A Buckeye Coward at Perryville

The Fiftieth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment did not start under the most auspicious circumstances. The regiment should have been formed in the fall of 1861, but the first appointed commander of the regiment, Michael C. Ryan, died of illness on October 23rd, and the regiment did not complete its organization at that time (see a brief bio on Clarkson HERE). Instead the regiment would be mustered into service nearly a year later on August 27th, 1862, and under command of Colonel Jonah R. Taylor.


Bishop John B. Purcell

Colonel Taylor is a bit of a mystery. Born in Cincinnati on April 10th, 1819, he would marry Elizabeth Ann Ward (also a Cincinnati native) in Hamilton County on June 28th, 1842, the nuptials being presided over by John B. Purcell, the noted Irish born Bishop (and later Archbishop) of Cincinnati. However, one source indicates that Taylor would grow to manhood in Miami County, Ohio, which would indicate that his family had moved away from Cincinnati before Taylor reached his adult years. Either this move occurred after his marriage to Elizabeth, or they traveled to their home town for their wedding.


We have an idea of what Taylor looked like from a passport issued in 1872 (for what purpose is unknown). His physical appearance at the time was noted as thus: 6 feet, 2.25 inches tall with a high forehead and light blue eyes. He had a "roman" nose over a medium mouth and a broad chin, all on an oval face. His gray and thinning hair was offset to a degree by his healthy complexion.


He would be commissioned as colonel of the Fiftieth Ohio on August 23rd, 1862. The regiment was organized for three years at Camp Dennison, and just over a week later it was sent into northern Kentucky to bolster the defenses of Cincinnati. It was during this service that Taylor first showed signs that he might not be suited for command of a regiment. Thomas C. Thoburn, a second lieutenant serving in the Ninety-Ninth Ohio, recorded in his diary the following episode:


In the afternoon the long roll was beat. That implied that the enemy was near at hand. We were ordered to fall in at once and we stood in line of battle for over an hour. Some amusing things happened in this connection. Colonel Taylor of the 50th was terribly excited, and galloped along the line ordering sick and everybody else into line, saying 'Get a gun or if you have not got a gun, take a club,' evidently thinking the entire issue of the war would be decided there and then.


While we were standing in line of battle, this same man Taylor, saw quite a large squad of men coming down the hill on the opposite side of the [Licking] river. There was a battery to our right and rear on a hill. He told one of his orderlies to go with a message to the battery, which was delivered to the orderly in these words: 'Give them a shot anyway, they don't wear the same kind of clothes as we do.' The party proved to be citizens of Cincinnati, who had been at work on the line of fortifications . . . a shot was fired, but the gunners were careful not to shoot near enough to hurt anyone. Some man wearing our 'kind of clothes' galloped into camp saying, 'Don't shoot, those men have been over there at work on the fortifications.'


Of this same episode Peter Clark, who wrote the history of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, would pen:


General Wallace, having first ordered their impressment for a work in which they would have proudly volunteered, next placed them far in advance of the Union lines with nothing but spades in their hands, this, too, at a time when an attack was momentarily expected. So far in advance were they, that they were once mistaken for the enemy; and if the officers serving under Colonel J. R. Taylor, of the 50th Ohio, had not possessed more courage and prudence than their commander, serious consequences would have ensued. If Colonel Taylor did not obtain one of Governor Tod's squirrel-hunting medals, he should apply for one, and wear it, as a perpetual reminder that his prowess is terrible to squirrels only.


Yet, even though the good colonel had shown poor judgment, he would take the regiment to Louisville where they would be assigned to the 34th Brigade (George P. Webster), Tenth Division (Lovell Rousseau), I Corps (Alexander McCook). Leaving Louisville on October 1st, the regiment would march towards Bardstown, suffering from the heat and lack of water. They would arrive at Mackville on October 7th, and depart that village early in the morning of the 8th. Marching along the winding and hilly road towards Perryville they could hear in the distance the booming of artillery from the fighting that was taking place on Peters Hill. By noon the brigade would deploy just east of the Dixville Crossroads, with the Fiftieth in formation north of the Dixville (or Benton) Road. At 1:45 the regiment would advance due east, forming on a hill position northwest of the Widow Gibson house and now south of the road. They would hold this line for a few hours while the fighting took place further to the east.

The Fiftieth's second position circled in orange.

The lieutenant colonel of the Fiftieth, Silas A. Strickland, would note:


At 3 p.m. Colonel Webster commanded Colonel Taylor to change position to the left, about a regiment and a half distance, on the crest of the hill, to support the same battery at this point. Finding myself the ranking officer present of the regiment, I assumed command and ordered it to the front and commenced firing to resist the enemy, who was closely and rapidly marching on us.

Looking north across the Widow Gibson farm. The Fiftieth would have been to the left along the high ground.

Apparently these new boys of the Fiftieth also had a difficult time telling friend from foe, as Lieutenant G. W. Landrum, serving as a signal officer on Rousseau's staff, would write:


I saw one Regiment (a new one), I could not find out where it is from or its number, deliver its fire into another of our Regiments, and then turned and fled....


The regiment the Fiftieth fired into was most likely either the Twenty-Fourth Illinois who was in a position to the Fiftieth's front, or the Ninety-Fourth Ohio who had moved across the Fiftieth's front about 2:30 p. m. Landrum would go on to add:


....Colonel J.R. Taylor, of Cincinnati, of the [50th Ohio], did not wait to be fired into, but deserted his men and then they fled. Many of them, however, rallied again and joined other Regiments in companies and fought well. Colonel [Leonard] Harris met Taylor afterward [and] asked him where his Regiment was. He replied: “All cut to pieces.” Harris said, “You are a damned liar! Some of your men are now fighting. Go join them immediately.” Taylor said his back was too sore.


As if this testimony was damning enough, Percival P. Oldershaw, who was assistant adjutant general and chief of staff for the Tenth Division, would write:


Some failed, and among them I regret to report Colonel J.R. Taylor, of the Fiftieth Ohio. He, though on the field and in sight of his men, was of no service to them. The first position that I saw him in was lying on his face, crouching behind a stump, and twice subsequently I saw him far to the rear of his regiment, while his men were in line of battle, apparently trying to rally some half a dozen stragglers.


The men in the ranks also noted Taylor's performance. Erastus Winters, a corporal in Company K, mentioned Taylor in a letter written on October 11th to his family:


I did not get a scratch although the balls flew thick and fast around me. Our Colonel run and we do not know where he is but we stood our ground, but as I will write soon again I close for the present.


Jonah R. Taylor would be allowed to resign his commission on October 16th, 1862. By 1866 he must have been living in northern Kentucky as one of his daughters was born in Covington, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. According to the United States Census by 1880 Taylor and his family were living in Cook County, Illinois, with Jonah and his son William working as miners. In 1891 Taylor filed for a pension while living in Missouri. While his time with the Fiftieth was short and dishonorable, his pension was surprisingly approved.


Taylor would return to Cook County, and would pass away on November 7th, 1897. He, along with several of his family members, is buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery. So ends the story of a man who served just fifty-six days as the cowardly colonel of the Fiftieth Ohio Volunteers.

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