Memory versus Reality: A Comparison of Two Colonels: Rutherford B. Hayes and Joseph Thoburnh

Post War Perceptions of Leadership in the 1864 Valley Campaign

These two men had Civil War careers that in many respects were very similar. Both men capably commanded brigades and divisions as colonels on many hard fought battlefields, but never wore a general’s star in combat. Yet their respective roles in the memory and history of the 1864 were markedly different. The purpose of this article is primarily to examine how post war developments influenced their relative roles in history as compared to what they actually accomplished as military officers.

Outside of Philip Sheridan and George A. Custer, Rutherford B. Hayes is probably the most well known Union officer in popular history of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. He was an attorney and a local politician prior to the Civil War. After the war, Hayes was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio in 1864 and governor of that state in 1867. In 1876 Hayes was elected president in an election that was decided by the House of Representatives in what was term by some as the “Crooked Bargain.” Hayes secured his election by agreeing to pull U.S. troops out of the South, effectively ending reconstruction.

Joseph Thoburn was born in County Antrim in the North of Ireland and his family immigrated to America, where he grew up near St. Clairsville, Ohio. He studied medicine and ultimately became a doctor in nearby Wheeling, Virginia. When war erupted in 1861, he became the surgeon of the 1st Virginia (U.S.) infantry which was recruited in the Virginia panhandle between Ohio and Pennsylvania. The regiment reorganized for three years, the men voted Thoburn Colonel.

In 1862, Thoburn led the 1st Virginia in a charge against Stonewall Jackson’s forces at the First Battle of Kernstown. Leading his men forward with his hat on the tip of his sword, Thoburn went down wounded as his troops raced to the wall against fellow Virginians of Jackson’s army. Thoburn returned to duty in time to lead his regiment again at the Battle of Port Republic. That summer he participated in the campaign in Northern Virginia under Gen. John Pope as a brigade commander at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas. That fall he returned to West Virginia where he served as a regimental and brigade commander guarding Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and chasing down Rebel raiders in the Mountain State for the next eighteen months.

In the spring of 1864, Thoburn returned to the Shenandoah Valley as a brigade commander. At New Market his troops covered the retreat of the beaten Union force. At Piedmont, Thoburn led a rapid attack on an exposed Confederate flank that captured 1,000 prisoners and several battle flags and cleared the way for the first ever occupation of Staunton by Union forces. He performed ably during Gen. David Hunter’s Lynchburg Raid. When Hunter’s forces returned to the Shenandoah Valley under Gen. George Crook that July, Thoburn had risen to command of a division. On July 18 at Snickers Gap or Cool Spring, Thoburn maintained his composure when his superiors put him in a now-win situation with the Shenandoah River at his back and three Confederate divisions in his front and on his flanks. He fought off their attacks from the banks of the river and successfully extricated his force to the east bank of the river at night. His next action came at the Second Battle of Kernstown. In this engagement, Thoburn found himself covering the retreat of a shattered Union army in the Valley once again.

When Sheridan took over in the Shenandoah Valley for the Union cause, Thoburn continued to be a key contributor to the Ohioan’s success. At the Third Battle of Winchester, his division drove Confederate General John B. Gordon’s division from its position and then attacked a brigade of Confederates that was holding up Col. Isaac Duval’s division along the swampy banks of Red Bud Run. Thoburn’s advance struck these Southerners in the flank and rear, and cleared they way for Duval’s division, to join the fight en masse. At Fisher’s Hill, Thoburn’s division encountered the most difficult resistance of any Union forces and was responsible for capturing much of the Confederate artillery and prisoners at that engagement. Thoburn’s final engagement came at the Battle of Cedar Creek, where Jubal Early routed Crook’s tiny Army of West Virginia from its camps early that morning. Thoburn lost his life attempting to rally troops in the streets of Middletown. He would be remembered fondly as “Cool Joe” Thoburn by the men who served under him, but his name and his contributions for the Union cause have been largely lost to history.

