A Gentlemanly Sort of War: The Piatt Zouaves Survive Princeton

In May of 1862, the 34th Ohio, also known as the Piatt Zouaves, took part in General Jacob D. Cox’s demonstration against the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. This railway ran more than 200 miles through the valley of Virginia between Bristol and Lynchburg and proved to be a vital means of supporting the Confederate war effort in eastern Virginia, providing a direct rail connection between the eastern and western halves of the Confederacy. Besides moving troops, the railroad also moved mined copper from Cleveland, Tennessee, lead from the mines near Bristol and at Wytheville, and salt from Saltville.

          The expedition didn’t go as planned as one Zouave recalled in a letter home. Confederate general Humphrey Marshall moved to confront Cox’s division and, in the process, Cox divided his force attempting to strike at Marshall. An engagement was fought at Princeton where the two divided halves of Cox’s troops attacked Marshall’s position, but this proved a signal failure.

“The way that General Cox pushed matters on this route seems to have been very rash and it certainly betrayed a want of foresight on the part of the commander of this division,” Private Alonzo Peitzel of Co. E complained, but he was impressed at the gentlemanly manner in which the Confederate commander permitted the defeated Federals to retrieve their dead and wounded from the field. “The Rebels paid great respect to the truce and did even more than they had agreed to as it took all afternoon to get our wounded to our hospital,” he wrote.

Alonzo Peitzel, a regular correspondent with the Bucyrus Journal, would be wounded in the regiment’s next engagement at Fayetteville, Virginia on September 10th of that year and die of those wounds on September 16, 1862, at Gallipolis, Ohio. His letter below describing the Battle of Princeton was originally published in the June 13, 1862, edition of the Bucyrus Journal.

 

The men of the 34th Ohio took great pride in being the first Zouave regiment from the state of Ohio and this is plainly evident on this 5 cent sutler's token. Ohio only sent two Zouave regiments into the field: the 34th which saw action primarily in Virginia and the 54th which saw extensive service with the Army of the Tennessee under Grant and Sherman. 

Camp Flat Top, western Virginia

May 21, 1862

 Dear Friends,

          When I last wrote you, we were at Frenchville seven miles east of Princeton. Since that time, we have made a retrograde movement, a short account of which I will give you. Upon the removal of our brigade from Princeton, four companies of our regiment were left there as a guard. This force was thought sufficient and strong enough to protect it from any threatened danger. But the defeat of Humphrey Marshall’s force in Tazewell County brought this twice-defeated general into this section. Colonel Augustus Moor, commanding our brigade, on Friday last ordered Major Freeman Franklin, commanding the detachment at Princeton, to send a part of his force to attack the enemy which was then only three miles south of Princeton.

          In the meantime, a detachment of four companies of the 28th Ohio, four companies of the 37th Ohio, and Co. F of our regiment had been sent from Frenchville on the Tennessee road to attack the enemy in the rear. The force sent out by Major Franklin attacked the enemy but was overpowered by superior numbers and driven back to camp. This was about 2 p.m. Towards evening, some of the enemy’s cavalry advanced near the camp but were met and driven back by our men. After dusk, the cavalry having been reinforced by the main body of the enemy again attacked the camp and succeeded in driving its brave and gallant defenders beyond its limits. I should here state that General Jacob Cox, his staff and bodyguard were there at the time of the fight in the afternoon, but left for our camp upon the renewal of the fight at dark. As soon as he arrived, the remaining six companies of the 34th Ohio were sent on to the rescue of our comrades.

We marched about seven miles through mud and water, wading streams that were nearly waist deep and then stopped until the remaining companies of the 28th Ohio and 37th Ohio, one company of cavalry, and Simmond’s battery should arrive. It was nearly morning when they overtook us. We expected a skirmish before we should arrive at Princeton, but we reoccupied the town without any difficulty. Upon observation, however, we discovered that the enemy had fallen back to a hill about one-and-a-half miles south of town where they had drawn up in line of battle.

This unidentified soldier from the 34th Ohio sports his Edmond hat (thanks Justin Mays) and rifle musket in this early war image. 

The greater part of the forenoon was taken up in skirmishing. During the early part of the skirmish, two of Co. K were killed. Co. E and a company of the 37th Ohio were out skirmishing under the command of Major Franklin and advanced to within 300 yards of the enemy’s left wing. Prior to this and while we were lying back as a reserve, the detachment of nine companies sent out from camp while at Frenchville attacked the rear of the enemy and after a desperate and determined struggle were repulsed with a loss of 45 killed and wounded. It had been the plan to attack enemy in front of their left wing as soon as they should be attacked in the rear. This was not done. Why, we do not know. Had it been done, the detachment could, at least, have cut its way through to our camp.

After having found ourselves so near the enemy’s camp with, as it were, only a handful of men and over one mile from any supporting forces, we saw that we were in a truly desperate situation. But what could surprise us so much as to see one of the Rebel officers advancing towards us with a flag of truce. Lieutenant William H. Carpenter [Co. E] met the bearer halfway between the two forces. He came back and reported the result to Major Franklin who then sent Lieutenant Frank Helwig [Co. G] who returned and reported that General Marshall had agreed to a cessation of hostilities for two hours, during which time we would be allowed to remove all our wounded and bring in our dead.

Our force (the skirmishing party) then withdrew to the farther edge of the woods adjoining our camp. The Rebels paid great respect to the truce and did even more than they had agreed to as it took all afternoon to get our wounded to our hospital. We did not bury all of our dead. The force of the enemy must have been near 4,000 men. Our force, exclusive of the detachment sent to attack their rear and which we expected would be taken by the Rebel force coming up from the narrows, was only about 1,450 men.

On the following morning [Sunday], we were ordered to retreat. The first brigade commanded by Colonel Eliakim P. Scammon, which had first driven another force of the Rebels beyond the narrows, had come up to Princeton on the previous evening. But as the enemy which they had held in check at the narrows was much larger than theirs and following them up they had weakened instead of strengthening our force; in face of all these and other facts, the retreat was doubtless justifiable.

"The way that General Cox pushed matters on this route seems to have been very rash and it certainly betrayed a want of foresight on the part of the commander of this division," our correspondent observed. 

We are 22 miles this side of Princeton on Flat Top Mountain. Our position is naturally a very strong one and not easily approached by an attacking party. It is probably that we should not move forward again until our force is large enough to sweep every opposing one before it. The way that General Cox pushed matters on this route seems to have been very rash and it certainly betrayed a want of foresight on the part of the commander of this division. When we were at Frenchville, our supplies had to be hauled over 100 miles and along this whole route there was not altogether (with the exception of our force at Frenchville) more than 700 or 800 men and these were distributed at only three different places: Fayetteville, Beckley, and Princeton. That part of the route between Princeton and Beckley was very poorly guarded and the distance (45 miles) is so great that a team cannot pass over it in one day.

The loss of the brigade is, as nearly as I can learn, about 90 killed, wounded, and missing while that of the 34th Ohio is about 35. The loss of the enemy is not known by us but is supposed to be much larger than ours. A shot from one of our large Parrott guns killed six of their men and two of their horses. There seems to be a disposition on the part of the Rebels to make another strike into western Virginia. We shall undoubtedly be prepared for them in a short time. The general health of the troops here is very good.

 To read an alternate account of this engagement written by Corporal Morton Hawkins of Co. F of the 34th Ohio, click here to check out "Buckeye Zouaves: The Damned Red Tops and the Fight for Princeton Courthouse." 

Source:

Letter from Private Alonzo Peitzel, Co. E, 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Bucyrus Journal (Ohio), June 13, 1862, pg. 4

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