Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidents in the Maryland Campaign

On this President's Day, let us take a moment to remember two of our nations chief executives who served bravely and gallantly in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, 150 years ago. Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes and Sergeant William McKinley, both of the 23rd Ohio, made contributions to their regiment and the Union army during that campaign. At Antietam, while under fire, McKinley was noted for bravely leaving his post in the safety of the army's rear to bring hot coffee and rations to the men of the 23rd Ohio while they were pinned down under fire. Because of his contributions, McKinley was honored with a large monument by the state of Ohio. Dedicated on October 13, 1903, the McKinley monument cost roughly $5,000, more than three times the cost of the monuments honoring the Ohio regiments at Antietam (they came in at a much more reasonable $1,500 a piece). For more on the 23rd Ohio at the Battle of Antietam, you can check out a blog post I did on the regiment detailing their service that day here.

William McKinley Monument at Antietam National Battlefield

Regimental Monument to the 23rd Ohio at Antietam National Battlefield

While McKinley's monument at Antietam attracts great attention, the 23rd Ohio's greatest test of the campaign came a few days earlier at South Mountain, when they were a part of General Jacob Cox's 9th Corps division's morning assault against Confederates holding Fox's Gap. It was there on South Mountain where the regiment took its heaviest casualties, among whom was the regimental commander that day, Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. Below you can read Hayes's diary account of his wounding, along with the several days before and after during the crucial Maryland Campaign:

September 12, entered Frederick amidst loud huzzahs and cheering--eight miles. Had a little skirmish getting in; a beautiful scene and a jolly time.
September 13, marched to this town, entered in night -- Middletown, Maryland.
September 14, Sunday. Enemy on a spur of Blue Ridge, three and one-half miles west. At 7 A. M. we go out to attack. I am sent with [the] Twenty-third up a mountain path to get around the Rebel right with instructions to attack and take a battery of two guns supposed to be posted there. I asked, "If I find six guns and a strong support?" Colonel Scammon replies, "Take them anyhow." It is the only safe instruction. General Cox told me General Pleasanton had arranged with Colonel Crook of [the] Second Brigade as to the support of his (General Pleasanton's) artillery and cavalry, and was vexed that Colonel Scammon was to have the advance; that he, General Cox, wished me to put my energies and wits all to work so that General Pleasanton should have no cause to complain of an inefficient support.
The First Brigade had the advance and the Twenty-third was the front of the First Brigade. Went with a guide by the right flank up the hill, Company A deployed in front as skirmishers. Seeing signs of Rebels [I] sent [Company] F to the left and [Company] I to the right as flankers. Started a Rebel picket about 9 A. M. Soon saw from the opposite hill a strong force coming down towards us; formed hastily in the woods; faced by the rear rank (some companies inverted and some out of place) towards the enemy; pushed through bushes and rocks over broken ground towards the enemy; soon received a heavy volley, wounding and killing some. I feared confusion; exhorted, swore, and threatened. Men did pretty well. Found we could not stand it long, and ordered an advance. Rushed forward with a yell; enemy gave way. Halted to reform line; heavy firing resumed.
I soon began to fear we could not stand it, and again ordered a charge; the enemy broke, and we drove them clear out of the [356] woods. Our men halted at a fence near the edge of the woods and kept up a brisk fire upon the enemy, who were sheltering themselves behind stone walls and fences near the top of the hill, beyond a cornfield in front of our position. Just as I gave the command to charge I felt a stunning blow and found a musket ball had struck my left arm just above the elbow. Fearing that an artery might be cut, I asked a soldier near me to tie my handkerchief above the wound. I soon felt weak, faint, and sick at the stomach. I laid [lay] down and was pretty comfortable. I was perhaps twenty feet behind the line of my men, and could form a pretty accurate notion of the way the fight was going.
The enemy's fire was occasionally very heavy; balls passed near my face and hit the ground all around me. I could see wounded men staggering or carried to the rear; but I felt sure our men were holding their own. I listened anxiously to hear the approach of reinforcements; wondered they did not come. I was told there was danger of the enemy flanking us on our left, near where I was lying. I called out to Captain Drake, who was on the left, to let his company wheel backward so as to face the threatened attack. His company fell back perhaps twenty yards, and the whole line gradually followed the example, thus leaving me between our line and the enemy. Major Comly came along and asked me if it was my intention the whole line should fall back. I told him no, that I merely wanted one or two of the left companies to wheel backward so as to face an enemy said to be coming on our left. I said if the line was now in good position to let it remain and to face the left companies as I intended. This, I suppose, was done. The firing continued pretty warm for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, when it gradually died away on both sides.
After a few minutes' silence I began to doubt whether the enemy had disappeared or whether our men had gone farther back. I called out, "Hallo Twenty-third men, are you going to leave your colonel here for the enemy?" In an instant a half dozen or more men sprang forward to me, saying, "Oh no, we will carry you wherever you want us to." The enemy immediately opened fire on them. Our men replied to them, and soon the battle was raging as hotly as ever. I ordered the men back to cover, telling [357] them they would get me shot and themselves too. They went back and about this time Lieutenant Jackson came and insisted upon taking me out of the range of the enemy's fire. He took me back to our line and, feeling faint, he laid me down behind a big log and gave me a canteen of water, which tasted so good. Soon after, the fire having again died away, he took me back up the hill, where my wound was dressed by Dr. Joe. I then walked about half a mile to the house of Widow Kugler. I remained there two or three hours when I was taken with Captain Skiles in an ambulance to Middletown—three and a half miles--where I stopped at Mr. Jacob Rudy's. I omitted to say that a few moments after I first laid [lay] down, seeing something going wrong and feeling a little easier, I got up and began to give directions about things; but after a few moments, getting very weak, I again laid [lay] down.
While I was lying down I had considerable talk with a wounded [Confederate] soldier lying near me. I gave him messages for my wife and friends in case I should not get up. We were right jolly and friendly; it was by no means an unpleasant experience. Telegraphed Lucy, Uncle, Platt, and John Herron, two or three times each. Very doubtful whether they get the dispatches. My orderly, Harvey Carrington, nurses me with the greatest care. Dr. Joe dresses the wound, and the women feed me sumptuously. Don't sleep much these nights; days pretty comfortable. [Yesterday, the] 17th, listened almost all day to the heavy cannonading of the great battle on the banks of the Antietam, anxiously guessing whether it is with us [or] our foes. [Today, the] 18th, write letters to divers[e] friends.
September 19. -- Begin to mend a little.
September 20. -- Got a dispatch from Platt. Fear Lucy has not heard of my wound; had hoped to see her today, probably shan't [sic, won’t]. This hurts me worse than the bullet did.

