Monday, June 10, 2019

Author Q&A: Thomas Crowl and "Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War"

Author Thomas Crowl joins us to talk about his latest book Opdycke's Tigers in the Civil War: A History of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which was just published earlier this month by McFarland. According to his website bio, Crowl is a "retired veterinarian and an independent scholar with a lifetime interest in the Civil War and Ohio history. He has two ancestors in the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He has published articles in the Ohio History Connection's Timeline magazine, History magazine and Man at Arms. He has published one book, Murder of a Journalist, with Kent State University Press."

CWBA: Thank you for coming on to the site to talk about Opdycke's Tigers. The book description notes that your book is the first history of the 125th Ohio to be published in more than 120 years. What got you interested in the regiment, and why do you think it took this long for someone to take on the task of being its modern chronicler?

TC: My initial interest came about years ago when I discovered that I had two ancestors who served in the regiment. Subsequently, new primary source material—letters and diaries—has become available in recent years that was not available to Captain Clark when he wrote the first history in 1895. In general, I think historians today view the Civil War and its participants in a more balanced way than was possible in the 19th century. Regimental histories in general require considerable effort to write. Every battle requires examination and there are many characters to research. Writers of regimental histories are motivated not by profit, but by passion.

CWBA: How extensive is the available source material?

TC: There is probably an above average amount of this material available for the 125th Ohio when compared to other Union regiments. There is more material available today than was accessible 120 years ago. For the 125th, there are multiple diaries, field notebooks, letters, newspaper articles, and even other regimental histories that offer good source material. Some of this material has been published; more is available privately, in reference libraries, and online.

CWBA: Your introduction reminds us that Emerson Opdycke was only a captain in the 41st Ohio before organizing the 125th and becoming its colonel. Presumably, he would have needed some political connections to carry that off. How did he manage it?

TC: Colonel Opdycke was not lacking in self-confidence and he wasn’t bashful about promoting himself. He was acquainted with Ohio governor David Tod and close to state senator turned general Jacob Cox. Newspaper editors in his hometown of Warren, Ohio knew him and promoted him. Opdycke even managed to get the notorious General William “Bull” Nelson to give him a letter of recommendation.

CWBA: It is also revealed in the intro that the unit did not reach its full complement of companies, officers, and men until January 1864. What particular challenges did the regiment experience with recruitment?

TC: The trials and tribulations of recruiting are well documented in the book. In brief, there was no great horde of eager recruits for regiments in 1862 and 1863 to draw from. Most of those men who wanted to be in the army were. Furthermore, the threat of a military draft, both at the state and national levels, caused many eligible men to adopt a 'wait and see' attitude. Public opinion was just beginning to shift from one of leaving the decision to enlist to the individual to one of expecting eligible men to rally to the flag. The Emancipation Proclamation shifted the Union war aim from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves and this proved unpopular in southern Ohio, further dampening recruiting. And lastly, the peace Democrats—Copperheads—were strong in Ohio and active during this period agitating against federal enlistment.

CWBA: Broadly speaking, how did the rank and file of the 125th differ from earlier waves of Union volunteers?

TC: The soldiers in the 125th Ohio were a mix of veterans—mostly from three-month regiments and a few mustered out for medical reasons—and raw recruits. Overall, they were a less idealistic, more realistic group of men with a better notion of what to expect as soldiers. The veterans among them were invaluable in assisting the recruits as they learned the art of soldiering.

CWBA: How did the men feel about Opdycke?

TC: Emerson Opdycke was certainly an above average volunteer officer especially considering his scant education and unremarkable prewar career. His men, in general, respected his personal bravery, concern for their welfare, intelligence, and leadership skills. His detractors in the regiment and beyond could point to Opdycke’s quick temper, significant ego, and grudges when accusing him of being a martinet. Yet the 125th Ohio was a respected and reliable regiment because of him and despite his faults, and his men came to appreciate that he was a colonel who led from the front.

CWBA: The better-officered regiments often took on the best characteristics of their leaders. Was this the case with the 125th?

TC: Yes. Colonel Opdycke’s personal courage, dedication, hard work, and discipline were traits he infused into the 125th Ohio, and they helped to ensure the regiment’s success.

CWBA: The 125th’s first big battle was Chickmauga (quite an introduction to major Civil War combat!). Can you briefly describe where and how they earned the “Tigers” moniker there?

TC: During the morning of September 20, the 125th’s division commander, General Thomas Wood, ordered Colonel Charles Harker’s brigade to charge into Dyer’s cornfield in an attempt to blunt the Confederate breakthrough. Before all of Harker’s men were in position, Wood sent the 125th and another regiment charging into the enemy. The 125th Ohio followed Opdycke forward and surprised the rebels. Harker’s brigade succeeded in temporarily halting the Confederate juggernaut while a defense was organized on Snodgrass Hill. General Wood, who had few happy memories of the 20th, later wrote: “It was the heroic conduct of the 125th Ohio Infantry during the entire Battle of Chickamauga, but especially on the 20th, that induced me to give the regiment the sobriquet ‘Opdycke’s Tigers’…”

CWBA: Of course, the regiment was also involved in Opdycke’s famous charge at Franklin in late 1864. Are there any other key moments in other major western theater battles where the 125th found themselves playing a prominent role in the fighting?

TC: In addition to the charge at Franklin, the 125th Ohio was active at Chickamauga in Dyer’s field and on Snodgrass Hill. The regiment was among the first to the summit of Missionary Ridge. During the Atlanta campaign, they seized a foothold on the north end of Rocky Face Ridge, led one of the Kennesaw Mountain assault columns, and formed part of the flank of Newton’s division that repulsed General Hood’s assaults at Peachtree Creek. Prior to the Battle of Franklin, the 125th, as part of Opdycke’s brigade, formed the rearguard of Schofield’s army during the perilous retreat from Spring Hill to Franklin.

CWBA: That's a record worthy of interest. Are there any other features of your book that you’d like to mention in closing?

TC: Opdycke’s Tigers in the Civil War is first and foremost a regimental history of an Ohio infantry regiment in the Army of the Cumberland and as such will appeal to those interested in the battles for Chattanooga, East Tennessee, Atlanta, Franklin and Nashville. It offers a look at the experience of Union soldiers at the regimental level, in battle and in camp, in the western theater of the war. For researchers, there is a full bibliography and a regimental roster. Opdycke’s Tigers had a distinguished record in the war and deserve to have their history presented to 21st century readers.

CWBA: They certainly do. Thanks, Thomas.

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