Friday, December 18, 2015

Valor in Blue and Gray: Timothy O’Connor and Adam Ballenger at First Deep Bottom

Part five in a series.

In my last post we finished off the First Battle of Deep Bottom by examining the final day of major fighting, July 28, 1864. This day saw intense combat that pitted Confederate infantry under Brig. Gen. James Conner against Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg at the Darby Farm.
During that fight, two individuals stood out for heroism above and beyond the call of duty – Federal cavalry trooper Timothy O’Connor and Confederate sergeant Adam Ballenger.

Timothy O’Connor and the Fight for the Lower Field

As we have seen, the fighting at the Darby Farm kicked off when men led by Gen. James Conner from Lane’s Brigade (under Col. Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lt. Col. J.F. Hunt) and Kershaw’s Brigade (under Col. John W. Henagan) left their earthworks at Fussell’s Mill at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of July 28, 1864. Their mission was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck on the James River, where he could be defeated in detail. Unfortunately for the Rebels, there was no reconnaissance conducted to scout the Federal positions. Thus, Conner’s men set forth unaware of a mounted threat moving their way in the form of Union cavalry troopers under Brig. Gen. David Gregg and the always inept Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz.

When Conner’s battle line hit a prominent thumb of trees, it split in half with the 1st and 14th South Carolina of Hunt’s Brigade going with Cowan to the right and the remainder of the brigade splitting off to the left with Henagan. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the thumb of trees, two separate fights quickly developed, which I call the fights for the lower and upper field.
In the lower field, the attacking Confederates were met with stubborn resistance from Federal cavalry which had the decided advantage of repeating carbines. After stalling in the face of superior firepower, the attacking Confederates soon began to give way.

The 18th North Carolina had just begun to retreat when the Regular Brigade of the U.S. Cavalry counterattacked. Lt. Col. John McGill, commanding the 18th, reported that “my Regiment had to fall back under a most galling fire, and I fear that several of my men who are now missing were either wounded or killed as several were to start to fall back and have not been seen since.” Among those he feared missing was Cpl. David M. Barefoot of Company H, who “received the colors and bore them at the front until I ordered the Regiment to retreat.” As it turned out, Barefoot had the worst of an encounter with a young trooper in the 1st U.S. Cavalry named Timothy O’Connor.

O’Connor was originally from County Kerry, Ireland, but settled in Chicago once he came to the United States. When war broke out he initially enlisted in the 23rd Illinois before joining the 1st U.S. Cavalry. By the time of First Deep Bottom, O’Connor was a high private who found himself in the vanguard of the Federal counterattack. Before long, he was looking poor Cpl. Barefoot in the eye and wrestling the regimental colors out of his hands. For this daring action, O’Connor was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation notes that he was awarded the medal “for extraordinary heroism on 28 July 1864, while serving with Company E, 1st U.S. Cavalry, in action at Malvern, Virginia, for capture of flag of the 18th North Carolina Infantry.”
O'Connor's Memorial at Arlington.

O’Connor was discharged from the army in December of 1865 and returned to Chicago. He died on March 26, 1915, at the age of 72. There is a memorial headstone at Arlington National Cemetery with an incorrect death date, but research indicates that his remains are in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago – which also happens to be the final resting place of Al Capone. However, I was recently contacted by a distant family member who says O’Connor went back to County Kerry after the war and his mortal remains are in an unmarked grave in the land of his birth. This family member further stated that they are attempting to relocate his Medal of Honor.

Adam Ballenger and the Upper Field

While O’Connor and his compatriots were getting the best of the situation in the Lower Field, his compatriots in the other sector of the battlefield were not so lucky initially.

The sheer force of the Confederate attack here caused several regiments of horse soldiers to fall back to better ground. This withdrawal left several 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of Lt. William Dennison’s horse artillery vulnerable. For 22 year old Sgt. Adam W. Ballenger of Company C, 13th South Carolina the alluring site of an exposed enemy gun was too much. The impetuous youngster ran out ahead of the column to take on Dennison’s battery almost singlehandedly.

Ballenger ran up to one cannon that had had several horses killed and jumped on it, causing the driver to run off. Incredibly, Ballenger then “jumped off the piece, cut loose the traces and unfastened the off-horse, which he mounted.” He enlisted help in hauling off the piece, encouraging several men to grab the prolonge and begin leading the prize back to the rear.

Ballenger later in life.
Col. Hunt saw all of his transpire and credited the short-lived Confederate success to Ballenger, stating, “I consider our success due in a great measure to the conduct of Sergt. Ballenger.” After the battle, Gen. McGowan summoned Ballenger to his headquarters and promoted him from sergeant to 2nd Lt. on the spot. Ballenger returned to South Carolina after the war and lived until December of 1912. He is buried at Inman Baptist Church Cemetery in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

While the Confederate Medal of Honor was not created until 1977, Adam Ballenger’s heroism would eventually win him the award in the 1990’s. According to the website of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “the Medal of Honor service was held at Sgt. Ballenger’s grave site on September 30, 1995 at the Inman Baptist Church in Inman, SC. Over 200 people attended the service. Over one hundred of them were descendants of Sgt. Ballenger.”

The exploits of these two young heroes reveal that there is still much to be gleaned from examining the clashes north of the James River in 1864.

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