Buckeye Zouaves: The “Damned Red Tops” and the Fight for Princeton Court House

     The opening of the 1862 spring campaign season found the 34th Ohio split up into two detachments in the mountains of west Virginia with four companies at Princeton and six at Frenchville. The Federal soldiers of the District of Kanawha under General Jacob Cox were poised to move south and threaten Confederate control of the East Tennessee & Virginia railroad, a vital supply link between Virginia and the western Confederacy. As Stonewall Jackson moved into the Shenandoah Valley and defeated Robert Milroy’s troops at McDowell on May 8th, Confederate forces under Humphrey Marshall also moved north into western Virginia. On May 15th, they ran into the Federal detachment at Princeton and pushed back that small force. Federal reinforcements surged into the area and on May 17th they took a crack at driving off Marshall’s force, but suffered about 100 casualties and soon retreated towards Flat Top Mountain.  

          The 34th Ohio, also known as Piatt’s Zouaves, were the first Ohio Zouave regiment to enter service in the Civil War and their unique attire made them a distinctive element of the Kanawha Division in west Virginia. The regiment typically wore tricorn hats or fezzes, but in May 1862 one of its soldiers thanked a young woman in Batavia for sending his company another distinctive bit of headwear, havelocks. Havelocks, employed in the British army during the late 1850s in sunny India, were cotton cap covers with a long piece of cloth that covered a soldier’s neck and prevented sunburn. Unfortunately, the havelocks also restricted the free flow of air around the neck and head which made the men feel hotter, so the havelocks didn’t see long service. Most were discarded quickly or used for other purposes.  

Morton Hawkins of the 34th Ohio reported on the fight for Princeton Court House in a lengthy letter written to the Clermont Courier of Batavia, Ohio, and proudly publicized the 34th Ohio’s new nickname, the “damned red tops.”

 

An unidentified member of Co. F of the 34th Ohio sports his red fez which led to their nickname as the "damned red tops." Corporal Hawkins could have told us who this man was. 

Second Brigade, Camp Flat Top Mountain, western Virginia

May 25, 1862

          On Friday morning the 16th of May, the Federal forces between Great Flat Top Mountain and Pearisburg or Giles Courthouse were stationed as follows: the 12th, 23rd, and 30th Ohio along with Captain Gillmore’s company of Pennsylvania Dragoons, McMullen’s 1st Ohio Battery, and the 2nd Virginia Cavalry occupied a post five miles advanced towards the enemy in sight of the enemy’s pickets five miles from Frenchville and twelve miles from Giles C.H. The 23rd Ohio had recently advanced on and held Giles C.H. but were driven back by an overwhelming Rebel force. Four companies of the 28th Ohio (German) and five companies of the 37th Ohio (German) occupied a post on East River eight miles from Frenchville and in sight of a Rebel force of 2,000 at the crossroads on the Princeton and Wytheville Pike. Frenchville was held by six companies of the 28th, six companies of the 34th, four companies of the 37th, and Simmons’ battery. General Cox’s staff, four companies of the 34th, and one company of the 37th occupied Princeton.

          It is proper here to state that about 2 o’clock on May 16th the command at Princeton numbering about 400 men under the command of Major Franklin of the 34th were attacked by an estimated force of 3,000 Rebels under the notorious Humphrey Marshall and after fighting with the desperation of madmen for about five hours, they were forced to retreat with comparatively little loss. Lieutenant Peck of Co. S and Lieutenant Peters of Co. B were severely wounded and Captain O.P. Evans of the latter company was taken prisoner.

          The Federal force on East River under Lieutenant Colonel von Blessingh of the 37th, having made a reconnaissance and reported, were reinforced by Co. F of the 34th and Co. F of the 37th and advanced to attack the enemy on the morning of the 17th.  The reinforcements to von Blessingh’s command were picketed on the evening of the 16th within hearing distance of the enemy at the crossroads. Co. F of the Zouaves was in excellent spirits at the prospects of an attack on the enemy, more particularly so as Co. A of the same regiment had the previous day made a rapid and successful descent upon 100 of the celebrated Jenkins’ Cavalry four miles from Frenchville, killing five Rebels, wounding several others, and capturing six prisoners among whom was a captain and an adjutant, a large quantity of arms, accoutrements, camp equipment, and provisions besides acquiring from the Rebels the beautiful appellation of the “damned red tops.”

