Petersburg Medals of Honor: Too Young for Enlistment, But Served



in Deeds of Valor, Volume 1




Private, Troop H, 13th Ohio Cavalry.
Born at Urbana, Ohio. July 5, 1849.

SOPO Editor’s Note: This story seems inaccurate in at least a few details.  First, the 13th Ohio “Cavalry” was in fact at the time of the Crater dismounted and serving as infantry in Burnside’s Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac.  Second, Fort “Hell” was Fort Mahone, opposite Union Fort Sedgwick and southwest of the Battle of the Crater.  Third, Cemetery Hill was the object of the Ninth Corps’ charge during the Battle of the Crater.  I’m not sure who gave the testimony to the compilers for this entry, but the odds of Gwyn being on a horse and attacking Fort Mahone are so low as to be non-existent.  It appears some license was used to recreate this story and the accompanying image.

A mere boy, Nathaniel McL. Gwynne, applied for enlistment at Cincinnati in the spring of 1864. The recruiting officer looked at the 15-year-old, shook his head and said: “You had better stay at home, my boy; you’re too young.” He was not disheartened by this refusal, but went to several officers, then about to take the field, begging for permission to go along. One officer, a captain of Company H, Thirteenth Ohio Cavalry, was so favorably impressed with the boy’s desire to serve his country that he permitted him to accompany his command, and from that time on young Gwynne regularly performed the duties of a private, participating in all the engagements of the regiment, including the one at Petersburg July 30.

When the regiment was about to make a charge on a battery holding a commanding position on Fort Hill, the captain noticed young Gwynne in line, and said to him : “Young man, remember you are not mustered in. You had better stay behind.”

“But that’s not what I’m here for!” responded the boy.



Just then the bugler sounded the charge, and away went the troop, young Gwynne with it, across a ravine, up the hill, straight to the mouths of the cannon, where a hand-to-hand fight ensued, in which the color-sergeant of the Thirteenth was shot down and the colors captured. The enemy were the stronger; the attack failed. The colors captured, a retreat followed.

Half the distance over which the charge had been made was covered in the retreat when a horse wheeled out of line, his head toward the enemy, and charged directly toward the battery. It was young Gwynne’s horse. Those who saw the dash at first wondered whether he had lost control of his horse; then, whether his reason had deserted him, for he was guiding his horse with a firm hand. On he went, heedless of the shower of bullets from the infantry, supporting the battery, riding into the midst of it, and directly to the point where his regimental colors were held, all the time urging his horse to its utmost speed. Reaching the colors, he seized them from their captor, and, turning his horse’s head, started back to his regiment. Immediately every gun of the enemy was trained on him. He had not gone far, however, before the arm supporting the flag was shot away, almost tearing it from its socket, and the flag went down. He stopped his horse, took the reins in his teeth, picked up the flag and dashed away toward his regiment. Again he was shot, this time in the leg, but pluckily he rode on until he reached his comrades, whereupon he turned the flag over to them, and fell unconscious to the ground.

As a reward for his bravery, Gwynne was placed on the muster-roll of the Thirteenth Ohio Cavalry, his muster-in to date from the time of his application for enlistment.


Fort Hill, or “Hell,” as it was familiarly known to the Union soldiers, was one of the numerous fortifications in front of Petersburg, where some of the fiercest fighting took place on the 30th of July, after the mine explosion.


Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:


  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. 394-396


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