December 1, 2021
By the spring of 1864, the tide of the Civil War favored the North. In March, Ulysses S. Grant had been appointed General-in-Chief of the Union Army. He employed a strategy of pressuring the Confederates in both the east and the west to win the war by attrition.
In history class, most of us learned that Grant stopped the prisoner exchanges since the Union had access to more manpower, but those exchanges had already ceased by the time he took command. As the Confederate Army continued to shrink, so did the Union Army.
In addition to lives lost in battle, the Union Army decreased in size simply because men had completed the terms of their enlistments and were returning home. As a result, Grant sent a plea to northern governors to activate National Guard units. These units would be assigned low-risk duties thus freeing the more experienced soldiers to serve at the front lines.
In response to this call, Ohio Governor, David Brough, activated the Hardin and Licking County National Guard units and sent them to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio.
The Licking County group consisted of six companies of men and the Hardin County unit consisted of three companies of men. Governor Brough tasked Newark, Ohio resident, Colonel Andrew Legg, with the job of combining the National Guard units to form the 135th Ohio Infantry Regiment of the Union Army.
The men were informed that the length of their enlistment would be 100 days and that they would be guarding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. After a few days gathering uniforms, equipment, and supplies, Colonel Legg swore the men into the Union Army on the morning of May 11, 1864. A few hours later, the 135th Ohio boarded a train for Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Legg assigned Companies B and F, under the command of Captain Ulysses S. Westbrook, to guard the North Mountain Railroad Depot about ten miles north of Martinsburg, near the town of Hedgesville. The detachment consisted of just under 200 men. With the exception of a short training session that the National Guard had undergone a year earlier in response to Morgan’s Raiders, the men had no experience and their captain drank heavily.
Located at the intersection of the train tracks and what today is Hammonds Mill Road (Rt. 901), the North Mountain railroad installation consisted of a small depot near the road and a two-story blockhouse just east of the tracks, a couple hundred feet north of the depot.
The original garrison had dug a shallow trench around the buildings and erected an abatis (a fortification constructed of rows of fallen trees with sharpened branches). The abatis featured many large gaps from where logs had been removed for firewood. With the fighting far from North Mountain, the men didn’t bother patching the barricade.
Patrols set out every morning and evening, but no enemies were ever spotted. Several times, the companies received reports of Confederate troops in the area. The garrison would go on alert and dispatch patrols to investigate, but each time turned out to be a false alarm. The assignment had proven to be low-risked as promised, and by mid-summer the men had fallen into complacency. Other units from the 135th were assigned similar duties at Kearneysville, Van Clevesville, and Opequan Station with the overall headquarters remaining in Martinsburg.
In June of 1864, General Robert E. Lee ordered General Jubal Early to attack federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley to try to loosen Grant’s tightening noose around Richmond and Petersburg. Early’s advance guard included Brigadier General John McCausland’s cavalry brigade which consisted of over 1300 men.
McCausland’s men arrived in vicinity of Hedgesville late on July 2, 1864. They immediately cut the telegraph lines and took control of the town with a tight grip to prevent anyone from alerting the men at North Mountain Depot.
Although more than 1300 confederate cavalry were encamped just over a mile away, Westbrook and his men remained completely unaware of their presence. (Most of the men later blamed Westbrook for being intoxicated that evening.)
Early on the morning of July 3, McCausland’s men decamped and headed toward the North Mountain Depot. A Union patrol crested a small rise and encountered some of McCausland’s men approaching from the east.
One survivor of the Battle of North Mountain later told his daughter that it looked like the whole Confederate Army was coming toward them. The men from the 135th fired one volley at the approaching cavalrymen then ran to alert the others. None of the confederate soldiers were hit by the volley.
McCausland sent the 14th Virginia and the 16th Virginia to attack the depot and blockhouse from the west while ordering the 22nd Virginia to circle around from the north. The 17th Virginia divided into two units: one attacking from the south and the other from the east.
In short order, the vastly outnumbered men of the 135th Ohio were surrounded and under attack from all sides. They quickly abandoned the shallow trenches and crowded into the two-story blockhouse.
