Becoming Tigers: The 125th Ohio and the Struggle of Horseshoe Ridge
Colonel Emerson Opdycke learned the value of discipline and drill while serving as an officer in the 41st Ohio under the tutelage of Colonel William B. Hazen. In the summer of 1862, Captain Opdycke was given the chance to raise his own regiment by Governor David Tod, and that regiment became the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
By the time of the Battle of Chickamauga, the 125th Ohio had been in service more than nine months but hadn’t yet fought a battle. But Colonel Emerson Opdycke had drilled and trained his men incessantly from the very beginning and few regiments had been better prepared for their first battle than the 125th Ohio. All of the hard work and training paid off on the afternoon of September 20th when Opdycke’s regiment earned its sobriquet as the “Ohio Tigers” while fighting atop Snodgrass Hill. The regiment went into action with 16 officers and 298 enlisted men and lost roughly a third of the men that afternoon, but their staunch fighting under the direct observation of Generals George Thomas, Thomas Wood, and James A. Garfield led to Wood dubbing Opdycke’s regiment as the Ohio Tigers.
Commissary Sergeant Hezekiah N. Steadman, who regularly wrote letters to the Cleveland Herald under the pen name of “Victor,” wrote the following account of Chickamauga less than a week after the battle.
Camp near Chattanooga, Tennessee
September 26, 1863
Under the press of duties which have devolved upon me since the great and terrible struggle through which we have passed, I have been unable until the present evening to obtain sufficient leave to apprise our friends of the part which the 125th took in that terrible and bloody action. Nor do I now attempt a description of the awful grandeur of that bloody field where a few of America’s freemen met the combined horde of Rebel troops but shall simply narrate such facts as came under my own observation and hearing.
For some days previous to the 19th instant, the first day upon which the great battle of Chickamauga was fought, our division held Gordon’s Mills and the line of the West Chickamauga River, being the extreme left of the Army of the Cumberland. On the 18th, the enemy made a reconnaissance along the line of the whole army which was promptly released. But the immense clouds of dust that arose upon the left clearly indicated that it was that point which they had determined, if possible, to destroy. During Friday night Thomas Corps’ and part of Crittenden’s moved beyond us to the left and McCook’s forces started for the scene of action. Saturday the 19th came in foggy preventing an early onset.
Thousands of armed men lay within a few hundred yards of each other, still as the silent tomb at midnight hour awaiting the morning sunbeams to clear away the fog and light them to the roar and clash and death of bloody battle. At about 10 a.m., the awful silence was broken by the crash of musketry and the deafening roar of artillery. Soon the battle raged most terribly, nor ceased till night had drawn her sable curtain over earth, shutting out the sight of foe from foe. At 1 p.m., our division was ordered to support the left. We entered the field on the double quick and were soon baptized in blood. This was the first general action that the 125th had ever been in but cheered on by the cool and noble daring of her colonel, she could but conquer.
|Colonel Emerson Opdycke, 125th O.V.I.|
Just as we entered the battle, Colonel Emerson Opdycke turned to us and said, “Men of the 125th Ohio, if I or others fall, stand in the ranks till victory is ours.” And while the battle was raging at its greatest fury, he forgot not to cheer his men for loud above the din of conflict arose his voice, “Now men of the 125th, if you love your country, aim low, aim well!” Side by side and shoulder to shoulder did the men of the 125th contest that bloody field, aiming low and promptly obeying orders, for our colonel had taught us that in these consisted our safety. We took nine prisoners, three of which the colonel captured himself, while our brave adjutant E.G. Whitesides, captured three of the others.
The Rebels were routed in confusion, and after dark we bivouacked on the field of battle without fires, without supper, many of our men without blankets, while the cold north wind chilled our wearied limbs almost to numbness. At 2 a.m. of the 20th, we were again called up to arms and having marched a couple of miles to a new position, we halted, a hasty breakfast was prepared and eaten, and we then took our place as a reserve near the left of McCook’s and at the right of Thomas’ corps.
The battle opened on Thomas’ left at about 8 a.m. and so severely that our division was ordered to move on the double quick to support it. McCook was ordered to close by a left flank movement the gap between the left and Thomas’ right, which had been made by our moving to the left. McCook failed to perform his part of the great plan, which the enemy was not long in discovering and forced a heavy column of Longstreet’s corps through the gap, attacking us on the right flank and rear almost at the same instant we were encountering the enemy in front. This destructive almost annihilated the First Brigade of our division and the Second Brigade being in Chattanooga left ours (the Third) to contend almost alone with an entire corps of the enemy. This movement of the enemy cut McCook’s force almost entirely out of the fight, and but few of his men returned to solid cooperation. It is said that McCook himself was soon after seen in Chattanooga, a distance of ten miles from the battle.
|125th O.V.I. flank marker|
So soon as we became aware the enemy had got behind us, we changed front to rear on our left and found ourselves face to face with a line of the enemy that stretched far beyond us on both right and left. The enemy knew that if they could crush us and defeat Thomas’ left, they would then hold the ground between our army and Chattanooga, thereby ensuring the destruction of the Army of the Cumberland and made the most desperate efforts push us from our position. General Wood and Colonel Harker braced up the lines for a most deadly and unyielding struggle. On came the enemy in solid lines of eight men deep, and we soon stood face to face with the boasted veterans of the Richmond army. The musketry firing became most terrific and raged with an unparalleled violence. At this moment, General Thomas visited us in person and said to Colonel Opdycke, “Colonel, this point must be held.” Colonel Opdycke’s reply was “We will hold this ground or sleep tonight in Heaven.”