Below is a letter which Hayes wrote to his mother on September 18th, updating her on his recovery, as well as the events at Antietam the day before. 

      MIDDLETOWN, MARYLAND, September 18, 1862, (P. M.)

DEAR MOTHER:--I am steadily getting along. For the most part, the pain is not severe, but occasionally an unlucky move of the shattered arm causes a good deal of distress. I have every comfort that I could get at home. I shall hope to see Lucy [his wife] in two or three days. The result of the two great battles already fought is favorable, but not finally decisive. I think the final struggle will occur soon. [358]We feel encouraged to hope for a victory from the results thus far. We have had nearly one-half our fighting men in the Twenty-third killed or wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel Jones of Thirtieth Ohio, in our Brigade, of Columbus, is missing; supposed to be wounded. Colonel [Augustus H.] Coleman of the Eleventh Ohio, killed. Love to all.--Send this to Uncle.
                     Affectionately, your son,
Altogether, at South Mountain and Antietam, the 23rd Ohio sustained 199 casualties, over 50% of its fighting strength, in less than one week. It should be noted that not only did the regiment contain two future presidents, but it also contained three future governors of Ohio, one future Lieutenant Governor, a future U.S. Senator, a future Supreme Court Justice, a future Minister to the Hawaiian Islands, as well as several other soldiers who went on to hold high office in Cuyahoga County and Cleveland, Ohio. Clearly, the 23rd Ohio was a remarkable regiment which made a remarkable sacrifice during the battle of South Mountain and the Battle of Antietam. As we remember our nation's greatest presidents today, let us not forget the contributions and service of Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes and Sergeant William McKinley during the Maryland Campaign.

The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes, Nineteenth President of the United States, Vol. 2, edited by Charles Richard Williams (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, 1922), 354-358.

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