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“…tell my friends that I did my duty" - The 104th Ohio during the Siege of Cincinnati

Updated: Dec 29, 2023


Ormsby McKnight Mitchel

Named after Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, noted astronomer, West Point graduate, and Civil War general, Fort Mitchel was just one portion of the defenses of Cincinnati, consisting of works strung for miles across northern Kentucky. On September 10th, 1862, a skirmish took place south of Fort Mitchel that involved men from the newly formed 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and Confederates under the overall command of Henry Heth.


The 104th mustered into service on August 30th, 1862, as part of President Lincoln's call issued on July 1st for 300,000 additional volunteers to help put down the rebellion. Comprising of companies from Columbiana, Portage, Stark, and Summit counties in northeastern Ohio, the 104th was placed under command of Irish-born James W. Reilly of Wellsville (you may recognize Reilly's name - he was later a brigade commander at the Battle of Franklin). Rushed to Cincinnati due to the threat caused by Heth's advance towards the Queen City of the West, the 104th was just one of several regiments being rushed into service it what became known as the Siege of Cincinnati.


Fort Mitchel received the brunt of the probing by the Confederate force, which consisted of approximately 8,000 rebels from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Texas. Overlooking the Lexington Pike, the fort guarded the most direct route for an army to take traveling from Lexington to Covington. Fort Mitchel, along with a handful of battery positions, were all that were in place in September 1862. The map below shows the extensive defenses as they existed in 1864, but in 1862 there were many gaps in the line, with only a total of fifteen guns in place in those battery locations underlined in orange. In between the gaps were about 25,000 volunteers and 60,000 "squirrel hunters" pulled in from the southern portion of Ohio.

The defenses existing in September 1862 are underlined in orange

The Cincinnati Enquirer, dated September 11th, would mention:


The reader must imagine that the rebels were posted within five miles of Covington, their main force occupying the Covington and Lexington Pike, with wings extended upon each side, and their skirmishers thick in the intervening woods, while beyond innumerable tents were plainly visible. In the immediate neighborhood farm-houses deserted by their former happy occupants, will complete the picture of desolating war; while drawn up in stern battle array, out own gallant legion was calmly and patiently awaiting the onset of the foe, whose battalions are led by the Confederate Generals, Smith and Heath.


Harvey, the mascot of the 104th.

The 104th was stationed near Fort Mitchel, and companies A, B, C, D, and F were involved in skirmishes while companies H and I were on picket duty. According to the September 13th, 1862, Cincinnati Gazette, the 104th occupied the property of a local Southern sympathizer by the last name of Buckner (circled in green on the above map). Just south of the Buckner residence was a wooded area that spread over both sides of the road. It had been filled with Confederates rumored to be from Texas - these would have been men from Thomas H. McCray's brigade who were veterans of the Battle of Richmond. On September 9th, skirmishing began between the two forces. The 104th Ohio not only had to contend with the rebels in their front, but their small arms were a concern as well. One 104th man would remember "...I was more concerned in what...the Austrian musket might do to me. I probably would have fired on the enemy and permitted the recoil of the musket to land me in a new position out of enemy reach." The fighting between the companies of the 104th and the Texans reached its peak by the 11th. That afternoon would be the final action as heavy rains moved in and the Confederate forces withdrew to the south, occupying a position along Eagle Creek.


The history of the 104th Ohio had this to say about the regiment's experiences near Fort Mitchel:


September third, two days after crossing the river. we were moved to the south of Covington. at a new earthwork called Fort Mitchel, and immediately started out on the Lexington pike, where some of our new troops had been having a brush with the enemy. Here we met the 101st Ohio coming in on double quick. They had met the whole rebel army out beyond the woods, and had been all cut to pieces; which appeared likely, as many of them had thrown away hats, knapsacks, and guns, and they presented about as much the appearance of soldiers as a mob of school boys out for a holiday. It was no use to try to stop them: go into town they would, and did. Ordered to the double quick. we were making good time forward when a volley from the woods ahead brought us to a sudden halt. Company A, in the advance, lost one man killed and two wounded. Companies A, F, D, and I, in the advance, were immediately filed out to the left and right to be deployed as skirmishers. A ball whizzed over the heads of Company D, and every man dodged as if he expected to be hit. but never a man broke step out of the ninety greenhorns in line. The lieutenant called a halt, and stepping out in front of the column, swinging his sword aloft, shouted in thunder tones: "Men. you are in the presence of the enemy: the first man I see flinch, I'll cut off his head with my sword." The speech was characteristic of the man. Overpowered by his responsibility. he was determined that no man in his command should show the white feather. We were deployed, and advanced to the cover of a ravine. from which a desultory fire was kept up through the rest of the day, when we were marched back to Fort Mitchel, having covered ourselves all over with glory without the loss of a man except as before mentioned. Among those most conspicuous on this occasion I must not forget to mention the "squirrel hunters," who came to their country's rescue in the time of its dire necessity, and with a squirrel rifle in one hand and a pumpkin pie in the other. climbed the heights of Cincinnati to get just one chance at the rebel invaders assembled three miles on the other side of the Ohio. Next day an advance was made in force, but the terrible horde, which had come all the way from Tennessee to carry fire and sword through the trembling North, had vanished, the siege of Cincinnati was at an end, and the country breathd once more; and the invincible "squirrel hunters" retired to their firesides, followed by the plaudits of an admiring and grateful people.


On the Federal side the 104th Ohio suffered five casualties - one dead: Sergeant William Bleeks (Company A - shot through the heart while on picket duty and whose last words were “…tell my friends that I did my duty.”); and five wounded: Privates William Taylor (Company B - shot through the bowels and discharged in March, 1863), Henry Shantz (shot through the arm, with the ball entering his side), Alexander Lowery (Company G, and would lose his leg as a result of his wound), and John Randolph (Company F - shot through the chest and later transferred to the Invalid Corps). Sergeant Bleeks would initially be buried in Covington's Linden Grove Cemetery before his body was returned home to Wilmot, Ohio in Stark County.


No record of rebel casualties from the skirmishes has been located.


Lewis F. Becker, a twenty-seven year old private at the time of the siege, would later write in The National Tribune the following:


National colors of the 104th O. V. I.

Leaving for the front Sept. 2, we confronted Gen. Kirby Smith's army, then threatening Cincinnati, near Covington, Ky. At Fort Mitchel, on the 6th, in less than a week after bidding good-by to relatives and friends, William Bleaks, a Sergeant of Co. A, was killed. I believe this was the first and only life offered for the Union during the so-called siege of Cincinnati and Covington. Thousands of squirrel-hunters from the North, who had so generously come out, could return home singing "We" Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys," etc., while we turned out faces southward and sang "John Brown's Body" and "Tramp, Tramp," etc.


The 104th Regiment went on to participate in actions at Knoxville, Kennesaw Mountain, Utoy Creek, and the bloodbath at Franklin. They would move to the Carolinas in 1865, and muster out of service on July 17th, 1865. After the war the regiment's veterans would submit numerous articles to the National Tribune, mostly centered on their participation at Franklin.

 

Sources:

  • Cincinnati Gazette, September 13th, 1862

  • Cincinnati Enquirer, September 11th, 1862.

  • History of the 104th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry from 1862 to 1865. N. A. Pinney. Werner and Lohman. Akron. Ohio. 1886.

  • The National Tribune, May 26th, 1898.

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Jim Antell
Jim Antell
Sep 01, 2022

This was a nice read…thanks.

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Darryl R. Smith
Darryl R. Smith
Sep 28, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, Jim!

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