We Must Whip or Be Whipped: Shiloh as Viewed from the Ranks of the 1st Ohio Infantry

The 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry arrived on the field of Shiloh in the dim early light of April 7, 1862 after a fatiguing all-day march to Savannah, Tennessee. Two letters written by men in the ranks tell the story of their experience at Shiloh. 
The first letter is from Private William Duncan of Company D. Duncan’s letter, a superb battle account, was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and describes not only the Battle of Shiloh but also the march across Tennessee in the days leading up to the battle.
A little more than a year ago, I published Bull Run to Atlanta: the Civil War Letters of Private Harry Comer, Company A, 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. (available here)
At the time that I published the book, I thought Comer’s account to be one of the best I’d read about the 1st OVI at Shiloh. A few months after publishing the book, I came across Duncan’s account which filled in a lot of gaps left by the Comer letter. The Comer letter, originally published in the Lancaster Gazette, follows Duncan’s account and the two letters really compliment one another, filling in details that the other may have missed.
So in honor of the brave men of the Army of the Ohio who fought on April 7, 1862, 156 years ago today, and especially to my great-great-great uncle Isaac N. Stratton of the 39th Indiana Infantry who was wounded this day, and to Phil Spaugy who inspired this post, please enjoy these two great accounts of the Army of the Ohio at Shiloh. I’d recommend checking out Phil Spaugy’s post as well that discusses the story of two soldiers from Co. C, 1st OVI here

Account of Private William Duncan, Co. D, 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Camp, Field of Shiloh
April 17, 1862

    Here I am, seated under a fine tree, doing what I would have done sooner had I been able, viz: write you a short letter about our doings on and since the 6th inst. I’ll not take time to tell you about our marching, but proceed at once to more interesting matters. On Saturday, the 14th while at Camp Stanton, we had quite a time. A party of chicken thieves was drummed around camp with their heads shaved and run through a barrel, in which were fastened the heads and wings of the defunct fowls. We also had a good laugh at a new Kentucky regiment, which marched past to the ford with their drums beating “The Rogue’s March.” Wonder if it was appropriate.

    But the best part of the day’s sport was our reunion with the 41st Ohio. They halted in front of our camp for about two hours. Nearly all of our company had friends or relatives in the 41st. You should have heard our boys asking for their old friends and running through the ranks looking for them; and then to hear the slap with which hand met hand, proved the pleasure which all felt. Among others, I met Captains Williston and Morgan and First Lieutenant Proctor, besides many others. How would you like to hear Jack Leland’s band again? Imagine the pleasure we felt when standing on the bank of Duck River we heard the well-known bugle leading in “Home Sweet Home,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and other pieces. It brought the water to the eyes of many thinking of those we used to promenade with on the summer evening in the dear old park, listening to the swelling notes of the same band. I hope that I may live to again enjoy those good old times, but in the meantime they live in the thoughts and dreams of many brave hearts. While we were in the height of our enjoyment, the order “forward” was heard and the regiment filed past the ford, which they waded in fine style, Jack playing “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” and the men shouting and laughing.

    On the Monday following we left Camp Stanton, being the first brigade to cross the bridge. We marched the whole week through a perfect wilderness, often we would not see a clearing for miles; the roads were very bad. What few people we saw seemed very glad to see us, and in one little hamlet that we passed I saw more Union flags displayed than in the city of Nashville. On Saturday evening, we halted about 18 miles from Savannah. On Sunday morning we had not gone a few miles before the booming of cannon broke on our ears. The pace at once quickened and we were all anxiety to get through in time to “take a hand.” No one knew where the battle was, or which was the attacking party. Numerous were the surmises which ran through the ranks- many expressed fears that Grant would whip them before we could get there, insisting that it was a shame that we had marched 400 miles and seen harder service than any other division, and then could not get a shot at the enemy; and many were the curses that Grant got for his hurry. We were halted once and ordered to unsling our knapsacks and make ourselves as light as possible. Here we had to leave the roads and go across lots in order that the artillery and cavalry might hurry forward. The day was very warm and the pace was almost a run, and told severely on the men.

