27 February 2013
Major Guido Ilges (1835-1918): Civil War Glory Years—Part 1
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Major Guido Ilges (1835-1918): Civil War Glory Years—Part 1
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
February 27, 2013
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana. This month features Civil War veteran Guido Ilges, who rose from private to Lieutenant Colonel in the Civil War, and was revered in the Indian Wars Army before resigning in disgrace.
Many Civil War veterans served in the Indian Wars in frontier Montana. Among these was the colorful and popular Major Guido Ilges who like many German immigrants served in the Civil War and continued to make the Army a career after the war. Major Ilges served with distinction during the Civil War and the Montana Indian Wars, commanding the Fort Benton Military Post from 1875-79, only to fall victim to bad judgment, court martial, and disgrace.
Born at Ahrweiler, Coblenz, Prussia on Nov. 10, 1835, Guido Joseph Julius Ilges immigrated to America when he was twenty years of age. After practicing law at Vincennes, Indiana before the Civil War, Ilges joined the Frontier Guard as a private in April 1861 in the early days of the Civil War. Newly elected Kansas Senator and General James H. Lane raised the Frontier Guard to protect the White House in the chaotic early days of the war when southern sympathizers in and around Washington, D. C. threatened President Abraham Lincoln and the capital.
At that time there was no Secret Service and very few Union troops stationed in Washington so Gen. Lane responded to the danger by raising loyal troops from Kansas and Illinois men living near Washington. The government accepted Lane’s volunteer Frontier Guard to protect the White House. On April 19, a few days after the Guard was formed, the Washington Evening Star reported:
“Beside the regular guard which has been stationed in the vicinity of the President’s house for some time, a guard of sixty under the command of Gen. James H. Lane, of Kansas, occupied the east room and slept upon their arms last night. This company has been organized but a day or two, yet a large force is already enrolled, and the corps increasing rapidly. Late in the evening the President attempted to enter the east room, but as the sentinel at the door had received orders to admit no one without the countersign, Mr. Lincoln was forced to beat a retreat, to the no small amusement of the company . . . This company goes on duty at the Executive Mansion every night at 8:30 o’clock and will continue to guard the White House until there is no danger of an attack upon the city.”
A week later on April 27 the Evening Star reported: “The Frontier Guard, commanded by General Lane, who have been stationed during the past week in the neighborhood of the Executive Mansion, waited upon the President yesterday afternoon in a body, at the White House. They formed at General Lane’s headquarters, Willard’s Hotel, numbering 120 men and marched thither, making a formidable appearance. They were ushered into the east room where they formed in line, and upon the entrance of the President was introduced by their commander.”
Private Ilges’ conduct of his duties with the Guard attracted the personal attention of Lincoln, and the President took occasion to appoint him a Captain. On May 14, 1861 Guido Ilges left the Frontier Guard to accept his commission as Captain in the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of nine regular Army units newly formed as part of the Army’s rapid buildup as the Civil War began. Captain Ilges served with the legendary 14th U. S. Infantry Regiment during the first three years of the war, earning brevets to Major for gallantry in the Wilderness and to Lieutenant Colonel for gallant and meritorious service at Spotsylvania.
Captain Guido Ilges saw action in many of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. He was engaged in the siege of Yorktown, battles of Gaines' Mill, Charles City Cross-Roads, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Chancellorsville, action against the “Gray Ghost” John S. Mosby at Ewell's Chapel, battles of Gettysburg and Rappahannock Station, operations at Mine Run, battles of the Wilderness (when he was wounded), Laurel Hill, Spottsylvania (when Ilges commanded the regiment), North Anna, and Petersburg, Virginia.
The 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment compiled a distinguished record during the war. Its ranking Captain, John “Paddy” O’Connell, who often led the 14th into battle, once said, “I would take the 14th to the very gates of Hell, but I want a chance to whip the Devil when I get there.”
The Peninsula Campaign. In time for The Peninsula Campaign in late June 1862, the 14th Infantry was assigned to the First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Corps under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter. In the bloody battle at Gaines Mill on June 27, Capt. Paddy O’Connell reported on the action of the 14th: “I . . . took my position on the right of the 12th Infantry near the woods, just below the house near Edwards’ battery. From this point the battalion received a severe fire from the woods, which was turned by the battalion, slowly retiring in good order to the lane near the house referred to, where it took up and held a position until the troops were drawn from the field. During this engagement five officers, - Captain McIntosh, Lieutenants Sinclair, McElhone, Lyon and Hoover – were wounded, the last three badly. Eighteen enlisted men were killed, 113 wounded, and 12 missing. The list of killed is probably greater than here stated. The officers and men behaved well. At night [we] crossed the Chickahominy and encamped on the ground that had been occupied by the general headquarters near Savage Station.”
