Union general's cow is unlikely heroine of Civil War
Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal
You can lead a cow to battle, but you can't make it fight.
Gen. Mortimer D. Leggett, the first superintendent of Akron Public Schools, is a central figure in one of the strangest tales from the Civil War. The story sounds too ridiculous to be true. Yet it was published as fact in 19th-century newspapers and confirmed decades later by a Leggett descendant.
According to lore, Leggett mustered into service a gentle giant who went beyond the call of duty to serve the Union Army. Her name was "Molly" or "Old Betsy" -- accounts vary -- and she was a Jersey cow.
Leggett made a lasting impression on Akron, even though his time here was fleeting. One of 11 siblings, he was born in 1821 to Quaker parents on a farm near Ithaca, N.Y., and moved at age 16 with his family to Geauga County.
He attended a teachers seminary in Kirtland and studied law at Harvard, alternating careers as an educator and attorney. Teaching brought him to Akron.
In 1846, the canal town devised a plan to provide a graded school system and free education to all children through taxation of property. The newly formed Akron Board of Education hired Leggett as its first superintendent in 1847.
Akron historian Samuel A. Lane described Leggett as "a ripe scholar and a thorough disciplinarian," who received a "munificent" salary of $500 a year -- about $20,500 today. He also served as grammar school principal and teacher.
Leggett organized the classes and instructors, laying the foundation for a 700-pupil district, but was "impelled to withdraw" in 1849, Lane wrote, "for lack of adequate compensation for his exceedingly efficient services."
Forty years later, Akron made up for its budget stinginess by naming Leggett Elementary School at Thornton, Allyn and Sumner streets for the original superintendent. The eight-room building opened in 1889 and welcomed additions in 1914 and 1921 before being demolished in 2010 for the $9.2 million Leggett Community Learning Center.
The school's team is the Tigers, although the Leggett Cows would be more fun.
Leggett was superintendent of Zanesville schools when the Civil War erupted in 1861. Literally overnight, he became a fighting Quaker.
He organized the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was named colonel of the regiment. Leggett was wounded at least five times while leading soldiers in battles such as Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Bolivar, Iuka and Champion Hills. Following the siege of Vicksburg, he was promoted to brigadier general, commanded the Third Division of the 17th Corps and took part in Gen. William T. Sherman's infamous march to the sea.
"He is a strictly moral man, never drinks anything that will intoxicate, never smokes cigars, never chews tobacco, never uses profane language, and never plays cards; and drinking and card-playing were always prohibited at his headquarters," U.S. historian Whitelaw Reid wrote in the 1895 book Ohio in the War.
"His services lasted from the beginning to the close of the war; they were always honorable, often arduous, and sometimes distinguished, so that in the end he came to command the trust of his superiors, the admiration of his soldiers, and that gratitude from the country which all deserve who add capacity and skill to their personal devotion."
Leggett was a tough warrior, but he had a soft spot for cows -- most likely from his upbringing on a farm. He took a dairy cow with him for personal use, but decided to share the milk with his troops.
"She was generous in her yield, a portion of which was always reserved for the sick or the wounded, an arrangement that secured her immunity from the fate the befell nearly all army cows, as her milk was never stolen, and no effort was ever made to confiscate her for beef, even when the men were in the worst stages of beef hunger," the New York Times recalled May 4, 1890. "She became so popular with the soldiers that when forage was scarce, the boys would glean for her whatever could be found along the line of march and bestow it upon her when settled in camp."
At first, Molly (or "Old Betsy") was tied to a wagon. Eventually, she "adapted herself to soldier life" and walked behind the wagon without a rope.
Leggett had a blacksmith put horseshoes on the cow's hoofs to protect her from the wear and tear of long marches.
Molly usually was kept far from the fighting, but she received a fright during the battle of Atlanta in July 1864, when Confederate soldiers sneaked up behind the Union line and unexpectedly charged.
"For nearly a week, she refused her rations and bellowed for hours at a time," the New York Times reported. "For a month afterwards, the sight of a squad of men on a run would throw her into a panic."
At the conclusion of the war, Molly won the admiration of a future U.S. president.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, a friend of Leggett and fellow Ohioan, supposedly invited Leggett's cow to march with soldiers during the Grand Review of the Armies, a May 1865 victory parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. At first, Leggett didn't think it was appropriate, but he acquiesced to his commanding officer.
Molly was tied to the back of an ambulance and plodded amiably along the street while cheering spectators placed garlands around her neck.
"The people along the line loaded her with bouquets and wreaths until she became a walking monument of flowers," the Times reported.
Leggett returned to Zanesville and put the valiant cow out to pasture.
President Grant appointed Leggett as the U.S. commissioner of patents in 1871. He moved to Cleveland and practiced law until his death in 1896 at age 74 following a stroke.
Per his request, he was laid to rest at Lakeview Cemetery without military honors. The same cannot be said for Molly.
"In the year 1872, there was staged at Zanesville, O., one of the most unusual funerals ever held in this country when a Jersey cow was ceremoniously buried with full military honors," the Akron Times-Press reported in March 1927.
According to this account, Union veterans traveled from across Ohio to attend the Grand Army of the Republic rites.
Leggett's grandson, R.M. Leggett, chief engineer at the Akron waterworks plant, confirmed the tale, saying his grandfather owned cows throughout his life. Every Sunday, Leggett invited 30 to 50 churchgoers to his home to enjoy mush and milk.
If only we could end the story there.
Jim Geyer, director of museums at the Muskingum County Historical Society, asked members of the Zanesville Civil War Roundtable to confirm the tale of Leggett's bovine companion. A history buff spent hours looking through old newspapers, but found nothing.
"No one seems to know anything about the cow," he said.
Marjorie Wilson, a Leggett researcher from the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, doubts that a cow could survive the grueling trek through Georgia.
The only livestock reference she found was about an old ox that carried supplies for the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry during Sherman's march. That story doesn't have a happy ending. Soldiers feasted on it when they reached Savannah, Ga.
Is Molly's war bravery a corrupted tale of the ox incident?
"It's a great story, the military funeral and all, but it does give rise to some skepticism," Wilson said.
How disappointing it would be if Molly's adventure was nothing but a bunch of bull.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron's Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press.
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