General Wood ordered the brigade to advance upon the enemy, Colonel Opdycke having commanded us to fix bayonets, rode to the front of his regiment and turning to us said, “Men I will lead you, follow me,” and plunged into the midst of the foe, followed by the entire brigade. The regiments upon the right and left of us, however, could not keep pace with the lightning speed at which we advanced and were left in the rear. The whole Rebel line fled in confusion, being unaccustomed to the resistless charges of our Western troops and terrified by the glitter of our cold bright steel. We halted and lay down behind a fence while the other regiments came up and prolonged the line to our right and left, the right resting on an eminence some 50 feet above us. General Wood came up to Colonel Opdycke and said, “Colonel, that charge of the 125th was a most splendid thing.”
|First Lieutenant Ridgley C. Powers of Co. C wrote several letters to local newspapers under the pen-name "Ceylon" which happened to be his middle name.|
The enemy now advanced their second line. We could not but admire the terrible splendor of their advance, the men closing up their ranks with all the coolness and precision of a drill, and stretching far beyond our right and left, seemed confident that they could crush us at a blow. Their fire soon swept over us, while our boys hurled back the leaden storm, and swept their ranks in terrible destruction. Just at this moment the regiments on our right and left retired, and but for the cool command of our Colonel and steady obedience of the men we would have been annihilated.
The regiment on our right retiring led our right company [Co. A] to believe that there had been a general order to retire. They arose and faced about when the Colonel ordered them to their post. Accustomed to obedience, they resumed their place and side by side with their companions fought the foe. We held the ground alone until the Rebel lines were on a prolongation with our right upon the hill when their fire directly enfiladed us, wounding Lieutenant King, seriously wounding Captain Yeomans, and Lieutenant Barnes, and laying many of our brave boys in the dust. It was apparent that we must retire to our brigade or perish, and although we were outnumbered, yet we were not conquered, for as well fell slowly back Lieutenant Clark remarked, “They may outflank us and kill us, but whip us, they can never.” As we were falling back to a better position a flying regiment broke obliquely through our ranks, but even then, discipline prevailed, and our boys closed up the ranks as if on morning drill. Colonel Harker came up to Colonel Opdycke and complimented him for his bravery and the splendid fighting of his men.
|The tiger atop the 125th Ohio's monument on Horseshoe Ridge near the Snodgrass House|
The enemy threw themselves with reckless courage on our lines and hurled a perfect storm of balls upon our thinning ranks. Front to front and man to man we faced the Rebel hordes, resisting all assaults and crushing back the vaunted lines of Longstreet’s force. For two long hours a sea of fire swept that awful field, piling the ground with dead and wounded of both friend and foe. To destroy us was to ruin the entire army, while General Thomas said, “This position must be held.” We could but die, we must not yield, and for long hours we beat back the enemy almost single-handed and did hold our own.
While the battle was raging at its fiercest heat and it seemed no living being could withstand the tide of death, our colonel rode along the line and raising his voice above the din of crashing arms cried out, “Stand firm, my boys I am willing to fight for my country, to die for her, and I hope you are with me.” During the entire strife, Colonel Opdycke remained upon his horse being the only officer on the field who did not dismount, a conspicuous mark to the enemy’s sharpshooters who soon discovered the bravest on the field. Nobly was he seconded in his efforts by our gallant adjutant E.G. Whitesides of Pittsburgh, Pa. It was miraculous they escaped. The colonel had a ball shot through his blouse, slightly wounding his shoulder. His horse was wounded several times by the Rebel marksmen. The adjutant had his horse shot from under him and mounted a second. Said an officer to Colonel Opdycke, “Sir, you must have a charmed life for I cannot see how you could live in such a storm of lead.” Generals Thomas and Garfield, in speaking of this part of the battle, said it was the grandest repulse they had ever seen.
At 3 p.m., the 41st Ohio came up and lay down a couple of rods in rear of our regiment just as the enemy made his last and most terrible assault. A mutual recognition immediately took place between our colonel and the 41st for he had formerly served as captain in their regiment. Three thundering cheers arose from Colonel Opdycke from their ranks while he, hat in hand, amidst the cloud of balls, sat upon his horse and commanded his regiment. Two pieces of artillery were placed under our colonel’s command with which he swept the Rebel ranks with grape and canister.
We remained upon this spot until all firing has ceased and night had closed upon the bloody field. Our division, after being ordered the second time, fell slowly back and without interruption to Rossville where General Thomas put the army again in position. It is needless for me to comment upon the heroic actions of the 125th during two days of the most terrific fighting ever recorded, for abler judges than I have spoken of it. General Rosecrans visited our lines the other day and as his staff arrived near us, General Garfield pointed to Colonel Opdycke and said, “General Rosecrans, there is the man that sat on his horse all through Sunday’s fight and these are the men,” pointing to the 125th “who stood at their post. For two hours I stood and watched them hold the enemy in check.” General Rosecrans then rode up to our colonel who stood near our battle-soiled and bullet-riddled flags and said, “I thank the officers and men of the 125th Ohio for the magnificent manner in which they fought. Do as well on your present lines and the gray back of this rebellion will be broken.”
This was a proud moment for the 125th. Cheer after cheer went up for Rosy and our brave colonel. The 125th have met the enemy and stood the test most nobly. How could they do otherwise when led on by so brave and efficient a command as Colonel Opdycke. He has proved by his words, “That if we stand by him he would stand by us and lead us to glorious victory or an honorable grave.”
Letter from Commissary Sergeant Hezekiah N. Steadman, 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cleveland Herald (Ohio), October 7, 1863
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