Second Bull Run. At the Second Battle of Bull Bun August 29-30, 1862, Captain Ilges’ 14th Infantry again assigned to Porter’s Fifth Army Corps, fought well. Their action was reported, “On the very ground which [Gen. Stonewall] Jackson had held in his first battle the best troops of the Federal army were rapidly assembling. Here were [Second Division with the 14th Infantry, Brig. Gen. George] Sykes’ regulars and Reynolds’ Pennsylvanians; where the woods permitted batteries were established; and Porter’s Fifth Army Corps, who at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill had proved such stubborn fighters, opposed a strong front once more to their persistent foes . . . As the attack was pressed the resistance of the federals grew more stubborn, and before long the Confederate formation lost its strength . . . The conviction that the battle was lost was no longer a signal for ‘the thinking bayonets’ to make certain of their individual safety; and the regulars, for the second time on the same field, provided a strong nucleus of resistance.”
Antietam. Just weeks later, September 16-17, 1862 at the decisive Battle of Antietam, the 14th Infantry Regiment and its Second Division under Brig. Gen. George Sykes were in the eye of the storm. At Antietam Captain Ilges commanded Company E, First Battalion, 14th Infantry. Historian Brian Downey wrote, “Few military organizations find themselves on the precise spot, at the precise moment, to be a trigger to war’s conclusion. For Brigadier General George Sykes’ 2nd (Regular) Division, Fifth Army Corps, one such golden opportunity came at Antietam.” Of course, the war did not end at Antietam, but this lost battle for the Confederacy proved in many ways the high water mark.
After Antietam, First Battalion commander Capt. W. Harvey Brown reported:
“The battalion was first posted in line of battle at 6 p.m. on the 15th [Sept.], on the left of the Second Battalion, Fourteenth Infantry, and in rear of the Second Battalion of the Twelfth Infantry. In this position I bivouacked.
September 16, occupied the same ground under heavy artillery fire for several hours, and remained in this position all day.
September 17, occupied the same ground under very heavy fire until 3 p.m., at which time I received orders to cross the Antietam Creek in company with the Fourth Infantry . . .
I then continued up the road nearly 1 mile towards Sharpsburg, under heavy artillery fire and musketry firing from the enemy’s sharpshooters. At this place the Fourth Infantry were deployed as skirmishers, and I received orders to hold the battalion in reserve near a wagon road which crossed said pike about 1 mile from the position I had occupied during the early part of the day.”
Ewell’s Chapell. The next spring, acting on good intelligence Gen. George Meade ordered a trap set at Ewell’s Chapell in Prince William County for Confederate Major John S. Mosby and his partisan rangers. Mosby, known as “the Gray Ghost,” and his rangers of the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry, were noted for their lightning quick raids behind Union lines. On the morning of June 22, 1863 a 30-man detachment of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry was exposed as bait, while Company E with 100 men, 14th U.S. Infantry commanded by Captain Ilges hid in the rear of Ewell’s Chapel and along a farm lane that entered the Old Carolina Road near the chapel. As Mosby and about 25 men passed through the Ewell Farm, they saw the Union cavalry and attacked. The trap had worked, but the concealed 14th Infantry found half their weapons failed to fire because of damp and rainy conditions and delivered such poorly directed fire as the rebels approached the chapel that Mosby and his men quickly scattered, suffering only three wounded. While Union forces suffered just a single casualty, the trap had failed, causing Gen. Meade to lament that they had failed the “Prettiest chance . . . to dispose of Mr. Mosby.”
Gettysburg. The eight companies of the 14th U.S. Infantry, commanded by Captain Grotius R. Giddings, arrived near Gettysburg on the morning of July 2 and took position with the rest of the First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Corps near Twelfth Corps on the right. They moved with the Division from the right to the left of the line and at 5 p.m. with the Brigade moved across Plum Run near Little Round Top and supported the Second Brigade in its advance to the crest of the rocky wooded hill beyond and facing left engaged the enemy. The 14th retired under a heavy fire on both flanks and from the rear after the Confederates had possession of the Wheatfield in the rear of the Brigade and went into position on Little Round Top. The 14th remained in the same position through July 4th when the regiment with the 12th supported the 3rd, 4th, and 6th U.S. Infantry in a reconnaissance and developed a force of the Confederate Infantry and Artillery in front. During the Battle of Gettysburg the 14th suffered 16 killed and 132 overall casualties. A regimental monument for the 14th Infantry stands today along Ayres Avenue on Houck’s Ridge.
