The Patriotism of the 170th…

I’ve always been fascinated with the Ohio National Guard “100 Days” men who were called into service in the spring of 1864 to guard the forts, bridges, blockhouses and railroads, thereby freeing up veteran regiments for the summer campaign. The important contributions of the regiments are often overshadowed by the hard fighting veteran regiments east and west. Two of these National Guard regiments – the 157th and 170th – were raised in my local area. While the 157th spent their service guarding Confederate prisoners at Fort Delaware, the 170th occupied before several of the D.C. circle forts before transferring to the Shenandoah Valley.

Fort Derussy, one of the “Circle Forts” that defended Washington during the Civil War. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While researching the 170th for a longer piece I’m working on I wanted to share with ECW readers a portion of a letter written by Isaac G. Cope of Company G, 170th Ohio National Guards. The letter was written June 7, 1864 while the regiment was stationed at Fort DeRussy, northwest of Washington, DC (situated in today’s Rock Creek Park). Cope, from Belmont County in southeastern Ohio, had served previously in the 17th Ohio (90 days) and 15th Ohio until illness sent him home on a surgeon’s certificate of disability. In the impressive frankness and candor that are hallmarks of his writings, Cope here details an interesting episode within his regiment…

“Last night about four o’clock PM there was a dispatch come to Head Quarters 170th Regt couched in these words – ‘Does the 170th wish to go to the front?’ You may imagine the excitement these few words raised in camp. The men had to vote upon it and were given 1 hour to make up their minds. There was a great deal of talking done in that hour. A few wished to go but a larger majority wished to stay. The vote was taken and our Co voted 10 to go and 73 to stay. The vote for the whole regiment was 80 to go and the balance wished to stay. What do you think that speaks for the patriotism of the 170th?

 It was truly a knotty question to decide upon whether we would go down before Richmond and assist Grant and the gallant men in his command or whether we would remain where we are. I was never more puzzled in my life to know what would be right for me to do in any case than in this. As far as I was individually concerned I would rather go and act the soldier in earnest and help Grant and his suffering army than to remain where we are playing the soldier but as a member of Co. G I didn’t feel as though my vote was my own. If a majority of the company wanted to go the whole company would undoubtedly have to go and there were a great many men who did not wish to go. Men who had left families in Ohio. Men who said that they wouldn’t go. That they would die first. Who claimed that they had been swindled into the service. That they never enlisted for the purpose of going to the front or even out of the state. And the question with me was – have I a right to say go when by voting to go I might send me to the front who would rather do almost anything else? What would you have done under the circumstances? I would stay not because I was afraid to go (afraid is not in my name) not because I did not wish to go but because I did not believe my vote was my own in that case.

 Today the 163rd O.N.G. which is in our brigade was ordered to go to the reinforcement of Grant. They took a vote on the proposition we did and there was only 10 in the whole regiment that voted to go but notwithstanding they were ordered forward today and will start tomorrow morning at 1 o’clock. Our regt. is likewise ordered to move but we go into the fort they leave. Our turn will come next and one of these days up will come an order for the 170th to go. If we are needed I will say Amen to the order.”[I]

Isaac G. Cope, ca. 1860. Cope’s voluminous letters from the Civil War have been preserved locally in both public and private collections. Author’s Collection.

Taken at face value the 170th would appear to be an unpatriotic group. It’s worth examining what may have influenced such a lopsided vote. The 170th was constituted of two battalions of the Ohio National Guard from Belmont and Harrison counties. The men of the 170th were largely farmers in these predominantly agrarian counties of eastern Ohio. In leaving home for 100 days these men would miss the harvest of their summer (market) crop and the planting of their fall (sustenance) crop. In short, the financial concerns as well as the viability of the crop that would see their families through the winter weighed heavily on their minds.

Belmont and Harrison counties also had significant populations of Quakers – a religious faith rooted in peace and nonviolence. The 170th – especially Isaac Cope’s company – had perhaps more Quakers in their ranks than any other regiment fielded from Ohio. While many local Quakers (include Cope) placed their abhorrence of slavery over their nonviolence beliefs and had joined earlier regiments, the 170th would constitute the first and the only service for the many of the Quakers in its ranks. The idea of a short window of service and promises of behind-the-scenes work likely appealed to these men. You can therefore imagine their disgust at the idea of going to the front where they may be forced to draw their weapon on another man. Beyond that, these men weren’t naïve to the horrific bloodshed then constituting the Overland Campaign – it’s easier for us to pass judgment from our armchairs than to face the reality of near certain death at places like Spotsylvania, North Anna or Cold Harbor.

Finally, Belmont County was a stronghold for the Democratic Party in Ohio. Belmont had cast 3,850 votes in opposition to Lincoln in the 1860 election with just 2,675 in favor.[ii] McClellan won the county in 1864. The county seat was home to one of the more notorious Copperhead newspapers in the state (The St. Clairsville Gazette) and local antiwar sentiment was strong throughout the conflict. Located astride the Ohio River where goods were shipped south to market, the business interest in Belmont County was more closely aligned with the southern economy than the northern economy. In 1861 Isaac Cope’s father had written of a near panic in the county as most of the money in circulation was Virginia script and that “money is spent by the market folks as soon as they get it fearing that it may become worthless on their bonds.”[iii] In short, the Civil War was bad for business in Belmont.

In the end the 170th did find their way to the front the following month and performed ably under fire at the battle of Cool Spring, where after covering the Federal withdrawal they found themselves as the last Union troops on the wrong side of the Shenandoah River. They were mustered out in September 1864 and returned to the rolling hills of eastern Ohio. I look forward to fleshing out their story in more detail for future publication!

[i] Cope, Isaac. G. to Elizabeth Dungan – June 7, 1864. Cope Family Papers. Historical Society of Mount Pleasant, Ohio (HSMP).

[ii] Ohio Votes Lincoln. Dover, Ohio: Old Hundredth Press. 2008.

[iii] Cope, Caleb H. to Alexis Cope – 6 June, 1861. HSMP

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3 Responses to The Patriotism of the 170th…

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Or perhaps the sending of the guardsmen forward prompted the vote for McClellan…
    As time moved on, and the “rebellion” that was supposed to be crushed out in months persisted; and sources of “eager volunteers” dried up, forcing three year enlistments, and “for the war,” and conscription. Inducements were tried (bonuses and promises of Bounty Land) and creative terms of enlistment returned (100-day regiments) all of which demonstrates why the South continued the fight until the bitter end: HOPE that the North would run out of enthusiasm and tire of the war.And vote for a Peace settlement.

  2. Robert Rainey says:

    I have a novel idea. How about doing a series of articles on the patriotism of the Confederate soldiers? After all, they are Americans too.

  3. Henry Fleming says:

    So many first sources talk about the weather and what they ate. Cope is a real find. I wonder if a quaker was killed in battle or died in uniform, if that stained his memory or if his family was shunned. Good luck with your projects. God bless the 170th Ohio.

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