"Your officer's and men are as good as gold."
─ William Tecumseh Sherman, 1862
Over 3,000 enlisted men, three generals, two admirals, and a future president would come out of Brown County before the war was over, all from a county with a population of just over twenty thousand. The largest portion of those men enlisted in the fall of 1861, comprising three companies of the 70th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
─── 1861 ───
Organized on October 1st, 1861, the regiment enlisted two-thirds from Adams, and one-third from Brown county. Many of the officers and older men were veterans of the Mexican War some fifteen years prior, having served under General Hamer in his conquest of Monterrey. Camp was initially made on the old county fairgrounds in West Union, which were afterwards named Camp Hamer in his honor.
There the men began forming companies and generally accustomed themselves to Army life, which was made particularly difficult both by the approaching winter, and their complete lack of equipment, including rifles. On Christmas Eve 1861, the regiment struck camp, marching southward towards Ripley and the Ohio river, making occasional stops for farewell parties and send-offs along the way.
─── 1862 ───
Joseph Cockerill of West Union (Adams) and Dewitt Clinton Loudon (Brown) raised the regiment together, and they served as Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel respectively. In Ripley, they began military instruction in earnest, drilling and training the men despite the harsh weather. Often, they were called to ranks and ordered to stay assembled for the duration of a snowstorm, or rushed out of their tents in the middle of the night and to drill in the sleet and freezing rain.
The men stayed in Ripley until early spring of the next year, eventually joining General Sherman's division farther down the river in Paducah, Kentucky. In March they participated in Grant's invasion of Tennessee, a green unit among an army of equally untested men. Disembarking on Pittsburg Landing, they made camp next to "Chilo Church" for nearly a month, finally being issued rifles six months into their service.
In the woods around Shiloh, they occasionally encountered equally naive Confederates, and viewed them with a kind of hostile curiosity. Actual combat was infrequent, and both sides seemed to view the war so far as a camping trip.
On the morning of April 2nd, the regiment went on a "picnic" ahead of the lines. The unit's major, John McFerren, took an advance party of a dozen men even further into the wilderness. After going a short distance, they were challenged, and then fired upon, by Confederate sentries. The encounters built over the next two days, climaxing with a cavalry raid on April 4th that took seven pickets and a lieutenant prisoner. Reports of enemy activity were largely ignored by higher division and corps commanders, forcing their brigade to take it upon themselves to prepare. They did not have to wait long.
The night of April 5th, and early morning of April 6th, passed furtively. Confederate skirmishers probed the Union line all night, igniting firefights that raged and fizzled out before daylight. When the sun finally began to filter over the trees, the 7oth lay in line of battle along a small creek, stationed a quarter mile ahead of their camp. They were stationed on the eastern edge of the division's western flank, making them a perilous "joint" in the Union army.
The rebels launched their attack around six o'clock, the fight taking nearly an hour to cascade down the line to them. They fought there until ten, forcing back several attacks until their left began to fail. Retreating one mile and setting up another defensive line, they fought until noon, when Grant pulled all units back to consolidate along the river. That position became the Union army's redoubt, giving them good ground to repel the Confederates until nightfall. The regiment was not involved in the fighting of the next day, instead being replaced by fresh units under the recent arrival of General Buell.
The 70th's two retreats that morning were the only time in the war the regiment would ever give ground, and only because the rest of the army was floundering. General Sherman would later comment:
"Col. Cockerill held a larger portion of his command together than any other Colonel in my Division, and was with me from first to last."
The regiment suffered nine men killed, sixty wounded, and thirty missing. The Confederate unit they fought most of the day, the 9th Mississippi, took over three-hundred casualties.
After Shiloh, the regiment was reorganized with the rest of the army, becoming part of the Army of the Tennessee under General Hallack. Issued new uniforms, rations, and forty rounds of ammunition, they began the campaign towards Corinth. The drive was briskly contested, Confederate skirmishers harassed the advance along its entire length, making a stand along a hill known locally as the Russell House.
