Through the Carolinas with the 55th Ohio

     The 55th Ohio enjoyed a storied and lengthy service during the Civil War. The regiment was raised in north central Ohio and first saw action in Virginia at the Battle of McDowell fighting under the “Gray Eagle” Robert Milroy. The 55th made its reputation at Second Bull Run atop Chinn Ridge and nearly lost that reputation at Chancellorsville the following year by having the misfortune of belonging to the 11th Army Corps. It fought at Gettysburg then transferred west with the 11th Corps to join the Army of the Cumberland and played a role in breaking the siege of Chattanooga. The following summer as part of the newly formed 20th Army Corps, it fought in several engagements of the Atlanta campaign and marched with Sherman to the sea.

          The war’s final months found the 55th marching through the Carolinas where it took part in the two last engagements of the regiment’s service: Averasboro on March 16th, and Bentonville on March 19th. “The campaign through South Carolina and North Carolina has been in many respects similar to its predecessor through Georgia,” remembered Captain William S. Wickham of Co. D. “Destruction of railroads, cotton burning, towns sacked, subsistence consumed; in fact, everything was done that could damage the Rebellion and the course of the army could literally be traced by the columns of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night.”

          In the following letter written to his sister back in Ohio, Captain Wickham recounts portions of the Carolinas campaign and tries to set the record straight on what his regiment did to help win the Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville. To lend some context, the 55th Ohio under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edwin H. Powers was part of the Third Brigade (General William Cogswell) of the Third Division (General William T. Ward) of the 20th Army Corps under General Alpheus S. Williams. Other regiments in their brigade at those battles include the 20th Connecticut, 33rd Massachusetts, 136th New York, 73rd Ohio, and 26th Wisconsin.

Soldiers’ newspaper correspondence regarding this campaign are rather scarce so it’s a real pleasure to be able to present this one to the readers of the Chronicles. Wickham’s letter appeared in the April 18, 1865 edition of the Norwalk Reflector, a newspaper which ran frequent letters from William and his other two brothers (Charles and Frederick) who served in the Civil War.

This depiction of General Joseph Mower's division of the 17th Army Corps assaulting the Confederate left gives some idea of the close-in nature of the fighting in this heavily-wooded area of North Carolina. For the 55th Ohio, Bentonville would be their final engagement. 


Camp of 55th O.V.V.I., near Goldsboro, North Carolina

March 30, 1865

 

My dear sister,

          Like unto our Savannah campaign, I suppose the papers of the North have ere this given the details of the late march, and in that case you are better informed as to the particulars than we ourselves for while each one of us only knows what has occurred in our immediate neighborhood, you have learned the doings of all the columns of the army. What little we do know we have learned by experience.

          The campaign through South Carolina and North Carolina has been in many respects similar to its predecessor through Georgia: destruction of railroads, cotton burning, towns sacked, subsistence consumed; in fact, everything was done that could damage the Rebellion and the course of the army could literally be traced by the columns of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night. We have, however, had more fighting to do and the marching, on the whole route being more or less thickly interspersed with swamps rendering it necessary on many occasions to corduroy the roads for miles.

But Mary, this campaigning it so constantly from one year’s end to another is making us old fast; we may seem to endure it well enough at present, but in after years every twinge one has and every ache will remind him of one of those campaigns in the swamps. For eight weeks we were occupied in the last march and every day’s routine was reveille at 4 o’clock, commence the march at 6:30 or 7, and march 5, 10, 15, and sometimes 20 miles, arriving in camp very seldom before dark and on several occasions traveling all night. That’s when it pulls! Men will do much through love of country, I am referring to the private soldier.

For my part I could endure all this and more if the fighting could be left out! By the way, you must by this time have seen accounts of the fighting that took place on the 16th and 19th of this month; perhaps you have read a true account, but most probably not as this brigade in the fight of the 19th not only did itself honor but probably saved our army, and particularly the 14th Army Corps from a serious disaster. As we never received our due share of credit for the hard fighting we have always been obliged to doe, it will not be given now. I shall refer, hereafter, more at length on the action of the 19th. As the engagement of the 16th has priority in date, let me now call your attention to it. My notebook says:

Left camp at 5:30 this morning and after marching a short distance, artillery firing could be very plainly heard in the distance and upon traveling perhaps four miles we came to the scene of action near Averasboro. The brigade deployed into line and soon relieved a brigade of the First Division, 20th Army Corps; the First and Second Brigades of the Third Division executed a very fine flank movement against the enemy’s right which sent them whirling from their first line of works with lots of prisoners and three pieces of artillery. The enemy did not attempt long to hold their second and stronger line, but in our front, quietly withdrew to their main works at about noon. At this juncture, Co. D was ordered to deploy and advance as skirmishers. We soon came upon the enemy’s line and had sharp skirmishing all the afternoon until nearly dark when the company was relieved.

