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Unfortunate sons: Edward Grosskopf and the 20th Ohio Battery.

On the 4th of June, 1863, Edward Grosskopf received his commission as captain of the 20th Ohio Independent Battery, then stationed outside of Murfreesboro with the Army of the Cumberland. Grosskopf replaced Captain Louis Smithnight, a pre-war Cleveland druggist who had originally recruited the 20th Battery. Smithnight had recently resigned due to disabilities incurred in on active duty.

Smithnight who was born in Saxony, emigrated to the Unites States in 1845. He intended for the 20th to be a German battery, organized from the Teutonic population of Cleveland, though when the battery was finally mustered into Federal service, only about half the complement were of Germanic descent.

Still, Grosskopf, who had lived in Dayton before the war, was an obvious choice: He was a Prussian émigré, born in that province in 1820. Educated in Danzig (now the Polish City of Gdansk) as a civil engineer, in 1839 he was drafted into the Prussian army, rising to brevet second lieutenant and serving in the Pioneer Corps.

In 1848, Grosskopf was working in Berlin, helping to construct the city’s gasworks, while still a reserve officer in the Prussian forces. When revolution blazed across Europe that year, however, Grosskopf found it impossible to remain on the sidelines. “I was in the fight, arrayed on the side of the citizens of Berlin. This act,” he continued, “broke all connection with the [Prussian] government.” It would soon cost him more than that: In September of 1849, the revolts crushed, the newly-wedded Grosskopf and his bride took a steamer to America.

Grosskopf worked several jobs in the United States, but his ardor for revolutionary socialism remained unquenched. In 1852 he and his wife moved to New Jersey to join a farming commune known as the North American Phalanx. The Phalanx was a utopian community organized along the principles of French philosopher Charles Fourier. Though Fourier died in 1837, his ideas gained traction; the Brook Farm in Massachusetts (where newspaperman Charles A. Dana and the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne were shareholders) was one such experiment. The New Jersey Phalanx was another, with Horace Greeley as an investor. Neither community thrived.

The Brook Farm lasted only five years, from 1841 to 1846; the New Jersey effort, founded in 1843, managed a bit longer. In 1856, however, after a disastrous fire and amid mounting debt, the Phalanx disbanded. Still interested in farming, Grosskopf moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where land was abundant. He arrived just in time for the troubles brewing there to explode into violence. Once there, he said, “[I] had to take the chances of that, so well known, frontier life.” He managed to hang on for five years.

In 1861, he moved again, this time to Dayton Ohio, “investing in property there.” With war, however, he left his wife to manage civilian affairs while he enlisted in the 8th Ohio battery. He rose from private to first sergeant, and then, in early 1862, secured a second lieutenancy in the 10th Ohio Battery. The 10th Battery arrived at Shiloh mere days after the famous battle, participating in the campaign against Corinth that spring.

Grosskopf, now a first lieutenant, was engaged with the battery in the Battles of Iuka and Corinth. In January of 1863, however, Grosskopf resigned. “Captain [Hamilton B.] White . . .” stated Grosskopf, “was not that class of officer I like to be connected with.” It is unclear why Grosskopf disliked White. Even though Grosskopf stated that the captain was later dismissed from the service, the service records reflect only that Captain White resigned on March 4, 1863.

Grosskopf did not remain a civilian for long. After returning to Dayton, he received a telegram calling him to join the Army of the Cumberland in Murfreesboro. General William S. Rosecrans needed engineering officers, and Grosskopf’s own training in that field apparently caught the general’s attention. After an examination by Brig. Gen. James St. Clair Morton, head of Rosecrans’s pioneer corps, Grosskopf was assigned as an “instructor of sapping and mining.”

Again, his time in that role was short-lived. With the departure of Capt. Smithnight, the 20th Battery needed a new commander. Commission in hand (backdated to take effect April 25, 1863; the date of Smithnight’s resignation) and after a second examination to confirm his artillery qualifications, Grosskopf joined the 20th Battery outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee in early June.

He found a battery in shambles. Smithnight was apparently a better druggist than soldier; nor were the other officers efficient or effective. “This battery was in a wretched condition,” Grosskopf noted. “Though it had good, very good fighting material, . . . the commissioned officers did not understand their position or duties.”

The 20th Ohio Battery’s short historical sketch, found in Whitelaw Reid’s Ohio in the War, noted that Grosskopf’s “appointment made, as it was, outside the battery, created considerable disappointment and ill-feeling among its old officers, and led eventually to the resignations of Lieutenants [Francis O.] Robbins and [Mathias] Adams with their effective dates backdated to April and May of 1863.

The 20th was assigned to Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnston’s Second Division of the 20th Corps. Brig. Gen. August Willich commanded the First Brigade in Johnson’s command. Despite being a fellow Prussian, soldier, and revolutionary, Willich showed no favoritism; once exasperatedly chiding Grosskopf for being so slow on the march that “he [Willich] could [ride] ahead and plant rows of corn and potatoes,” which would be ready to harvest by the time the battery caught up.

