A Few Rounds of Canister: Bowling with Dilger at Chancellorsville

     In the early evening of hours of May 2, 1863, the six 12-lb bronze Napoleons of Captain Hubert Dilger’s Battery I of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery sat well behind the front lines of the 11th Corps. The battery’s commander, a well-regarded German emigree known by his men as “Leatherbreeches” for his propensity to wear doeskin pants, was convinced that the army was about to be struck in the flank. To be sure, Dilger had made a personal reconnaissance earlier that afternoon in which he stumbled into a hornet’s nest of Rebels and tried in vain to convince his superiors of this fact, but Leatherbreeches’ command of English failed him and he galloped back into camp fit to be tied. Shortly thereafter, Jackson’s attack began and Dilger’s battery soon found itself amidst the maelstrom of the collapsing 11th Corps.

The subsequent conduct of Captain Hubert Dilger in fighting his battery during the retreat of the 11th Army Corps at Chancellorsville proved one of the few bright spots in the 11th Corps during that disastrous day, and eventually earned him a Medal of Honor in 1893. General Carl Schurz witnessed his heroism firsthand, stating in his official report that Dilger “limbered up only when the enemy’s infantry was already between his pieces. His horse was shot under him, as well as the two wheel horses and one lead horse of one his guns. After an ineffectual effort to drag this piece along with the dead horses still hanging in the harness, he had to abandon it to the enemy. The retreat now became general and the confusion increased as the troops marched through the woods. Captain Dilger had sent his battery towards Chancellorsville, keeping one piece with him which he brought several times into action with very good success during the retreat of the corps. The conduct of this officer was, on this as on all former occasions, exemplary.” One soldier put it more succinctly, stating that “our shot would go tearing down upon the road as if it were a bowling alley. I think we made some ten strikes.”

While most of Battery I was raised from Cincinnati, a contingent of men from Portage County, Ohio also served with the battery including Corporal Sidney S. Allen who served as the gunner on the lone gun Dilger personally commanded to sweep the Plank Road during the latter stages of the retreat. Accounts from three members of the battery are included below to give their experiences of the retreat that earned “Leatherbreeches” Dilger his Medal of Honor 30 years later.

 

Captain Hubert Dilger (1836-1911) of Battery I of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery developed the reputation as one of the most daring and efficient artillerists in the army during the Civil War. His actions at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg earned him much renown, and during the Atlanta campaign he was given virtual free reign to deploy his battery where he felt it would do the most good. Dilger emigrated to the U.S. and moved to Cincinnati where he later joined Battery I and became the battery's commander in the fall of 1862. 

Private Charles A. Wright:

          As the 11th Corps has been the subject of much reproach for its recent flight at the Battle of Chancellorsville, I request the publication of the following statement of the facts connected with this unhappy event to the end that the citizens of Portage County having relatives in that corps, and particularly those having friends in Dilger’s Battery, may know the circumstances which those who had been uniformly successful under General Sigel had to contend with.

          Up to the 2nd of May, the fighting had been confined exclusively to the left and center- we occupying the right- on which day at 3 p.m. hostilities suddenly ceased. The report now spread through the army that the Rebels were in full retreat towards Richmond. Shortly afterwards, an order was received to draw three days’ rations and march next morning. Now bands struck up Yankee Doddle, Hail Columbia, etc., and were joyous at the prospect of pursuing them to the wall, but alas, the boot was on the other foot. For scarcely had the strains of music died away when a volley of bullets from Jackson’s corps greeted us. Imagine our dilemma- many of the troops had stacked their arms, some had begun cooking their three days’ rations and about a third of the officers, some of whom were very high in position, were absent from their commands.

          These are the undeniable facts concerning the flight of the 11th Corps. Let candid people attach the blame to whom it belongs.

          The first material check the Rebels received was when they came in contact with the canister we poured into their ranks as they emerged from the woods facing us. But the check was of short duration for onward they rushed, only maddened by our destructive fire for which they charged on us with great desperation. Failing to stop them, and our support having long before left, we limbered up as the only alternative to save the battery. We lost one gun, however, owing to the fact that the horses were all shot down and no time to draw it away by hand. Our loss in men was one man killed (Otis C. Gilbert) of Edinburg and eleven wounded.