    At 6 o’clock we halted about one mile from Savannah. Here we were much surprised to hear that our men had got much the worst of the battle. Between 9 and 10 o’clock we marched to the landing through the village of Savannah; here again I smelt the never-to-be-forgotten odor of blood, for every house, store, and church was filled with wounded. We got on the boats and started up the river for Pittsburg Landing, where we disembarked at 5 o’clock A.M. Here we found a large number of regiments had been driven from their camps by the enemy who still retained possession of them and that men had been killed by musketry within a half mile of the river. Leaving our knapsacks, we at once formed and marched through the woods in the direction of the enemy, who were a mile and a half off. After marching half the distance we came to a place where the woods were a little more open; here we halted and Colonel Smith told us that he hoped we would do credit to the state and himself- at the same time cautioning us to load and fire deliberately, not to hurry, and not to fire until we saw something to shoot at. This was all said in the coolest way imaginable, and had a good effect on the men.

    He had just closed when General Rousseau rode up and told us that he had given us the center of his brigade (the brigade had the center of the division); that there was no retreat; that we must whip or be whipped (here the men laughed); but that he did not want to be whipped today, expressing confidence in our ability to thrash hell out of all the damned thieves we might meet. We gave three rousing cheers for the General and marched forward a short distance. It was now about 7 o’clock and the battle had again commenced about a half mile off on our left. We were ordered to lie down to avoid the shot and shell which were flying around promiscuously, and to await our turn.

Brigadier General Lovell H. Rousseau led the brigade at Shiloh. Duncan remembered that Rousseau gave a speech before the men went into action. "General Rousseau rode up and told us that he had given us the center of his brigade (the brigade had the center of the division); that there was no retreat; that we must whip or be whipped (here the men laughed); but that he did not want to be whipped today, expressing confidence in our ability to thrash hell out of all the damned thieves we might meet. We gave three rousing cheers for the General and marched forward a short distance."

    On our way out we had passed several deserted camps and a large number of killed and wounded, nearly all our own. The wounded were so thick that we could not see more than 100 yards in any direction. We had laid there for about an hour when General Rousseau rode up and shouted, “First Ohio! It is your turn now; the damned thieves are coming- give them hell!” They were advancing on our right flank. We immediately filed to the right, behind a knoll of ground, behind which we laid down. The movement was done quietly, so that the enemy did not know the change of position. The Colonel ordered the men to creep up so that they could fire over the knoll.

    The enemy had now advanced within 50 yards and were in plain view. We now received the order to fire and when they fell back we found 30 dead bodies, almost in a heap. They tried to make a stand, but the fire was too heavy. We could not follow them as the brush was very thick. We advanced some distance more and came to a large square clearing with a log house in the center, full of Rebels, and in the woods on the opposite side was a battery. Here we lay in the fence corners, soon silencing the chaps who were in the house. We afterwards found 15 dead in and about the house.

    At this time, the firing on our right was terrific and our men had to fall back; it soon came to where we were and laying close to the ground and resting our guns on the rails, we poured a telling fire into what proved to be Breckinridge’s Kentucky brigade, keeping them in check for two hours. We worked without intermission, and at one time our ammunition nearly gave out, but a supply came up in time.

    In the meantime other regiment had come up to our support, and the balls were whistling a perfect tune. Here we had some narrow escapes. The Colonel had just dismounted when a ball went through the leather covering of his stirrup. “Lucky my foot wasn’t there,” said he. Major Langdon had a ball go so close to his head as to cut off a lock of hair and pass through his hat; an affectionate ball that. In the first brush a ball passed through the pants of Lieutenant Hayward, tearing his drawers and pants very much, but without injuring him in the least. But the strangest freak was one that entered the sleeve of Billy Cowan as he was ramming a ball home- the ball ran on his back, passing down nearly the whole length inside of the sleeve without drawing blood, it then passed through his canteen into the cap pouch of Corporal Prestings, exploding all the caps and cutting his side without tearing his clothes. I was kneeling beside Sam Beverly, when I heard something “spat” on his head; looking around I saw the blood rush from his forehead. Thinking him badly hurt, I leaped to his assistance, but found that it had merely cut the skin, but it was a close call.

