The Curious Case of the 71st Ohio
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
The 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry is a regiment with quite an interesting story. This regiment, especially its officers, have been dragged through the mud since 1862 for battlefield failures. After their questionable performance at Shiloh, the 71st was assigned to garrison duty in Clarksville, Tennessee. Clarksville was supposed to be the place where Colonel Rodney Mason could not cause a disaster, and the 71st could earn a little redemption through good service. That was not to be the case.
The 71st began organizing in Troy, Ohio in September 1861 and was mustered into Federal service in February the following year, armed with Belgian muskets. Command of the regiment fell to Colonel Rodney Mason, who used his father’s influence to attain the position after Lieutenant Colonel Barton Kyle had been the one to do much of the recruiting and organizing. The men were not pleased that Kyle had essentially been passed over by Mason for political reasons, but their admiration for Kyle was great, so the men stayed.
Shortly thereafter, the regiment was sent to Paducah and attached to Sherman’s Division in Grant’s Army of the Tennessee where they were brigaded with the 55th Illinois and 54th Ohio. The regiment subsequently traveled with the army to a place called Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee where they would camp near the Tennessee River in order to guard an important bridge spanning Lick Creek.
By the time April came, the 71st was the bulk of Colonel David Stuart’s brigade with over 800 men, though their numbers would shrink due to sickness. Stuart’s brigade was isolated as they guarded the Lick Creek bridge, and on the opposite end of what would become the Shiloh Battlefield from the rest of Sherman’s division. The 71st was armed with Belgian muskets, but Mason alludes in his report that they showed up to Pittsburg Landing "unarmed." On the morning of April 6th, 1862, Chalmers and Jackson’s Confederate brigades began moving toward the Union left in an effort to roll up the flank. Stuart’s brigade of three regiments was the only force east of the Hamburg Road to hold back two Confederate brigades with artillery.
Stuart states in his report that he ordered the 71st to a position on the right of his line, with the 55th Illinois in the middle and the 54th OVI to hold the extreme left. Mason and his men occupied a defensive position aided by a fence. The brigade came under intense fire, especially artillery fire, and began to slowly fall back to a second position.
This is where things get fuzzy for Mason and the 71st. It was during the move to the second position that Colonel Stuart loses contact with the 71st and never sees them or Colonel Mason for the duration of the battle. It was apparent to everyone outside of the 71st that the regiment had fled, while the rest of the brigade fought for its life amid shrinking ammunition.
In the reports of other officers and the Ohio newspapers, the 71st Ohio might as well not have even been present on the field. Years later, Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs, “Colonel Mason was one of the officers who had led their regiments off the field at almost the first fire of the rebels at Shiloh. He was by nature and education a gentleman, and was terribly mortified at his action when the battle was over. He came to me with tears in his eyes and begged to be allowed to have another trial.” The Ohio papers, frustrated at the showing of other Ohio regiments at Shiloh such as the disgraceful conduct of Colonel Jesse Appler and his 53rd Ohio and Meyer’s Battery in the Peach Orchard, lashed out at Mason with the nickname “Runaway” Mason. It appeared that the 71st Ohio may never see any sort of meaningful service again.
Today, if we were to only go by the sources provided by Colonel Stuart, General Grant, and the Ohio papers, it would appear that the 71st OVI was a unit rife with cowardice. But what if they got it wrong? What if the 71st OVI actually deserves the same level of respect as the rest of Stuart’s Brigade? Now, if what Grant says is true, then Mason did not do himself any favors, so I question Grant’s memory of the moment since his memoirs were published 23 years after the battle. Mason was by no means the only officer with questionable conduct over those two days, so it is possible that Grant used the aid of newspapers to jog his memory. If we are going to be objective, we MUST look at all available sources from both sides.
