Freeman’s Ford

22 August 1862


The Battle at Freeman’s Ford was anything but pretty for the 74th.  Less than two month’s after Cross Keys, fate would have it that the First German would happen across the Confederate Army.  The Union Army had taken up a position across the Rappahannock knowing that the Confederate Army was somewhere on the other side looking for a place to ford what at the start of the battle was a rather low, slow flowing, muddy river.  The 74th was ordered to undertake a reconnaissance, per the order of Gen. Schurz who  accompanied the 74th,  in the effort to find Con. Gen. Jackson’s corps.


From their positions here, the 74th left the rest of Gen. Bolen’s First Brigade[1] and moved across the river, up the steep river bank, across the small stretch of flat lands and then up the rather steep, tree covered hillside.  The climb was slow and the undergrowth still thick, but brittle from the Summer heat.  The 74th was ordered to take up a skirmishing position in advance of the rest of their Union Brigade.



These pictures were taken at the top of the river bank on the Union side of the Rappahannock in May – by August the greens would be a bit more mutted and the River not as high on the banks – or at least that was the case in 1862.


It was a hot and muggy day – and the men of the 74th had only recently had their first engagement at Cross Keys.  There was still a level of animosity between the Officers of the 74th as well – with some showing loyalty to Lt. Col. Hamm as a result of his “interim command” during Schimmelfennig’s recovery and others to Colonel Schimmelfennig himself.


As the 74th came up over the ridgeline, they encountered a few Confederate pickets just inside the tree line seen in the picture below.  The pickets were out protecting the ambulances, supply teams, and Confederate stragglers.  These men were part of the Con. Gen. Trimble’s brigade and were actually traveling on this road.  The 74th had put out a skirmish line that was so wide, about a mile in length, it gave the impression to the Confederates that this was the advance of a much larger force than just a single Union brigade.  However, what the 74th thought was a just a small regiment, ended up being the rear portion of a Confederate column on the march. 

This picture, with the cow standing guard, is the location of the right wing of the 74th.


The 74th, thinking it had encountered a lone Confederate regiment, pressed into the field and drove the Confederate pickets into an “open field” about one mile above “Bessie’s” brown head in the picture above.  At the time of the battle, that open field (not where we are standing in this picture but about a mile behind Bessie) was a corn field and here Pennsylvania men fought rebels from Texas (Hood’s Texas Brigade).  What the skirmishers of the 74th engaged was not a group of stragglers but five regiments of Confederate soldiers.


Schimmelfennig quickly realized that what he had walked out into was a gap between two wings of the Confederate Army (the rear of Jackson’s Corps with its ambulances and the advance of Longstreet’s Corps entering into the cornfield)  Within minutes, the 74th, the 8th West Virginia, and the 61st Ohio found itself in a defensive position as a portion of the Confederate column turned itself around and upon the probing Union regiments.  Con. Gen. Trimble’s men hit the 8th (West) Virginia, who were seen as traitors by the attacking Confederate soldiers – and the attack that followed was swift, fierce and vicious.  The 8th (West) Virginia folded and was routed from the field.  As that regiment folded, Gen. Schurz personally rallied the 61st Ohio long enough to allow the 74th to go from skirmishing positions to that of a formed regiment.  A long fighting retreat began with the 74th and 61st working in tandem as they moved back to the river.


Seriously outnumbered, Schimmelfenning ordered the men to undertake a bayonet charge while at the same time moving his men in such a way as to give the impression to the advancing Confederates that more men were coming to the Union commander’s aide.  The use of drums, bugles, shouts, and noise helped to add to the confusion.  The combined tactics bought Schimmelfenning the much needed pause in the Confederate attack to get the regiments back to the river.


The 74th and 61st retreated “at a greatly increased pace” (according to Gen. Schurz) down the hill.  Many of the officers were riding their horses and as they retreated those horses became casualities of the engagement.  Per the orders of Gen. Siegel, the Union artillery pieces of three Union batteries began firing to provide some cover to the retreating regiments.  The Confederate’s began a slow, systemic push into the wooded area with its men to the edge of the tree line at the top of the hill. .  As the men of the 74th and 61st scrambled down the wooded hillside, those in the front of the retreat came onto the flat at the base of the hill only to realize that the river had risen quite a bit since their earlier crossing at noon.  Rains earlier in the day had risen the river substantially in less than four hours and the river was no longer waist high – but rather at shoulder height.  While a firing duel began between the Confederate forces now at the tree line at the crest of the hill and the Union artillery forces across the river, the men of the 74th and 61st scrambled into the river – whose current was now much swifter.

Exposed and in the open, the retreating members of the 74th and 61st endured constant fire.  The river bank below their own artillery was now slick, steep and muddy allowing the Confederate attackers to play havoc upon the retreating men. 


General Bohlen was killed in this part of the engagement across from the Union artillery lines.  Witness accounts indicated that the General had been shot through the heart while he tried to rally his troops to make the river crossing.  He fell into the river and his body was latter found as an “unidentified Colonel” by the Confederate troops.


From the ranks of the 74th, twelve men died at Freeman’s Ford, 37 were wounded, three were reported as drowned, and 16 were reported as missing (two of which were captured by Confederates, the rest probably drowned).  The 61st Ohio had casualties in the neighborhood of 100 men, but due to a massive level of disorganization within the ranks of its officers, it reported only five casualties.  This would become the basis for the purge of officers of the Brigade noted elsewhere within the website.  For many in the 74th, surviving the engagement at Freeman’s Ford was something akin to a military victory – for they were nearly surrounded and taken en mass.


No marker exists near this location that tells of the battle and the loss of U.S. Brig. General Henry Bohlen[2].  The 74th descendants are discussing efforts to rectify that oversight.


[1]   The First Brigade consisted of the 61st Ohio, 74th PA, and 8th West Virginia, as well as Battery F of the PA Light Artillery.  The Artillery did not cross the river, but rather stayed on the slight knoll seen in the first picture.  The First Brigade was commanded by General Henry Bolen and was part of Gen. Carl Schurz’ Third Division of the First Army Corps.  The First Army Corps was part of Maj. Gen. Pope’s Army of Virginia.

[2] General Bohlen had been a merchant in Philadelphia and was the former commander of the 75th Pennsylvania, “The Second German” which was organized at the same time as the 74th.