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Miami math professor won numbers game vs. larger CSA force

                                                                                            View of Cumberland Gap, Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862

Dozens of Facts About Butler County and the Civil War, 1861-1865

Miami math professor won numbers game vs. larger CSA force

(This the seventh "Dozen of Facts About Butler County and the Civil War," a series of random columns related to brief comments on Butler County’s role in the Civil War, 1861-1865. The columns are in conjunction with the observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, 2010-2015. The reprint edition of Jim Blount’s 1998 book, The Civil War and Butler County, is available at several outlets, or by contacting Books in Shandon, 4795 Cincinnati-Brookville Road (Ohio 126), Shandon, OH 45063, or phone 738-2962 or 523-4005.)                       

Compiled by Jim Blount

73. William C. Margedant, a native of Germany, was the physical instructor of the Hamilton Turners (Turnverein), a German gymnastic society. After hearing Abraham Lincoln's April 15, 1861, appeal for 75,000 volunteers, the Turners convened in their usual meeting place hall -- the third floor of the Schwab brewery on South Front Street (now the site of Hamilton police headquarters).

Margedant recruited members of the society to join an all-German regiment forming in Cincinnati. April 18, his recruits, numbering about 40, arrived in Cincinnati to form the nucleus of Co. B of the Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The Ninth OVI -- known as "the Dutch Devils" -- received its commands in German, marched to German martial music and trained with a German military manual.

74. Civil War vocabulary: Quaker guns were dummy cannons formed from a long log painted black. They were designed to deceive the from a distance.

Torpedoes were land mines, usually buried artillery shells fitted with pressure fuzes or concealed trip wires. Confederate water mines were the threat when Admiral David Farrgut said "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" during the Aug. 5, 1864, naval battle in Mobile Bay.

75. In the 1860 census, Ohio (11,123) was third in number of manufacturers, topped by New York (22,624) and Pennsylvania (22,363) and followed by California (8,468) and Massachusetts (8,176).  Among southern states, the leaders were Virginia (5,385), North Carolina (3,689), Tennessee (2,572), Georgia (1,890) and Louisiana (1,744).

76. Robert White McFarland, a president of Miami University (1885-1888) after the Civil War, had a disjointed, but interesting military career. In 1861, he had completed five years as a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Miami. He had no military experience. That didn’t stop the 36-year-old scholar from directing the training of Miami students and Oxford residents as home guards in 1861.

In 1862, as Captain McFarland, he recruited students and Oxford men to become part of Company A of the 86th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. But that 86th OVI never left Ohio. It was disbanded when its uneventful three-month term expired in September 1862.

77. War circumstances led to reorganization of 86th OVI in July 1863 with 38-year-old Robert W. McFarland as lieutenant colonel. Soon the revived 86th faced the challenge of trying to force Confederate troops out of their stronghold at Cumberland Gap. The rugged mountain area -- broken by ravines and gullies -- was considered impregnable. It had switched hands several times -- occupied in September 1861 by Confederates, retaken by Union forces in June 1862, and captured by Confederates in September 1862.

Union troops prevailed in September 1863, thanks to the Miami mathematician. McFarland’s manipulation of numbers convinced CSA defenders on the mountain top that five undermanned, inadequately trained Union regiments about to attack them were at least four to five times larger.

"The first thing to be done in order to produce the impression that the [Union] column was very strong was to rearrange the brass numbers always found on the soldiers' caps," said McFarland.

"In this way, the 86th regiment was made to appear also as the 8th, 6th, the 68th, the 9th, the 98th, etc., to the number of eight regiments in all. In like manner, the 129th [regiment] became the 1st, the 2nd, the 29th, the 92nd, etc., or 16 [infantry] regiments in all." In addition, artillery and cavalry cap numbers were juggled.

The ruse involved marching units into Confederate view, then to CSA blind spots, changing numbers and exposed themselves again with one of the 16 possible new arrangement on their caps. Believing they were outnumbered, the rebel commanders surrendered the gap.

Later reports by Confederate officers confirmed the confusion caused by McFarland’s scheme. Their estimates of Union opposition ranged as high as 30,000 men. The brigade totaled less than 3,000 soldiers.


Billy Yank, atop Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers Monument in Hamilton.                         
The numbers on his cap, or kepi, (not visible) would identify this regiment.                         

78. Monthly pay of a white private in the Union army at the start of the Civil War was $13.

79. Monthly pay of a black private in the Union army was $7.

80. Monthly pay of a Union colonel, who usually commanded a regiment, was $95.

81. Monthly pay of a nurse during the war was $12. Some of that amount had to be spent on the welfare of her patients. 

82. Daily amount paid to Union cavalrymen for feeding their horses, if they supplied the horse, was 50 cents.

83. Monthly amount the federal government sent home to each Civil War private's spouse or parents was nothing.

84. "Until 1860 it was customary to say ‘the United States are.’ After 1865 it was more correct to say ‘the United States is,’ " a reflection on national unity, according to The Civil War by James I Robertson Jr., published in 1963 by the U. S. Civil War Centennial Commission.