The 61st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment numbered approximately 100 men when they were roused from sleep in the dawn hours of October 19, 1864. Part of the Third Brigade, Second Division of the Union’s VI Corps, they helped form the defensive lines that halted the Confederates’ surprise attack during the battle of Cedar Creek. By percentage, the tiny regiment lost heavily, including all their line officers falling dead or wounded. However, this was not the first time that 61st had experienced devastating leadership loss on the battlefield. A little over two years prior, the regiment had also lost all their commissioned officers in battle. Noting that this happened twice to the unit seems worth a closer look.
The 61st Pennsylvania mustered in Pittsburgh in September 1861, recruiting from several surrounding counties. The new regiment entered the Defenses of Washington and spent the winter of 1861-1862 in that vicinity with a few maneuvers, advances, and patrols. Assigned to Graham’s Brigade in Couch’s Division, they headed for the Virginia Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac and began their notable battle experiences. From the siege of Yorktown to the battle of Williamsburg, the 61st honed their soldiering skills. An excruciating test came during the battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) on May 31, 1862.
Seeing Confederates advancing down a key road, General Couch ordered Colonel Rippey to take the 61st Pennsylvania and oppose the advance. Couch said, “This is a forlorn hope. Hold the enemy back at all hazards.” According to the regiment’s veterans, Colonel Rippey saluted and replied, “I have the men in my Regiment for such work.”
Moving into position through the woods, the 61st confronted a “rebel column” of “more than one regiment,” and the Confederates extend beyond the Union regiment’s right, in a position to flank them. The regimental history explained:
“In this position, in obedience to orders from the Colonel, the 61st opened fire on the rebels, which they immediately returned and a terrific struggle began. Early in the fight Col. Rippey was killed; Lieut-Col. Spear was wounded and Major Smith was captured. Adjutant Miller, having been sent for Companies G and H, was not present, leaving the regiment without any field officers, and most of the line officers, were either killed or wounded. Still the men fought with incredibly bravery, kept up the fight, disregarding repeated requests to retire of Col. Neill of the 23rd Pennsylvania, whose regiment, to the left of the 61st, had moved back to avoid being flanked.”
The Confederates outflanked the 61st on its right and curved toward the regiment’s rear. The Pennsylvania soldiers ran out of ammunition and tried to retreat, running into their enemy behind them. The 61st men fought hand to hand combat and most of the survivors clubbed, hacked, or stabbed their way out of the trap and rallied back at the main Union lines. There, they found more ammunition and returned to battle as a unit – despite lacking line officers. Outflanked on the right and in the rear. In the fighting retreat, three color bearers had been shot, but they managed to preserve the flag:
“Private David H. Ford of Company K, seeing the flag go down, ran and picked it up and bore it to the rear, surrounded by about fifty determined men of the regiment, each ready to take the colors if necessary to prevent capture. When Ford grabbed the flag he saw it had been riddled by rebel bullets, the staff also being shattered; still he held the colors up defiantly as he proceeded, the enemy bullets knocking splinters off the staff and making further rents in the flag, which as a silent witness of a bloody struggle was sent back to Pittsburgh with the body of Col. Rippey. Ford was promoted to color sergeant and received a disabling wound while carrying the flag at Marye’s Heights charge, May 3rd, 1863.”
In their regimental history, the veterans admitted that exact casualty numbers from the battle of Fair Oaks were difficult to determine accurately. One common thread among all reports, though, was that all the officers fell, dead or wounded. Some survivors estimated that their regiment had suffered an over-all 55% casualty rate. Whatever the exact numbers, the regiment had been decimated and its commissioned leadership paid a heavy price in the regiment’s courage.
Other officers were appointed, and the 61st went on to see action in the Maryland Campaign, the battles of Fredericksburg, Marye’s Heights at Second Fredericksburg, Salem Church, Gettysburg, Bristoe Campaign and Mine Run Campaign, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Fort Stevens. In the autumn of 1862, the transferred into the VI Corps and remained in that corps until the end of the war.
Sent north from Petersburg in the summer of 1864 to defend Washington City from Confederate General Jubal Early’s Raid, the regiment marched and counter-marched through Maryland in the summer heat. At the end of summer, the Sixth Corps joined the force that Union General Sheridan intended to use to subdue the Shenandoah Valley once and for all.
By the Third Battle of Winchester, fought on September 19, 1864, the 61st Pennsylvania had dwindled to approximately 125 men reporting for duty. This number included veterans and new recruits, a testament to the hard fighting and also the recruiting changes facing long-time regiments.
Reduced to a battalion, the unit still kept its individual designation (61st Pennsylvania) and fought at Third Winchester and the battle of Fisher’s Hill (September 21-22, 1864). At Fisher’s Hill, Sergeant Sylvester D. Rhodes commanded a company “and lead it with such bravery that his conduct attracted the attention of the brigade commander.” For his courage and leadership, Rhodes later received the Medal of Honor.
The battle of Fisher’s Hill pushed Early’s Confederates deeper into their retreat in the Shenandoah Valley and opened the northern and middle portions of the valley to Union control. In the following weeks, the period known as “The Burning” took place, with the systematic destruction of food and small industry that supported the Confederate war effort. After thrashing the Confederate cavalry during the battle of Tom’s Brook on October 8, Sheridan began to pull back the horsemen and the three infantry corps into a camp near Cedar Creek, just north of the town of Strasburg. Here, the VIII Corps, XIX Corps, and VI Corps set up temporary lodges and built earthworks. All seemed rather quiet, and Sheridan headed to Washington City for meetings.