Let’s start with Grant’s remarks about Mason leading his entire regiment off the field after the first firing. Colonel Mason’s regiment was one of the largest in Grant’s army since it was so new, with nearly 800 men. At the start of hostilities on the 6th, Mason ordered his sick and wounded back to Pittsburg Landing. This was nearly 300 men. To anyone observing this mass of men moving toward the rear, they rightly might expect these 300 men to be an entire regiment as most Federal regiments were significantly smaller than their original numbers.
Next is Colonel Mason’s report. When the brigade fell back and the 71st lost contact, Mason makes the case that they did not run, but in fact stood their ground and fought. Mason states that he fell back to a second position 150 yards to the rear that was “a strong position for infantry, and the only defensible one near..” to await the next assault. When it came, the 71st fired into the Confederates with an accurate fire that sent them reeling, but they reformed and attacked again. It was at this juncture of the battle that Lieutenant Colonel Kyle was mortally wounded. “It was here that the gallant Lieutenant Colonel Kyle fell, mortally wounded. His fall had a most disheartening effect upon the entire regiment, by whom he was greatly esteemed..”
In 1862 Captain H.K. McConnell, commander of Company B in the 71st, stated in a sworn deposition, “At about 11 AM we exchanged fire several rounds when our regiment gave back and was prevented from going into confusion by Colonel Mason who led it back and reformed it 150-200 yards in the rear.” It is possible that this new position McConnell speaks of is the same one alluded to by Mason. Other soldiers from the regiment gave sworn testimony to have seen Mason during the entire day of April 6th, and Mason did not exhibit any of the behaviors being spoken about him in the press.
When reading the reports of General Chalmers and General Jackson, they make repeated references to receiving a murderous fire from a concealed enemy on a hilltop, firing into their left flank as they engaged the 54th OVI and 55th Illinois. McArthur’s brigade, and later Lauman’s, would not be in position to resist on the Union left for some time, so it could not have been them. So who is this mystery force constantly stinging the steam rolling brigades of Jackson and Chalmers? My belief is the 71st Ohio and Colonel Rodney Mason.
Casualties were severe for the 71st with over 110 men killed, wounded, and missing. On April 7th, they only had 200 men on line to fight, as a couple other companies that were separated on Sunday were mixed in with other regiments. For a regiment that ran at the first shot, it is inconceivable how they could have suffered so many killed and wounded. Upon closer examination of the numbers, Stuart’s brigade suffered 578 total casualties, meaning the 71st contributed less than 20% of that number when there were only three regiments in the brigade. One might assume that the percentages would be more evenly spread. So why would their casualties, though heavier than many other units engaged that day, be so fewer than the 55th Illinois and 54th Ohio? My theory is the fighting position selected by Mason prevented the enemy from being able to close in and deliver destructive volleys, and the brush and fence line also obstructed the aim and fire of many of the Confederate infantry. Additionally, being so isolated from the rest of the brigade, their presence may have gone unnoticed until their fire was received. Mason mentions the artillery fire that came into his men, for which they had no answer. This was the one thing that the Confederates could use to push the 71st back.
Before the reports could even be submitted, coals were already being shoveled on the head of Mason and the 71st. The people of Ohio and their newspapers, and probably Stuart’s brigade, wanted a scapegoat. The man who was given a colonel’s commission due to his father’s influence seemed like a good fit and easy target. Apparently these humiliating stories were already filtering their way into the camp of the 71st. In his report Mason states, “I am required to state especial cases of misconduct. None came under my observation, nor have I been informed of any deserving especial notice. I regret that the regiment did not bear themselves with greater steadiness; but it must be remarked, in extenuation, that the regiment was new; that it had been rapidly organized, and that we were ordered unarmed into the field, and that up to the time of our arrival at this post the regiment had never spent ten hours in the battalion drill. Soldiers thus situated are never reliable, and when exposed to the fire of artillery, to which they have no means of replying, are almost always disheartened, if not demoralized. The fact that our loss amounts to one-fifth of the entire force engaged-the actual killed and wounded, certainly known and reported, of over one-eighth-shows that there was no want of personal courage or exposure.”
Blood from the sacrificial lamb to the Ohio public and newspapers was quick. Grant recounts that Mason begged another chance, and so Grant transferred the regiment to Fort Donelson and Clarksville for garrison duty. It was here that the regiment was now in the backwater of the war. The only thing that could even remotely come close to the 71st was the guerrilla and partisan ranger units that were operating in the area. Something Shiloh veteran troops should easily be able to handle.
Unfortunately for Mason and the 71st, Colonel Adam Rankin “Stovepipe” Johnson was gobbling up small garrison units in western Kentucky in July and August of 1862. His command began with three men including himself in June, and had already gained national fame for capturing the first Northern town at Newburgh, Indiana. Johnson used a stovepipe and a charred log to fool the Indiana Legion commander at Newburgh that Johnson had two pieces of artillery ready to shell the town from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River if the town and its supplies was not surrendered. The ruse worked and Johnson’s new regiment began to grow. Johnson states that it was at this time the Breckinridge Guards grew to more than 300 men. More men than he had weapons and supplies. Another target similar to the Newburgh Raid was in order. Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in the southwestern part of the state, offered a target ripe with much needed weapons and ammunition. If he could surprise whatever Union troops were there, he could capture the much needed weapons and supplies with little fighting. Johnson decided to make a move for the city.
This was a risky gamble, even for Johnson. If the Union troops stationed in Hopkinsville got any indication of the Confederate advance, then things could turn sour very quick. Some of the Homeguards of Hopkinsville were said to have Henry rifles, and those along with the other militia and Federal troops would mean that Hopkinsville would not be as easy as he had hoped.
Once the decision was made to move on the town, Robert Martin, Johnson’s trusted second in command, went ahead of the column. Martin wrote in Confederate Veteran Magazine in 1898, “Col. Starling was then in command of about two hundred men at Hopkinsville, and, as they were the handiest, our column was headed for them within two hours after organization. As was a custom with me, I was soon miles on the road, with one picked man to personally look the situation over before the attack. I spent a couple of hours in the city. We left our horses a convenient distance, outside, pickets having been flanked. After a midnight lunch with a friend I set out to join Johnson.”
Thanks to Martin’s intelligence gathering, and lucky for Johnson, the Federal force that had been stationed there, had marched east toward Bowling Green. All that was left was the 200 men of the local militia. The Confederates rushed into the city at dawn, completely surprising the unsuspecting, and sleeping, homeguards. Martin later stated, “At sunrise we had met the enemy, and ‘they were ours.’”
The gamble turned out to be a good one. Johnson stated later that he had captured 100 stands of arms, among them a few Henry Rifles, but was still low on ammunition. The captured militia were quickly paroled, their weapons taken. The successful raid on Hopkinsville was still not enough to fully arm the ever growing regiment. Being behind Union lines, made it extremely unlikely that any supplies or ammunition would ever make it to his men from Confederate sources. Not only was being behind enemy lines problematic, but his command never stayed in one area for a substantial amount of time. Johnson was going to have to improvise again. The success of this coming raid would embolden his second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Martin to attempt the same strategy at Owensboro one month later, but with different results.
Clarksville, Tennessee offered a tantalizing prize. The city had a sizable depot of supplies, weapons, and ammunition as it was one of the main supply points along the Cumberland River for items moving toward Nashville. The summer and fall of 1862 had seen this area of the country experience a terrible lack of rainfall resulting in a severe drought. Consequently, many steamboats could not navigate the now shallow waters of the Cumberland. This caused an excessive amount of supplies to be dumped at Clarksville as it awaited overland transport.
Not only was there ample supplies to be found for any Confederate force able to take the town, but Clarksville was lightly guarded by only six companies of the 71st Ohio Infantry under the command of Colonel Rodney Mason. The other four were located over 40 miles distant at Fort Donelson. In his memoirs, Grant would write that Mason chose Clarksville as his headquarters because it was closer to the enemy.
Colonel Mason would do just that, setting his headquarters in the town, some distance from the camp of his six companies on the grounds of a college, but his men were spread around the area on different duties. Mason would later report that he had only 225 men present for duty from his command. Of those 225 “22 were on river guard, 7 on telegraph guard, and 6 out on telegraph line, repairing it-in all 35; leaving those who ought to have been in camp 190; but of those only 152 were reported to me as in camp, including the camp guard of 42 men. Where the other 38 were I do not know.” As bad as the coals were that would eventually be heaped on Mason’s head, his situation was not enviable. For anyone following the numbers, Mason now has roughly 150 men to hold Clarksville, and an emboldened enemy of over 300 was approaching.
For Johnson, they could strike quick and soon with Clarksville being less than 30 miles from Hopkinsville. However, the city did have something that Newburgh and Hopkinsville did not. Rifle pits armed with a piece of artillery and veteran troops. Luckily for Johnson, the Federals were spread throughout Clarksville and on other types of duty outside the city and camp. It would be difficult for the few companies of Federal troops to offer up stout resistance from their current position if they came upon them quickly. Johnson also would have the cooperation of the sympathetic population, as many of Clarksville’s citizens would consider life under the Yankees as anything but ideal.
Johnson would not be alone. Colonel Thomas Woodward and his 100 Kentucky and Tennessee men were operating in the vicinity. Woodward had attended West Point, Harvard, and Yale but had been removed from all three for various discipline issues. Woodward not only had an interesting personality, but was also of physical interest. The man weighted no more than 110 pounds, was unusually short, and had long flowing hair with a drooping moustache. Johnson would have his help, and the odds only increased against the 71st Ohio.
Johnson and Woodward together hoped to take the whole lot in Clarksville. The plan was for Woodward to approach from the west and then surround the camp at Stewart College and demand its surrender, while Johnson and his men rode through town where the Federal commander, Colonel Rodney Mason, was quartered and capture him. If the Ohioans refused surrender, then the supplies on the river bank would be destroyed. With this plan in mind, did Johnson ever have any real intention to assault the Union infantry in their rifle pits?
On August 18th, the plan was put into motion. Johnson rode out of Hopkinsville at dusk the previous night and arrived at Clarksville near dawn. When the two commands were united and in place, Woodward sent a messenger under a flag of truce right up to the works of the camp and demanded its surrender. As the Confederates awaited the reply, Johnson and Martin made it to Colonel Mason’s room where he had just escaped moments before. Mason avoided Johnson’s men in the town and was able to slip back to the college where he met with a number of his officers. What happens next differs between Union and Confederate sources.
In official Union reports, the officers met inside the college before Mason returned, and debated the issue of surrender. Mason himself claims that with only his number of effective troops at a maximum of 175, he stood no chance against the 800 he believed to be surrounding his camp. Not only were there 800 Rebels, many of them were regular army sent home to recruit he believed. Mason also claims that the ranks of the Rebels were being swelled by the presence of townsmen, coming to the scene with their own weapons. The deciding factor appears to have been the presence of Confederate artillery, of which the Federals only had one barely serviceable piece.
A report signed by 12 of Mason’s officers claims that the Confederates allowed Lieutenant Colonel Andrews to pass along their lines. It was ascertained that the enemy contained some 400 cavalrymen drawn up in line, some armed with new 16 shot repeating rifles, the rest with the usual cavalry armaments of carbines and shotguns. It was also stated that 100 infantry were present. Who these “infantry” were is not known. Perhaps they were dismounted cavalry or the local townsmen who had joined the foray. The Rebels also claimed to have two batteries of artillery in support. Again these “batteries” were nothing more than quaker guns.
Mason reported to Grant, “I sent Lt. Col. Andrews to examine and count their force, which he did, and on his return stated that they were over 800 strong, one company armed with volcanic rifles (16 shooters); one with Sharps carbines; the remainder of the cavalry with double-barreled shotguns, and part of the infantry with muskets. They had a battery of three guns, with caissons, in the corn field, but he did not go to them...This report was made to the officers, and their vote was reported to me as about three-fourths for surrender and the remainder against it.” It is interesting that Andrews did not closely examine the “artillery pieces” Johnson and Woodward displayed form a distant cornfield. He went on to say, “I was then to determine whether I would, with this force of 152 men, or may be 175, by arming prisoners and bringing in men who might not be in line, fight over 800 men, armed as well as we were for the sort of a fight that was impending…” Mason went on to say that if it was a fight between the two sides with small arms only, he believed he could have resisted their advance. But, it was the supposed artillery that drove Mason to the surrender table.
In his own memoir, Johnson claims the circumstances of the surrender went a little different:
“I decided to rush into the college, find the colonel [Mason] and compel him to surrender. Giving Captain Fisher and the other captains orders to come immediately to me, if they heard firing within the building. I sprang over the picket fence, entered the house and ran up the stairs to Colonel Mason’s room. There was but one sentinel on the upper floor, and leveling my pistol at him, I ordered him to open the door to the commandant’s apartment. The command was obeyed, and on entering the room, i found the colonel in his night-clothes and four of his officers gathered around him. The Union commander was very pale and excited and decidedly in favor of surrender. Three of the captains sided with him, while the other fiercely opposed the propositions. Why these belligerents were not downstairs commanding and supporting their companies who were hesitating and wavering as to what course to pursue, I do not undertake to say.
But I had the drop on them, which gave me an advantage from which they could not recover, and the entire surrender was soon made without the firing of a gun inside or outside of the headquarters.”
It must be said that Johnson’s memoirs have to be taken with a grain of salt. Though what he says is usually true and even accurate, he obviously likes to make himself the hero.
The unusual human specimen that was Colonel Thomas Woodward, was a marvel for Mason, even as Woodward’s prisoner. It was reported that Mason and Woodward gave complimenting speeches to the other, and that Mason offered to pay for Woodward to have his photograph made in Clarksville. When asked why he would pay for that in these circumstances, Mason replied that he wanted to show his friends up north the “insignificant little cuss I had to surrender to.”
This debacle and seemingly disgraceful behavior by Union officers would be well known throughout the nation within days. So shameful was it for a Colonel in the United States service to surrender a fort with nearly 300 well armed Shiloh veterans inside, military stores, and artillery without a shot being fired that President Lincoln took action. He ordered Colonel Mason to be cashiered from the service for repeated acts of cowardice in the face of the enemy.
The Cleveland Daily Leader ripped Mason for his actions. “The surrender of Clarksville, Tenn., by Colonel Rodney Mason, of the 71st Ohio, was a piece of unmitigated, disgraceful cowardice. A dispatch to the Cincinnati papers say, that further information shows the surrender to the the most disgraceful and cowardly of the war. Further inflaming the story was the report that Mason and the rebel leader Woodward made speeches complimenting each other. The Cincinnati Commercial reported:
We have bitter intelligence that Col Rodney Mason...has completed his career of cowardice by surrendering his whole command at Clarksville to an inferior force of guerrillas...The subject is too disgusting to dwell upon. We advise Colonel Mason to keep away from Ohio.”
The McArthur Democrat of McArthur, Ohio, also slammed Rodney for the surrender. “The news which we publish this morning relative to the surrender of Clarksville, Tennessee, is the most sickening piece of intelligence we have been called upon to print for a long while...We have no language to express our feelings with reference to this disgraceful transaction...Mason and Woodruff, who commanded the guerrillas, made ‘you tickle me and I’ll tickle you’ speeches...Ohio will very gladly spare the Colonel from the ranks of her citizens.”
In Urbana, Ohio, the Urbana Union reported a fearful consequence that could befall Mason. “There is great indignation throughout Ohio over Rodney Mason’s surrender at Clarksville. He will be dismissed from the service. If convicted of cowardice he will be shot.”