After a short firefight, McCausland ordered his men to hold fire and dispatched a white flag detail to approach the blockhouse to demand that the defenders surrender. As the men carrying the white flag approached the blockhouse, Westbrook noticed that the Confederates were moving light artillery pieces into position to attack the small fortress. Considering that action to be a violation of the spirit of the white flag, he ordered his men to open fire on the white flag detail causing the men in the detail to dive for cover.
Although no one in the detail was hurt, McCausland ordered his men to resume the attack on the fort. The shooting continued for two more hours then the Confederate artillery, which had set up on a small hill about ¾ mile away, pulled within range. Several balls struck the the roof supports of the blockhouse causing it to partially collapse onto defenders on the second floor. The front door was almost completely destroyed.
After enduring another hour, Westbrook accepted the futility of his situation. If he did not surrender, his men would be annihilated. So, he presented the white flag. The battle had raged for three hours yet only two men from the 135th had been killed and six wounded. Two of the wounded died a short time later. There are no reports of any of the men on the Confederate side being injured.
After the surrender, the Confederate soldiers burned the blockhouse and a nearby railroad bridge over Back Creek. Then, they stripped the men of the 135th of nearly all of their belongings including their boots since many of the Confederate cavalrymen had worn out their own footwear.
The men were then forced to march under the stifling July sun across almost 200 miles of rugged Appalachians until they reached Lynchburg, Virginia. One survivor said that the prisoners received nothing to eat for the first four days. A number of the men died due to exhaustion and dehydration.
At Lynchburg, the Confederates forced the prisoners to crowd into cattle cars to be transported by rail to Camp Sumter near Andersonville in Southern Georgia.
The cattle cars lacked sanitary facilities and the guards provided no food and very little water to the prisoners during the long trip in the summer heat. The cars were so crowded that the men had to stand for most of the trip. Several more died.
Although conditions at Civil War prisoner camps were deplorable on both sides, Camp Sumpter became the most infamous for its inhumane conditions. After the prisoner exchange between the north and the south disintegrated in 1863, the Confederacy faced the problem of an ever growing abundance of war prisoners. In response, they built Camp Sumpter near Andersonville, Georgia during the winter of 1863-64. Camp Sumpter (AKA Andersonville Prison) consisted of an area of roughly 16.5 acres enclosed by 15-foot stockade walls, 1,620 feet long and 779 feet wide.
Nineteen feet inside of the walls, a rail denoted the “deadline”. Guards were ordered to kill anyone who crossed that barrier. A swampy area, through which a muddy stream flowed from west to east, divided the enclosure almost in half. The first prisoners arrived in February, 1864. By the time the 135th Ohio arrived in late July, Camp Sumpter housed more than 33,000 prisoners and men were dying at the rate of 100 per day.
In his later recollections to his daughter, Thomas Elihu Hayes, who hailed from just south of Granville, Ohio, described the prison. The horrific stench of the prison greeted the men before it even came into view. The men disembarked from the train with those who were unable to walk being assisted by their comrades. The prison contained no sanitary facilities, so human waste covered much of the ground because many of the men were too weak to make it to the places that were used for such purposes. The swampy area and stream flowing through the camp was an open sewer flowing with human waste. Flies and maggots covered almost everything making the very ground underfoot appear to be alive.
The men were assigned a small plot of ground. However, they had no tools or supplies with which to build shelters to shade them from the stifling summer sun. Thomas Elihu Hayes had managed to keep a small penknife that he had hidden in a pants cuff when the cavalrymen searched him. In addition, he had a small New Testament Bible that his mother had given to him which the cavalry men had permitted him to keep.
Hayes and a number of other prisoners joined together to read the Bible, pray and sing gospel songs. As more men joined in the worship group, they began to pray to God for some help. By August, the polluted stream flowing through the camp had started to dry up creating an even worse water crisis.
On August 3rd, Jimmy Holmes organized the group to conduct a community prayer vigil to ask God for relief. The men took turns praying in groups nonstop. On August 8, the skies opened and it started to rain. For the next five days, rain poured from the sky. As the storm grew more intense, many of the thirsty men in the camp laid down on the ground with their mouths wide open hoping to catch a drink. The rain continued unabated for five days unleashing a torrent of water that tore out a section of the western stockade wall and flowed through the camp washing away much of the filth that covered the ground.
