Marc Grad’s question about the 21st Ohio seems worthy of a blog entry in its own right…
Not all of Rosecrans’ new tactical schemes came to complete fruition. Wilder’s brigade was not the only force intended to be converted to mounted infantry – the previously mentioned 39th Indiana got the nod, as well. However, other units were also intended for this honor.
Anyone who follows Chickamauga comes inevitably to the tale of the 21st Ohio. Now, it seems every regiment in the war has their own uniquely flavored story to tell, full of drama large and small, personalities that are remembered long after they are gone, or anecdotes of either pathos or humor that get told at every reunion. These men do not become faceless hordes, but real people, and I think this aspect is a major reason why the war is so often studied today. We are drawn to their stories, the more vivid the better.
The 21st is no different. I find them a fascinating unit for a variety of reasons. For example, they are the first regiment Tom Custer – George’s brother and ultimately a two-time winner of the Medal Of Honor – served in. Nine members of the 21st volunteered to join the Andrews’ Raiders and helped steal the locomotive “The General” in the spring of 1862, in an effort to destroy the Rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. They were captured, and at least one 21ster was hung, but a number made their escape and rejoined the regiment.
But the regiment also suffered command problems, and was cited repeatedly for lax discipline. The first two colonels proved less than satisfactory for a variety of reasons, and at first blush, it might be hard to find a reason why the 21st Ohio would be selected in May, 1863, to receive Colt Revolving Rifles and be mounted, to serve as “cavalry, sharpshooters, or infantry, as occasion might require.” One reason might be a solid combat performance at Stone’s River, where they suffered 159 casualties and, on January 2nd, charged across the frigid river in a counterstroke that helped repulse Breckinridge’s last attack.
The Army of the Cumberland received an alotment of Colt Rifles at this time. The Army of the Potomac was getting rid of the weapon – carried by some eastern cavalry units – in favor of newly produced Sharps, Burnsides, and Maynard Carbines. Rosecrans, who had been begging for suitable weapons for his mounted force, took the cast-offs eagerly. As a result, eight of the 21st’s ten companies were armed with approximately 400 of the rifles.
Tactically, there appears to have been no new training to go along with the rifles. the 21st had been well drilled in Hardee’s during their first two years in service, and carried on with that manual. As skirmishers, they would be called upon to fight more often in open order, but that also did not apparently trigger a new drill method.
However, they did use their newly increased firepower to good effect. I have touched on their final stand in a previous post, and will try to avoid repetition, but I do note that in their only major engagement at Chickamauga, from 1-7 PM on September 20th, they fought mostly in a single line, almost shoulder to shoulder, and often prone. They were forced to do so in order to cover the ground they were assigned. Their line had to be denser than Wilder’s typical formation, as they took heavier losses. the Rebels assaulting them, however, found their firepower to be stunning, even demoralizing.
Ohio Lieutenant William Vance described Kershaw’s first attack in these terms: “at first the charging Johnnies, reaching the proper distance and receiving a volley from the regiment, returned the same and then started on the keen jump, expecting to reach us before we could reload. Before they had advanced ten paces….they would get another volley, and while they were pondering upon this circumstance, still a third; then they would scarcely get their backs turned…[to retreat]…before the fourth would catch them, and [then] on a dead run, the fifth came singing about their ears.”
At the end of the day, when the Ohioans were forced to surrender, Confederates from Preston’s Divisions were so impressed with the colts that at least one Rebel regiment re-equipped their color guard with them.
The 21st Ohio ultimately lost 243 of the 561 officers and men engaged on Horseshoe ridge, including 131 missing, presumed captured. Nor do these losses tell the whole story; due to the confused nature of the final retreat, a great many of the wounded were also captured, and stragglers were a problem. The next morning only 60 men were present; even three days later the regiment numbered no more than 100. A great many Colt Rifles were lost, as well, and so while some Colts lingered in the regiment through the war, most of the regiment reverted to rifled muskets.