Major Elisha Bassett Langdon, 1st OVI
(Photo courtesy of Larry Strayer)
    When the enemy commenced to fall back, we followed them and had not gone far when a man rose in front of us and was taken to the Colonel and putting his hand in his pocket pulled out the colors of one of the Kentucky regiments. He had been color bearer and when they left he had torn the flag from the staff and put it in his pocket. We also got torn flags belonging to the “First Arkansas Cavalry.” We advanced in brigade line till we came to another open. Here we dressed the line and charged bayonets double quick, but the Secesh did not wait for us, firing one volley and running away. We followed them a short distance into the woods to a deep ravine, where they were posted. They now poured a severe fire into the regulars, staggering them. Colonel Smith at once filed to the left, placing us where we could rake the ravine. Ah, but it did an old Bull Runner good to see them “git” every man for himself. We were not able to follow them. Think of what we had undergone in the last 36 hours and you will know why this closed the battle. This loss of the regiment during the day was 9 killed, 50 wounded, and 15 disabled. It was then five o’clock. We were then relieved and fell back to the river for blankets and overcoats and to pass the night, but we did not rest much, for it rained all night and indeed nearly all the week. In the morning there was an alarm and we marched out again, but no enemy came. We lay on our arms all night with the dead lying around us. The stench was horrible, and we had to drink ditch water in which we could literally taste the dead matter.

Account of Private Harry Comer, Co. A, 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Camp in the woods near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee
April 16, 1862

    I have written no letter to anyone in Fairfield since leaving Camp Andy Johnson near Nashville awaiting the battle which sooner or later we knew must ensue.

    By a rapid march McCook’s, Nelson’s, Crittenden’s, Kirk’s and Woods’ divisions reached Columbia and by fording, rope-locomotion by hand, slow ferriage, and temporary bridge construction, crossed the Duck River and started towards Corinth, Mississippi where a reported stand was to be made by the Rebels. Nelson’s division advanced first then McCook’s and after a march of seven days with heavy knapsacks over rugged hills, on short rations, up mountain ranges and down bottomless hollows we arrived at Savannah on the Tennessee River, the loud echoing of cannon having been ringing in our ears for fifteen hours.

    We (McCook’s division) were embarked on large steamboats, pressed into service by our worthy general and on the 7th of April 1 o’clock at night reached what is called Pittsburg Landing where all of Gen. Grant’s army stores, munitions, forage, and provisions were lying and where, too, the Rebels had driven our men within a quarter of a mile. At the time of the arrival of Gen. Buell’s forces, the Rebel line of battle was within one half mile of the landing and the arrival of reinforcements to Gen. Grant was not one hour too soon. 30,000 troops, fresh from Southern camps of instruction had reinforced Beauregard on Sunday morning to make sure work of their boasted threat to drive the Lincolnites into the Tennessee River and expel the invader from the soil of the South. But the living wall of human wood that met their gaze in the morning and returned volley for volley with more than compound interest that rushed up to the cannon’s mouth into the jaws of death was a stamina that they had not counted on. The Rebels with an army of 120,000 men just reinforced by 20,000 more, 15,000 of their 60 days’ men as bushwhackers, flushed with their victory of the day before over a force but half their number, within a half mile of our army stores, commenced an early attack, a bitter, murderous, raking fire of shot, shell, canister, and grape, a musket discharge of leaden hail which the history of other wars has never equaled.

Major General Alexander McDowell McCook originally served as colonel of
the 1st OVI and made efforts to keep his original regiment under his command
throughout the war. While McCook has not come down to history as a
successful general, the men of the 1st OVI appreciated his professionalism and
leadership at the outset of the war.
    Our division was the center, Crittenden’s on the right, Nelson’s on the left; that each did their part nobly I have no doubt. Justice will be done to all in official quarters-what I have to deal with is the Rousseau brigade composed of the 15th U.S., 16th U.S., a battalion of the 19th U.S., the 6th Indiana, 5th Kentucky (Louisville Legion), and 1st Ohio under the command of Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau, a noble, daring, kind-hearted, Union-loving Kentuckian who in the thickest of the fight grew not excited but rode around from one end of his command to the other, apparently as unconcerned as if safely at home in Louisville.

