Wednesday, May 6, 2020

From Private To General -- Samuel Emerson Opdycke

Union General Samuel Emerson Opdycke
As for regular General officers in the Union Army during the Civil War, like the Confederate Army, there were many. As for "brevet" Generals, it's said they were dime a dozen during that war. In fact, there were hundreds of brevetted Generals in the Civil War on both sides. While many were for valor, that wasn't always the case.

For example, it's said that the majority of career senior officers did receive some form of brevet promotion within the final months of the Civil War. If that sounds strangely political, that's the other part of brevet promotions. Doling out brevet promotions as political paybacks was nothing new in that war, especially since doling out military officers commissions to political friends during the war was common place on both sides. So yes, in some cases, those promoted as a brevet General were done so just because they knew the right people. In those cases, it was about politics and money.

Of course one of the most famous "brevet" Generals is George Armstrong Custer. In any discussion of such promotions during the Civil War, Custer's name is usually mentioned. Custer was in fact seen as a practical joker, known as a "class clown" and "prankster," while attending West Point. He actually finished last in his class at West Point. 

But please, don't think that something like graduating last in your class will stop those destined to rise through the ranks. Fact is, even though that was the case, Custer did go from 2nd Lieutenant to brevet Brigadier General of the Michigan Calvary Brigade Volunteers within four years during the Civil War.

Then there's the story of Samuel Emerson Opdycke who went from mere Private to Major General during the Civil War. Yes, from the rank of Private to the rank of Major General. He was born on January 7, 1830, on a farm in Hubbard, Ohio. While his family were farmers, his father fought in the War of 1812 and his grandfather was an officer with the New Jersey Militia during the American Revolution. Young Samuel was educated in the Hubbard common schools.

He was in his late teens when the California Gold Rush took place, and he left Ohio for a few years to see if he too would strike it rich. By his mid-twenties, he was back in Ohio working various jobs. Just before the war, Samuel worked in Warren, Ohio, as a merchant selling horse equipment and supplies.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Samuel's older brother Henry went off to Kansas and served in the Union cavalry there for most of the war. As from Samuel, he was 31 years old when he heard the bugle call. And like many, he enlisted in the Regular Army as a Private.

Because of his valor at the First Battle of Bull Run with the 41st Ohio Infantry, he received a commission to 1st Lieutenant on August 26, 1861. So yes, since Opdycke joined the Army as a Private in April of 1861 and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on August of 1861, he went from the rank of Private to 1st Lieutenant in less than four months.

Samuel Opdycke was promoted to Captain in March of 1862 just before the Battle of Shiloh. By that September, he resigned to return home so that he would be able to organize and form the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. To do that, he was made a Lieutenant Colonel on October 1, 1862.

By January 14, 1863, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel and given the command of a regiment. His regiment is said to have earned a great deal of fame in the defense of Horseshoe Ridge at the Battle of Chickamauga. Soon he was in command of a brigade, and his men were at Missionary Ridge during the Battles for Chattanooga. The fighting during the Battle of Missionary Ridge was brutal, but 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry were still able to push Confederate General Braxton Bragg's men out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, by November of 1863.

In the spring of 1864, Col. Opdycke and the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry joined General William Tecumseh Sherman's Army in his Atlanta Campaign. And at the Battle of Resaca, Opdycke was badly wounded. It wasn't the first time he was wounded, but it was then that no one thought he'd pull through.

Actually, he did recover and led an assault in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was fought in June of 1864. It was the largest frontal assault launched by William Tecumseh Sherman's Union Army against the Confederate Army of Tennessee which was commanded by his old opponent Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. It's said that it ended in a defeat for the Union, but the fact is it didn't stop Sherman's advance on Atlanta. As a result of what happened there, Confederate Gen. Johnston was replaced with Gen. John Bell Hood.

Colonel Opdycke's brigade fought at the Battle of Jonesborough which was meant to draw the Confederate's Army of Tennessee commanded by Hood away from their defenses in Atlanta, Georgia. All so Sherman could burn it to the ground. It worked and Sherman did just that.

Colonel Opdycke's brigade is said to have pursued Gen. Hood's troops to Nashville, Tennessee. And from there, his brigade fought in the Battle of Franklin to secure the Union Army's victory at Nashville. It is no wonder that the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry gained a reputation as fierce fighters among Confederate forces.

During the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, Col. Opdycke distinguished himself at the Battle of Franklin. It was there that he achieved the status of a legend among his men. The story behind that has to do with the approach of Confederate troops under Gen. Hood. Opdycke's division commander was Gen. George D. Wagner.

Wagner ordered Opdycke along with two other brigade commanders to take up hasty defensive positions in front of the Union fortified line. Opdycke assessed the situation and actually challenged this wisdom of that order. It's said he argued with Wagner, and then took his men into a reserve position behind the fortifications.

As Col. Opdycke suspected, the Confederate assault broke the Union's line near the Columbia Pike. Seeing that was taking place, Opdycke sent his men into the battle. His men blocked the road at first. But then, Opdycke's Ohio troops straddled the road to allow retreating Union troops the ability to pass.

