A prominent Union general officer, Emerson Opdycke played significant roles at the Battle of Chattanooga and the Battle of Franklin.
Samuel Emerson Opdycke was born on January 7, 1830, on his family’s farm in Hubbard Township, Trumbull County, Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children of Albert and Betsey (Harmon) Opdycke. Opdycke’s father was a veteran of the War of 1812, and his grandfather fought in the American Revolution. In 1837, Opdycke’s parents moved to Williams County in northwestern Ohio, where the children attended local schools while helping on the family farm. In 1847, Opdycke returned to Trumbull County to live with his sister, Elizabeth. Opdycke’s brother-in-law, Oliver H. Patch, hired Opdycke to work as a dry-goods clerk in his saddle and harness business in Warren, Ohio. Four years later, Opdycke opened his own leather-goods business in Warren.
Move to California
In 1854, Opdycke succumbed to the lure of the California gold rush, traveling to the west coast with Servetus W. Park and a small group of prospectors. Failing to strike it rich, Park opened a book and stationery store in San Francisco and hired Opdycke as a clerk. By 1857, Opdycke had saved enough money to return to Warren and purchased a partnership in his brother-in-law’s business.
On March 3, 1857, Opdycke married Lucy Wells Stevens, daughter of Benjamin and Mary Stevens of Warren, Ohio. The newlyweds settled in Warren. One year later, Mary gave birth to their only child, a son named Leonard Eckstein.
Union Army Officer
While living in Warren, Opdycke joined the abolitionist movement, prompting him to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for recruits for the volunteer army after the Civil War began. In July 1861, Opdycke and Seth Bushnell began raising recruits for an infantry company in northeast Ohio. On August 26, 1861, Company A of the 41st Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry mustered into service. The men elected Bushnell as their captain and Opdycke as first lieutenant.
Wounded at the Battle of Shiloh
Under the leadership of Colonel William B. Hazen, the 41st Regiment initially served in Kentucky and Tennessee. In January 1862, army officials assigned the unit to Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, and promoted Opdycke to captain. A few months later, Opdycke distinguished himself during the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), despite being wounded while rallying his troops.
Army of the Cumberland
On August 5, 1862, the army ordered Opdycke back in Trumbull County, Ohio for recruiting duties. By September, he raised enough recruits for a new unit, the 125th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Opdycke resigned his commission with the 41st OVI in September to accept a new appointment as commander of the 125th, effective October 1, 1862, at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Five days later, the new unit mustered in for three years of service. The army attacked Opdycke’s regiment to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the Army of the Cumberland. By the time the regiment completed training at Camp Taylor in Cleveland and reported for duty in Tennessee, army officials promoted Opdycke to colonel on January 14, 1863.
Opdycke’s regiment saw their first major combat at the First Battle of Franklin (April 10, 1863). After spending the rest of the summer skirmishing in Tennessee, the 125th took part in the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). Their spirited stand against Confederate General James Longstreet’s onslaught along Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill bought valuable time for the retreating Union army and earned the Ohioans the nickname “Opdycke’s Tigers.”
Valor at Missionary Ridge
During October and November 1863, Opdycke and his men endured the Siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. When General Ulysses S. Grant reorganized the forces in the West during October, the army transferred Opdycke’s regiment to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division of the Army of the Cumberland.
During the Battle of Chattanooga (November 23–25, 1863), Grant ordered the Army of the Cumberland, including the 125th OVI, to capture the southern rifle pits at the bottom of Missionary Ridge. Major General George Thomas’ men advanced, including Opdycke’s regiment, seized the rifle pits, and then pressed on against their original orders, to drive the Confederates from Missionary Ridge. Opdycke’s men were among the first federal troops to reach the summit.
Following the breakout from Chattanooga and the victory at Missionary Ridge, the army sent Opdycke and his men to Knoxville to relieve Confederate General James Longstreet’s investment of that city. In early December, Longstreet ended his siege and headed toward winter quarters in Virginia. During Longstreet’s withdrawal, Opdycke’s men engaged the Rebels at the Battle of Dandridge (January 17, 1864).