However, the Confederates wanted to strike back with both military and political motivation and revenge. Confederate generals planned a flank march and surprise attack which they successfully carried out during the night and early morning hours of October 18-19. Brigades of screeching Confederates slammed through picket lines and through the camps of the VIII and XIX Corps, sending Union soldiers running to escape or reorganize. Some Union regiments made isolated stands or plunged into deadly counterattacks to buy time for the rest of the army. The VI Corps, the last in the domino stack of military camps, readied for a defensive fight.
“As the 19th corps was falling back, and before the fog had fully lifted, the 6th corps, in separate divisions, came onto the field and took part in the rough and tumble fight about the Belle Grove House and along the old Furnace Road and later in the cemetery. The 6th corps, not having been surprised, was in its usual condition, minus the stimulation of coffee, which the soldiers had not time to prepare, and they had to be content with nibbling hardtack while not actually loading and firing.”
Part of Bidwell’s brigade and Getty’s Division, the men of the 61st went to the high ground of Cemetery Hill – a key point in the battle of Cedar Creek for slowing the Confederates, establishing a strong defense to allow the VIII and XIX to rally and reform. Confederates attacked Cemetery Hill before the “lull” which Early allowed, believing the Union army would continue to retreat. Instead, Union troops were encouraged by General Sheridan’s swift arrival and launched a decisive counterattack that afternoon with infantry and cavalry sweeping the Confederates into a final and definitive retreat in the Shenandoah Valley.
The 61st Pennsylvania went into the battle with around 100 men, commanded by Captain Taylor who was killed in the early part of the VI Corps’ defense. The regiment continued to fight, taking part in the Union counterattack and losing more commanders.
“After Captain Taylor was killed, the 61st was commanded by Capt. John Barrett of Company G, until he was killed in that part of the battle which occurred after Sheridan arrived on the field. The command then devolved on 2d Lieut. John W. McClay, Co. C, who was soon wounded, when 2d Lieut. Charles H. Bewley, the only remaining commissioned officer, took command.
“In this battle the 61st, numbering 100 men, had two officers and four men killed, one officer and ten men wounded and one man missing; total 18. At the close of the fight, the 61st reduced to less than 100 men, had only one commissioned officer and he a Second Lieutenant.”
While the small numbers of the unit should be considered, they suffered 18% casualties. Almost one in five men falling in the tiny regiment/battalion. The day after the battle of Cedar Creek, a captain of the regiment who had been previously wounded at Spotsylvania Court House returned and was able to take command.
The 61st did not disband or retire from the war after Cedar Creek. Instead, they went to Petersburg and in April 1865 took part in the Appomattox Campaign. The survivors participated in the Grand Review of the armies in Washington City in June and then mustered out on June 25, 1865.
Time passed, and then the 61st Pennsylvania’s story of leadership loss came into the spotlight. In May 1888, Colonel William F. Fox published “Regimental Losses” in Century Magazine, comparing losses of 2,000 Union regiments. “The largest number of officers killed in an infantry regiment in the Union armies is found in the 61st Pennsylvania of the 6th Corps, in which 19 officers were killed or mortally wounded during the war…. The total loss of the 61st in killed and died of wounds was 19 officers, 218 enlisted men: total 237. It was a gallant regiment and was bravely led, as its losses in officers clearly shows.” Fox’s notes listed the regiment as 15th in the list of total killed during the war.
The record brought the regiment and its history back into the discussion and post-war memory. Survivors considered and reasoned about the high casualties among the officers. On the whole the leaders seemed to be liked, lending doubt that there was a problematic friendly fire coming from the ranks.
In the regimental history, one veteran put forward this idea:
“The extraordinary number of casualties among regiment commanders is accounted for by example of Col. Rippey, whose motto in battle was ‘Come on, boys,” not ‘Go on, men.’ This heroic principle of the first colonel, sealed and ratified by his blood, was adopted by his successors, each taking the place in battle where he could render the greatest service, regardless of danger.”
From Fair Oaks to Cedar Creek, the concept of leadership instilled by the first officers of the 61st Pennsylvania carried through. The regiment was routinely found under heavy fire and performing notable battlefield actions both with their commissioned officers and with leadership from within the ranks. At Cedar Creek, on October 19, 1864, the 61st Pennsylvania lost nearly one in five of their comrades…and all their commissioned officers yet again. But they were part of the defense that held a Union line against the attacking Confederates and ensured the outcome of Union control in the final chapters of the Shenandoah Valley’s active war history.
National Park Service, 61st Pennsylvania Regiment.
 Abraham Titus Brewer, History: Sixty-first Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. (1911). Accessed through Google Books. Page 24.
 Ibid., Page 25.
 Ibid., Page 26.
 Ibid., Page 116.
 Ibid., Page 118.
 Ibid., Page 122.
 Ibid., Page 128.
 Ibid., Page 129.
 Ibid., Page 146.
 Ibid., Page 147.
 Ibid., Page 147.