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Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel

July 28, 1809 – October 30, 1862

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel was a world-renowned astronomer and a Union major general during the American Civil War who served briefly as commander of the Department of the Ohio.

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel was born near Morganfield, in Union County, Kentucky on July 28, 1809. He was the youngest child of Virginia planter John Mitchel and Elizabeth McAllister, who had moved their family and slaves to Kentucky in 1804. The family patriarch died unexpectedly when Ormsby was three years old, and his mother moved the younger children to live with her daughter in Lebanon, Ohio in 1814. Mitchel attended local schools in that town and was further educated at home. His family's financial needs forced young Mitchel to seek employment at the age of twelve or thirteen years. Nonetheless, he maintained his thirst for education. In 1825, Mitchel successfully petitioned Judge John McLean and U.S. Representative Thomas Ross for a position at the United States Military Academy.

Mitchel entered West Point on July 1, 1825. His classmates included future Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston. Mitchel excelled at the Academy, graduating fifteenth in his class of forty-six cadets on July 1, 1829. After graduation, Mitchel was brevetted to second lieutenant and assigned to the U.S. 2nd Artillery. However, his mathematical abilities were so noteworthy that he was quickly detached to serve as an assistant professor of mathematics at West Point.

While teaching at West Point, Mitchel met Louisa (Clark) Trask, a nineteen-year-old widow with one child. Over the initial objections of her family, the young widow and Mitchel became engaged. On August 28, 1831, Mitchel was ordered to join his regiment for garrison duty at Ft. Marion, Florida. Prior to departing, the couple married on September 10, 1831. Their union produced seven children, five of whom survived infancy. Mitchel and his bride resided in Florida for only one year until deciding that they were not suited for garrison duty. On September 30, 1832, Mitchel resigned his commission, and the couple relocated to Ohio.

An exceptionally brilliant man, Mitchel settled in Cincinnati, where he passed the Ohio bar exam and opened a law practice in 1832. Mitchel continued to practice law until 1834, but his real interests were mathematics and the sciences. In 1834, he secured a position as Professor of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Astronomy at Cincinnati College (now the University of Cincinnati). Mitchel held that position until 1844. During his tenure, his mathematical prowess enabled Mitchel to secure the position of chief engineer for the construction of the Little Miami Railroad from 1836 to 1837.

While at Cincinnati College, Mitchel pursued his true passion–-astronomy. He became a nationally renowned lecturer on the topic, organized the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, and was instrumental in the construction of the Mitchel Observatory, a world-class facility on Mt. Adams in Cincinnati. Mitchel was director of the observatory for fourteen years after its opening in 1845. During his tenure, Mitchel also served a one-year term as Adjutant-General of the State of Ohio (1847‑48). He also served two-terms as Chief Engineer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, (1848‑49 and 1852‑53). In 1859, Mitchel accepted a position as astronomer of the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York.

When the American Civil War erupted, Mitchel accepted a commission as brigadier-general of Ohio volunteers on August 8, 1861. Five weeks later, September 19, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders Number 80, placing Mitchel in command of the Department of the Ohio. Mitchel immediately set about organizing defenses around Cincinnati and in northern Kentucky, but he served as department commander for only two months, because the U.S. Senate failed to confirm his promotion to major general. On November 9, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders Number 97, which reorganized the Department of the Ohio and placed Major General Don Carlos Buell in command. Buell arrived in Cincinnati and replaced Mitchel on November 15.

After being replaced by Buell, Mitchel was assigned to command the 3rd Division of the Army of the Ohio and was initially charged with recruiting duty in the vicinity of his headquarters near Louisville, Kentucky. During the spring of 1862, he participated in the Army of the Ohio's occupation of Bowling Green, Kentucky (February. 9, 1862) and of Nashville, Tennessee (February. 23, 1862).

On March 18, 1862, Mitchel moved his division from Nashville and occupied Murfreesboro, Tennessee, approximately thirty-five miles to the south. By early April, he had moved another twenty-five miles south to Shelbyville, Tennessee, where his troops were warmly received by local citizens. Shortly after, Buell led most of the Army of the Ohio toward Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee to reinforce Brigadier-General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), Mitchel moved his division another sixty miles into Dixie and seized Huntsville, Alabama on April 11. Mitchel's incursion into Alabama marked the deepest penetration into the South by federal troops during the Civil War to date. It also severed the Mississippi & Charleston Railroad, the only rail line linking the Mississippi River to the eastern half of the Confederacy.

At the same time Mitchel was moving south from Nashville to Huntsville, he had designs on capturing Chattanooga in eastern Tennessee. To achieve that end, he hatched a plan to send twenty-four saboteurs, led by a civilian named James J. Andrews, into northern Georgia to cut the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Chattanooga with Atlanta. Known as Andrew's Raiders, twenty of the Yankees (eighteen Ohio soldiers and two civilians) succeeded in capturing a Confederate locomotive named the General, on April 12, 1862, south of Chattanooga. They headed north, cutting telegraph lines and attempting to destroy track as they were pursued by two other Confederate trains, the Yonah and the Texas. The Raiders eventually ran out of fuel and abandoned the General, scattering across northern Georgia. All were captured within the next two weeks. Six of the conspirators, including Andrews, were hanged as spies. Eight others escaped and made their way back to Union lines. The remaining six were held as prisoners of war and exchanged for Confederate prisoners eleven months later. Although a failure, Andrew's Raid was later immortalized in print and on film as the Great Locomotive Chase.

After seizing Huntsville, Mitchel failed to convince his superiors, (Buell and, later, Major General Henry Halleck) to provide him with enough troops to attempt to capture Chattanooga. Instead, Halleck focused on the rail hub at Corinth, Mississippi. After Corinth fell (May 30, 1862), Buell visited Mitchel in Huntsville to discuss future strategies. The two generals disagreed, and on June 30, Mitchel telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, "Finding it impossible to serve my country longer under my present commander, I have to-day forwarded, through him, my unconditional resignation, and respectfully solicit leave of absence for twenty days."

Stanton replied two days later, granting Mitchel's request for leave, but rejecting his resignation. Upon receiving Stanton's reply, Mitchel traveled to New York. While waiting nearly all summer for further orders, Mitchel was promoted to the rank of major general in July, effective April 11, 1862.

In early September, Halleck (now General-in-Chief of Union armies) appointed Mitchel as commander of the 10th Army Corps and Department of the South, headquartered in South Carolina. Mitchel arrived in the Palmetto State on September 15 and assumed command on September 17, 1862. His tenure was brief however. After contracting yellow fever, Mitchel died on October 30, 1862, at Beaufort, South Carolina, at the age of fifty-two years. His body was removed to New York, where he was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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