The Wilderness. The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5-7, began a series of engagements extending over a five week period. The Wilderness was most notable because it began the long personal struggle between Lieut. Gen. Ulysses Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee. It was notable in the Ilges story because during the battle he was cited for gallantry earning promotion to Major. He also was wounded in this battle, although the details are unknown. The 14th Infantry and their First Brigade began action on May 3-5 as reported by Timothy J. Reese:
“The Regular Brigade crossed at Germanna the night of the 3rd and 4th in territory all too familiar to them. . . . Strewn before them to either side lay the infamous Wilderness where thousands had perished by bullet and flame while Hooker dawdled at Chancellorsville to the east. . . . Skeletal remains of their half-buried of fire-ravaged predecessors lay all about, mute evidence of what awaited them should Lee take it into his head to attack here. . . .
Ayres’ Regular Brigade was up early on Thursday, May 5, gulping down a quick breakfast before running to their places in line. . . . and began the tortuous advance through the undergrowth by regiments in column of fours to the right of the pike. They constituted the extreme right of the army until such time as Wright’s division of the VI Corps made connection from the North. . . .
Sweating and swearing, they emerged at the edge of a broad open field perhaps 800 years wide and half as deep across which the Rebels could be plainly heard erecting breastworks within their sector of the forest. . . . [H]ere in Sanders’ Field – for whatever it might have been worth – the Regulars were about to go in for the last time in ordered ranks.” The Battle of the Wilderness continued through May 7th.
Spotsylvania Court House. From May 8-21 Grant and Lee continued a series of engagements including the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The Union Fifth Corps including Major Ilges and his 14th Infantry were heavily engaged in battle at Spotsylvania. In this action, Ilges was cited for gallantry and meritorious service, received a battlefield promotion to brevet Lieut. Col. and assumed command of the 14th. While Gen. Grant failed to defeat or destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Lee failed strategically to keep the Army of the Potomac out of Central Virginia. It was during this battle on May 11th that Gen. Grant sent his famous dispatch declaring, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” It took that summer and more.
After the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, brevet Lt. Col. Ilges continued to serve in combat at the engagement at North Anna River on May 24 and skirmishes leading to Petersburg in mid June 1864. After coming under fire in some 40 engagements, being twice promoted, suffering wounds, Lt. Col. Guido Ilges ended active combat duty with his appointment as Acting Assistant Inspector-General, Second Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac from June to August 1864. The fall of 1864, he served as a member of the Inspecting Board of General Hospitals for the State of Pennsylvania from October to November. Finally, the decorated warrior, Lt. Col. Ilges ended the last months of the war on recruiting and mustering duty in New York, December 1864, to May 1865.
Following the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox April 9, 1865 the Union Army prepared for their triumphant parade through Richmond celebrating victory. When asked where the gallant 14th should be placed in line, General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, immediately responded. “To the Right of the Line. The 14th has always been to the front in battle and deserves the place of honor.” This was followed by the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington D. C. at the end of the war with the 14th again in the place of honor at the Right of the Line.” While Lt. Col. Guido Ilges no longer served with the 14th, there is no doubt he was with them in spirit and memory as the marched through the captured rebel capital and later at our nation’s capital.
[Sources: http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/frontier-guard/16898; Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society 1907-1908, Vol. X, edited by Geo. W. Martin, Secretary, State Printing Office, Topeka, 1908, 419-21; Washington Evening Star 19 April, 26 April 1861; Unident Cincinnati Newspaper 19 Mar 1905; Civil War Service Records; Official Report 146, War of the Rebellion; U.S. Census 1860-1910; Byron Farwell. Encyclopedia of 19th Century Land Warfare. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001, p. 415; Guy V. Henry. Military record of civilian appointments in the United States Army, 347-48; Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, vol. 2; http://www.guilfordgreys.com/14th_US-Regiment_and_Battles.htm ]
1. Major Guido Ilges. (Courtesy of OHRC)
2. Photo: Regimental Monument for the 14th U.S. Regulars along Ayres Avenue, Houck’s Ridge, at Gettysburg. (Courtesy of OHRC)
3. Review of the Army in Washington, D. C. May 23 2013.