heavy drops of a shower on a tin roof deepened into a torrent of reports from the main line, anxiety was felt from the known imbecility of its commander, that all would not be well. The fighting qualities of his men were never questioned, but let the ship be ever so staunch and without a commander, she is at the mercy of the tempest. 

    The storm struck him in front and flank. Without the ability to parry or meet the blow, the weak, effeminate old man beheld his lines doubled and twisted over and through each other in sad confusion and borne back before the overpowering numbers of Longstreet's Corps. Fort a short time, a part of the command sustained their ground against appalling odds. The 19th Ohio, the heroes of Rich Mountain under glorious little Colonel Henry G. Stratton, fought like dragons and in conjunction with an Indiana regiment, stormed and dragged away a Rebel battery from the very jaws of the enemy.

    Palmer and Reynolds were sent to the right to meet the coming storm. Though he had already lost nearly 500 men from his command, Hazen with the shattered remnants of his brigade was among the first to the scene of action. His quick eye caught the little crest, the strategic point of a good prospect of the country, upon which to plant his artillery and mass his troops for defense. Hitherto, owing to the peculiar features of the country, we had used but little artillery. Now was an opportunity for its full scope. Aides went flying in every direction to hurry it up. The surges of battle in front were drawing dreadfully near. 

    The stream of wounded stragglers, hospital attendants, mounted orderlies, staff officers, and fragments of companies and regiments, all panic-stricken, poured hurriedly out of the woods like chaff before a gale. Horses, riderless or with remnant of harness dragging to them, galloped madly through the crowd of fugitives. Ambulances and wagons, teaming with their freight of agony, hurried rapidly forward despite the screams of the wounded occupants. Caissons and artillery carriages, their six or eight horses goaded to madness by the spur and lash and frightened beyond measure, enveloped in clouds of dust went thundering along, crushing beneath their ponderous wheels the living and the dead. Hazen sent forward his four regiments to check is possible the Rebel advance till he got all the guns possible into position. It was a glorious sight to see those grim battalions stalking proudly, silently, coolly, and defiantly forward through the mass of stragglers, seemingly into the very jaws of death. How those who maligned the General because of the drill and discipline to which he subjected his men would have hung their heads could they have beheld this sublime fruition of his labors.

The strict discipline and emphasis on constant drill paid off for the men of Hazen's brigade at both Stones River and Chickamauga. McCleery's views were a close reflection of his chief's, particularly in regard to the fitness of General Van Cleve for command. This image of Hazen dates from 1865 when he was wearing the two stars of a major general. 


    Within a grove of trees upon a gentle elevation beyond an open field over which the enemy would be forced to pass, he massed 22 pieces of artillery. Van Cleve's command, utterly routed with himself the most demoralized of all, passed to the rear. Hazen's brigade and a few regiments from other commands felly slowly to the right and rear till the guns were unmasked. Behind them hundreds of stragglers were rallied and formed into line. On came the enemy with terrific yells in the wild intoxication of success, when the cannons belched forth their messengers of death. Shot, shell, and canister were poured into their ranks with dreadful effect. Huge trees were wrenched off like pipe stems by the cannon balls. The gunners, begrimed with powder and eager for combat, seemed like fiends as they leaped to their work. For 30 minutes, the cannonading was terrific beyond description. It seemed as though all the thunders of heaven had been collected together at this point and each one made eternal. Dense volumes of sulfurous smoke hung like a pall over the field. No troops in the world could withstand the storm that the Rebels met at this point. Broken to pieces, the fragments of their lines fell back into the depths of the forest. 

    The cannonading ceased, the smoke lifted slowly upward, and the roll of musketry died away. The sun sank low in the western horizon and one of those singular lulls that places place in nearly every battle came over the armies. The powers of destruction paused to breathe. All was still, save the moans of the wounded or an occasional shot from some daring sharpshooter. Here could be seen a group of soldiers collected together enumerating the killed and wounded of their comrades, then a knot of officers quietly writing dispatches or dictating orders, relating past events, or surmising future possibilities. Yonder a party of hospital attendants slowly bore the wounded to the rear. A subdued funeral air seemed to pervade all hearts. Friends uncertain as to each other's fate met and clasped in silent gratitude to God for each other's preservation.

