Private William Surles of the 2nd Ohio Infantry: Medal of Honor Recipient
William H. Surles was born in Steubenville, Ohio on February 24, 1845. He was the son of John Vandergraft and Emily Hukill Surles. His father was a shoe merchant in Steubenville, Ohio. William spent his youth in Steubenville and attended the local school and was a cabin boy on the steamer Poland, which was a boat that ran from Cincinnati to Nashville, Tennessee. His brother Harry (Henry) who was born in April of 1842 also worked on the same ship. The last trip of the vessel was in 1861, just after Tennessee had seceded from the Union, and the passengers and sailors were greeted at the Nashville wharf by with a great show of enthusiasm from the Confederate leaders. William and his brother witnessed the Confederate leaders hoist the Confederate flag from the dome of the Nashville State House. The vessel had some difficulty leaving the Nashville wharf, because the Confederacy wanted to use the vessel for their purposes. When Poland left the wharf, William and Harry continued down the Cumberland River. Harry (Henry) and William managed to make their way back to Steubenville. When they arrived back home both brothers enlisted in the Union army. At the young age of sixteen, William enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Infantry, Company G. His brother also decided to join the Union army. In April of 1861, his brother Harry (Henry) H. Surles joined the 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry for three month service. When the three month service expired, he re-enlisted in Company H, of the 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Cincinnati, Ohio for three years. Harry would fight in the battles of Winchester, Port Republic, Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, where he would receive a wound to his chin. Alexander Surles, another brother of William, joined the same regiment as his brother William. The Official Roster for the 5th Ohio Infantry misspelled Alexander last name as Searles.[i]
On September 5, 1861, William enlisted as a private in Company G, 2nd Ohio Infantry, commanded by Colonel Leonard Harris, under the brigade of General William Nelson. The regiment was organized at Camp Dennison in Columbus from July 17 to September 20, 1861. On October 23, 1861, the regiment’s first engagement was at West Liberty, Kentucky. Anson McCook, of the famous fighting McCook family, was from Steubenville and was a major of the regiment. The 2nd Ohio was attached to the Army of the Cumberland.
Through much of the summer of 1862, the 2nd Ohio guarded the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. In August the 2nd Ohio marched to Louisville and the Army of the Ohio was reorganized with Colonel Leonard Harris commanding the Ninth Brigade and the 2nd Ohio Infantry commanded by Lt. Colonel John Kell. On October 1, the 2nd Ohio, along with the rest of the Union Army of the Ohio, marched out of Louisville and arrived in Mackville, Kentucky. The next morning, at daybreak, the 2nd Ohio marched for Perryville, which was about twelve miles away. On October 8, 1862, Colonel Leonard Harris, with the 9th Brigade, which was comprised of the 38th Indiana, 33rd Ohio, 94th Ohio, 10th Wisconsin, 2nd Ohio, and Captain Peter Simonson’s 5th Indiana Battery, arrived on the field and Harris placed his brigade on the right center and on the left of the 17th brigade, under Colonel William H. Lytle. Harris placed Simonson’s guns on the right, where Captain Cyrus Loomis 1st Michigan Light Artillery was engaged and the 10th Wisconsin was ordered to support the battery. The 33rd Ohio was on the left with skirmishers advancing into the woods. Harris placed the 2nd Ohio and 38th Indiana in the center, with the 94th Ohio as a reserve. General Alexander McCook, commander of the 1st Corps, ordered the 38th Indiana in the rear of Simonson’s guns, since Loomis had withdrawn. Two Confederate batteries and a heavy Confederate infantry force advanced on Simonson’s battery. By this point, Simonson lost sixteen horses and fourteen men killed and wounded. Major Cotter, chief of artillery, ordered the battery to retire. Harris ordered the 38th Indiana to take a position where the battery had been located. The Confederates, under General Daniel Donelson’s brigade advanced on the 33rd and 2nd Ohio, but were pushed back. The Confederates under Donelson advanced again, but were driven back. For a third time the Confederates, under General Alexander P. Stewart brigade, along with what