INTRODUCTION - This brief history describes the Battle of Shiloh from the perspective of my maternal great-grandfather, Thomas W. Brown, who was a member of the Federal Army during the Civil War. He served all four years in the 51st Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company D. I first share a brief overview of the battle from Wikipedia, then the eyewitness accounts of Sergeant Major Wm. R. Hartpence, who served in Company C of the same regiment as my great-grandfather, and who kept a detailed diary of their engagements.
On April 6, the first day of the battle, the Confederates struck with the intention of driving the Union defenders away from the river and into the swamps of Owl Creek to the west. Johnston hoped to defeat Grant's army before the anticipated arrival of General Buell's Army of the Ohio. The Confederate battle lines became confused during the fierce fighting, and Grant's men instead fell back to the northeast, in the direction of Pittsburg Landing. A Union position on a slightly sunken road, nicknamed the "Hornet's Nest," defended by the men of Brig. Gens. Benjamin Prentiss's and William H. L. Wallace's divisions, provided critical time for the remainder of the Union line to stabilize under the protection of numerous artillery batteries. Wallace was mortally wounded when the position collapsed, while several regiments from the two divisions were eventually surrounded and surrendered. General Johnston was shot in the leg and bled to death while personally leading an attack. Beauregard, his second in command, acknowledged how tired the army was from the day's exertions and decided against assaulting the final Union position that night.
Tired but unfought and well-organized men from Buell's army and a division of Grant's army arrived in the evening of April 6 and helped turn the tide the next morning, when the Union commanders launched a counterattack along the entire line. Confederate forces were forced to retreat from the area, ending their hopes of blocking the Union advance into northern Mississippi. The Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that time, although it was superseded the next year by the Battle of Chancellorsville and, soon after, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, which would prove to be the bloodiest of the war. - Wikipedia
The 51st Indiana Regiment
The Battle of Shiloh, named after the one-room Methodist meeting house where the armies converged, was the first major battle engaged by the 51st Indiana Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Abel D. Streight of Indianapolis. Our great-grandfather, Thomas Wheatley Brown, a member of the 51st's Company D, spoke about his participation in the battle on many occasions during his lifetime, and while we're not aware of any diary or written record he kept of his experiences, we are fortunate that his fellow soldier, Wm. R. Hartpence of Company C, did so.
Hartpence, who was promoted to Sergeant Major in November of 1864, kept a detailed history of the 51st's experiences and battles. He published his work in 1894 under the title of "History of the Fifty-First Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry," which I originally found in pdf format from the U.C. Berkeley library. In most instances, his eyewitness accounts were the same as that of our great-grandfather.
During the weeks prior to the Battle of Shiloh, the 51st Indiana was attached to the 6th Division, 20th Brigade of General Don C. Buell's Army of the Ohio, which had been engaged with the occupation of Nashville since it's surrender to Buell on February 25th. Still yet green to any significant battle experience, and only three months since the newly formed regiment departed Indianapolis, the 51st arrived in Nashville on March 15th to the scenes of utter devastation. Nashville was their first view of a battle's aftermath, to which Sergeant Major Hartpence wrote is his diary, "...at sight of whose terrible destruction we were shocked, as it looked like a cyclone had struck it."
Only the following day, on March 16th, General Buell received orders to deploy his forces on, including the 51st, to reinforce General U.S. Grant's army at Pittsburg Landing near Savannah, 130 miles to the Southwest along the West bank of Tennessee River. Grant was preparing an impending march against massing Confederate forces at Corinth, MS, approximately 20 miles South of Pittsburg Landing. Little did he know, however, the Confederates were at the same time planning a preemptive strike against Grant with a larger force, before his army could be reinforced by Buell's divisions.
As guards to the rear column of wagons, the 51st Indiana departed Nashville with General Thomas J. Wood's 6th division on March 29th. Their travel from Nashville took them South along the Columbia Pike, a corridor known today as U.S. Highway 31, through Brentwood, Franklin, Spring Hill and finally to Columbia, where they delayed to build a pontoon bridge across the Duck River. Hartpence wrote, "Rutherford's Creek, four miles north of Columbia, was crossed without much difficulty, but Duck River being forty feet deep, a considerable delay was made."
Having already marched 43 miles from Nashville, they crossed the Duck River on April 1st and began the remaining 86 miles to Savannah. Along with them, was the newly assigned commander of the 20th brigade, General James A. Garfield, who was dispatched from Kentucky and managed to catch up with them in Columbia. However, this leg of the journey would more grueling at times for the army of 20,000, whose long single columns of cavalry, troops, and several hundred mule-drawn wagons, not only endured narrow, muddy road conditions, but experienced more delays to ford streams or lay down corduroy track in some swampy places.