Col. Opdycke ordered his brigade forward to block the pursuing Confederates. It was about that moment when Union corps commander Gen. David S. Stanley arrived to observe what was taking place. Stanley later wrote, "I saw Opdycke near the center of his line urging his men forward. I gave the Colonel no orders as I saw him engaged in doing the very thing to save us, to get possession of our line again."

Opdycke's counterattack is said to have turned the tide of that battle, and secured an important victory for the Union Army. Opdycke's decision to defy orders and pull his brigade behind a fortified position ultimately led to a Union victory. It was for his action at the Battle of Franklin that he was honored with a brevet appointment to Major General of volunteers. He was promoted to a full Brigadier General of the Regular Army on July 26, 1865.

Brig. General Opdycke resigned from the Army in 1866. After the war, he moved to New York and helped establish the dry goods house Peake, Opdycke, Terry & Steele. Old soldiers are supposed to fade away, live out their live dealing with their wounds while writing their memoirs. He actually wrote several articles about what took place during the war. He was also very active in veterans affairs.

Sadly, it's said that on April 25, 1884, his wife and son heard a gunshot coming from his bedroom. Rushing to see what happened, they found the General with a bullet hole in his abdomen. He lingered in pain for a few days before finally dying. But before doing so, Brigadier General Opdycke managed to tell the doctor treating him that he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. He was 54 years old when he passed.

The 54-year-old General was transported by train to his hometown and buried there in Oakwood Cemetery in Warren, Ohio. On that day, The St. Paul Daily Globe wrote, "With the death of Gen. Opdycke, passes away one of the most gallant and distinguished soldiers which Ohio sent into the Civil War."

While he was certainly a brave man, Brigadier General Samuel Emerson Opdycke is not the only soldier to make the incredible journey from Private to General during the Civil War. There were others. And while some are amazed at how George Armstrong Custer who was a West Point graduate could go from 2nd Lieutenant to brevet General in pretty quick time, his feat pales in comparison to what happened to America's "Boy General." No, George Armstrong Custer was not the original "Boy General."

That deserving distinction was given to Uriah Galusha Pennypacker in newspaper around the country long before Custer's men started calling Custer that. Fact is, the man known as America's "Boy General" is believed to be the youngest General in American history. And yes, the Valley Forge-native is believed to still holds the record for being the youngest General in the history of the United States Army. 

Thought born in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, it's said he was raised without having any memory of his parents. His mother died when he was still a baby, and his father was adventurer who left for California where he supposedly founded a newspaper and then sold it. The 1880 Census had his father living in Oakland, California. Uriah Galusha Pennypacker was raised by his grandparents. 

After enlisting with the 9th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in 1861 at the age of 16-years-old, he was a Private assigned to the job of Quartermaster Clerk. Believe it or not, it was there that he earned a commission to the rank of Captain because of his organizational skills. Not a brevetted rank, but an actual commission. 

When he was 19-years-old, be was promoted to the rank of Major because of his valor at Cold Harbor. Because of his bravery in battle at the Siege of Petersburg, he was promoted to full Colonel. And at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in early 1865, Col. Pennypacker was not only wounded while leading an assault -- he was awarded the Medal of Honor because of his valor and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. 

He was only 20-years-old. It was an unheard of achievement that made him an instant national sensation. His story was carried in newspapers throughout the Union, with of course the exception of those newspapers which were owned by Copperhead Democrat Confederate sympathizers. 

And think about this, while he was the youngest person to hold the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army at the age of 20, he is also the only General who was ever too young to vote for the president who appointed him. General Uriah Galusha Pennypacker retired from the U.S. Army in 1883, and died of natural causes in Philadelphia in 1916 at the age of 72.

Where Uriah Galusha Pennypacker was as good a man as they come, on the other side of the spectrum is one who is said to have been pure evil. Nathan Bedford Forrest began his military career as a 40-year-old Tennessee cavalry volunteer with the rank of Private. Shortly after enlisting in the Confederate Army, he used the wealth which he accrued from his own very large slave-trade fortune to outfit a regiment. 

It was because of his wealth that he was given the commission of Confederate Lieutenant Colonel. He ended the war as a Major General. After leaving the Confederate Army, he went into Democratic Party politics and was instrumental in creating the Klu Klux Klan.

Another Confederate who rose from Private to General is Irish immigrant, and former British soldier, Patrick Cleburne. He was a native of County Cork. In 1846 at the age of 18, he dropped out of Trinity College Medical School. He then joined the British Army assigned to the 41st Regiment of Foot.

After leaving the British Army as a Lance Corporal, Cleburne moved to the United States and settled in Arkansas. It was there that he became a pharmacist and newspaper owner. He joined the Democratic Party and was a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party endorsement of keeping slavery in place.

When the Civil War broke out, the very prosperous 33-year-old Cleburne volunteered as a Private for a local Arkansas regiment. Because of his wealth and past military experience, along with his political ties, he was soon "elected" Captain. He rose to the rank of Major General. His comrades called him "The South’s Fighting Irishman."

Confederate Gen. Cleburne was killed in action at the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. Some say he was shoot dead by Brig. General Opdycke's men at that battle.

Tom Correa



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