was left of Donelson’s brigade, advanced. The 94th Ohio was ordered to support the line and took a position between Colonel John Starkweather’s brigade and Harris’s brigade. The 2nd Ohio and 33rd Ohio were engaged with the Confederates, who were trying to break the center of their lines. During the engagement, Lieutenant Colonel O. F. Moore, of the 33rd Ohio, was wounded. The 10th Wisconsin ran out of ammunition and was forced to retire. When the 10th Wisconsin withdrew, a two hundred yard gap opened up on the left of the 38th Indiana Infantry. In the meantime, the 15th Kentucky and the 3rd Ohio, which were on the extreme right, fell back under the Confederate assault. The 38th Indiana ran out of ammunition and was forced to fall back.[ii] Colonel Harris had not even fallen back one hundred yards, when a column of Confederate infantry fired on the left of the 10th Ohio and Harris’s retiring columns of infantry. Harris retired to the woods in the center of a corn field. The 33rd Ohio managed to refill their cartridges. The 10th Ohio arrived and took a position on the left of the 33rd Ohio Infantry. The 2nd Ohio was engaged with the Confederates on Harris’s left and was falling back.[iii]
When the 2nd Ohio Infantry fell back, Private Surles wrote that the 2nd Ohio “was forced to fall back by the overwhelming number of the enemy but soon rallied on the crest of a wooded ridge, which position we held until the battle was over and the rebels had flown. During the retreat, Colonel McCook’s horse was shot under him. Grasping a musket from the hand of a dead soldier, he fought on foot and by his gallant example cheered the drooping spirits of his men. The ground we traversed was thickly strewn with the dead and wounded of our own army and presented a ghastly picture. We observed with horror that the enemy, with the cruelty of barbarians, were plunging their bayonets, into the prostrate forms of our comrades. Colonel McCook halted, fired his musket, and dropped the fellow before he could accomplish his dastardly deed. The death of the rebel made his companions more furious and a Confederate soldier, a veritable giant in appearance, sprang from behind a tree close by and took deliberate aim at the officer. I had seen this man’s movement and quickly realized the great danger of my beloved commander. How I wished I could, with a well-directed shot, end this rebel’s life but like the colonel himself, I had just fired my gun and did not have time to reload. My blood almost froze in my veins as I saw the rebel raise his musket and take aim at our brave leader. On the impulse of the moment and moved by the love and admiration I felt toward our commander, I sprang directly in front of Colonel McCook to shield him if possible from certain death that was coming. Happily the rebel giant was too slow in firing or delayed in order to make sure of his shot, and before he pulled the trigger, he himself was shot through the head by one of our regiment near at hand. All this happened while shot and shell were flying around us like hail, and within far less time than it takes to tell it. I should not forget to mention the conclusion of the episode for it made me the happiest solider in the regiment and has ever been one of the happiest moments of my life. When Colonel McCook saw the rebel giant fall, he grasped me in his arms and with tears in his eyes and voice husky with emotion kissed me as a father would a son. I suppose the face that I, at that time, was a mere boy, weighting less than 100 pounds and of almost girlish appearance, while this rebel was such a big, burly man, made the incident a trifle more prominent than it otherwise would have been.”[iv] Once the 2nd and 33rd Ohio, the 38th Indiana, and the 10th Wisconsin were supplied with ammunition, Harris formed them into line to cover the retreat of the 33rd Ohio and 10th Ohio and a portion of Colonel George Webster’s brigade, which were engaged with the enemy. Harris ordered his brigade to fall back one hundred yards and added the 50th Ohio and camped for the night. When the brigade entered the field of battle, they had 2,250 men, including Simonson’s battery. By the end of the battle, the brigade lost 593 men. The 2nd Ohio had 460 men enter the battle and by the end of the day, they lost two commissioned officers killed and three commissioned officers wounded, twenty-five non-commissioned officer killed and seventy-seven non-commissioned officers wounded, and thirty men missing. The regiment lost forty percent of their command.