 

Corporal Sidney Allen's gun fired canister and round shot down the Plank Road into the ranks of Jackson's troops during the desperate retreat of the 11th Corps on the evening of May 2nd. Corporal Allen likened it to shooting rounds down a bowling alley and stated "I think we made some ten strikes."

Corporal Sidney S. Allen:

          I was in the fight and it was a little the tightest place I was ever in, and but for the disgraceful panic of the corps (General Howard’s command), we could have repulsed the Rebels. The attack was unexpected and from an unlooked-for direction, but our men ought not to have run. Our battery took position and did nobly- not a man left his post. We stayed until our infantry was all gone and the Rebels were within ten rods of us. We sweetened them nicely with canister. I think more Rebels fell from the shots of my gun than they killed in our whole corps.

          Captain Dilger took my gun out into the road and I kept it clear, for as often as they would fill it up, it was cleared with a few rounds of canister. We retreated slowly down the road firing at nearly every step and had no infantry to support us. I was wounded after we retreated over a mile and half and came very near being captured. After the other corps came up and checked the Rebels, General Carl Schurz came up and inquired what gun came down the road. Captain Dilger told him and he came and shook hands with all the men. He said he never saw such determined bravery in all his life and did not know that men could work a gun under such a fire.

          There were three of us wounded on the gun and we are all satisfied to take the wounds we received for we know that we did more damage to the Rebels than they did to us. The road we withdrew upon was a fine plank road and our shot would go tearing down upon it as if it were a bowling alley. I think we made some ten strikes.

 

Monument of Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery at Gettysburg

A few weeks later, an unknown member of the battery sent a letter home describing General Howard’s inspection of the battery in the aftermath of the battle and shared General Schurz’s address given to the battery on May 18, 1863.

 

“We were inspected yesterday afternoon by General Howard; all the other batteries in the corps were also inspected. In a very pleasant manner, he asked all the cannoneers numerous questions in regard to their pieces, their duty, about the caissons, ammunition, of what composed, ranges, and elevations, but did not trap any of the boys. Then we had to drill and unexpectedly came the command to dismount the pieces and carriages. There was a rattling of implements for a few seconds and down lay the men and battery flat on the ground. At the word of command, all were speedily mounted and we were firing at some imaginary enemy. It was a very pretty trick to do, if well done, but we never dismount those heavy pieces in action. All of the batteries did not come off so well as we did. General Howard told the two German batteries to return to camp and go to drilling and when they could drill like Dilger’s battery, he would see them again. General Howard appears like a fine man, seems to notice everything, and does not put on the amount of style that some generals do. I am inclined to like him, but somehow I have not got the confidence in him that I had in Sigel.”

“I enclose a short speech that General Schurz made us while we were in the Artillery Reserve of the corps. We were formed in line when he spoke to us a few words in substance nearly as enclosed.

 

General Schurz’s Speech to Dilger’s Battery on May 18, 1863

In the disasters that have lately befallen us, there is one organization that has maintained for itself a fair reputation and that is Dilger’s Battery. From information received from the enemy, the fire of your guns upon their advancing columns, pressing hard our shattered forces, was more destructive to them than all others combined. In all the engagements in which I have seen you, I can say that I never saw a man leave his post and go to the rear or the battery retire without orders. May the same spirit that had actuated you in the past prompt you to like conduct in the future. I am proud to say that you formerly belonged to my division and I am sorry you have been taken from it. I return thanks to you on behalf of my division and I might add that of the whole corps. In the coming campaign upon which we are about to enter, though you are not with me as before, I hope we shall be as close to each other as possible.

 

 

Sources:

Letter from Corporal Sidney S. Allen, Battery I, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Portage County Democrat (Ohio), May 20, 1863, pg. 3

Letter from Private Charles A. Wright, Battery I, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Portage County Democrat (Ohio), May 27, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from unknown member of Battery I, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Portage County Democrat (Ohio), June 10, 1863, pg. 2

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