A memorial to the 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry stands in National Cemetery in Gettysburg.
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In the midst of the pivotal Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, Union soldier and Ohio native Charles Stacey voluntarily snuck into Confederate territory on July 2, 1863, to attack a band of Southern sharpshooters.
Alone, the private, a sniper, remained hunkered down in a wheat field on the wrong side of the skirmish line for four hours, firing 23 shots and taking out the sharpshooters so completely that not a single man in his company was harmed.
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“I don’t believe any man ever had a line of battle fire at him as many times as I was fired at and live to tell of it,” Private Stacey of Norwalk, Ohio, wrote in a letter to his grandson in 1918. Private Stacey, who fought with the 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry from Norwalk, earned a Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg.
The Battle of Gettysburg is rife with tales of bravery and bloodshed. The battle lasted three days, from July 1 to 3, and involved 165,000 soldiers, 51,000 of whom were killed, wounded, or captured. It was the largest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Some consider it a turning point of the conflict because the Confederate Army never fully recovered from its defeat.
Although Ohio sent 320,000 soldiers to fight in the Civil War, the third most of any state, only 4,400 Ohioans fought at Gettysburg in 20 regiments and batteries. Northwest Ohio was the least-represented quadrant of the state at that battle, according to Richard Baumgartner, author of Buckeye Blood: Ohio at Gettysburg.
Because casualties are recorded by regiment and not by county, it is difficult to determine the exact number of men from counties in northwest Ohio who died at Gettysburg. In his book, Mr. Baumgartner lists 128 men buried in the Ohio plot of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which is where many but not all the soldiers who were killed in action at Gettysburg were buried.
Fifty-one men fought in companies that recruited heavily from these northwest Ohio counties: Seneca, Erie, Huron, Sandusky, Wyandot, Hardin, Hancock, and Lucas. The companies they fought in are made up of the following eight regiments and one artillery battery: the 8th, 55th, 4th, 7th, 25th, 61st, 82nd, 107th OVIs, and the 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery Regiment, according to John Haas, manuscripts curator for the Ohio Historical Society.
Occasionally, companies that recruited from a certain county contained men not from that county, so there is a possibility that not all these men came from counties in northwest Ohio. All that can be said with certainty is that these 51 men died at Gettysburg of injuries suffered in battle after fighting in northwest Ohio-based companies.
Medal of Honor
Despite the region’s lower participation numbers, northwest Ohioans claimed three of the six Medals of Honor given to Ohio men for actions at Gettysburg.
Cpl. John Miller of Fremont and Pvt. James Richmond, a Maine native mustered into service while living in Toledo, both won Medals of Honor serving in Ohio’s most famous Gettysburg regiment, the 8th OVI. The regiment came from Cleveland and gained its prominence fighting Pickett’s Charge. The 8th OVI moved across the battle line into a dangerous position and fired on Confederate forces at a right angle to the charge.
“They did a lot of damage,” said David Ingall, a Monroe County Civil War historian and co-author of the book Glory, Valor, and Sacrifice: Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War (2012). “This musket firing at an angle makes them famous.”
Civil War researcher L. Keith Snipes describes in his paper “Two Medal of Honor Winners” (which is in the collection of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont) how Corporal Miller and Private Richmond raced across the battle line after the charge and captured three Confederate flags. Corporal Miller took the flags of the 34th North Carolina Regiment and the 38th Virginia Regiment. Private Richmond also captured the flag of a North Carolina regiment. Capturing enemy flags symbolically affirmed the Union victory that day.
Although not a Medal of Honor winner, Gen. Henry Hunt, chief of artillery in the Army of the Potomac, also performed admirably during Pickett’s Charge. Members of the Hunt family were the original settlers of Maumee and General Hunt grew up there. According to Mr. Ingall, before Pickett’s Charge, the Confederate Army fired aggressively at the Union line for two hours in an effort to weaken the Northern position before charging.
“It was like an earthquake for a couple of hours,” Mr. Ingall said. But General Hunt ordered his artillery men to fight the instinct to fire back. “He knew they were going to make a massive charge. Then when they got close, he unloaded on them.”
Other Ohio infantries did not fare as well at Gettysburg, however. While assisting an Ohio battery on July 1, the 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry of Kenton, Ohio, advanced into battle and was fired on severely by Confederate forces. Seventy percent of the men were killed, wounded, or captured. The 25th OVI, whose Company K recruited men from Lucas County, lost 83 percent of its soldiers (killed, captured, or wounded), the greatest percentage loss of any Ohio regiment.
Custer vs. Stuart
Michigan sent 14 regiments and batteries to Gettysburg and 171 Michigan men are buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Eleven of them come from Monroe County, according to Mr. Ingall.
However, Monroe’s most significant contribution to the battle was George Armstrong Custer.
The 23-year-old soldier who had finished last in his class at West Point was promoted to brigadier general just two days before the fight at Gettysburg began. He is still one of the youngest generals in American history.
“When he appeared on the scene, they thought he was this young popinjay,” Steve Alexander, a Custer re-enactor and historian, said. “His uniform was described as a circus rider gone mad ... After Gettysburg, his men swore by him.”
At Gettysburg, he led the Michigan Cavalry Brigade in battle against Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, nicknamed the “Invincibles.”
Although there is scholarly dissent about General Stuart’s intent, Mr. Ingall believes he was trying to attack the Union line from the back while Pickett’s Charge assaulted it from the front. It was crucial that General Custer hold off General Stuart so the rest of the engaged Union forces could focus on repelling the Confederate charge.
And he did. “Custer led two classic cavalry charges where they went saber to saber in a complete cavalry melee,“ Mr. Ingall said. “[He] defeats Stuart for the first time ever.”
“He was very much responsible for his service during the Civil War for saving the Union,” Mr. Alexander said. The importance of his victory became clear through public reaction to Custer after the War.
“He was tantamount to any rock star or celebrity during his life,” Mr. Alexander said.
He wishes more people remembered General Custer that way today.
Mr. Alexander’s Custer impersonation is painstaking. He wears his hair in General Custer’s long flowing locks, lives in the Custer home in Monroe, and answers his phone, “Hello, this is the general.”
For him, embodying General Custer is about “keeping part of our heritage alive,” he said. “We know who this week’s winner of American Idol is or the name of Kim Kardashian’s baby. What I’m trying to accomplish is a balance.”
This week, Mr. Alexander will re-enact Custer’s battle against J.E.B. Stuart as the official Custer impersonator for Gettysburg's 150th anniversary celebration. He will help thousands of visitors remember General Custer and the role his region played in the turning point battle of the Civil War.
The majority of the men who fought at Gettysburg, however, were not like General Custer. They were fairly ordinary, and even men like Private Stacey, Corporal Miller, and Private Richmond are barely remembered in the national consciousness.
“Most of these guys were store clerks or farmers,” Mr. Ingall said. “They were just regular people and they gave up a lot.”
If they hadn’t given up a lot, the country might look entirely different today.
Contact Arielle Stambler at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6050.