On the sixth day, August, 14, the rain abated somewhat, when suddenly, a tremendous bolt of lightning struck the saturated ground between the deadline and the stockade on the west side of the compound. The blast threw mud and debris high into the air leaving a gaping hole in the ground. The hole quickly filled with water which continued to flow from the ground long after the storm had passed. By tying a tin cup to a long pole, the men were able to just reach the spring to get a drink of clean water.
Prompted by the Sisters of Mercy, the guards build an enclosure around the spring to contain the water and moved the deadline closer to allow the prisoners access to the new supply of clean drinking water. Considering the spring to be a miracle, the prisoners called it Providence Spring. Providence Spring continues to flow to this day.
One man recalled the severe infestation of lice in the prison. He said that a man could stand and remove every louse from his body, but would be covered again as soon as he sat or laid back down. Prisoners often went for days without eating. When the ration wagons finally appeared, they dispensed hard dry corncakes made from course-ground cornmeal or hard soda biscuits. Sometimes, the prisoners also received a small square of dried meat. After unloading their cargo of cornbread or biscuits, the ration wagons were piled high with the corpses of the men who had died. Heavily guarded prisoner details were taken out to bury the dead in mass graves.
The men of the 135th quickly learned to stick together to prevent the prison gangs from taking their meager rations or any other belongings. They had no eating or drinking utensils and the men who were not already sick quickly fell sick from drinking the polluted water from the stream. Only 65 of the 166 men of the 135th who were taken prisoner at the North Mountain Depot survived and made it home.
The Camp Commandant was Captain Henry Wirz. He ran the camp with an iron fist, but by the end of the summer, he realized that something had to be done. In September, he paroled a small group of men with the condition that they would go to the Northern commanders and entreat them to resume the prisoner exchange program. Even though he had not received a response from the North, Wirz began paroling small numbers of prisoners including a handful from the 135th starting in October.
In November, another group of survivors, from the 135th, were paroled. According to the diary of Thomas Elihu Hayes, the men were taken to Polaski, Georgia where they were turned over to the Union Fleet on November 26. Once they were aboard the ships, the sailors provided the men with new uniforms to replace the ragged uniforms that they had worn for the last six months. The sailors tossed the old uniforms overboard into the Atlantic. When he boarded the ship Hayes still had his penknife and Testament along with a few small wood carvings that he had made during his captivity. He did not realize that those were in his old uniform pockets until it was too late.
Hayes reported that the ship that he boarded was the USS Constitution which took him to Annapolis, Maryland. They arrived at the U.S. Military Hospital at Annapolis on December 1. After a brief period of recovery at the hospital, the men were transported back to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio where they were mustered out in January and February of 1865. Most of the other men from the 135th who were interred at Andersonville were paroled on April 28, 1865 at Lake City, Florida and were mustered out at Camp Chase in Columbus on June 22 of that year.
Below are the GPS Coordinates for some of the sites mentioned in this story for those who enjoy the Geo-History. If you are unable to visit the sites in person, just copy the coordinates and paste them into the search box on Google Earth. Then, use the street view to see what the locations look like today.
Camp Chase and the Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio
Coordinates: 39°56’37.53″ N 83°04’33.53″ W
The historical marker for Camp Chase is on the north side of Broad Street just left of the entrance to the cemetery
Site of North Mountain Depot and the Battle of North Mountain
Coordinates: 39°33’47.61″ N 77°58’49.05″ W
The depot was on the south side of the road next to the tracks
The large white house north of the road is about where the block house was located.
Site of Battle of North Mountain Historical Marker at Hedgesville Middle School
Coordinates: 39°33’21.57″ N 77°59’28.95″ W
The stone holding the bronze historical marker plaque is on the lawn of the school just southeast of the road.
Camp Sumpter Historical Marker near Andersonville, GA
Coordinates: 32°11’44.30″ N 84°08’02.43″ W
Providence Spring and Providence Spring Historical Marker at Camp Sumpter near Andersonville, GA
Coordinates: 32°11’39.85″ N 84°07’49.03″ W
One last note from the Vagabond Historian: I know that this story takes you to locations that are more than a few miles from the Pickerington area, but it is fitting that we should remember those who have struggled in the fight to preserve America. Please leave your comments so that we know if you would like to see more stories like this on Pickerington Online.