For Surles act of bravery at Perryville, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The citation reads: “In the hottest part of the fire he stepped in front of his colonel to shield him from enemy’s fire.” Amazingly, Surles had to wait twenty-nine years to find out that he had been awarded the medal. On August 20, 1891, Surles received the medal by registered mail, along with an accompanying letter from the War Department, which was dated on August 19, 1891. The letter was signed by Major F. C. Amsworth and stated: I have the honor to inform you that I have this day forwarded to you by registered mail a Medal of Honor awarded to you by the Secretary of War for distinguished bravery at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, October 8, 1862, under the provisions of the act of Congress approved March 3, 1863. Surles had no idea he had been awarded the medal.[v] On April 16, 1916, Congress passed a law providing for creation of a “Medal of Honor Roll” which listed honorable discharged medal recipients who earned the award in combat and who had attained the age of sixty-five. They were to receive special pensions of ten dollars per year for life. Surles received a special certificate under the new law, reciting his military record and the deed for which he received the medal.[vi]
After the battle of Perryville, the regiment fought in the battle of Stone’s River, Tennessee. During the engagement the 2nd Ohio, in conjunction with Guenther’s Battery H, 4th Artillery, captured the flag of the 30th Arkansas Infantry. After the battle, Colonel Anson McCook sent the flag back home to Steubenville. Eventually the flag ended up in the Old State House museum.
On September 20, 1863, at the battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, William and his brother Alexander were fighting side by side, when Alexander was mortally wounded and died on the battlefield. William was forced to abandon his brother’s body on the battlefield, because the 2nd Ohio was forced to retreat back to Chattanooga, Tennessee. During the battle, William was captured while acting as an orderly. There are varying accounts as to how Surles saved the brigade flag from capture, but according to Surles’s obituary, William and several other Union prisoners were held in a hayloft on the second floor of a barn. Surles and his companions saw their brigade’s flag standing against a stable wall. They used an implement to hook the flag up into the hayloft and Surles removed the flag from the staff and concealed the flag in his blouse. He, along with his companions, escaped with the flag and managed to make their way back to Union lines.[vii] When he returned the flag to the brigade commander, General William Carlin, there was rejoicing among Carlin’s men, because the brigade commander thought the flag had been captured by the Confederates.[viii] According to J. Warren Keifer of the 2nd Ohio Infantry, during a 26th Annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 1892, he showed the crowd Surles’s belt buckle that he wore at the battle of Chickamauga. In the belt buckle was a Confederate bullet sticking out of the buckle. Surles was saved by the buckle.[ix]
On November 25, 1863, at the battle of Missionary Ridge, while acting as orderly, William penetrated the Confederate line and captured and brought in the colonel of the 38th Alabama Infantry, who had been detached from his men. After the battle, William sent home the Confederate sword of his captured Confederate colonel. Forty years later, Surles found the Rebel officer, under the name of A. M. Wing, and returned the sword to him. After the battles of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, Harry Surles found his brother William Surles and the two brothers made a sad journey to the Chickamauga battlefield to look for Alex’s body. They were able to identify their brother’s skeletal remains because he was wearing a shirt that had been made by their mother.[x]
Colonel McCook took a deep interest in the boy soldier and on January 20, 1864, while camped at Chattanooga, he wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:
Sir: I have the honor to make application for the appointment of the United States Military Academy of Private William H. Surles, Company G of my regiment, and to call your attention to the favorable endorsement of Brigadier General Carlin, commanding the brigade, Major General Palmer, commanding the Fourteenth Army Corps and Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland.
Private Surles has served faithfully with his regiment since its organization in 1861, and has at all times and under all circumstances, acquitted himself creditably. He has been in the activities of Ivy Mountain, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Murfreesboro, Stone River, Hoover’s Gap, Chickamauga (where his brother fell at his side), Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, particularly distinguishing himself at the latter place by his coolness and courage and at Perryville, where he placed himself between the writer and a Confederate rifleman who was about to fire when killed himself. Private Surles is now only nineteen years of age, is intelligent, vigorous and manly, just the kind of a boy with the proper military education to make an accomplished professional soldier. I make the application because I know his worth and because I feel that his is much better qualified in every particular than a boy taken from civilian life. Should this appointment be made, I feel confident he will never disgrace the position.
I have the honor to be Respectfully yours A. G. McCook Col. Second Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
From present knowledge of this young soldier I very cordially recommend his application
William Carlin, Brig. Gen. Commanding
I respectfully concur in the recommendation of Gen. Carlin. This young man has proven on the field that he possesses bravery and fidelity to duty, the highest qualities of a soldier.
John Palmer Maj. General commanding
Respectfully forwarded and recommended
Gen. George H. Thomas, Major General U.S.A. Commanding Department.