Despite poor road conditions, they made good time and the forward divisions began arriving in Savannah by the late hours of April 5th... a remarkable stroke of fate, since it was just a few hours later that the Confederates mounted their unexpected attack against Pittsburg's Landing. Only the previous day on the 4th, Grant had no inkling that an attack was imminent, and telegraphed Buell, suggesting that he could rest his forces in Waynesboro, 35 miles from Savannah, since the river transports for the army would not be prepared until the 8th. However, Buell's first two divisions had already advanced beyond that, and the full force was on pace to arrive the following day.
On the morning of April 6th, Grant's army of around 35,000 was caught off-guard by the surprise attack by a larger-than-anticipated Confederate force, numbering about 45,000. Federals who had just arrived at Savanna could hear the sounds of battle across the river at a distance all day, but received no orders to join the fray until after midnight, apparently until river transports and other preparations could be hastily made. Finally, in the early hours of April 7th, the 51st Indiana, along with Buell's divisions of 20,000 strong, boarded river ferries or gunboats, navigating the 6 miles downstream towards the battle.
Upon arriving at the scene, Sergeant Hartpence described the river bank lined with thousands of trembling federal soldiers, who had been driven back by the fierce combat and overwhelming enemy numbers. Upon seeing the reinforcements, some shouted warnings to them, to not leave their boats lest they be butchered, while others became ecstatic and even began to sing with joy. Hartpence recounted one of Grant's soldiers, who declared, "I can feel the sensation of joy yet, that thrilled me when the band of the advance got out on the boat and played Hail, Columbia." Hartpence wrote, "If ever men shed tears of joy and gratitude, it was then. Wild yells, not simple cheers, but tigers, beat the air, far and wide, till the whole woods on either bank fairly shook with joy."
As the 51st and other regiments went ashore near the mouth of Snake Creek, heavy rain had begun to fall, and all they could do was find a place to rest in the sloshing mud and darkness, and await further orders. Hartpence and a few others spotted nearby mules feeding, and since their packs and tents had been left behind to lighten their load, they borrowed mule's hay on which to lie, and huddled with their guns beneath soggy ponchos to catch a few winks of sleep.
At 5:00am on the 7th, the soldiers were aroused from their rest and ordered to prepare their weapons and form lines. As they began their advance forward, they soon encountered the enemy's pickets, whom they drove back quickly. Grant's troops were reinvigorated by the fresh reinforcements, and together they engaged the enemy lines with furious gunfire and artillery. The horrific sounds of thousands clashing against each other filled the river valley with cannon blasts, gunfire and the cries of the wounded or dying.
While sitting on his horse, "Fire-eater," beneath a large oak tree in a peach orchard, General Albert S. Johnston, commander of the attacking Confederate forces, was struck in the right leg by a minie ball, possibly fired by his own troops, which cut the large artery. He was taken to a ravine about 100 yards south, where he soon died from loss of blood, ironically with an unused tourniquet in his pocket. Johnston was the highest ranking officer killed in combat during the Civil War and remains the highest-ranking American military officer ever to be killed in action. After his death, the command was passed to General P.G. T. Beauregard, who later described the Federal counter-assault in his report, "At 6 A. M, a hot fire of musketry and artillery opened from the enemy's quarter assured me of the junction of his forces, and soon the battle raged with a fury which satisfied me that I was attacked by a largely superior force."
By 10:00am the Federals had retaken the camp and were in pursuit of the enemy now retreating to the South, which they cut short in the late afternoon due to extreme fatigue and the approach of night. The losses on both sides were heavy, but the foregone defeat had been reversed into victory for the Federals. Early the following morning, on the 8th, Generals William T. Sherman and Thomas J. Wood, dispatched brigades to seek out remaining enemy positions, which they found and routed, driving them back in further retreat.
As it was in most battles, there were stories of remarkable heroics that became legendary, but none more astonishing than that of the Confederate cavalry colonel, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who commanded the retreating army's rear guard. As Sherman's reconnaissance force caught up with Forrest's command at what was known as Fallen Timbers, Forrest mounted a counter attack against the Federal lines unaware that the rest of his troop had halted when they reached the full Federal brigade. Nonetheless, Forrest continued his charge single-handedly, and although soon finding himself surrounded, he emptied his Colt Army revolvers into the mass of Federal soldiers and then pulled out his saber, hacking and slashing.