The 70th, which had been serving as the right flank of the column, was ordered to effect an attack on the position. Similar to what the Confederates had done at Shiloh, they spent the night of May 27th working silently towards the enemy lines. Supported by a battery of concealed artillery, they launched a daybreak attack, forcing the rebels off the hill and securing the road to Corinth.
After the capture of the city, the Army of the Tennessee spun their wheels all over the Tennessee and Mississippi, hoping to maneuver into Vicksburg from the north. What followed was a "Groundhog Day" of march and counter-march. Every morning at three o'clock the regiment would form into line, guarding against the most vulnerable part of the day, then dismiss around dawn. Afterwards, they would have a brief moment of downtime to wash and make breakfast, then they'd be on the march until sundown.
A regiment of country boys, they were valued for their skill in carpentry and bushcraft, and often helped build roads and bridges for the rest of the army. Sometimes they served as the vanguard of the column, skirmishing with Confederate bushwhackers and harassing cavalry. Regardless of task however, they spent most of their time and energy foraging, desperate to supplement their basic rations with anything edible.
After nightfall, they would make camp and post a guard, calling lights out by nine.
This process repeated for months, turning autumn into winter and the war into its third year. Christmas 1862 found them on the road towards La Grange, Tennessee, the roster accounting that year's odometer at 850 miles marched on foot.
─── 1863 ───
The regiment spent almost half the year in La Grange and Memphis, finally moving south in early June. Arriving in Vicksburg, they served as the rearguard of the army, keeping the backdoor open for the main force fighting its way into the city. The campaigns against Vicksburg were plagued by supply shortages, due in part to the long distance, and also to relentless Confederate raids. An earlier campaign in 1862 had to be aborted after the destruction of the Union depot in Holly Springs, Mississippi, putting the supply lines at the top of the list for defense.
On top of their regular military duties, the inexorable crush of shortage became an greater obstacle for the 70th. Food and water were irreplaceable, every drop of water or ounce of cracker had to be brought from the North. The surrounding country had been destroyed by months of prolonged siege, which was compounded by the scalding summer that was beginning to bleach the earth. Surviving on the bare minimum of rations, they fought Mississippi as much as Mississippi's men.
The city eventually fell on the Fourth of July, and then they were back on the move. Once again under the command of Sherman, they spent weeks chasing after Confederate Joe Johnson's escaping army. Near Jackson, Mississippi the 70th fell into summer camp, hoping to wait out the year's hottest months.
In October, they moved to relieve the siege of Chattanooga, taking part in the rolling battles of Missionary Ridge and Tunnel Hill. They spent the next month on the move, chasing the retreating Confederates as far as Georgia. Again on the front of the army's advance, the regiment stood watch despite the approaching mountain winter, keeping their alert under mounting layers of sleet and frost.
The highlight of that campaign came outside Chickamauga, when the regiment had been surviving on the barest of marching rations for over a month. They came across a recently-raided supply depot, which was just starting to be engulfed in flames. Wrestling sacks of cornmeal and beans out of the flames, they filled every pocket and handkerchief between them, gorging that night on more food than they had seen in weeks.
In November, they reversed direction, heading back to Knoxville again aiming to relieve a siege. The city was opened, and the regiment, along with most of Sherman's army, began to stage for the upcoming March to the Sea. On Christmas Day, 1863, they arrived in Scottsboro, Alabama, finding friends and neighbors in the adjacent 24th OVI, and unguarded food trains ripe for "holiday foraging".
─── 1864 ───
The new year came with controversy, the regiment was coming up on the end of their enlistment, and sentiment for the war was beginning to wane. The victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg had been stymied by the constant cycle of success and reversal in the west, and higher officers were concerned that many trusted veterans would go home. The 70th both met, and subverted, this expectation.
An uncomfortable political reality, Brown county was a stronghold for Democratic party, putting the regiment at odds with the mostly Republican army. In 1860, they voted against Lincoln in a landslide, but they were also the only county in Ohio to meet their enlistment quote without a draft.
In spite of their proven loyalty and worth as soldiers. the regiment's officers were often passed over for promotion. Colonel Cockerill was the only brigade commander from Shiloh that had not been promoted to Brigadier General, and there was some doubt that the regiment's votes would even be counted in the upcoming election.
