By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved
During the 2009 Cleveland Civil War Roundtable field trip to Gettysburg, our group laid a wreath at the monument honoring the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI). This Ohio regiment, known as “The Fighting Fools,” is perhaps best known for its role in helping to repel the Pickett-Pettigrew charge on July 3, 1863. The 8th OVI was part of the “Gibraltar” brigade of Alexander Hays’s division, in Winfield Hancock’s II Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
When the 8th entered the battlefield on July 2, it mustered 209 men. After the repulse of the charge on July 3, only 107 were left to fight. The regiment had been placed out in the open fields west of the Emmitsburg Road in front of the main Union defense. As Pettigrew’s division surged toward them, the 8th fired into the vulnerable flank of John Brockenbrough’s Virginia brigade, which broke and ran. The 8th then turned and continued to fire into the advancing Confederates of Joe Davis’s brigade. Despite its small numbers, the 8th took over 300 Confederate prisoners and captured the colors of the 14th Virginia and the 16th and 34th North Carolina regiments, for which two of its members received the Medal of Honor. As the regiment returned to the Union ranks, the 14th Indiana presented arms in recognition of the courageous action of these Ohioans. Later that summer after the belated pursuit of Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia, the 8th was sent to New York City for riot duty following the deadly protests against the draft. However, it arrived after the riot had ended.
The 8th was formed in late April and early May 1861 in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteer to suppress the Southern rebellion. On July 24, these three-month volunteers from Northern Ohio were sworn in for three years. The ten companies represented the cities of Bucyrus, Cleveland, Fremont, Medina, Norwalk, Sandusky, and Tiffin. Company B from Cleveland was known as the “Hibernian Guards” and was designated as right flank skirmishers.
In July 1861, the 8th was sent to (West) Virginia and took part in George McClellan’s campaign to wrest that future state from the Confederacy. The 8th joined the 4th Ohio, the 14th Indiana, and the 7th West Virginia regiments to form the nucleus of a brigade that would become known as the Gibraltar brigade. As part of James Shields’s division sent to the Shenandoah Valley, the 8th fought it first major battle (First Kernstown) near Winchester on March 23, 1862 against Stonewall Jackson, suffering twenty-five percent casualties. In July 1862, the 8th was transferred to McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and its II Corps. The 8th served as a rearguard as the army retreated from the Peninsula, ending McClellan’s attempt to capture Richmond. It arrived too late to participate in Second Bull Run. Commanded by Nathan Kimball, colonel of the 14th Indiana (the First Brigade, Third Division, Second Corps), it fought at the bloody Battle of Antietam in the division of W. H. French. It was in the heavy fighting around the Sunken Lane, where it battled D.H. Hill’s entrenched division. It lost 162 officers and men killed and wounded, about half of its number. The bravery of its brigade earned it the name of the “Gibraltar” brigade from Corps commander Edwin Sumner.
The 8th next headed to Falmouth, Virginia, with the army now headed by McClellan’s reluctant successor Ambrose Burnside. In his ill-advised attack on Marye’s Heights, the 8th (now commanded by Lt. Colonel Franklin Sawyer) held buildings in the town of Fredericksburg, having driven out skirmishers from Barksdale’s brigade. Following this disastrous debacle, the 8th participated in Burnside’s failed “Mud March.” At Chancellorsville, with the army now under the command of Joseph Hooker, the 8th was mostly held in reserve, suffering only a few casualties.
Following the Battle of Gettysburg and its brief sojourn in New York City, the 8th rejoined the Army of the Potomac and the II Corps (but now the Gibraltar Brigade become the Third Brigade, Second Division [under John Gibbon]) for U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. On May 5, 1864, the brigade was attacked in the Wilderness by A.P. Hill’s Corps. The 8th (and the 7th W. Va.) successfully recaptured two cannon lost earlier that day by the VI Corps. On May 6, 1864, the 8th advanced until Longstreet’s corps pushed the Union forces back. Put into reserve, the brigade was again sent forward against the advance of both Hill’s and Longstreet’s corps amidst the inferno that was the Wilderness.
