This is the sixth in a 10-part series that began on July 2 and takes a closer look at Richland County’s eight Medal of Honor winners. Coming Saturday: John F. Rowalt performed gallantly during the Indian Campaign in 1869 while fighting in the Arizona Territory.)
This series is supported by Mansfield Cemetery Association.
MANSFIELD — Smith Larimer was not there when the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, as Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor.
But the Richland County native made his heroic presence felt in the final, large battle of the war at Sailor’s Creek, Va., four years later.
The impact of that battle on April 6, 1865, which actually took place in three different sites near Farmville, Va., was profound.
Larimer, born on March 17, 1829, enlisted into the U.S. Army in Columbus, Ohio.
By the time Grant’s Army of the Potomac crushed Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Sailor’s Creek, Larimer was a corporal in Company G of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry.
The battle at Sailor’s Creek came as Lee’s exhausted and starving Confederates abandoned Richmond/Petersburg on April 2-3 and hoped to resupply at Danville or Lynchburg, before joining Gen. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina.
The stronger Union army kept pace with the Confederates, using the rough terrain of full creeks and high bluffs to attack the long wagon trains.
The Reserve Corps under Gen. Richard Ewell, composed primarily of garrison units from the Confederate capital, came next.
(Click above to listen to today’s accompanying podcast. You may also listen to the first five episodes of this podcast series.)
The army’s supply train followed with Gen. John Gordon’s Second Corps bringing up the rear. To evade a Union roadblock, Lee ordered a night march on April 5.
On the morning of April 6, skirmish fire announced the Union’s Second Corps was in pursuit, led by Gen. Andrew Humphrey. At the same time, Ohio Gen. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry rode parallel to Lee’s line of retreat, launching hit-and-run strikes on the Southern column.
Anderson and Ewell’s troops halted at Holt’s Corner to fend off attackers, creating a two-mile gap between Anderson and the nearest friendly unit.
Into that gap, Union Gen. George Custer slammed his horsemen. Union Gen. Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps was approaching from the east. With federal cavalry blocking the road to Farmville and infantry nipping at its heels, a sizable portion of Lee’s army was caught in a vice.
The battle of Sailor’s Creek had begun.
Larimer and his 2nd Ohio Cavalry figured prominently in the second section of the battle, also known as the Battle of Hillsman’s House.
It was there that Ewell, learning the Sixth Corps was closing, deployed Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s troops to the right, Gen. Custice Lee’s unit to the left and a naval battalion under Commander John Tucker in the middle.
The Sixth Corps attacked in earnest around 6 p.m., first with a barrage of artillery. Union infantry attacked across Sailor’s Creek, which was more like a swamp as much as 100 yards wide in some places, paying a fearsome price from Confederate musket fire.
As the battle rage, Larimer earned his Medal of Honor.
According to the citation, the corporal fought his way to Kershaw’s headquarters and successfully captured the Confederate regimental battle flag.
It was a fierce struggle, featuring hand-to-hand combat, before Ewell’s troops were eventually surrounded and surrendered.
Larimer was awarded his medal on May 3, 1865.
He died on Feb. 20, 1881, at the age of 51 and was buried in Marlow Cemetery in Springfield Township.
(Coming Saturday: John F. Rowalt was a 19-year-old private in Company L of the 8th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in October 1869, fighting in battles nearly 2,000 miles from his birthplace in Bellville.)
Previously in this series: