“Use Canister, Aim Low And Give Then Hell!” The Eleventh Ohio Independent Battery. Part One.
by Phil Spaugy
Approaching Iuka, Mississippi from the southwest as part of Major General William Rosecrans’ “Army off the Mississippi” column advancing on Confederate Major General Sterling Prices “Army of the West, September 19th, 1862 had already been a long day for 30-year-old Lieutenant Cyrus Sears and his Eleventh Ohio Independent Battery. Much of the afternoon of the advance had been slowed by the presence of Confederate skirmishers who increased their resistance as the Federal column drew closer to Iuka. As the firing increased, Sears and his battery were ordered to advance up Jacinto Road to the top of a small hill. When they reached the crest, the Eleventh was “to form in battery and to await further orders.” No sooner had the six guns of the Eleventh reached the top of the hill and started to move into battery, they were met with a terrific small arms and artillery fire from the “Johnnies” positioned in a ravine immediately below their intended position. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, these first volleys of small arms fire were high, and as the battery settled into its position, the firing seemed to subside a bit.The lull in the action was short-lived, as a long line of butternut infantry belonging to Brigadier General Lewis Henry Little’s division of Major General Sterling Price’s “Army of the West” charged out of the wooded ravine and made straight up the hill for the guns of the Eleventh, which by this time had been supported on their immediate right flank by the 5th Iowa and on the left by the 48th Indiana.
Watching this advance with great interest was Lieutenant Sears, who calmly sat his horse behind his battery awaiting orders which would never come. Finally, with the enemy advancing well within easy canister range (200 yards) and lending an ear to the nervous exclamations and curses of his men to commence firing, he rose in his stirrups, shouting, “With canister, load, aim low and give them hell as fast as you can!” And for 30 minutes or so, “buckeye” hell reigned supreme, as the “Johnnies” tried repeatedly to gain the rise and take the exposed battery. The terrific volume of canister fire to the battery’s immediate front had the effect of forcing the Confederate advance to move right and left in an attempt to outflank the guns. This movement, in conjunction with the advance of the other southern infantry units of Little’s Division, caused both the 48th Indiana and the 5th Iowa to fall back, leaving the guns of the Eleventh alone and exposed to a maelstrom of small arms fire on the hill. With darkness rapidly falling, the action around the guns became a primal melee of bayonets, musket butts, hand-spikes, sponge staffs and fists. Or, as Sears would later write:
“Before the end it became clear that the position of the guns of this battery had become so much the bone of contention in that fight, that everything else, both flags, the Union and the Confederacy, and even the ‘damned nigger’ were forgotten in that all-absorbing, hand-spike and ramrod, rough-and-tumble, devil-take-the-hindmost fight for those six guns.”
Lieutenant Sears (who would be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1892 for his leadership that day) was soon felled by a musket ball through his right shoulder, or as he would later succinctly describe, “I was wounded and sent home for repairs.” But the scenes of the gallantry of his battery-men never left his mind. He would later relate the story of a young native of Wyandot County, John Ettles, who after being wounded by a musket ball through his chest exclaimed, “Well Lieutenant, I guess I got hell today, but I’m going to try to give them two or three rounds yet.” He died serving his gun. Private David W. Montgomery was in the process of pulling the lanyard when he was “throttled by a ‘Big Secesh'” who Montgomery subdued by drawing an unfired canister round from his haversack and bludgeoning him with it.
With Lieutenant Sears wounded and out of action, command of the battery fell upon young 2nd Lieutenant Henry Neil. Neil, 30 years old, descended from a notable family in Columbus, Ohio. A graduate of Harvard, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Eleventh in January of 1862. Now, on that dark, smokey hill-side, with his infantry support gone, surrounded on three sides, it was apparent that battery’s position could no longer hold. Lieutenant Neil, bloodied after being hit four times by either shell fragments or musket balls, ordered the few surviving battery-men to fall back to the infantry lines reforming to their rear. The victorious “Johnnies” finally gained control of the Eleventh’s position, along with the six guns of the battery which were then dragged northwards toward the town by their captors, the men of the 3rd Texas Dismounted Cavalry.
The casualties suffered by the Eleventh at Iuka on this September day were to be unequaled by any other light battery in the Federal or Confederate service during the war. In fact, the number killed and mortally wounded would equal, within one, the total killed in any light battery during its entire term of service! The battery went into the battle with 97 enlisted men and 5 officers; of that number 18 died at their guns, and 39 were wounded, many of whom would die later. A number of the wounded were bayoneted at their guns. Of the cannon crews alone, 46 out of the 54 men who served the guns were killed or wounded. Finally, the losses suffered by the Eleventh were 22 percent higher than any other light battery in any one engagement in the war. The loss in horseflesh and equipment was also staggering; 42 horses killed outright, and the remaining 42 were rendered unfit for further service. All of the horse team harnesses were gone, taken by the Rebs when they finally captured the battery.
Coming soon – Part two of this series on the Eleventh Ohio Battery
Cozzens, Peter. The Darkest Days of the War. The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. Chapel Hill NC, 1997
Fox, William. Regimental Losses in the Civil War. Dayton, Ohio, 1997
Neil, Henry M. A Battery at Close Quarters. Google Books.
Library of Congress, Chronicling of America, National Tribune
Library of Congress, Chronicling of America, Wyandot Pioneer