    Deployments were made by each regiment in front. Companies A and B were sent out as skirmishers with Lt. Hooker in command, Capt. Stafford having been ordered to act as major. 500-600 yards out we came across the enemy in force; each of us fired our rifles at them and retreated to our regiment where we waited patiently for 15 minutes but no enemy appeared. We were again thrown out to scour the woods through brush and brambles, over fallen timber and muddy streams and soon saw the advancing columns of the enemy, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade. We fell back gradually, covering ourselves with trees to the brow of a hill where one of our men, Jacob K. Hasson, received a slight bruise from a spent shell which stunned him. A double quick retreat to the 1st Ohio followed where we found our column.

    The command to lie down and keep close was given when the Rebels first opened fire. This was the first regular engagement but none of Co. A were injured, although the shots flew thick and fast, one returning fire from the ground. A few minutes of suspense and then the bugle sounded the command to rise and forward; then commenced hot work and many a brave boy saw his last of earth. ‘Commence firing’ sounded clear and shrill, and for more than an hour and a half the sharp crack of the rifle and musket, bombs bursting, bullets and cannon balls flying, told of disrupted Union and Rebeldom, or victory and a cemented republic. Here Lt. Hooker fell, a musket ball having shattered his leg below the knee. Private William Morris was also wounded slightly. This engagement was a hotly contested one and the driving back of the Rebels was only accomplished by cool and determined daring, moral and physical courage, coupled with a consciousness of the justice of our cause. An average of 25 rounds was fired by the Rousseau brigade, and after the repulse of the chivalrous Southerners who boasted that they could whip six eastern Yankees and three western Yankees with one of theirs, it was necessary as a systematized attack had commenced on our left wing to get more ammunition from the magazine supply. Here the brigade rested in a ravine then commenced our third engagement.

Marching by the right and the left flank to the brow of a hill in the dense mass of fallen tree tops, undergrowth, leaves, and brush piles, together with passages through muddy stream and cypress swamps, the Rebels were encountered in the canyon hollow from which they poured hot shot, shell, and solid ball that made the earth shake and the heavens tremble. A vigorous and unerring fire from the Unionites with an occasional boom of the gunboat batteries made the chivalry, who to their honor as far as bravery is concerned fought like devils, start on a retreat which they did in good order. Here the 1st Ohio made a double quick charge across in the direction of the retreating enemy. To do this required a half right wheel by the regiment which left Company H of Piqua and Company A in an open field exposed to the fire of three Rebel regiments of reserve.

The 1st Ohio Infantry overrunning the Confederate battery at the Battle of Shiloh. Many of the soldiers of the regiment still felt the sting of disgrace from the disaster at Bull Run, and their success here at Shiloh restored their confidence and boosted morale.

The repulse of the enemy from this, their strongest point, was an affair of daring and intrepid courage; the capture of the New Orleans City Battery, the finest in the South; the shooting down of the staffs and the taking of three Rebel flags; the death by an unfriendly bullet of Gen. A. Sidney Johnston, and the mortal wounding of Gen. G.W. Johnson, provisional governor of Kentucky at Bowling Green are events that will be record when the history of this rebellion is written and all of us will be proud of our part in it, but here too is where many of our men bit the dust, among them some of Fairfield’s sons. Solomon E. Homan was wounded through the muscle of the left arm, Martin Schopp badly in the thigh, William Shetzley in the leg, George W. Carroll in the leg, William Morris in the head. Hasson and Morris are in the company and as well as ever. Lt. Hooker, Orderly Sergeant Homan, William Shetzley, and George Carroll have been sent to Ohio as nothing in this God-forsaken country can be found suitable for sick people to eat, drink, or sleep on. Neither are the noxious vapors continually rising from this field of blood and carnage calculated to revive the sick or add strength to the able-bodied.

    Gen. John C. Breckinridge was in command of the central division of the Rebel army opposed to McCook’s division in the Federal army and in the hottest part of the day’s engagement, Breckinridge’s original brigade from Louisville and Rousseau’s brigade, both Kentuckians, met. Each knew their opposition, each knew one another, and a deadly hatred exists between them. Here the 3rd Kentucky (Union) and the 3rd Kentucky (Confederate) fought each other with a desperation and zeal which one can conceive who saw it not. Two Irish brothers met, one battling for the Union and the other for disunion, and after a cordial greeting while their regiments maneuvered, returned to their commands to renew again the strife of blood. Another instance is told of an adjutant of an Illinois regiment coming across the dead body of his brother, dressed in the swarthy uniform of a Rebel lieutenant. He was first shocked, then wept, and with his own hands dug a grave and interred him. A brother’s love was stronger than a brother’s disgust and hatred of the Rebel cause, and an oaken slab now rests as a headstone over the dead, inscribed “My brother-gone to join the Grand Lodge above.” A fact worth relating occurred to our company. Whilst out skirmishing, a rebel was noticed sitting on a camp stool with a U.S. overcoat on, in the act of shedding his old butternut colored breeches preparatory to putting on the regulation blue of the Union. Pop went an Enfield from Company A and over went Secessia’s tool ‘but half made up.’

