“But I Tell You the Balls Flew Like Hail Around Us”: An Ohioan’s Monocacy Letter

Today is the 155th Anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy, and as in the past, I wanted to share a primary source from the action known as “The Battle that Saved Washington.” This year’s source comes from Private Henry C. Johnson, Company K, 149th Ohio National Guard. Twenty-one years old when he enlisted on May 2, 1864, Johnson was one of the thousands of “100-day” men raised in 1864 to take up the places of garrisons and guards being sent south to replenish losses in the main theatre of war. When the Battle of Monocacy broke out, Johnson and about 660 other Ohio National Guardsmen were posted on the Federal right flank, protecting the Baltimore Pike (also known as the National Road) and a vital stone bridge that kept the Federal retreat route open.

 

The fighting along the Baltimore Pike. Private Howard Johnson fought in the 149th Ohio National Guard. (Map Copyright Ryan Quint)

The Ohioans spent the day skirmishing heavily with sharpshooters, and the soldiers of the Buckeye State helped protect the rest of the retreating Federal forces once they broke around 5:30 PM. Surviving his military service, Private Johnson mustered out with the rest of the 149th Ohio on August 30, 1864, but his letter remains as a testament to the fighting that is sometimes overlooked on the northern edge of the battlefield. Forced to retreat, Johnson and his compatriots took shelter before finally arriving across the Pennsylvania border. Taking a moment to write to his mother and let her know he was okay, Johnson dated his letter from a place already made famous by the war.

Gettysburgh Penn

July the 12th 64

Dear Mother,

                                    I take the first opportunity that has offered of writing to you to let you know that I am still alive and well but I am very tired. I suppose you have heard that we have been in an engagement with the enemy and I expect you are getting uneasy about me or I would not write. We left Oxford on last Wednesday and went to Baltimore and from there to Monicksis [Monocacy] Junction at Frederick City. We was drawed up in line of Battle and stood there from 10 o’clock till the middle of the afternoon then we slept on our arms that night and the next day was throwed out on the skirmishing line. This was at Frederick the main Battle was fought at the Junction about 1 mile and a quarter from us. We fought them five hours and then they got reinforcements and we was routed if I must use the word. There was only part of our Regt and part of the 144th [Ohio National Guard] engaged at Frederick.

They had about 2 to our one at first. We only had one man killed in our Co[mpany] and he was right close to me. His name was Frank Craig.

We fought them and kept them back 2 hours after the main body of our men had retreated, they beat our men back at the Junction and came around and flanked us on the left and tried to cut us off from the Bridge. But we gained it by hard running and they poured a volley right cross fire upon us as we went across the Bridge but they did not hit many. But I tell you the Balls flew like hail around us.

I don’t know much about Abe but I seem him at the hospital as I run through. He was not hurt but had stopped there with some of the wounded. I don’t know whether he took a motion to run after that or not, if not he was taken and paroled and will be home in 3 or 4 weeks.

But me and Dan Slaight [also spelled Slate on company muster rolls] and Stackhouses Boys broke for the mountains and traveled awhile and laid down there in the thick brush till morning. Got up and made for the Penn. Line and here we are after two days travel through woods and over the hills all safe and sound except sore feet.

            The Col. made us throw everything away, even our guns but I brought my canteen and gum blanket. But then I need not try to give the particulars for I don’t feel like it, the Provost Marshal has telegraphed to the War Department to know what to do with. We will be sent to our regt when it gets to gather. There is only 13 of our Co. and only one Corporal reported here yet But lots of them went to other places to report and will turn up soon.

Well I must close as I have written more than I intended to write. I only wanted to let you know that I am safe, so good by. You need not write as we will leave here soon.

My love to all enquiring friends, I remain affectionately yours,

-H.C. Johnson.

 

Johnson’s letter is held within the archives of the Ohio History Center, and I thank Dave Powell for presenting me with a copy.

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