"Calibre .54!" Sherman on Orion P. Howe
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Thirteen is the age that you could say that I really became enamored with the history of the Civil War, and the people who experienced it. That year, when I was in 7th grade, I began to read every book in my school's library that had anything to do with the Civil War. I mostly stuck with historical fiction, as those got me the Accelerated Reader points I was required to have every nine weeks. I read just about every book written by G. Clifton Wisler, including one on the 2nd Texas at Shiloh, a drummer boy from Vermont during the Peninsula Campaign, and Red Cap, the story of a drummer boy at Andersonville. In the spring of 2001, I picked up The Drummer Boy of Vicksburg. This book chronicled the heroic efforts of Orion P. Howe, a drummer in the 55th Illinois during the Vicksburg Campaign. I remember exactly when I read this book because it is the book that distracted my dad while he took me to a cheap barber to save a few bucks. Said barber ended up shaving my whole head except my bangs while my dad read about Orion Howe. You can imagine how thirteen year old me felt walking into school the next day. Due to the distraction caused by Howe's exploits, I at least got The Patriot on VHS out of the tragedy, which I promptly wore out over the years. It is funny that an event like this, which I laugh about now and always tell my 8th grade students, can lead me to write a blog post on the very person in that book. Recently I read, Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865 by Steven Woodworth, and the story of Howe made it into that amazing study. The book I read so long ago immediately came to mind, and now here we are.
Orion P. Howe
Born in Ohio in 1848, Orion P. Howe and his family moved to Illinois in the 1850's. His mother, Eliza, passed in 1852 and his father, William, remarried two years later. His second wife passed away shortly after their marriage, and he married once again. William moved the family to Illinois some time in the 1850's where they eventually settled in Waukegan. The elder Howe, a veteran of the Mexican War, enlisted his two young sons, Orion and Lyston, as musicians in the 55th Illinois while he served as the regiment's chief musician.
During the assaults on Vicksburg's defenses, the 55th Illinois found themselves in an unenviable position in front of the Confederate works. Colonel Malmborg's men were in desperate need of cartridges and Howe, along with a few others, volunteered to run the gauntlet that was the ground between the lines. In the 1932 book, Sherman: Fighting Prophet, a member of the regiment is quoted as describing the event as follows:
"We could see him nearly all the way…he ran through what seemed a hailstorm of canister and musket-balls, each throwing up its little puff of dust when it struck the dry hillside. Suddenly he dropped and hearts sank, but he had only tripped. Often he stumbled, sometimes he fell prostrate, but was quickly up again and he finally disappeared from us, limping over the summit and the 55th saw him no more for several months."
Howe, though wounded by a bullet that luckily went clean through without striking any bones, made a full recovery and returned to the regiment. In November 1864, Howe was discharged, after having attained the rank of corporal. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1896. His citation reads:
"The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Musician Orion Perseus Howe, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 19 May 1863, while serving with Company C, 55th Illinois Infantry, in action at Vicksburg, Mississippi. A drummer boy, 13 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, Orion Howe persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to General W. T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg."
Headquarters 15th Army Corps
Camp on Big Black Aug. 18th, 1863
Honorable E.M. Stanton
Secretary of War
I take the liberty of asking through you that something be done for a young lad named Orion P. Howe of Waukegan, Illinois who belonged to the 55th Illinois Inf. at present absent at his home wounded. I think he is too young for West Point, but would be the very thing for a midshipman.
When the assault at Vicksburg was at its height, on the 19th of May, and I was in front near the road, which formed my line of attack, this young lad came up to me, wounded and bleeding, with a good, healthy boy's cry, "General Sherman, send some cartridges to Col. Malmborg, the men are nearly all out." "What is the matter, my boy?" "They shot me in the leg, sir; but I can go to the hospital. Send the cartridges right away." Even where we stood the shot fell thick, and I told him to go to the rear at once, I would attend to the cartridges, and off he limped. Just before he disappeared on the hill, he turned and called as loud as he could, "Calibre .54." have not seen the lad since, and his colonel (Malmborg) on inquiry, gives me his address as above, and says he is a bright, intelligent boy, with a fair preliminary education.
*Note: The 55th Illinois did not have weapons that used .54 caliber bullets, so it is a good thing that Sherman did not order .54 caliber cartridges to be ordered up to them.
What arrested my attention then was--and what renewed my memory of the fact now--is that one so young, carrying a musket ball through his leg, should have found his way to me on that fatal spot, and delivered his message, not forgetting the very important part, even, of the calibre of his musket, .54, which you know is an unusual one.
I'll warrant that the boy has in him the elements of a man, and I commend him to the Government as one worthy the fostering care of some one of its national institutions.
I am, with respect, your obedient servant.
Major General Commanding.
The following is a poem recounting Howe's deeds in the Streator Free Press, 1909.
Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2023. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.