LIMA — Nannie Worley Hughes vividly recalled the events of that April day, though some 60 Aprils had come and gone since then.
It was mid-April 1862; the country had been at war with itself for a year and Nannie Hughes, just turned 20 and newly married, was enduring an agonizing wait along with her sister-in-law, Emma (Emeline) Hughes, her friend Olivia “Leve” Meily and scores of other local residents for news of loved ones involved in what was at the time the deadliest battle of the Civil War.
On April 6 and 7, 1862, at Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River some 540 miles southwest of Lima, the Union and Confederate armies had clashed. More than 13,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing.
“I slept with Emma that awful week, and our pillows were wet with tears, as we sobbed ourselves to sleep every night, not knowing whether we were wives or widows,” Nannie Hughes recalled in an autobiography penned around 1918. “There was no mail delivery in Lima, and the post office was crowded with men and women after every train from the south arrived, hoping for news from loved ones.
“One day about ten days after the battle, as I neared the waiting crowd, I saw there was a commotion and from the post office came the sound of a woman weeping bitterly. It proved to be Hattie Armstrong, sister of Leve Meily’s betrothed. She had received a letter, which was addressed in a strange hand and read the cruel blow that her brother had been shot through the head and instantly killed on the first day of the battle.”
Leve Meily’s betrothed, Capt. Mart Armstrong of the 81st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was the first Allen County man killed in the Civil War.
Martin “Mart” Armstrong was born Feb. 22, 1833, in Columbiana County. His thrice-married father, William Armstrong, was elected brigadier general in the Ohio Militia in 1843 and was thereafter referred to as General Armstrong. In 1841, William Armstrong had moved his family to Allen County. He would serve two terms as Allen County treasurer in the 1850s and later, in 1869, win election to the Ohio House of Representatives from Allen County. He had earlier won election to the Ohio House from Columbiana County.
When William Armstrong died in 1876, the Lima Gazette wrote that, at the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, “he offered services for its suppression, but being too infirm for online duty, was not accepted.” However, his son, Mart Armstrong, “was among the first to volunteer in 1861.”
The Rev. W.F. Maltbie, in an article published in the Gazette on June 11, 1885, recalled those heady days of April 1861 after President Abraham Lincoln had put out the call for volunteers to enlist for three months to suppress the rebellion. “The excitement was at high tide,” Maltbie wrote. “Two companies were being recruited, one by Hon. M.H. Nichols, the other by Hon. C.N. Lamison. Squads were drilling under Gen. Armstrong and N. Tucker. The enlisted men wore a rosette of red, white and blue upon the lapel of their coat or vest.” Some of the men, Maltbie noted, “were spoiling for a fight” and predicting a short war and a sure victory.
On April 22, 1861, Maltbie and other members of the company met to elect officers. When they were asked, “Who will you have for First Lieutenant?” Mart Armstrong was chosen by unanimous acclamation.
Maltbie described the scene: “He was called upon for a speech, and said, ‘If I falter or hesitate in the discharge of duty, or turn my back upon the foe, may the man next to me thrust a dagger into my heart.”
Dreams of martial glory were soon put to rest. Nanny Hughes remembered that the “Lima men saw no fighting that summer,” spending their short enlistments in western Virginia (present day West Virginia) “marching from place to place and guarding bridges …” The men returned to Lima in late July 1861.
“Determined to give his country his aid while she needed it, he (Mart Armstrong) soon after recruited a company for three years, and in the latter part of September started for the west to join his regiment, then in Missouri under Fremont,” the Gazette wrote. “During the winter the regiment did duty when but poorly armed and equipped along the railroad lines, often suffering privations and hardships, but never getting much of an opportunity for meeting the traitors face to face.”
That opportunity came in the spring of 1862 when the 81st Ohio moved south to join General Ulysses S. Grant at Pittsburg Landing just north of the Tennessee-Mississippi border. “Sabbath morning of April 6, 1862, beamed brightly,” former Union Major W.H. Chamberlain wrote in his history of the 81st Ohio. “Aside from flying rumors of skirmishes near the outposts, most of the troops were entirely ignorant of the presence of an enemy. The usual morning inspection was in progress, when the sound of artillery and musketry far off to the front and left announced the opening of the battle.”
Writing in 1885, Maltbie recalled that “Mart Armstrong, our captain, was near the head of old Company B, and looking back he said to us (I see yet his smiling, genial face, expressive of frankness, force and fidelity) ‘Close up; don’t dodge.’ Shortly after, almost immediately, his head bowed, his left hand was thrown upward, his body fell forward, and our Captain was killed by a ball from the enemy striking him in the head. ‘Pick up the Captain and bring him along!’ shouted out Orderly Sergeant James H. Corns. First Lieutenant Titus ordered two or more of us to carry him off. Joseph Clayton and myself obeyed.”
News of Mart Armstrong’s death reached Lima on April 16, 1862. “Perhaps no event since the bombardment of Sumpter has so stirred the hearts of the people of Lima, and to a great extent of the County generally, as did the tidings of the death of Capt. Armstrong of the 81st Ohio at the battle of Pittsburg,” the Gazette wrote April 23, 1862. “When the first news of the battle came to hand, all were anxious to hear from the Allen County boys, known to be near the scene. Day after day went by, and regiment after regiment was reported up, but no mention of the 81st, in which so many families from the county had relatives and friends, until the impression had nearly amounted to a certainty that that regiment was not engaged in the conflict. Last Wednesday’s mail dispelled the illusion and brought us the intelligence that Capt. Armstrong was killed while doing his duty, and gallantly leading his men in the strife.”
Capt. Mart Armstrong’s body was brought back to Lima by his father and brother-in-law. “Last Saturday night, Gen. Armstrong and Theodore Mayo, esq., arrived at home with the remains of Capt. Mart Armstrong, killed at the Pittsburg battle,” the Gazette reported April 30, 1862. “Yesterday evening, the remains were conveyed to Ashton’s Hall (which stood in the northwest quadrant of the Public Square), where they laid in state during the night, and the funeral services, conducted by Rev. T.P. Johnston, will take place this morning at 10 o’clock …”
A week after Armstrong’s funeral, the Gazette printed the full text of the Rev. Johnston’s sermon. “War for twelve months and more has raged within our borders — we have felt its iron grasp upon the various interests of our nation,” he said. “We have experienced its saddening power upon the homes and hearts whence loved ones have gone forth to the perils of the camp and field, and we have even mourned the death of one and another — another and yet others who have fallen to their country’s cause by disease and accident; but today we are compelled to witness, with our own eyes, the sad wreck to human homes and hopes which the sword causes, when it claims its victims from our midst.”
Some time later, an unfinished letter Mart Armstrong had begun on the eve of the Battle of Shiloh to his sister, Harriet (Hattie), arrived in Lima. It was reprinted in 1908 as Lima prepared for a state encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union Army veterans. “Well, Hatt,” he wrote, “I suppose you think we have a hard time of it in the army and that had we the choice to make again, we would prefer to stay at home. I don’t speak for others, but for myself, when I say, truly, I would not exchange my tent in this crisis for a palace home. The world’s work is to be done and he who labors to perform it and urge on the wheels of progress, knowing that he is doing his part, is the only happy one.”
Next: Mart Armstrong’s name lives on.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.