Hayes began the war as major of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, initially troubled by his assignment to a regiment from northern Ohio. As a major, he participated in the battle of Carnifex Ferry, West Virginia in September 1861. He remained in West, Virginia conducting raids and chasing down Confederate partisans. In the late summer of 1862, he went to Virginia with the Kanawha Division to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. By then he was a lieutenant colonel in command of the regiment. His arm was shattered as he led the 23rd Ohio in a charge against a Confederate brigade at the battle of South Mountain, Maryland. After a lengthy recovery he returned to duty and like Thoburn, saw dramatic uptick in his combat experience after U.S. Grant assumed overall command of U.S. forces and had every able bodied man attacking the Confederacy on some front.

At the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain on May 9, Hayes once again led from the front, leading his men across the miry Back Creek and doggedly advancing under a galling Confederate fire. When a flank movement played out to his left, Hayes’ men stormed over the Confederate works from the front and led the pursuit of the beaten Confederates toward Dublin. He participated in the Lynchburg Campaign, and skirmished with Confederate cavalry during the campaign near Snicker’s Gap. On July 24, George Crook ordered Hayes into a no-win situation, but the brave Ohioan dutifully lead his troops forward until they were savagely attacked on their left flank by Confederates under Gen. John C. Breckinridge. Although Hayes’ men were the first to be hit, he regrouped his men under fire, and formed part of the rear-guard, firing the last shots of the day at Bunker Hill, 14 miles north of the point where they were first attacked.

At the Third Battle of Winchester, Hayes, still in command of a brigade, was sent north of Red Bud Run with Isaac Duval’s division to conduct a flank march. All went well until the division stumbled blindly into a swampy stretch of Red Bud Run. Under fire from a brigade of Confederates stationed on the Hackwood farm, Hayes plunged his horse into the “morass” as his men would forever after call it, and attempted to cross. When his horse became bogged down in the slimy mud, he dismounted and struggled across followed by comparatively few men. Isaac Duval saw that the stream narrowed a few hundred yards west, and ordered the men out of the swamp and to cross in that direction which they did after Thoburn’s appearance on the flank and rear of the Confederates opposing Duval forced them to conduct a hurried retreat. Then Duval and Hayes’ joined the final attacks against the Confederates, joining Thoburn and driving the Confederates from a stonewall to the Smithfield Redoubt on the outskirts of Winchester. In front of these works, Duval’s division became pinned down under heavy artillery fire. Shortly before they made the final assault, Duval was wounded, and Hayes ascended to command of the division leading it in the final assault and was the first command into Winchester.

Three days later, Hayes’ division was part of Crook’s flanking column that marched along the eastern slope of Little North Mountain and attacked Early in his rear at Fisher’s Hill. Hayes played an important role as his division advanced well to the rear of the Confederate line and flanked the Confederates out of every position they attempted to take as they tried to confront Thoburn.

At Cedar Creek, Hayes and his command were surprised and routed as part of Early’s predawn assault. He rallied a cadre of men and remained with Crook throughout the day, helping to cover the retreat. All in all however, the battle of Cedar Creek, while a resounding Union victory, was a disappointing way for Hayes to end his career as a combat commander. Never again would he lead his men in battle. Although he was elected to congress in the fall of 1864, he remained with the army until the war ended.

In looking at the relative military careers and accomplishments, both Thoburn and Hayes had their share of successes and failures, often on the same battlefield. However, Thoburn clearly had more combat experience than Hayes and more at a division level. In short, he was a marginally more accomplished combat officer than Hayes. Yet Thoburn died at Cedar Creek and Hayes went on to become President. As a result of Hayes’ post-war political career, Hayes’ role in every action he was involved in has been called to everyone’s attention by every author who writes about those engagement, and quite naturally so. However, we need to keep in perspective that there were many “Cool Joe” Thoburn’s out there who did not go onto become president who had equal or better combat records than Hayes during the 1864 Valley Campaign. To Hayes’ everlasting credit, he always regarded his time as commander of the 23rd Ohio during the Civil War as the greatest accomplishment of his life, even after spending four years in the White House (or perhaps moreso).

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One response to “Memory versus Reality: A Comparison of Two Colonels: Rutherford B. Hayes and Joseph Thoburnh

  1. Since a lot of the following book takes place in the Shenandoah, I mention my Civil War ancestor novel that was recently published. See http://hiramshonor.blogspot.com. Best wishes. Max

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