A Sad Duty After Perryville

One of the saddest tasks for any officer serving in the Civil War was the post-battle duty of writing home to the families of the men who had lost their lives in an engagement. Civil War regiments were, by and large, raised as companies within local communities; the men were neighbors, friends, business partners, and even rivals. They knew one another “outside of work” and this aspect made the bonds felt within the regimental home, even a new regiment like the 50th Ohio Infantry, particularly strong. When a soldier was lost, the tragedy was not just one borne by the company but by the larger community as a whole.

          Upon First Lieutenant Oscar Pratt of Co. A of the 50th Ohio fell the sad task of informing Drusilla Topper that her 25-year-old husband had lost his life at Perryville. “Throughout William’s connection with this regiment, his conduct has been uniformly kind and obedient, never murmuring when extra duty was required or when long marches were necessary. He was uniformly beloved by everyone in the company,” Pratt related. The English-born soldier had married Drusilla on Christmas Day in 1860 and the couple welcomed their first born the previous year; Topper’s death left Drusilla a widow and young George C. Topper an orphan. Drusilla would remarry in 1870 and George would live to be 96 years old.

Lieutenant Pratt’s letter was published in the October 25, 1862 edition of the Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph.


Private Albert R. Pearce (right) of Co. G of the 50th Ohio poses with a comrade in this touching wartime image emphasizing the tight bonds shared between soldiers during the war. Both soldiers are wearing their heavy sky blue winter overcoats and forage caps. The 50th Ohio would later be attached to the 23rd Army Corps, taking part in the Atlanta, Franklin, and Nashville campaigns. 

Battlefield of Perryville, Boyle Co., Kentucky

October 10, 1862 


Mrs. William Topper of Ashtabula, Ohio,

          I scratch an opportunity from the many duties of camp life to convey to you the sad intelligence of the death of your husband. The circumstances are as follows: on the 8th day of October, we took our breakfast at daylight in the morning and immediately marched for Perryville which we reached at 2 p.m. of the same day. We were immediately deployed into line of battle in support of a battery of artillery (19th Indiana Battery); the battery moved its position and of course we followed it and took a very exposed position on the top of a hill, fronting a wooded hill and valley, in which the enemy in considerable number was posted. It was intended to dislodge the enemy and the infantry was intended to keep the battery from being taken.

At precisely 3 p.m., we were ordered to the crest of the hill and ordered to lie flat on our faces until the exact position of the enemy could be ascertained. While we were in the above position, the bullets were whistling thickly over our heads and the shells were exploding in every direction around us, but from the security of our position, none of us at this time were hurt. Soon the fire from the battery became too hot for the Rebels to bear, and they began to advance to take it. Then it was that we were ordered to rise and fire. Every man of my command came up as coolly as veterans and taking deliberate aim, fired away.

Just before we were ordered to rise, all of our regiment except our company and the one immediately on our left, were ordered into a piece of woods that lay on our left, so we were left to ourselves with two companies under the command of one captain. Our fire was so deadly that after the ninth or tenth round the Rebels broke and run. No one behaved better or more bravely than your husband. He would walk up to the top of the hill, take deliberate aim at the Rebels, then fire and fall back. He was in the front rank and never swerved. After maintaining their fire for three full hours and having succeeded in driving the Rebels back, we suddenly found they were flanking us on the right and left and at the same time were advancing in front so we had to stand the fire of three columns. All the horses in the battery were shot except what belonged to two guns, when a retreat was ordered. We retreated slowly down the hill, forming again at the foot and rallying to a new front, supported by the 80th Indiana, here we fired three rounds and here it was that William was hit.

At this time the Rebel flag was only about 20 yards distant from us and it became necessary for us to either get out of the way or be taken. As we had no ammunition, we chose the former and again fell back, William, at the word retreat, started up to fire at the Rebel flag bearer and the flag came to the ground. Almost immediately he was struck by a bullet in the right foot and was severely wounded, the bullet going clear through the foot, just between the instep and toes. He said nothing, but stopped to pull off his shoe, but it was hardly done when a Minie ball struck him in the left breast just above the heart, killing him instantly. He never spoke from the time he was first hit. The last words he said were “I guess that fellow won’t fire anymore” as he killed a Rebel, and said this to me as he went under cover of the hill to reload. The Rebels held possession of the battlefield all night of the 8th and plundered the bodies of everything, even taking off their shoes and stockings. They missed the ring on his finger, however, which I enclose to you.

Throughout William’s connection with this regiment, his conduct has been uniformly kind and obedient, never murmuring when extra duty was required or when long marches were necessary. He was uniformly beloved by everyone in the company. We went into the fight with over 60 men and came out with only 38. A number, however, were taken prisoner and four were killed outright. Amos Spiller has been detailed as one of the burying party; he will mark William’s grave so it can be found. 


Private William Topper's grave at Camp Nelson National Cemetery. 


Letter from First Lieutenant Oscar A. Pratt, Co. A, 50th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph (Ohio), October 25, 1862, pg. 3


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