Cockerill resigned, but the majority of the regiment elected to reenlist for three more years. In compensation, they were issued brand new frock coats with service stripes, and given a thirty day furlough home. Additionally, the regiment was re-christened the 70th OVVI for "Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry."
Returning back to duty in March, they were some of the 100,000 strong army that Sherman started on his March to the Sea. What followed would be a string of battles as they tore into the heart of secession: Reseca, Dallas, New Hope Church, Kenesaw Mountain, and Peach Tree Creek, climaxing in the first battle of Atlanta. The 1885 regimental history has this to say about that campaign:
...to save repetition, and that all may understand the position of the 70th Ohio, in these movements our Regiment Occupied the advance, and in every movement mentioned the 70th Ohio Regiment never failed to do her duty, but was on the front line all the time.
Outside of Atlanta, the 70th manned breastworks along a ridge facing the city, subjecting themselves to regular bombardments by the defending artillery. On July 22nd, the Confederates launched a massive attack, forcing back the surrounding Union units. Near one o'clock that afternoon, the regiment found itself fighting on three sides, a lone salient along the original line.
Low on ammunition, and with the wounded mounting, the regiment seemed ready to be lost. A counterattack was finally launched from an Illinois unit in the brigade, beating back the Confederates and keeping the ridge from being overrun. In true Army fashion, the 70th was rewarded for their defense by being repositioned to the other side of the city, a grueling two day forced march that left them exhausted and floundering in mud.
The Confederates attacked again on the 27th, cooking off the battle of Ezra Church. The regiment dug in along a gravel road, building their defenses as they fought. The rebels charged that position eight times, coming so close that their battle flag was shot down and taken within arm's reach of the 70th's entrenchments.
The regiment continued forward to Atlanta, leading a column on the March to the Sea. On the last day of August, the regiment was tasked to attack the eastern edge of the city, starting what would be known as the battle of Bald Hill. Lt. Col Louden had taken over from Cockerill, but he had been discharged after taking ill in Mississippi, and the regiment's original major, John McFerren (Brown), had died in Tennessee. Command fell to the former captain of Company A, Maj. William Brown (Adams). Receiving the orders, he remarked that it "was a bad job".
Calmly, he turned over his watch and other effects to the adjunct, and then ordered the regiment into a skirmish line. Before stepping off, he asked that if any man didn't believe they could do their duty, they could fall out of ranks with no repercussions. There were no takers, in fact there were some jeers that they weren't drunks and cowards from Missouri, and the attack went forward as ordered.
Halfway to the Confederate works, Maj. Brown was killed by rifle fire, his last words urging the regiment forward. Casualties were heavy, including a company commander, the regimental bugler, and more than two dozen men. But the enemy position was taken, and became an advanced point for the drive into Atlanta. Command fell to Cpt. Lewis Love (Adams), who dug the regiment in, expecting to a hard fight to keep what they had gained.
The counter-attack never materialized, instead it became a preview of days to come. The opposing siege lines were within yards of each other, leading to an informal truce, except in jokes and songs. Sometimes the chaplains even joined in, trying to outdo the sermons of the other side. For a number of days in mid August, hostilities stopped altogether, and the men mixed freely, exchanging stories and food. The regimental history has this to say about that time:
...very often in the cool of the evening, just after sunset, the soldiers from each side would collect on each of their respective works without their arms—the Blue and the Gray enjoying a friendly conversation together, seeming to forget for the time that they were enemies opposing each other in a deadly conflict.
The peace was not to last, the officers quickly put down the little truce, and General Sherman routed the Confederates from the city on September 1st. Around this time, regimental adjunct Cpt. Henry Phillips (Adams) was promoted to colonel, and subsequently given command of the 70th.
