Under Fire: The Knoll of the 60th Ohio at Spotsy

The 60th Ohio fought its first action along the crest at the top of this road in Spotsylvania.

In the front yard at Stevenson Ridge, there’s a high knoll where the driveway exits the property. It’s 280 feet above sea level, although the elevation makes precipitous drop to 250 feet on the far side of Route 208, modern Court House Road, historically called the Fredericksburg Road. The elevation also slopes down to 250 feet as the lawn stretches away from the road toward Stevenson Ridge’s main events center, the Lodge.

In May 1864, the Union IX Corp made its way toward Spotsylvania along this road, and they fought their first engagement of the battle across what is now Stevenson Ridge’s front lawn. The 60th Ohio Infantry got their baptism of fire on that knoll.

Organized in the spring of 1864 under the command of Lt. Colonel J. N. McElroy, the 60th Ohio was the second iteration of an infantry regiment with that designation.[1] The men came mostly from areas around Columbus and Cleveland.

The reconstituted 60th Ohio took to the field in April with only six companies (two more would join at Cold Harbor, another would join in January 1865 in Petersburg, and a tenth would finally arrive in February). Upon arrival in Alexandria, the regiment was folded into the Second Brigade, Third Division, IX Corps. That put them under Col. Benjamin Christ, Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox, and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, respectively.

On May 9, the 60th Ohio led the IX Corps’ movement as it marched down the Fredericksburg Road. Confederate cavalry under William Wickham met the column about a mile northeast of the Ny River, and the 60th Ohio deployed as skirmishers to drive the horsemen back. They advanced down to the river, securing the road crossing at Mary’s Bridge, and then moved up the opposite bank. They “gained a hill beyond without serious opposition,” Lt. Col. Martin Avery reported.[2] This hill is what is now Stevenson Ridge’s front-yard knoll.

Skirmishers from the 20th Michigan advanced to the crest of the hill and deployed alongside the Ohioans for additional support and, together, they moved to the woods beyond. “[T]he reserve of the Sixtieth was at the crest,” said Lt. Col. Byron Cutcheon of the 20th Michigan. Cutcheon ordered the 24 men of his Company I to take position behind a fence line with the Ohioans “and hold it till relieved.”[3]

Avery of the 60th Ohio noted, “It now became evident that the enemy were making preparations to drive us from the hill.” When the attack came, it came “with a good deal of vigor,” Cutcheon recalled. Confederates advanced on both sides of the road with four infantry regiments: the 5th, 12th, 20th, and 23rd North Carolina under Brig. Gen. Robert D. Johnson, sent to bolster Wickham’s horseman.

“They opened a sharp fire of musketry on our front, which we soon silenced,” Avery wrote. The situation nonetheless looked dicey. Colonel McElroy, commanding the regiment, sent word to the rear that “if the enemy advanced, we could not hold the position.”

Yet hold they did, at least long enough for the 20th Michigan’s Col. Cutcheon to push reinforcements forward. “The Sixtieth Ohio maintained its position with creditable determination, especially when it is considered that they were just organized and quite undrilled,” Cutcheon said. He saw the Buckeyes were “hard pressed” and sent the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters to form on the left of the Ohioans (who remained accompanied by Company I of the 20th Michigan). The 50th Pennsylvania moved into the fight on the right, extending the front to the north side of the road.

“The fight now became quite sharp,” Cutcheon said.

Confederates countered with an attack on the left of the Federal line. The Michigan sharpshooters “broke and fell back in much confusion,” Cutcheon noted. The 60th Ohio held. “We then changed front to rear on first company and took advantage of a sunken road running perpendicular to our front, which still enabled us to retain the crest of the hill,” Avery said.

However, Confederate numbers began to tell. “We kept up a constant fire on the enemy, who advanced on our right and left, very nearly enveloping us,” Avery wrote. The Tar Heels got as close as thirty yards before McElroy ordered the Buckeyes to pull back. “In falling back we were in some confusion,” Avery admitted.

Cutcheon, observing, called the 60th’s stand “a stubborn fight” and he noted that McElroy even rallied a few of his men on the left of the few remaining Michiganders who were still trying to hold on. Overall, though, the 60th Ohio regiment was largely “broken and . . . a good deal scattered.”

Confederates shifted the weight of their attack against the 50th Pennsylvania, still clinging to the crest of the ridge on the right of the road. “At this moment reverse seemed imminent,” Cutcheon admitted—but an unexpected bayonet charge by the Pennsylvanians turned the tide again.

Even as the Keystone State men surged forward with bayonets flashing, an advance by the 79th New York on the south side of the road helped the sharpshooters and Buckeyes rally. The Michiganders and Ohioans fell into line with the Empire State men and once more pushed forward.

“[T]he enemy was repulsed all along the line,” Cutcheon wrote. “Thus this division gained a foothold nearer Spotsylvania Court-House than any other part of the line.”

All in all, it was a credible first-fire experience for the 60th Ohio. The unit “was specially distinguished in orders by the General commanding for the gallantry with which it crossed the stream and carried the position of the enemy,” Ohio journalist-turned-historian Whitelaw Reid later reported. “In all the action about Spottsylvania in which the corps engaged, the Sixtieth took an honorable part, suffering very much in that series of engagements.”[4]

Casualties for the May 9 fight along the Fredericksburg Road went unlisted. By the time the 60th Ohio mustered out on July 25, 1865, it had lost three officers and 110 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded in battle and 130 enlisted men by disease (243 total).[5]

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[1] This and other details of the regiment from Whitelaw Reid, Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Her Generals and Soldiers (Cincinnati : Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1868), 361.

[2] This and other details from Avery come from his official report, O.R. XXXVI, vol. 1, 978-9.

[3] This and other details from Cutcheon come from his official report, O.R. XXXVI, vol. 1, 967-8.

[4] Reid, 361.

[5] https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units-detail.htm?battleUnitCode=UOH0060RI01

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2 Responses to Under Fire: The Knoll of the 60th Ohio at Spotsy

  1. I wish you had devoted more space to the fight against Wickham. By the way Ralph peters tells the tale of this battle in his book, Hell or Richmond

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      That’s a good novel. Peters writes battle scenes well.

      I’ll eventually circle back to the Wickham fight (his role in this part of the fight was important, too). I just wanted to keep the spotlight on the 60th Ohio for this one since it was their first time under fire.

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