Seeing his opportunity to put an end to this fighting madman, a Federal infantryman on the ground beside him fired into Forrest with a point-blank musket shot, nearly knocking him out of the saddle. However, although severely wounded by the ball which lodged near his spine, Forrest steadied himself and his mount then reached down with one arm, grabbed the soldier up by the shirt collar, and threw him on the back of his horse as a human shield as he galloped to safety. In the years to come, Sherman often referred to Forrest as a devil, but also later said he was "the most remarkable man our civil war produced on either side."
Forrest is acknowledged to have been the last man wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. A surgeon removed the musket ball a week later, without anesthesia which was unavailable, but Forrest was likely given a generous dose of alcohol to dull the pain of the surgery. About two months later, Forrest was promoted to Brigadier General, and eventually to Lieutenant General by the war's end, a remarkable climb to notoriety by someone who had enlisted in the war only as a private.
The Aftermath of Battle
As the tensions of battle wore down, soldiers of the 51st and other regiments took greater assessment of what had taken place around them. Without a doubt, few of the Federal soldiers, including our great-grandfather, had ever seen carnage on this scale. Hartpence wrote, "As we passed over the field, and especially near the peach orchard, where but a short time before had transpired such horror, such destruction and devastation, and beheld the multitude of dead and dying men and horses, and glanced down the long lines of hastily constructed fortifications, which showed the positions of the contending armies, at different periods in the fight, we almost fancied we saw and heard it all over again. The cold penetrating stare of the hundreds of stark, drenched and bloodless corpses, over which we marched by day, and by whose sides we dropped wearily down at night, caused a shudder. The groans of the wounded, and the expiring gasps of the noble fellows will haunt us through life."
"Many corpses lay stretched out in the mud and water, the rain pattering down in their faces, some appearing as though sleeping, while others bore expressions of deepest agony. One man was thrown backward over a log, his left hand covering a horrible wound in his body, and the other with the finger-nails sunk in the flesh, was back of his head, his teeth and lips firmly closed, his eyes set, indicating an awful death. At the foot of a large tree lay five rebels, who had evidently been pierced by the same ball apparently a small solid shot, each being struck a little lower than the preceding one, as they filed around the tree. At another place a large ball had struck two men together, cutting one in halves, and severing the other's head from his shoulders. Hundreds of horses were strewn around."
"Many of the wounded were disfigured beyond recognition, especially was this true of about one hundred poor fellows, who were scattered through a portion of the wood, that caught fire, roasting them into insensibility. Everywhere lay poor dying mortals, suffering intensely from wounds and hunger and thirst. Our boys immediately contributed liberally from their haversacks and canteens, and our surgeons went over and did what they could for their relief."
In the days that followed, Colonel Streight of the 51st wrote home, describing his own observations. On April 10 he wrote, "Three days after the battle, and 2,000 dead traitors unburied. We are in an oak forest, seven miles long and two wide. On our reconnoisance, we saw 35 wounded, still living, who had had nothing to eat nor drink since the battle. Our baggage train is 14 miles from here; we have no tents nor blankets, and sleep as best we can." Seven days later, on the 17th he wrote, "Men who were killed a week ago, are yet unburied; many wounded still uncared for. Doctors are scarce, arid numbers of wounded great; perhaps 10,000. We have lost several with smallpox. Mumps and jaundice give us most trouble, Over 50 cases now in camp."
During the next few weeks, men of the 51st spent their time assisting in the burying of the dead, resting and recovering from wounds, preparing again for battle which would come as early as April 29th, as combined Federal forces engaged in a month-long campaign of siege and skirmishing battles against the Confederates at Corinth, Mississippi.
The Shiloh Meeting House
The original "Shiloh Meeting House" - a one-room log structure with crude handmade furnishings - was built by the Southern Methodists about 1853, nine years after the church had split over the slavery issue. It is from this unassuming structure, whose name ironically translates to "place of peace," that the battle would derive its name.
When the Union army moved upon the field, General William T. Sherman encamped his division along the ridge on either side of the church. It was along this same ridge that he formed his first line of battle on the morning of April 6, 1862, and where he was first attacked by the Confederates. He succeeded in holding the ridge for about two hours before he was forced to withdraw.
As soon as Sherman withdrew, Confederate General P.G. T. Beauregard established his headquarters at the church. He held the position until the Confederates began their retreat on the second day. After the battle, the church was reportedly torn down by the Union troops and the logs used to build bridges when the movement upon Corinth began.
Today, a reconstructed replica of the log chapel stands in the place of the original.
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