Darius Nash Couch was born on July 23, 1822, on his family’s farm near South East, a village in Putnam County, New York. He was the second of three children born to Jonathan and Elizabeth (Penney) Couch. His grandfather, Thomas Couch, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
Couch attended local schools and secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy, entering on July 1, 1842. He graduated four years later, ranked thirteenth in his class of fifty-nine cadets. Among his classmates in the illustrious class of 1846 were future Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and several future Union generals, including John G. Foster, Jesse L. Reno, Charles C. Gilbert, George Stoneman, George H. Gordon, and Couch’s close friend, George B. McClellan.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, the army brevetted Couch to the rank of second lieutenant and assigned him to the 4th U.S. Artillery. Like most of his classmates, Couch took part in the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848). During that conflict, he received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” during the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22-23, 1847). On December 4, 1847, officials promoted Couch to the rank of first lieutenant with the 4th Artillery.
At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the army sent Couch to Fort Pickens, Florida, where he campaigned against the Seminole Indians for two years. From 1850 to 1853, Couch served on garrison duty at various army posts including Fort Columbus, New York (1850‑51), Fort Johnston, North Carolina (1851‑52), and Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania. (1852‑53).
During the winter of 1852-1853, the United States War Department granted Couch a leave of absence to conduct a scientific expedition in Mexico for the Smithsonian Institution. According to the institution’s Ninth Annual Report, published in 1855, “Lieutenant Couch gathered copious collections in all departments of zoology, and made a large number of original notes upon the habits and species. Many new species were obtained by him, and important discoveries made respecting the geographical distributions of others.” Two species identified by Couch still bear his name, Couch’s Kingbird and Couch’s Spadefoot Toad.
In 1854, Couch returned to garrison duty in the United States at Fort Independence, Massachusetts, and later at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On August 31, 1854, he married Mary Caroline Crocker, the daughter of Samuel L. Crocker, a United States Congressman from Taunton, Massachusetts. Their marriage, which lasted forty-two years, produced one daughter and one son.
A few months after his marriage, Couch resigned from the army on April 30, 1855, and moved to New York City to begin a career as a merchant. Two years later, he moved to Massachusetts to work as a copper fabricator for the Taunton Copper Company, owned by his father-in-law.
When the Civil War erupted, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew authorized Couch to recruit a regiment of soldiers to help preserve the Union. On June 15, 1861, the 7th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry mustered into service under the command of Colonel Couch. In July, Couch and his men traveled to Washington, D.C., where they manned the defenses surrounding the nation’s capital until March 1862.
Following the Union disaster at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), the Lincoln administration called upon Major General George B. McClellan to lead the Union war effort. On July 25, 1861, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 47, which combined the Departments of Washington and Northeastern Virginia into a division, with McClellan commanding. On August 20, McClellan issued General Orders No. 1, assuming “command of the Army of the Potomac.” On the same day, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 62, promoting Couch to the rank of brigadier general, to date from May 17, 1861. As McClellan organized his new command, his friend from West Point quickly advanced. By the time McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, Couch commanded the 1st Division of the 4th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
During the Peninsula Campaign, Couch was engaged at the Siege of Yorktown (April 5–May 4, 1862), the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862), the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31–June 1, 1862), the Battle of Oak Grove (June 25, 1862), and Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862).
Second Battle of Bull Run
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia forced McClellan’s army to retreat down the Virginia Peninsula, President Lincoln and General-in-Chief-of-the-Army Henry Halleck recalled the Army of the Potomac to the Washington area on August 3, 1862. With McClellan off of the peninsula, Lee turned his attention to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia and scored a major victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). Reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac, including Couch’s Division, prevented the Union defeat from being worse than it could have been when Pope’s army retreated. Lee’s victory opened the way for a Confederate invasion of the North.
During the Maryland Campaign, Couch’s Division supported the 4th Corps, but they did not arrive at Sharpsburg until September 18, the day following the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). Although they missed the battle, Couch and his men pursued the Army of Northern Virginia as it withdrew to Virginia during the next few days.
On September 26, army officials reorganized Couch’s Division as the 3rd Division of the 6th Army Corps. They transferred Couch to the command of the 2nd Division of the corps. On November 1, 1862, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 181, announcing Couch’s promotion to the rank of major general, to date from July 4, 1862.
Battle of Fredericksburg
On November 5, 1862, President Lincoln issued an executive order, replacing Major General George B. McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. On November 14, Burnside issued General Orders, No. 184 (AoP), dividing the Army of the Potomac into three “grand divisions.” Burnside assigned Couch to command the 2nd Corps of Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Beginning in the next month, Burnside led the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River and engaged Lee’s army at Fredericksburg, Virginia.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), Couch’s Corps crossed the Rappahannock River under heavy Confederate fire on December 12. After establishing a beachhead on the south side of the river, the Yankees met fierce resistance in some of the first urban fighting of the war as they entered Fredericksburg.