The Citizens of Clarksville were overjoyed. They erroneously or naively believed that they were escaping Federal occupation for good. Colonel Johnson had absolutely no intention of holding Clarksville for long. Nevertheless, the citizens celebrated their liberation. Johnson remembered later, “...Clarksville was one of the truest Southern towns, and her people had suffered many impositions at the hands of Colonel Mason and his men, and on the arrival of our little Confederate command, all of its inhabitants, old and young, turned out to joyfully welcome us as their deliverers from the hated ‘blue-coats.’ There delight was shown to the boys in gray in the most extravagant ways…”
Clarksville resident Nannie Haskins was ecstatic. “I was wild that day with delight as I was with grief on the day of the fall of Fort Donelson. Six months since I had seen a onfederate. They came dashing in on their old poor horses, dirty clothes and all sorts of arms; they had no band at all not even a bugle or a flag to show to whom they belonged but their old dirty “grey” but “fight was in ‘um,” and they “tuck” the place and the “Feds” with all their blue broad cloth and brass buttons.”
The ladies of the town also gave a new silk banner to Colonel Johnson and his command. Miss Tennie Moore presented the colors to Johnson and said, “...we wish to present, through you, this banner to your gallant boys, who we feel, will never allow it to trail in the dust of defeat. Colonel Johnson, we place this banner of the stars and bars in your hands with the full assurance that it...will be a beacon to light you and your brave followers to more glorious victories.” Johnson passed the new flag to Robert Martin at his side, and went to work organizing and taking stock of his growing command.
Not only did Johnson just captured hundreds of much needed muskets, though the Belgian kind, he also acquired ammunition, multiple wagons, and “a million dollars in army supplies,” and one 4 pound artillery piece. Johnson was also able to raise a company of for his new regiment of men from Clarksville who would be placed under one of their own, William Marr.
Some of the captured Federal soldiers of the 71st Ohio made their way north with the very men who had captured them. These men traveled to Madisonville, Kentucky and were then allowed to walk the remainder of the route to Union controlled Henderson on the Ohio River, or to Ashbyburg on the Green. Either spot was frequented by steamboats that would take them to the Ohio River and Federal territory. One unidentified soldier of the 71st told his version of the disaster at Clarksville to the Daily Evansville Journal:
“...A private in the 71st Ohio...arrived in this city yesterday. He was accidentally left when his regiment was sent north...and came with a party of rebel cavalry...His statements in relation to the surrender may be relied upon. He says the rebels did not have a single field piece, as stated my Col. Mason; that the regiment was in a large building, the doors and windows barricaded with hay, and with every facility for making a successful resistance; had such a course suggested itself to the cowardly Colonel. He says further that Col. Mason was notified that the rebels were coming...the men expected to meet the rebels as the Ohioans have met them on many a well contested field...The arms captured at Clarksville were brought to Madisonville, and last Friday and Saturday men were at work cutting off the bands to adapt the guns to the use of cavalry. The country is swarming with mounted rebels who are armed with shotguns and captured muskets and well mounted. They are ununiformed, and often disperse to their homes, meeting at appointed rendezvous. The soldier who gives us these facts traveled several days in company with the rebels and he says the whole country though which they marched turned out to welcome them. They take fresh horses as often as necessity requires, and subsist on their friends along the road. This statement...is corroborated by the statements of a number of soldiers of the same regiment who arrived here last Sunday.”
When I first started researching the story of Clarksville and the 71st Ohio, I was not a fan of Colonel Mason. But now that I have looked at more of the facts and the numbers, I will say that my mind might be changing. Definitely not to fan status, but maybe to the point of understanding his predicament. If your second in command returns from Rebel lines with that information, surely any resistance you can hope to produce will result in a blood bath for your men. On the flip-side, why were there not any pickets surrounding Clarksville to give some sort of warning to the impending enemy advance?
What do you think? Is the reputation the 71st Ohio developed in 1862 valid, or do we need to rethink their status?