The 21st Ohio and the Colt Rifle

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.

18 Responses to “The 21st Ohio and the Colt Rifle”

  1. Michael C. Hardy Says:

    Thanks for the information. Is there a modern regimental history of the 21st Ohio?

    Four of their Colt rifles were given to the color-guard of the 58th North Carolina. I’ve often wondered if they carried them throughout the war. The only mention they get is when they are presented to the regiment.

    • Paul G Tremewan Says:

      There are two new books about th regiment:
      *****As near he’ll as I ever expect to be… The biography of Lt John V. Patterson of companies K andC of the 21st Ohio . He was captured at Chickamauga. Includes much information about the men in those companies and the regiment.
      ***** Duty Well Performed….a regimental history
      Both books are readily available at Amazon

  2. Dave Powell Says:


    there is not a modern regimental on the 21st, which is quite surprising, given the huge volume of primary source material on the unit. I know you have talked about your work on the 58th NC, and the relative paucity of sources for that unit. The 21st harbored great resentment at being abandoned on Horseshoe Ridge, and wrote about it obsessively after the war.

    the repository at BGSU is online, and contains a tremendous amount of stuff on them:

    I think all the regiments of Kelly’s brigade had their color guards re-equipped with the Colts, but ammo was probably a problem. The colt took a .56 round. The 21st discovered that .577 enfield ammo could be used in a pinch, but only if the bayonet were attached to reinforce the barrel first, otherwise the muzzle would split. It was not a long-term solution.

    the confederates took something like 25,000 arms off the battlefield after the fight. Among them I’m sure were a number of odd weapons. I wonder what they did with them. Perhaps an arsenal record survives somewhere, but I’ve never seen much mention of it.

  3. Kent Dorr Says:

    A minor note….The MOH is awarded. Soldiers do not “win” it.

  4. Marc Grad Says:

    Good stuff, thanks for posting a response to my question Dave.

  5. Mike Peters Says:


    A great post! Mr. Hardy beat me to the question when he asked if there was a modern history for the 21st. So, I'll ask what you think about S. S. Canfield's regimental?

    Mike Peters

  6. Dave Powell Says:


    correct, slip of the keyboard.

    Mike P.

    Canfield is more a string of anecdotes than a history. Very sketchy, short chapters, and the like. It is good, and for Chickamauga contains a lot of contributed material, but he skips a lot, too.

    Nothing like, say, Cope on the 15th Ohio.

  7. Michael C. Hardy Says:

    Dave – IIRC, the other regiments in Kelly’s brigade were given two of the Colt Rifles, while the 58th NCT was issued four, all which went to the color guard. On a side note, I don’t believe the 58th NCT had a color guard prior to the issue of these rifles. Returns for the 58th NCT are very scarce. There were two for 1864, and neither list any .56 caliber ammunition on hand, only .69, and later, .54 cal.

    Thanks for the link – 10 linear feet – I had about one linear foot (not counting CSR) for my book on the 37th NCT, and about a third of that for the 58th NCT project.

  8. Chris Evans Says:

    I like the Rocco painting of the 21st Ohio that graces the cover of Cozzen’s ‘This Terrible Sound’. I like the captured Confederate in the bottom left of the painting talking to the Federal soldier. I think he was suppose to be the one saying basically, “I can’t believe the firepower from this small amount of men.”

    The Colt revolving rifle is always one of my favorites to look at in the Fuller gun collection when visiting Chickamauga.

    I’ve been fascinated by the story of the 21st and their Colts and this is a great post on them.