34th Ohio Zouaves sutler's token 

          At midnight, Lieutenant Colonel von Blessingh received a dispatch from the headquarters of the provisional brigade relative to the fight at Princeton stating that the small force there had been attacked by General Humphrey Marshall and had, after a desperate conflict had been driven towards Frenchville; Marshall’s force took possession of the town and all Federal forces were to concentrate on Princeton on the morning of the 17th. It ordered von Blessingh to avoid meeting with the Rebel force at the crossroads and by taking mountain paths to approach and attack Princeton from the Wytheville road. During the night, the Rebels evacuated the town and fortified a hill towards the road to Wytheville and by 3 o’clock Saturday morning, all the Federal force between Flat Top Mountain and Giles C.H. except von Blessingh’s command were on the Raleigh road before Princeton. The 12th, 23rd, and 30th were followed on their retreat by 7,000 Rebels formerly of General Floyd’s command.

Another unidentified member of the 34th Ohio sports an Edmond hat and the red fringed shell jacket with red striped sky blue trousers. 

          Von Blessingh with his force moved towards Princeton from East River at 2 a.m. Saturday and after passing innumerable mountain difficulties to avoid the crossroad force, struck the Wytheville road near Princeton, captured a Rebel train after a sharp skirmish, and appeared before the town at 10 a.m. There had previously been heard heavy cannonading, apparently from the Raleigh road, and von Blessingh rushed his men through towards the Rebel fortifications in solid column with but few skirmishers and made a desperate attack on the Rebel fort. After terrible volleys of  musketry had been exchanged, the Rebels firing with tremendous force, energy, and precision, von Blessingh ordered a bayonet charge on the fortification which consisted of a long line of stone fence. Although the order was executed with desperate energy, it was repulsed by the Rebels with fearful loss on our side. We were compelled to beat a rapid retreat which was done in beautiful order.

          After forming on a hill slightly to the rear overlooking the Rebel camp, we were conducted by a circuitous route (so as not to be discovered) to the old station on East River intending to retire to Frenchville and there await orders. Scouts having been sent to reconnoiter, a tremendous force was discovered occupying the place and von Blessingh having not more than 400 men in his little band (and that entirely surrounded), secured several guides and giving the Zouaves the lead, pushed through by secret mountain passes crossed the Princeton and Frenchville road near Princeton. There we learned that our forces were retreating towards Raleigh conducted his forces through the mountains to the right of Princeton towards the Logan road. We marched all night hungry, dispirited, and exhausted by the previous day’s hard marching, crossing the Raleigh and Princeton at Blue Stone River and found the station occupied by the whole Federal force from Princeton.

Recruiting advertisement for the 34th Ohio in August 1861

          The wagon that contained the trunks and valuable articles of our company officers, the boys knapsacks, and two days’ rations with the driver of the team were captured by the enemy. The driver has since come in after an absence of six or seven days. It seems that he was not taken but escaped to the woods where he laid a long while and was finally rescued by a young woman. She took him to her house, fed him, and furnished an escort of two men who conducted him safely to camp. There was a great rejoicing among us on his appearance as we regarded him as entirely lost. Two more men of our company that we supposed were prisoners of war, came into camp yesterday with 21 Union militia who are now going to serve Uncle Sam.

          The estimated loss of our brigade under acting brigadier general Augustus Moor is about 250 killed, wounded, and missing. Von Blessingh lost 60 enlisted men and three commissioned officers. My company under Captain West had two killed and two wounded. By a dispatch read on dress parade this evening I learn that General George Crook of the Third Brigade attacked yesterday morning about two miles from Lewisburg a Rebel force of 3,000 utterly routing them, capturing 100 prisoners, 200 stand of arms, and four pieces of cannon.

          Permit me among others to return my sincere thanks to Miss Rebecca West for those havelocks that she so generously donated to the members of Company F. Such acts of benevolent kindness are highly appreciated and will be long remembered by M.L. Hawkins of the Piatt Zouaves.

         

Source:

Corporal Morton L. Hawkins, Co. F, 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Clermont Courier (Ohio), June 18, 1862, pg. 1

34th Ohio national colors with notation as "1st Zouaves."


 

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