The Tenth Ohio Infantry was a mainly Irish regiment (there were also two companies of Germans) recruited in and around Cincinnati. They were a hard-drinking and hard fighting unit, who were engaged in the Western Theater for the majority of the conflict. However, it was in the 1861 West Virginia Campaign that these Irish and Germans first ‘saw the elephant’, a Civil War expression used to describe men’s first experience of combat.
The Tenth crossed the Ohio River on the 24th June 1861 to take part in the Campaign. On the 10th September they found themselves part of Brigadier-General William Starke Rosecrans command as they prepared to attack John B. Floyd’s Confederate’s at Carnifex Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). It was not to be an easy introduction to battle. The ‘Bloody Tenth’, as they were to become known were commanded by Mexican War veteran Colonel William Haines-Lytle, while their Major was Joseph W.Burke, an Irish immigrant who had helped to recruit the regiment.
At around 3 o’clock on the 10th September Colonel Lytle received orders to reconnoiter the enemy positions, suspected of being in the vicinity of the Gauley River. One can imagine the nervous anticipation of the men as they advanced uphill through a densely timbered forest, expecting at every step to come under fire for the first time. Having passed through the woods for half a mile the regiment’s skirmisher’s were suddenly engaged, with Lytle advancing the remainder of the men to their support. They reached clear ground on the crest of the hill, and for the first time saw the enemy- the rebel’s were in a strong fortified position behind logs and fenceposts, with twelve guns trained on the Tenth. Colonel Lytle takes up the narrative:
When the head of my column reached a point opposite the right center of their earthworks their entire battery opened on us with grape and canister with almost paralyzing effect, my men falling around me in great numbers. I ordered the colors to the front for the purpose of making an assault on their battery, perceiving which, the entire fire of the enemy was directed towards us. The men rallied gallantly on the hill-side under withering volleys of grape and canister with small-arms, and a part of three companies, A, E, and D, actually moved up within pistol-shot of the intrenchments, and for some time maintained a most unequal contest. Both my color-bearers were struck down. The bearer of the State color, Sergeant Fitzgibbons, had the staff shot away and his hand shattered, and in a few moments afterwards was shattered in both thighs while waving his colors on the broken staff. The bearer of the national color, Sergeant O’Connor, at the same time was struck down by some missile, but recovered himself in a short time, and kept waving his color in front of the enemy’s lines.
Colonel Lytle, who had advanced with the right-wing of the regiment and had remained mounted despite the tremendous fire, was also wounded when a bullet hit his leg, killing his horse. Meanwhile, Major Burke attacked on the left with Companies I, F, K and C, where they remained in position until they had expended all their ammunition before rejoining the right. Colonel Lytle commanded his men to take cover, which they did, maintaining a steady fire on the enemy positions. Much of the regiment remained where they lay throughout the night. The following day, Brigadier-General Floyd’s Confederate’s had withdrawn, and the Tenth Ohio had ‘seen the elephant’. Of their performance, Colonel Lytle remarked:
For men for the first time under fire the conduct of the regiment was highly creditable. Having been disabled in the early part of the action I was necessarily separated from a greater portion of the command, but among those who came under my own notice I would especially mention Captain S. J. McGroarty, commanding the color company; Lieutenant Jno S. Mulroy, Company D; Lieutenant Fanning, Company A. Both Lieutenant Fanning and Captain McGroarty were severely wounded, the latter while rallying his men around his colors and the former in leading his men to the attack. Captains Steele and Tiernon are also worthy of special mention for their gallantry. I would also mention the name of Corporal Sullivan, Company E, who in the midst of a galling fire went across the front of the enemy’s batteries and returned with water for the wounded.
Of the portion of the regiment under Major Burke that officer makes highly honorable mention of the names of Captain Ward, Company I; Captain Robinson, Company K; Captain Hudson and Lieutenant Hickey, Company C; Captain Moore, Company D; Sergeant-Major Knox, for their gallantry and intrepidity under a most destructive fire, and also of the chaplain, Rev. W. T. O’Higgins, who remained on the field during the action in performance of his sacred duties.
The gallant performance of the Tenth Ohio came at high cost; they suffered the worst casualties of the day, losing ten men killed and fifty wounded. Their experience of war was only beginning- they would later fight on famous battlefields such as those at Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Atlanta, before their service was completed in 1864.
References & Further Reading
Official Records 5. Report of Colonel William H. Lytle, Tenth Ohio Infantry
Carter, Ruth C. (ed) 1999. For Honor, Glory & Union: The Mexican & Civil War Letters of Brig. Gen. William Haines Lytle
Reid, Whitelaw 1868. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Her Generals, and Soldiers Volume II