  9. Stephen Foraker Says:

    Just thought you all would like to know that one of the original 21st Ohio Colts is now back in the Great State of Ohio. This past weekend, September 18-19, 2010, my Civil War reenactment unit, the 21st O.V.I., Co. E, was at a reenactment held in Toledo, Ohio, when a man came up to us and told us that he had an original Colt Revolving Rifle that his grandfather had found near Atlanta, Georgia, about 45 years after the end of the Civil War. While showing it to us he said that from his research of the rifle, after inherating it from his late grandfather, he had determined that it was indeed one of the Colts carried by the original regiment during the war. After several minutes of looking, touching and drooling over the weapon; the man said that he needed to be on his way and so we turned to hand the rifle back to him when he threw up his hands and said “No, no, it is yours now. I have had the rifle in my home long enough and I want to give it someone that will appreciate it and take care of it and I believe that you guys will do just that.” Well, you can imagine our astonishment when the man said this and then turned and immediately left. The rifle is typical of a old antique weapon. Pitting on all the metal parts. Wood on the fore stock and butt stock scratched and scarred. Ramrod, cylinder and cylinder pin missing. But, basically it is in good condition for being 150 years old. Just aft of the brass trigger guard, we noticed that a small capital letter H had been carved into the wood of the butt stock. We assumed that this was either a company letter or the first initial of the original owner. Later that evening we contacted a friend of ours who, several years ago had done research on the serial numbers of Colt Revolving Rifles in order to trace the ones to the 21st Ohio. We told him the serial number and, sure enough, he confirmed it to the 21st O.V.I. Before we could tell him about the letter H that we had found carved into the stock, he told us that the rifle had belonged to an unidentified soldier from Company H. Wow, again, you can imagine our astonishment to hear this information. That night, back in camp around the fire, my pards and I all decided that it would be best if we loaned the rifle to the Hancock County Historical Museum in Findlay, Ohio, for display with the rest of the original 21st Ohio memorabilia. It is only right that we do this.

    Your obedient servant
    1st Sgt. Stephen Foraker
    Co. E, 21st O.V.I.

  10. Gary Ragan Says:

    I’m looking for information on .56 cal. Colt Revolving Rifle #1612. It ended up in the hands of my great-grandfather who fought for the South. I thus feel it is a capture. Someone told me it might have been issued to the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. Any ideas

  11. Sidney Patterson Says:

    Does anybody know anything about the twin brothers Gideon and Samuel Powel, who served in the 21st Ohio.
    I believe Samuel died during the war but i have no further details. I have always been fascinated by this Regiment and would love to lean more of it, as this is an excellent site of contributors.

  12. Brad Quinlin Says:

    The 21st Ohio in May of 1863 were to be given horses and colts but only 338 colts were given to the detail that went to Nashville to get the colts and horsed. The regiment Started on the Tullahoma Campaign with 603 men, on August 23 1863 the drafted men of the 21st went home under guard, refusing to reenlist. That left at morning roll of September 17 517 men present. On september 19 3 men were wounded but only one would leave the regiment and die at lee and gordons mill at 300 P.M. on september 20. The 21st would have 122 men present for duty on the morning the rest killed wounded or captured. Many of the captured would die in Confederate Prison camps or on the Sultana. 185 colts were captured but were useless to the rebs as the 21st threw the cylinders into the woods- John jacobs 21st Ohio. “Duty Well Performed” is the new regimential history for the 21st Ohio. Contact Little Miami Publishing for a copy or contact Brad Quinlin for a signed copy. Brad Quinlin

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Hi, Brad. Thanks for the information. I just picked up your book in November, in a trip to the park.


  13. C ROGER RUTAN Says:


  14. Paul G Tremewan Says:

    I am looking forward to reading Brad Quinlin’s book

  15. Lee Elder Says:

    First, I have seen the Colt rifle at the Museum in Findlay. I asked the folks at the museum to confirm the origins of the piece on display and never heard back from them, so many thanks to Stephen for his note above. Next, It was my understanding that many of the Colts repeaters were captured by the Confederates at Chickamauga but the CSA did not have ammunition suitable for use in the gun and the rifles could not be used in combat for that reason. Is this accurate?

    • Brad Quinlin Says:

      The ammo was a issue in the confederates not using the colts-colt a 56 cal. and many confederate rifles were .577 cal minnie ball. But Jacob Adams of the 21st Ohio would say how the 21st had 2 clyinders and when they were captured at Snodgrass on Sept. 20th the men took the clyinder out of the colt and the clyinder out of their havershacks and threw then in the woods. So the 185 colts captured by the confederates were just a award of battle. Brad Quinlin co wrote “Duty well preormed, the civil war history of the 21st Ohio”

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