In 1864, the 125th traveled to Georgia to join Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign (May 7-September 2, 1864). During that campaign, they took part in the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge (May 7–13, 1864), the Battle of Resaca (May 13–15), the Battle of Adairsville (May 17), the Battle of New Hope Church (May 25–26), Operations around Marietta (June 9–July 3), the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27), the Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20), the Battle of Atlanta (July 22), the Battle of Lovejoy’s Station (August 20), and the Battle of Jonesborough (August 31–September 1). Although badly wounded at Resaca, Opdycke remained with his men throughout the summer. On August 6, 1864, army officials placed him in command of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 4th Corps of the Army of the Ohio.
On September 1, 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood evacuated Atlanta. Later in the month, Hood and Confederate President Jefferson Davis devised a plan to have Hood’s army move north toward Chattanooga, destroying Sherman’s supply lines back to Tennessee along the way. Sherman responded by sending Major General Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland and Major General John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, including Opdycke’s brigade, back to Tennessee to deal with Hood. After over one month of skirmishing, a showdown between the two armies took place on November 30 at Franklin, Tennessee.
Gallantry at the Battle of Franklin
Enraged that the Federals had slipped past him at Spring Hill, Tennessee the day before, Hood berated his subordinate officers and then ordered a massive frontal attack against Schofield’s entrenched troops outside of Franklin. Prior to Hood’s assault, Opdycke’s divisional commander, Brigadier General George D. Wagner, ordered Opdycke to move his brigade to a position in front of the Union’s outer defenses. After a heated argument, Wagner allowed Opdycke instead to march his exhausted troops, who had served as the federal rearguard during the escape from Spring Hill, to a reserve position behind the main Federal line. Wagner’s other two brigade commanders moved beyond the Union fortifications, exposing their men to the brunt of Hood’s assault.
At 4 PM, the Rebels slammed into Wagner’s exposed brigades, driving them back into the federal outer fortifications. When the main Union line also began to crumble under the weight of the Confederate assault, Opdycke called his men to arms and led a counterattack that halted the Rebel surge. At a standstill, the two armies engaged in savage hand-to-hand combat until the fighting petered out after dark. Opdycke’s heroics enabled Schofield’s army to withdraw to Nashville in an orderly fashion during the night.
Opdycke’s corps commander, Major General David S. Stanley, later observed, “I saw Opdycke near the center of his line urging his men forward. I gave the Colonel no orders as I saw him engaged in doing the very thing to save us, to get possession of our line again.” General Thomas recommended Opdycke for promotion, stating:
At the Battle of Franklin, Opdycke displayed the very highest qualities as a commander. It is not saying too much to declare that but for the skillful dispositions made by Colonel Opdycke (all of which were done entirely on his own judgment), the promptness and readiness with which he brought his command into action at the critical and decisive moment, and the signal personal gallantry displayed in a counter assault on the enemy, when he had broken our lines, disaster instead of victory would have fallen on us at Franklin.
Promotion to General
On February 7, 1865, Opdycke received a brevet promotion to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. Later, in an unusual move, army officials brevetted Opdycke to major general dating from November 4, 1864, preceding his promotion to brigadier general.
In June 1865, the army ordered 4th Corps to New Orleans and then to Camp Irwin, Texas. On June 24, Opdycke the War Department placed Opdycke in command of the 2nd Division and subsequently promoted to brigadier general. Opdycke’s division remained on garrison duty in Texas until mustering out of service on September 25, 1865.
Following the war, Opdycke moved to New York, where he operated a dry goods business for nearly twenty years. On Tuesday, April 22, 1884, Opdycke shot himself in the abdomen while cleaning a revolver at his residence. He lingered on through Wednesday and Thursday but succumbed to acute peritonitis on Friday, April 25. Rumors circulated in the press regarding a possible suicide, but they were never substantiated. Opdycke’s body was returned to Warren, Ohio, where he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.