The Reverend Colonel Higgins

Painting of national colors of the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Painting of national colors of the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society;

Reverend David J. Higgins was already in his forties by the time the Civil War began and was an established minister. He decided that it was his patriotic duty to fight, though, so he joined the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His age, and possibly his skill at projecting his voice in those pre-microphone days, led him to become a captain in the regiment even though he lacked military training.

Bear in mind that a regiment, at least on paper, consists of roughly 1,000 men, and a captain of a company was in charge of roughly one-tenth as many, around 100. In early battles, Higgins did quite well and received praise for the actions of his troops at Cheat Mountain in late 1861.

Unfortunately Reverend, and now Captain, Higgins was in poor health. He began to suffer from what we would call arthritis, as well as a bad back and other medical conditions that were made worse by army life. The regimental surgeon had him reassigned to a post where he might recuperate in September of 1862. Three months later, the 24th saw heavy fighting at the battle of Murfreesboro. The upper officers of the regiment were casualties of battle or illness from the winter fighting.

Against the regimental surgeon’s wishes, Captain Higgins was returned to the 24th by the War Department, and as the senior captain was promoted to Colonel of the regiment. His brigade commander tried to take pity on him and have him assigned to light duty at a detached post, as his arthritis and back problems were worsening. Within three months, the War Department intervened again, and he was put back in command of the 24th, still incapacitated on some days.

One of those days turned out to be the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20th of 1863. Colonel Higgins could barely move, much less be an effective commander in battle, so he correctly turned command over to the next highest officer, Major Thomas McClure, who had also spent the first part of the war commanding a company of 100 men rather than a larger regiment.

The day did not go well for the 24th. The men didn’t seem to have as much confidence in Major McClure as they had in Colonel Higgins, and they developed the bad habit of “stealth retreating” all day. Whenever danger threatened, whoever wasn’t near the Major tended to edge backward. Other units noticed this, and Major McClure kept trying to fix the problem, but disaster struck. The 24th was hit hard by a Confederate attack, and broke apart while retreating as McClure apparently lost control of the men.

Colonel Grose, commanding the brigade, accused both Colonel Higgins and Major McClure of cowardice under fire, a serious charge. A court martial was held. The ten captains of the regiment came to their defense, pointing out that Colonel Higgins wasn’t a coward, he was just too sick to command the regiment in battle. Apparently, their defense of Major McClure was less spirited.

Colonel Higgins was allowed to resign honorably due to physical disability, but he went home only to discover that while the news of the court martial had preceded him, his acquittal had not. In unfair disgrace, he had to leave town to find another church.

Eventually, at the age of ninety, his doctor convinced him to retire and move to California. He applied for an army pension, and was incensed to find that, for pension purposes, he was considered to be only a captain because he hadn’t served for a year at the higher rank. He argued this point unsuccessfully, but when he died at the age of ninety-nine, he got the last laugh on the army.

Higgins headstoneFor purposes of getting a military headstone, you are buried at your highest rank achieved, even if it was for less than a year. Thus, Reverend David J. Higgins, a minister for approximately seventy years of his life, finally got the military respect he desired.

He was buried at Mountain View cemetery with a headstone reading:

“Colonel David J. Higgins, 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry”

By Nick Smith

Mr. Smith is a co-curator of the exhibition When Johnny Came Marching West: How the Civil War Shaped Pasadena.