During the afternoon, the brigade was ordered to advance and did so to within a few rods of the enemy’s works. Our regiment being without even a tree for protection were in the 20 minutes they were engaged pretty roughly handled, losing 36 men out of about 200 engaged. My company lost four: Sergeant Evelyn E. Husted of Clarksfield, Ohio; Privates John Bitterman of Sandusky, John Phillips of Newark, and Alanson Smith of Defiance County, Ohio; the latter two drafted men. Sergeant Husted is dangerously wounded and a better soldier never carried a gun. [Husted would die of wounds April 10, 1865 at Goldsboro, N.C.] The other three men are severely but not dangerously wounded.

General Lee in his account of the affair of the 19th says “Gen. J.E. Johnston reports that about 5 p.m. on the 19th instant, he attacked the enemy near Bentonville in Johnson County, North Carolina and routed him, capturing three guns. A mile in the rear he rallied upon fresh troops but was forced back slowly until 6 p.m. when receiving more troops, he apparently assumed the offensive.”

The truth is this: the left wing was marching upon the same road- the 14th Corps in the advance. Early on the morning of the 19th, that corps commenced skirmishing with the enemy, forcing his line slowly back about two miles when their main force was reached. Here heavy fighting commenced and was still going on when our division came up about 5 p.m. Up to this time, there is no doubt that the 14th Corps had been pretty roughly handled and they had lost three guns. They had gigged back, part of them in a good deal of disorder, not whipped back so much as flanked by overwhelming numbers and the enemy were following up on their advantage.

“A mile in the rear he rallied upon fresh troops.” This was General Robinson’s brigade, the one that saved the 4th Army Corps at Resaca, and belonging to the First Division of the 20th Corps. They just more than slaughtered the enemy, and for a time there was a lull. The Johnnies were evidently up to some deviltry. At this juncture, our brigade was formed in a gap and it was supposed that our line was complete and that a brigade of the 14th Corps was in the front. It turned out afterwards that for some reason the brigade that should have been there had retired some distance to the rear, leaving a pretty large hole through which the enemy might attempt to pass. Future events developed the fact that he was then trying that job and had he succeeded, would have played smash with us.


“When receiving more troops, he apparently assumed the offensive.” This refers to the time when our brigade was formed. Everything was ready and an advance was sounded. We continued marching to the front expecting to come upon the 14th Corps’ line and receiving orders not to fire, we suddenly ran upon two lines of the enemy who were advancing through the gap previously spoken of, expecting to flank the Second Division of the 14th Corps who were on our right. Both parties were evidently surprised and neither fired, but both fell back to take a new start, not, however, until one whole Rebel regiment was gobbled, arms and all, and their skirmish line who threw down their arms and surrendered. After reforming our lines, we advanced the second line and were soon hotly engaged. For an hour and a half, the shots flew lively. At that time, our ammunition was exhausted and the firing ceased instantaneously on both sides. Our loss in the regiment was 32 killed and wounded including five in Co. D: Corporals Alonzo B. Keeler and Michael Hartnick, Privates Donnelly, David Francis, and Baxter Trevor. I think Francis has since died [March 22, 1865], Trever lost an arm, Donnelly lost the finger on his left hand, and A.B. Keeler was but slightly wounded.

 

March 31, 1865

          Samuel Ashbolt having applied for a furlough, it was returned today, approved for 20 days. He will probably start for home today and as I wish to send this by him, I must be spry. I expected to give you a full description now, but another time will do as well.

 

Captain William S. Wickham,

Co. D, 55th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry

 

 

Source:

Letter from Captain William S. Wickham, Co. D, 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Norwalk Reflector (Ohio), April 18, 1865, pg. 2

 

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