By the end of the next month, the city had been evacuated of civilians and established solely to stockpile supplies for what Sherman had been planning from the beginning, a campaign to "make Georgia howl". On November 12th, 1864, Sherman's army of 70,000 left Atlanta and headed northward, stepping off the March to the Sea. Years after the war, Cpt. Connelly of Company G reflected on what they left in Atlanta:
...a track of smoke and flame...In our peaceful homes in the North little is known of how these people suffered for their crimes...This beautiful city was now in flames; the heavens were one expanse of lurid fire; the air is filled with flying, burning cinders, buildings covering two hundred acres of ground were in ruins ; the sparks and flames shot away up into the black and red riff, scattering cinders far and wide.
The 70th again led their division's column, and while they weren't allowed to stop and forage as much as the so-called "bummers", they were liable to take anything they came across. At a speed of fifteen miles a day, they would seize, organize, and stow goods without ever stopping pace, sometimes emptying whole barns as the regiment filed in one door and out the other. Marching Through Georgia was something of an adventure for the men of the 70th, the Confederates offered little serious resistance, they ate better than they had throughout their entire service. Even the weather seemed mild, compared to their days in blistering Mississippi and freezing Tennessee.
But it was not to last, approaching the estuaries close to the ocean, the army ran afoul of swamps, flooded fields, and festering marshes. The supply of food dried up, and rations were reduced to whatever they could dig up along the coastal waters. For almost two weeks, the regiment subsisted off boiled, unsalted rice. The Navy lay anchored off the coast of Savannah, waiting with supplies if they could be reached.
Defending the city, with twenty-one cannons and a garrison of two hundred men, was Fort McAllister. It had been attacked by the Navy seven times over the course of the war, all without success. The spring before it had repelled a fleet of three ironclads, coming very close to sinking one, and was surrounded on all sides by clear fields of fire. The fort had kept Savannah open for four years, and had never come close to being taken.
Sherman reached it at one o'clock on the afternoon of December 13th, deciding that it needed to be taken as soon as possible. Delaying resupply for the army would be disastrous, and in the chaos his march created, there was a good chance the Confederates didn't even know he was there. Signaling the Navy that the fort would soon be captured, he posted himself on top of an abandoned mill to watch the assault in person. Night was beginning to fall, and the attempt had to be made while there was still light.
Fifteenth Corps, Second Division, Oliver's Brigade was asked to make the attempt, Sherman's original command from Paducah. The 70th made up the center of the attack, the men spreading out in a skirmish line to minimize the risk of artillery, and began the charge at a dead run. The approach to the fort was across a mile of open ground, thick with trenches, entanglements, and shell craters. The Confederates had also taken to planting "torpedoes", cannonballs pressure-fused to act as land mines. The sky turned orange as the massive naval cannons fired, obscuring the fort in hanging clouds of thick powder smoke. Their size turned out to be a hindrance, as the large shells couldn't be fired at such a short range.
The regiment pressed on, closing the distance faster than the defenders could aim. Lives spent hunting in the Ohio backwoods served them well, the men raked the cannon emplacements as they ran, killing or driving off many of the gunners. Closing to within a few dozen yards, the last obstacle became the fort itself, its sandy walls were difficult to climb even under good conditions, and under fire became almost impossible. Leading the men up the breastwork, the regimental color sergeant was killed, dropping the 70th's flag back to the base of the parapet.
Two and a half miles away, Sherman watched the ordeal through his field glasses. In the smoke and fading light, all he could see were the colors falling, and overcome with emotion, turned away. The success of the entire campaign hinged on reaching the sea and rendezvousing with the Navy, and if the fort held out, the army would starve within sight of resupply. A staff officer shouted for his attention, and turning back, he saw blue-clad soldiers swarm up and over the walls. Colonel Phillips, with the rest of the brigade trying to catch up, led the way into the works. The Confederates surrendered quickly, and the 70th's flag let the Navy know who was now in control of Fort McAllister.
From beginning to end, including the mile run through a mine field, the attack took fifteen minutes. Afterwards, as they policed the fort of the dead and wounded, the men "liberated" its fully-stocked wine cellar. General Sherman himself came to congratulate them that night, and in the low light, seeing them passed out along the walls, took the entire regiment for dead.
