What Happened to the 66th Ohio
In June 1862, Maj. Gen. John Pope, an Illinoisan with a big voice and an even bigger ego, was enjoying a furlough in St. Louis, when he was he summoned east by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stanton had a new job for Pope.
Pope had scored an impressive success that spring. His Army of the Mississippi, with considerable help from the Union navy, had out-maneuvered the Confederates at New Madrid, Missouri, and nearby Island No. 10. Pope’s troops had flanked the heavily armed Island No.10 by digging a canal bypassing it. In one fell swoop, Pope’s army captured several thousand Confederate soldiers and a lot of ordnance, regained control of an important portion of the Mississippi River, and did it at a cost of only a few casualties.
With Grant temporarily under a shadow for lack of preparedness at Shiloh, Pope looked like the winner the Lincoln Administration badly needed in the Eastern Theater. McClellan’s huge Virginia Peninsula Campaign was turning sour and three smaller Union armies were floating around elsewhere in Virginia without much coordination. Pope was told to combine the three smaller armies into one of three corps, to be called the Army of Virginia, and to get something done.
But Pope had two problems: He was a blowhard who quickly alienated his own men and he had the bad luck to inherit Nathaniel P. Banks as one of his three corps commanders. Banks was a Massachusetts politician, one of the “political generals,” and a military commander of very limited ability. Banks had been beaten by Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and now Banks thirsted for revenge. When Jackson’s force came into view near Cedar Mountain (about 75 miles northwest of Richmond), Banks recklessly attacked (Saturday, August 9).
Banks was driving two of Jackson’s divisions when Confederate reinforcements arrived. Banks had no reserves and the engagement turned into a Union disaster. By the time it was all over, Banks’ II Corps had been so badly damaged that an infuriated Pope had to detach it for recuperation.
Although Banks’ corps was composed mostly of eastern troops, it included four regiments from Ohio. Fighting under a scorching sun and soon outnumbered, the 66th Ohio lost almost half its members to death, wounds, or capture. Some men died of sun stroke. The 66th was so decimated that not one of its 10 companies could muster enough men for a color guard.
Cedar Mountain was the curtain-raiser for II Bull Run, where Pope demonstrated his inability to control a large, fast-moving battle. Because the II Corps had been sent to the rear, however, it played no role in Pope’s debacle at Bull Run—which, if any good can be found in the bloody days of August 1862, is one of the few blessings conferred upon the Ohioans.