Upon gaining control of the town, the Federals embarked upon a day of looting and vandalism, enraging Lee and his soldiers. On the next day, Burnside ordered Couch to attack Lee’s left flank, commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Under a murderous fire from the Rebels, who were well entrenched at the base of Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg, sixteen separate federal charges resulted in a bloodbath. Mercifully, darkness put an end to the killing. Determined to win the battle, Burnside planned another assault for the morning, but his subordinate officers dissuaded him during the night. Instead, Lee granted Burnside a truce to care for the Union wounded and dead on December 14. The following day, Burnside and his defeated army limped back across the river and the Rappahannock Campaign ended.
Burnside’s command was short-lived. The fallout from the disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg and a failed offensive known as the Mud March in January 1863 led to Burnside’s dismissal. On January 25, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 20, announcing that President Lincoln had selected Major General Joseph Hooker to replace Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker wasted little time reorganizing the army on more traditional terms. On February 5, he issued General Orders, No. 6 (AoP), announcing the end of Burnside’s grand divisions. Hooker reorganized the army into eight corps. He named Couch as commander of the 2nd Corps. President Lincoln confirmed most of Hooker’s appointments when the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 96 on April 15, 1863.
Battle of Chancellorsville
Hooker’s first test as commander of the Army of the Potomac came at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), where he proved no match for Robert E. Lee. As the day dawned on May 3, Couch and other Union officers believed that victory was within their grasp. However, at about 9:15 a.m., a Confederate cannonball struck a wooden pillar that Hooker was leaning against, forcing him to abandon his headquarters. Dazed by the concussion, Hooker, summoned Couch, who was second-in-command because of his seniority, to a meeting approximately forty-five minutes later. Lying in a soldier’s tent, an unnerved Hooker told Couch, “I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map,” as he pointed to a line traced on a field-sketch. Hooker’s decision disappointed Couch, along with others who favored fighting it out with Lee. Despite being outnumbered nearly two to one, Lee out-maneuvered the Union army and drove the Yankees from the field.
Department of the Susquehanna Commander
Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville frustrated Couch so much that, when Lincoln visited the Union lines on May 10, 1863, Couch reportedly told the president that he would no longer serve under Hooker. He requested reassignment. Lincoln complied, and on June 9, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 172, assigning Couch to command the Department of the Susquehanna, headquartered at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Couch played a relatively minor role in the Gettysburg Campaign, skirmishing with Confederate cavalrymen who attempted to capture the Pennsylvania capital at Harrisburg. After the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-July 3, 1863), Couch’s command pursued the Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated to Maryland.
Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
During the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, Couch abandoned his headquarters at Chambersburg, when Confederate General John McCausland’s marauding cavalry threatened the town. After Chambersburg residents refused to pay McCausland’s ransom demand, he ordered his men to burn the town on July 30, 1864.
One week later, on August 7, 1864, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 240, merging the Department of the Susquehanna with the Department of West Virginia and the Middle Department to form the Middle Division. President Lincoln assigned Major General Philip H. Sheridan as temporary commander of the newly created division and sent the cavalry commander to the Shenandoah Valley to put an end to the Confederate plundering.
Couch could not escape blame for the burning of Chambersburg. On November 22, 1864, he issued General Orders, No. 281 (Department of the Susquehanna), announcing that he was taking a temporary leave and that Major General George Cadwalader would assume command of the department during his absence. While Couch was away, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 293, on December 1, 1864, announcing that, “The Department of the Susquehanna will hereafter be known as the Department of Pennsylvania, headquarters at Philadelphia.” On the same day, Couch issued General Orders, No. 74 (Department of the Susquehanna), stating that, “In obedience to the orders of the lieutenant-general commanding the Armies of the United States I hereby relinquish command of the Department of the Susquehanna.”
Battle of Nashville
Army officials reassigned Couch to command the 2nd Division of the 23rd Army Corps and he reported for duty in Tennessee on December 5, 1864. He assumed command of the corps’ second division on December 8. A little over one week later, he led his new command during the Union victory at the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864).
Return to Civilian Life
In January 1865, officials transferred the 23rd Corps to North Carolina, where Couch ended his military career. With the war virtually over, Couch mustered out of the volunteer army on May 26, 1865.
Following his resignation, Couch returned to Taunton, where he was an unsuccessful candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts in 1865. In 1866, he worked as a collector at the Port of Boston. Couch served as president of the Virginia Mining and Manufacturing Company in 1867. In 1871, Couch moved to Connecticut, where he served as Quartermaster General (January 1, 1877-December 31, 1878) and as Adjutant General (January 1, 1883-January 1, 1885) of the state militia. Between 1881 and 1886, he was President of the Board of Trustees of the Fitchville, Connecticut Home for Disabled Soldiers.
Couch died in Norwalk, Connecticut on February 12, 1897, at the age of seventy-four. He was buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Taunton, Massachusetts.