Grosskopf led his new command into combat for the first time just three weeks later, at Liberty Gap on June 24. He was engaged that day and the next, where he and his men were complimented for “good shooting.” Combat apparently exposed further flaws, however, for Grosskopf noted that he had to place two of his officers “under arrest and prefer charges.” Both men, “First Lieutenant Henry Roth and Second Lieutenant Oscar W. Hancock” were subsequently dismissed “by court-martial.”

At Chickamauga, Grosskopf again led the battery into action, handicapped by the lack of officers. Still in Johnson’s division, Grosskopf was tasked with supporting Col. Joseph B. Dodge’s Second Brigade. On September 19, Dodge’s regiments went into the fight amidst heavy timber north of Brock Field. Trailing the brigade, Grosskopf’s opportunities to engage were limited. Early in the afternoon he attempted to open fire against elements of Confederate Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s division. In the words of the battlefield historical commission’s war department tablet: “endangering the Union lines it was ordered to the rear.”

Grosskopf took up several more positions, but the nature of the terrain prevented him from engaging. After dark, when Johnson’s division retreated into Kelly Field, the 20th Battery nearly suffered disaster, coming under a crossfire in the retreat; losing one man and several horses wounded.

September 20 proved no more satisfying. Stationed in the rear of the division, out in Kelly Field, Grosskopf and the 20th were able to engage the Confederates of John C. Breckinridge’s division as it broke through the Federal left, at the north end of the Kelly farmstead. Again, their fire was delivered at long range, over the heads of fellow Federals rushing to repulse Breckinridge, and they likely did as much damage to Union men as they did Rebels. Shortly thereafter, Grosskopf reported that he was ordered by “a staff officer” to move farther to the right. This move put the unfortunate captain and his battery into the area of Poe Field, just in time to get caught up in the rout of the Union right triggered by the Rebel breakthrough at Brotherton Field. The 20th was swept off the field.

Separated from the division, Grosskopf took up a position defending one of the gaps in Missionary Ridge, until finally ordered back to Rossville by Col. James Barnett, the Army of the Cumberland’s chief of artillery. There Grosskopf was reunited with what was left of Dodge’s brigade, which had taken a fearful pounding.

Captain Peter Simonsen, the divisional artillery chief, damned Grosskopf with very faint praise, reporting only that “Captain Grosskopf did not do much. Saturday night he fired a few rounds, which endangered our own troops, and he was stopped. Sunday, he early disappeared from the field, and I can give no additional information than that afforded by his report.”

On 20 October 1863, Grosskopf was relieved, temporarily replaced by Lieutenant John Otto of the 11th Indiana Battery. Otto noted that, though the 20th Ohio battery was “a splendid organization,” he further observed that its “officers . . . were jealous of each other and intrigued against each other, which proved very disastrous to the welfare of the battery. On the Chickamauga campaign [Grosskopf] had every officer under arrest, a time when there should have been only harmony and unity between them. At the battle . . . having to see to every detail and having to manage the whole battery by himself, without any help, this officer became so excited that he did not know what to do, and was therefore requested to resign.” Otto soon experienced Grosskopf’s troubles first-hand, when “after being in charge of the battery a few days [I] was apprised of the fact that the same old trickery and conspiracy was to be enacted against [me].” Otto quelled the trouble by pointing to his own two years of service in the 11th, as well as noting that his was only a temporary assignment; once a permanent commander was found he would return to the 11th. “This helped, [and] from that time everything went well.”

Thus, a month after Chickamauga, Grosskopf parted ways with the 20th Ohio, but they would meet again. Grosskopf returned to engineering duties, helping to fortify Chattanooga under the direction of Maj. Ben. William F. “Baldy” Smith (who replaced James St. Clair Morton.) Later that fall Grosskopf was appointed Major in the newly raised 9th United States Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment, then being raised at Clarksville and Nashville.

Grosskopf served in the 9th for the next year, with the war seemingly far away, until, in November, 1864, Confederate General John B. Hood invaded Tennessee. The 20th Ohio Battery was engaged at the Battle of Franklin, losing its only commissioned officer; when the Federals fell back to Nashville, Grosskopf was asked to take command of the battery as well as the four companies of his own 9th USCHA then present. Grosskopf’s command was further swelled by the 21st Indiana Battery and detachments from the 110th and 111th USCT infantry regiments. They remained as a garrison force for the city of Nashville, and suffered no losses during the battle of December 15 and 16, 1864.

Despite Grosskopf’s excellent military training, as well as his professional and revolutionary experience, his Civil War service was clearly difficult. Perhaps his European training led him to dislike and disparage the civilians in uniform with which he served. Clearly, he held low opinions of Captains Smithnight and White. It is equally clear that his immediate superior, Simonsen, was unimpressed with his performance. The fact that Grosskopf served in no less than three different units over the course of the war suggests that he had trouble both in inspiring men and in accepting authority he viewed as incompetent.


John Theodor Edward Grosskopf service history, RG M1064, Letters Received, Commission Branch, U.S. Adjutant General's office. NARA

John Otto, History of the 11th Indiana Battery,

J.T.E. Grosskopf Report of actions at Chickamauga, RG 94, Thomas Papers, NARA

Whitelaw Reid, Ohio in the War, Vol. 2, pp. 878-879.

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