    Profanity which is so common in the army was unheard. An oppressive silence reigned supreme. All at once we were startled by the sudden crashes of musketry on our left. Horses were hurriedly mounted, soldiers sprang to arms, a momentary flutter passed down the ranks, and then all resumed its wonted firmness and composure. Foiled against our right, the Rebel commander moved a heavy force to our left again near the scene of the afternoon's engagement and essayed to regain the ground he had lost. In the dusk of the evening, his troops and ours were almost upon each other before they were discovered. Johnson's division met the shock. The two hostile lines simultaneously poured volley after volley into each other's faces in quick succession. The dark jungles of the forces were buried with the flash of muskets. Scores went down at every discharge. Palmer's division was sent to Johnson's assistance, but before it had reached there the firing ceased. The combatants, induced by the gathering darkness, gradually withdrew and silence settled once more over the embattled hosts.

    The moon came out and looked softly down on the scene of carnage. I passed over a portion of the field. Dead and wounded men and horses, cartridges, boxes, belts, guns torn and twisted, blankets, knapsacks, cannon balls, shells, and the various paraphernalia of an army lay scattered about in the greatest confusion. On every side the wounded begged piteously for water. Water, water was on every tongue. I saw one poor fellow with both arms shot off, delirious with agony, raising his bloody stumps toward heaven and praying piteously for one drop of water before he died. Oh sister, that moved me more than anything else. I thought of my own sufferings on the field of Shiloh with but one arm shot off. 

    The dead presented every conceivable appearance. Some with faces upturned, eyes and mouth wide open, eye balls fixed and glistening, features hideously distorted, presented beneath the wavy tremulous light of the moon a ghastly sickening look that makes me shudder even at this moment. Others that had strength enough to drag themselves to some bush or tree were cuddled down as if in sleep. 

    Overcome by the fatigue and excitement of the day, I sank down for the night at the roots of a tree. Though I had hardly closed my eyes for 60 hours, it was impossible for me to sleep. I would shut my eyes, draw my head deep under the blanket, and essay to sleep, but in vain. I was tormented with a perpetual thirst. The army, particularly the wounded, had suffered everything from the want of water during the day. I had tried to obtain it in vain; I thought of all the descriptions of water, pools, rivers, and lakes of which I had ever read. The old well at home, the mill pond, the cellar, and the icehouse, all passed in solemn tantalizing review before my imagination. The night was ineffably beautiful. It was felt by everyone that the struggle we had just passed through was but a prelude of what was to come on the morrow. Would I pass through unhurt? Would I be slain, or would I be consigned again to the hard conditions of the hospital? Would our army succeed in withstanding the numbers sent against it, or would it be overwhelmed and destroyed? A sense of the imbecility of some, and the habitual drunkenness of others that had important commands filled me with gloomy foreboding.


Sources:

Letter from Captain James W. McCleery, Co. A, 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Medina County Gazette (Ohio), November 7, 1863, pg. 1

Letter from Captain Norman A. Barrett, Co. C, 19th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Western Reserve Chronicle (Ohio), July 24, 1861, pg. 2

Quotes from Captain Emerson Opdycke, Shiloh National Battlefield Facebook post from July 27, 2016.

    


    

Comments

  1. Wonderfully done, Dan, thank you. I've been drawn to your site as I piece together the lives of Ohio soldiers who wrote home to my grandmother's grandmother.

    One of the letters passed down to me was from James McCleery, his condolences on the death in Tennessee of one of her brothers, written in a lovely script with his remaining hand. Her youngest brother, also in the regiment, was doing well, he wrote. That, though, was four days before Chickamauga, where the drummer boy was wounded too badly to recover.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing! I'd love to see the letter he wrote.

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