With Grant’s decision to move south to try to flank Lee, the II Corps became the rear guard of Grant’s army as it headed toward Spotsylvania Court House. On May 12, 1864, the brigade became part of Emory Upton’s attack on the “Mule Shoe” salient that initially breached Lee’s defense. Lt. Thomas Galwey, just seventeen years old and commanding Cleveland’s Company B, wrote of the Bloody Angle: “Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage blood curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, super human hardihood, and the grisly horror of the melee! Of all the battles I took part in, Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania exceeded all the rest in stubbornness, ferocity, and in courage. I cannot understand how any of us survived it.” Both the brigade commander and the 8th’s commander, Franklin Sawyer, were wounded. Another soldier in the 8th received the Medal of Honor for the capture of a Confederate flag.
Following this desperate engagement, the 8th again headed south, arriving at Cold Harbor to participate in the II Corps’ unsuccessful attack on June 1 that cost so many casualties to the Army of the Potomac. Following this bloody defeat, it was once again moving south as Grant raced Lee to Petersburg, where, following the failure to capture the city in fighting June 15-17, 1864, the siege began. The brigade, with its service term expiring on July 13, was then placed in reserve. On June 23, the 8th was placed in the army’s front line and survived a rebel bombardment without suffering casualties. The next day (June 24, 1864), the brigade was withdrawn and boarded a steamboat at City Point for the trip to Washington City, arriving June 26. From there, they entrained for the trip home to Ohio.
The 8th arrived in Cleveland on July 3 and was feted by political and civic figures. The regiment was mustered out there on July 13. Those present numbered 168, compared to its cumulative total strength of 45 officers and 944 enlisted men. Over 200 absent (sick, wounded and prisoners of war) were also mustered out. Some reenlisted and were assigned to the 4th Ohio.
During these three years, the 8th suffered a total of 198 casualties. Franklin Sawyer listed six battles and seventy skirmishes in which the regiment was engaged. Cleveland’s Company B totaled 101 officers and men and suffered the following 45 casualties:
- Officers: 3 Killed at Antietam, 1 Wounded at Spotsylvania
- Non-commissioned officers (sergeants and corporals): 1 Killed at Gettysburg, 1 at Spotsylvania, Wounded – 3 at Antietam, 1 at Gettysburg, 2 at the Wilderness, 1 at Spotsylvania, 1 at Petersburg
- Men: Killed – Wire Bridge: 1, Antietam: 2, Fredericksburg: 2, Gettysburg: 2, Spotsylvania: 1, Wounded – Antietam: 13, Fredericksburg: 1, Mine Run: 2, Gettysburg: 3, Wilderness: 2, Spotsylvania: 2, North Ana: 1, Petersburg: 1
(Six men were wounded in two battles; I listed only the battles where they received their first wound.)
Company B suffered its largest number of casualties at Antietam: 5 killed and 16 wounded
Total casualities: 45, Killed-11, Wounded-34
In addition to the monument at Gettysburg, there is a monument honoring the 8th OVI at Antietam. At the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Cleveland, the members of the 8th from Cuyahoga County are remembered. Perhaps the most famous member of the 8th Ohio was dentist Everton J. Conger of Company F from Fremont. He transferred to the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry, suffering wounds that forced him from the field. He served in Lafayette Baker’s National Detective Police. His fame came from his participation with the District of Columbia cavalry unit that captured Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice David Herold in April 1865. He carried the dead Booth’s diary to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
References (Click on any of the book links to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
Baumgartner, Richard A. Buckeye Blood: Ohio at Gettysburg (Great Lakes Connections: The Civil War). Blue Acorn Press, 2003.
Downes, T.M.F. A Brief History of the 8th Regt. OVI.
Hartzell, Stephen J. Roster of the 8th Regt. Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Gibraltar Brigade, Army of the Potomac. www.historynotebook.com/8thOVI.html
Sawyer, Franklin. A Military History of the 8Th Regiment Ohio Vol. Inf’y: Its Battles, Marches and Army Movements. Blue Acorn Press reprints, 1994, 2005).