At 4 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter, a United States military installation on an island in Charleston Harbor. This action ushered in the Civil War—the bloodiest and deadliest era in American history.
The monument at Gettysburg to the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment is on the south edge of Gettysburg on Steinwehr Avenue.The number of Civil War dead greatly exceeded the number of lives lost in World War II and left thousands of survivors with lingering wounds that they endured well into the 20th Century.
No part of the country was left unaffected, and war came quickly to Cleveland. One of the first units organized here was the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, mustered before the end of April 1861 at Camp Taylor at what is today East 30th Street and Woodland Avenue. Early in May the regiment was transferred to Camp Dennison, located near Cincinnati.
Originally a three-month regiment, the unit was reorganized and enlisted to serve three years before the summer was out.
Best known for its service in the Second Corps of the legendary Army of the Potomac, the 8th Ohio fought in many of the war’s most decisive battles.
Veterans of this unit fought against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the autumn of 1862, and then going straight to Sharpsburg, Maryland to fight in the Battle of Antietam—widely acknowledged as the war’s bloodiest single day.
Men in the Cleveland ranks engaged in particularly hard fighting along the battlefield’s Sunken Road, a distinctive terrain feature that was literally filled with dead bodies before the day was done. It was estimated later that 25,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in the Battle of Antietam.
There was little respite for the soldiers from Cleveland as they soon found themselves in Fredericksburg, Virginia, taking part in a doomed frontal assault that cost the lives of 12,000 Union soldiers just before Christmas.
In May of 1863 the 8th Ohio took part in the Battle of Chancellorsville—a victory that cost the Confederates dearly, as Stonewall Jackson was killed by friendly fire.
Gen. Stonewall Jackson's attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, May 2, 1863Early July found the 8th Ohio in Pennsylvania, responding to Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the north.
By tradition the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1 when Confederates in search of shoes encountered a Union cavalry unit outside of town. Very shortly, a full-blown battle developed between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.
The 8th Ohio found itself on the far right of this line, advancing into the open without the benefit of the stone wall that sheltered other defenders.
The men from Cleveland held their ground despite terrible danger and exposure. Long after Pickett’s Charge ended, an observer speculated, that based on the unit’s actions that day, the regimental commander must have been drunk or insane.
This observation is arguable, but the results were not. The 8th Ohio was present for duty as the Confederates withdrew, vanishing to the south to fight another day.
Once again there was no respite for the unit as the 8th Ohio moved north to restore order in the Draft Riots of 1863 that rocked New York City that summer.
The following spring was to see even greater bloodshed.
The 8th Ohio participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, beginning with the battle of the Battle of The Wilderness in the first week of May. As Union troops marched away from the battlefield they came to a crossroads—The Union Army turned right, indicating a pursuit of Lee’s army and a fight to the finish marking a turning point in the war, a Union veteran recalled in the 1920s.
Soldiers, wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness, resting outside a building in Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 20, 1864The 8th Ohio remained in the thick of it, many Clevelanders losing their lives at Spotsylvania Courthouse just weeks before the regiment’s term of service was set to expire.
The regiment’s last battle was Cold Harbor, fought on June 1, 1864.
Finally, it was over, the regiment being mustered out on July 13, 1864.
The unit’s loss in battle was far greater than the numbers lost to disease, grim evidence of its long exposure to combat.
In addition, three soldiers from the regiment earned the Medal of Honor, all for capturing Confederate battle flags in combat. On both sides of the line these flags had great significance, and soldiers fought desperately to prevent their loss in battle. The most dangerous job on a Civil War battlefield was service in a color guard.
With the unit’s discharge the veterans and their feats began to pass into history.
The 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry is remembered today with monuments on the Civil War battlefields of its most notable service: Antietam and Gettysburg.
Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.