Map of Shiloh that was used in my book Bull Run to Atlanta; courtesy of Hal Jespersen.

    As the property of the 1st Ohio preparatory to a general settlement is the New Orleans City battery and three Rebel flags of different patterns. Stafford as acting lieutenant colonel, rides a beautiful short-tailed, long-haired charger branded C.S, which means Confederate States, but which Stafford says are the initials for Capt. Stafford! Sgt. Murphy of our company has a nice captain’s sword picked up on the field and several of the boys have Southern pikes, corn cutters, etc. while Edward Stober found in the camp from which one brigade was routed a full fine suit of officer’s clothing. Almost everyone in the company has some little memento of this bloody battle such as fragments of shells, cannon balls, grape shot, pelican, lone star, or rattlesnake buttons, pieces of flags, bark of trees, pieces of old Confederate uniforms.
    Although the 17th Ohio is left back yet on account of impassable roads, old Fairfield has its representatives here. Two companies of the 46th Ohio under Captains Henry H. Giesy and John Wiseman were in the surprise and the hottest part of the fight on Sunday, and though borne down by numbers, cut up badly, and divided from their division, the men and officers did their best and held out manfully and heroically against superior numbers. Captains Giesy and Wiseman have informed me that they intend giving you the particulars of the wounded, killed, and missing of the 46th Ohio and I leave it to them to do so as it will be more correct than what I can gather from hearsay. The 58th Ohio was also in the hottest of the fight on Monday. Two or three companies from Fairfield are in it; one company commanded by Capt. Ezra Jackson, a noble-hearted man and a true soldier who knows no flinching and is loved by his men. Squire Kinser of the Fairfield border, who started out as a lieutenant, has since been promoted to captaincy on account of meritorious deeds performed on the dark and memorable days of the 6th and 7th of April 1862. These, with Company A of our regiment, make five full companies from Fairfield. The 1st O.V.C. was also here, and Val Cupp’s anxious to join Buell’s company in following up the skedaddling Rebels. Added to these, Gen. W.T. Sherman (our old Cump) had command of a division continually under hot fire from beginning to end. On his staff is Lt. Dayton of the C.W.& Z. Railroad. I have also seen as visitors Aaron W. Ebright, Isaac Light, and T.W. Tallmadge.
    The time our wounded were on the boats awaiting a removal northward, I went round the different bunks where the wounded were lying. One young man asked me for a drink of water; I gave it to him from my canteen when I noticed the poor fellow had his arm off close to the shoulder. He inquired where I was from and I told him Lancaster, Ohio. He remarked that Lancaster was his old home and said my name was either Little or Comer. I told him my name and he said his name was Henry Orman, an old school fellow and playmate of mine, a son of John Orman who left Lancaster some ten years ago for Iowa. Henry was just about getting a commission as second lieutenant of Co. D, 6th Iowa. Capt. Joseph Braden of the 30th Indiana was mortally wounded on Monday, a piece of shell striking him in the lower part of the stomach. He was formerly superintendent of the Fairfield County Infirmary- a good man and a brave soldier.

    I know all the old camps around Washington City. I saw a great deal more than I wish to see again at Bull Run; I have read graphic accounts of the Fort Henry and Fort Donelson fights, but I am well satisfied that they were all mere skirmishes as compared with the battlefield of Shiloh near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee. The fifteen mile space, once known as the Shiloh Mission for the conversion of Indians, has been turned into one vast charnel house. The missing, wounded, dying, and dead of the Union force cannot be less than 12,000. At least 5,000 men and horses are lying dead on the field of Shiloh.


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