Savannah fell without a fight on December 21st, and the March to the Sea was over. Christmas 1864 was the fourth Christmas in the army for the men of the 70th, and they all hoped it would be the last. The Confederacy had been waning even before the last campaign in Georgia, and without an army to oppose them, they looked to finish the job in the Carolinas.
─── 1865 ───
The 70th garrisoned McAllister until the first of February, stripping the cannons and over 40,000 pounds of munitions. Again issued new uniforms, rations, and forty rounds of ammunition, they began the march north towards South Carolina. The men were under orders to treat the state much harsher than they did Georgia, and to destroy everything they could not use. Thus, the relatively restrained March to the Sea became the punitive March Through Georgia.
The lower south, South Carolina and Georgia, were viewed as the cradle of secession, and Sherman's aim was to also make it its grave. The 70th ate, stole, or burned everything of military value, and confiscated legions of slaves. The freedmen met the soldiers wherever they went, hoping to follow them north and to freedom. The regimental history remembers them this way:
They greeted his arrival with exclamations of un-bounded joy. ''Tank de Almighty God," they said, ''We knew it ; we prayed for de day. and de Lord Jesus heard our prayers. Mr. Sherman has come wid his company."
On February 15th, Columbia, the state capitol of South Carolina, surrendered, and the regiment marched in to occupy it. While they took no part in the infamous torching, the men served as impromptu fire-fighters, working to try and save the city's homes and businesses. They enjoyed the "Atlanta experience" all over again, hidden magazines and warehouses exploded all night, raining them with red-hot shrapnel and burning timber. When they left the city, whites and blacks joined them in equal numbers, all hoping to escape the desolation left in their wake.
In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the 70th took part in the capture of the Confederate's primary arsenal, retaking the tooling and machinery that had been looted from Harpers Ferry in the opening stages of the war. Later in the month of March, the regiment fought in the Battle of Bentonville, the last general engagement for both the 70th and the army.
After making over 400 miles in fifty days of marching, Sherman ordered a halt outside of Goldsboro, North Carolina on April 10th. The men were barefoot, sun-burned, dressed in rags, and almost as thin as the rifles they carried, but they had devastated the entirety of the South, from Tennessee to Mississippi to Georgia, and now were poised to continue their destruction into Virginia.
On the morning of the 13th, word of Lee's surrender and the fall of Richmond reached them. The army exploded with excitement, the only Confederate army remaining in the field was Joe Johnston's, and Sherman was practically on top of him. The next day they marched into Raleigh, the capitol of North Carolina, without firing a shot. The men were eager for the final capitulation of the Confederacy, but no one could say if it would come from surrender or total destruction.
It ended bloodlessly; Sherman and Johnston reached an agreement on April 27th, and the war was brought to a formal close.
Celebrations were brief, the men thought they were going home, but the army was instead ordered to Washington, a march of another 200 miles. They participated there in the second day of the Grand Review, still barefoot and sunburned, clashing with the Army of the Potomac who had been issued new uniforms for the occasion. Out of step, trailing livestock and mobs of former slaves, they could not have been any less like the spit-and-polish men of the Eastern commands, and the crowd loved them for it.
Even though the war was over, and there were no Confederate armies left in the field, the army detailed them to to garrison the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. They were taken by riverboat down the Ohio river, coming within sight of home, but were forced to spend the next month guarding the city against an enemy that did not exist.
On August 14th, 1865, the 70th was officially discharged from military service. Six hundred miles from home, and with no provisions for getting there, the regiment booked passage on the steamer Argosy and billed it to the war department. In Indiana, the ship ran afoul of a storm, exploding the boiler and killing nine men. The regiment buried them along the river, the final casualties they would ever take.
In four years of war, the 70th Ohio Volunteer Infantry suffered 265 casualties, seven of them officers, and traveled nearly fifty-five hundred miles, mostly on foot. The regiment would have a reunion in 1885, and continue to have them infrequently until 1901.
The final surviving veteran, Pvt. William Pittinger, would die in 1945, a few days short of his ninety-ninth birthday. Today, they are still remembered by monuments in Decatur, Ohio and on the Shiloh battlefield, and their surviving battle flag in the state capitol.