When L.K. Harris and the 8th Indiana first went into battle, they almost immediately found themselves in the fog of war.
In early July 1861, Generals McClellan and Rosencrans had decided to coordinate an attack on Rebels who were camped on Rich Mountain near Beverly, West Virginia. The western part of Virginia was an important territory for the Union to hold, especially to support the Union sympathizers who lived there. The specifics of the plan called for McClellan to wait until he heard the sounds of battle from the east side of the mountain before attacking from the west. The coordinated plan was orchestrated to bring swift and complete victory to the Union troops.
General Rosencrans put his troops in motion at 5am on the morning of Thursday, July 11, 1861. His brigade included the 8th, 10th and 13th Indiana as well as the 19th Ohio. As the morning began, they followed a “circuitous route, through a trackless mountain forest.” The excitement level among these green volunteers from the farms and towns of Indiana and Ohio couldn’t have been higher. Their minds must have raced as they headed toward battle for the first time.
A local boy named David Hart acted as the guide for the troops, because he knew the terrain–his father’s farm was at the top of the mountain. The 8th Indiana was initially the lead regiment in the brigade’s march. Hart, however, gave up his role as guide when the battle got close and the 8th Indiana ended up wandering down into a ravine, so the 10th became the lead element.
The rain had begun at six o’clock in the morning and it continued until a little before noon. The boys cut their way through the wet forest, seeking the Rebels at the top of the mountain. By the time they reached the crest at around 2pm, they were wet and tired. But before they knew it, they were fired upon by Rebel pickets. A sergeant of the 10th Indiana was killed almost immediately and a captain mortally wounded.
The regiments quickly formed into lines. The Rebels opened up with six-pounder cannons and rifle fire. The awesome noise of war began.
The 8th Indiana were ordered to charge with the 13th, but ended up in line somewhere else by mistake. Orders flew around as the young volunteers struggled through their first experience in battle. They stayed in line and fought valiently, and before the day was over the 8th made their charge too.
In the end, Rosencrans fought the battle alone. McClellan never came in support, in spite of the resounding sounds of battle. In retrospect it was no surprise that the overly cautious, slow-to-move McClellan didn’t attack. Nevertheless, for his overall leadership in the West Virginia campaign, President Lincoln put him in charge of the Army of the Potomac–the main Union force in the East.
All the Hoosier boys fought well (the Ohio troops had been held in reserve and had no chance to prove their worth). The brigade captured 21 prisoners, 2 brass six-pounder guns, 50 stand of arms and some corn and provisions. In some of the skirmishing that continued over the following days, they killed the first Rebel general.
When the fighting of Thursday, July 11th was over, the 8th and 10th Indiana were assigned burial duty. They spent the next day digging graves for the fallen as other regiments chased the Rebels.
After a day of slogging through the rain, cutting through the forest, wandering into a ravine, moving from one part of the battlefield to another under heavy fire, charging, capturing, shooting, hollering, and witnessing the worst that battle could bring, burial detail probably didn’t seem too bad.
The boys of the 8th Indiana had been yearning for the experience of battle for weeks, but one wonders what they thought about, prayed for and dreamed of when they finally lay down to sleep after a day like July 11, 1861.