The letter was forwarded by mail on January 24, 1864. The appointment to the United States Military Academy was never made, because the order was lost for a number of years. The letter was captured by Confederate General Joseph Wheeler. After the War, the letter was returned to the War Department. The letter was finally forwarded to William Surles from the Department of War years later and remained one of his prized possessions.[xi]
After the battle of Chickamauga, the 2nd Ohio Infantry would participate in the Atlanta Campaign and fought in the Battle of Resaca, Pickett’s Mill, Kennesaw Mountain, and Peachtree Creek. On October 10, 1864, the three year enlistment service of the 2nd Ohio Infantry had expired and Surles was honorably discharged along with the regiment at Camp Chase, Ohio. His discharge papers which were filed at the courthouse in Lisbon, showed he was twenty-one and stood five foot, four inches tall. He had a fair complexion, grey eyes, and light hair. The age on the document was wrong. He was only nineteen when he was discharged. After the war, William returned to Steubenville.
On September 9, 1867, he married in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Sarah J. Allen, daughter of Captain Joseph and Rebecca (Lyons) Allen and a maternal descendant of Captain Sisley, an officer of the American Revolution. He attended school for one year. William and Sarah lived in Pennsylvania, until 1871, when he moved to East Liverpool, Ohio. He married and had one son: Charles F. Surles, who was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania on September 22, 1868, a daughter Ada who was born on December 21, 1872, who married James S. Rheinhart. He also had several grandchildren: Lt. Allen Surles, who served as a lieutenant in World War I, in Company E of 135th Machinegun Battalion, of the 37th Infantry Division. He received the Belgian War Cross for gallantry for his actions in France. His other grandchildren were: Richard Surles, Grace Surles, Mrs. Nessly Poter, and Miss Natalie Rhinehart. While in East Liverpool, he was engaged in contracting and in the brick laying business. His brother Harry, who completed his three year enlistment, also returned to Ohio and joined his brother William in the brick laying business. Another brother, George C., also joined the business. The name of the brick laying business was changed to Surles Brothers. In 1876, Harry lost his right arm in an accident in the brick yard and quit the brick laying business and was engaged in the insurance business. In 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Harry as postmaster for eight years. Harry died in 1888, at the age of 46. George died in 1901. William later sold his brick laying business and began a new career in the retail coal business. He retired from the coal business, when in 1898, President William McKinley appointed him postmaster of East Liverpool. He held the office under Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, when he retired. He helped to secure a new post office building on Broadway and Fifth in East Liverpool and personally supervised the construction of the building.
Surles was an active member in the Grand Army of the Republic and was honored by his comrades with repeated election to posts. In 1916, he was elected commander of the Department of the Ohio, the highest State office the Grand Army of the Republic can give. He was commander of the General Lyon Post, 1886, junior vice commander of the Department of the Ohio, Grand Army of the Republic, 1893, chief mustering officer, Ohio, GAR, 1894, department inspector, GAR 1895, delegate of the National Encampment, San Francisco, 1896, president of the Union Veterans Patriotic League of East Liverpool 1897, commander of the Ohio Department GAR 1916. On March 19, 1919, he died in East Liverpool and is buried in the Riverview Cemetery.
[i] William Richard Cutter, American Biography: A New Cyclopedia, Volume 11, published under the direction of the American historical Society, 1922, 240. [ii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Report of Col. Leonard A. Harris, 2nd Ohio Infantry, commanding Ninth Brigade, 1048-1049. [iii] Ibid. [iv] William B. McCord, History of Columbiana County, Ohio and Representative Citizens, Biographical Publishing Company, 1905, 460. [v] Robert Popp, The Evening Review, Beyond Duty’s Call, East Liverpool, Ohio, October 3, 1970, 10. [vi] Ibid. [vii] Ibid. [viii] J. W. Jones, The Story of American Heroism: Thrilling Narratives of Personal Adventures During the Great Civil War As Told By The Medal Winners and Roll of Honor Men, Werner Company, Springfield, Ohio, 1895, 181. [ix] Ibid. [x] In Hills and Kilns: A Newsletter of the East Liverpool Society, March 2011 Vol. XXX No. 1, www.eastliverpoolhistoricalsociety.org/Surlsbrothers. [xi] William B. McCord, History of Columbiana County, Ohio and Representative Citizens, Biographical Publishing Company, 1905, 460. 461; Letter was captured, Why W. H. Surles, Ohio Color Bearer, Didn’t Go To West Point, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 8, 1898, 3