"I lay me down to sleep and he to die." The 71st Ohio Infantry at Shiloh

An account of the Battle of Shiloh from First Lieutenant Newton Jasper Harter, Co. I, 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Several years ago, I was digging through the Illinois Newspaper Archive and came across an intriguing account of the Battle of Shiloh written by an unnamed soldier from the 71st Ohio Infantry. The private letter, published on page one of the May 16, 1862 issue of the Macomb Weekly Journal from Macomb, McDonough Co., Illinois, was written to the correspondent’s brother who was then living in Macomb. “The 71st Ohio was one of the regiments that was reported to have run,” the editors stated. “From this letter it would appear that the regiment stood its ground much better than could have been expected from it under the circumstances.” What I found most intriguing about the letter was the detailed account the author left of the final hours of Lieutenant Colonel Barton S. Kyle of the 71st Ohio.

It took a bit of detective work and cross checking other accounts written about the death of Colonel Kyle, but I was able to pinpoint the author based on an obituary for Kyle that was published in the Springfield Republic (Ohio). This obituary contained extracts of a letter from Lieutenant Newton J. Harter of Co. I that contained the same quotes as were found in the Macomb Weekly Journal letter. The obituary also reported Harter’s injuries in the same way as was found in the Illinois letter.  It is unusual that I was able to identify the author of a letter published in an Illinois newspaper with information from a paper published in Ohio, but sometimes things just work out that way with research.
Lt. Col. Barton S. Kyle, 71st O.V.I.
The surprise Confederate assault on Sherman’s Division that took place on the morning of April 6, 1862 elicited wide editorial comment in the North, but it was irresponsible newspaper reporting in the Chicago newspapers that really set tongues wagging. Writers charged several Ohio regiments (including the 71st Ohio) with rank cowardice. The Chicago Times charged the regiment with “inexcusable inefficiency” and charged that 71st Ohio bolted from the field after firing one or two shots, and “the cowardice of these regiments left the point undefended and the enemy immediately closed in and surrounded the more advanced regiments.” Presumably the burden then fell upon Illinois troops who suffered heavier casualties because the Ohio regiments didn’t stand up to the task. This prompted a quick riposte from a regular army officer who was present at Shiloh who wrote that “the same 'panic' which caused the Ohio regiments to 'flee in disorder' caused some of the gallant friends of the Chicago Tribune's correspondent to leave in an equally hasty manner.”

Unfortunately, there was elements of truth on both sides. Thousands of Union troops broke and fled to the relative safety of Pittsburg Landing during the battle- that there were Ohio troops among this number is beyond dispute. The 71st Ohio specifically came under fire in the official report of its brigade commander Colonel David Stuart of the 55th Illinois who charged the regiment with retreating off the field contrary to orders such that he could find only fragments of the regiment for the rest of the battle. Regimental losses of the 71st Ohio totaled 14 killed, 44 wounded, and 51 missing for a total of 109. The charge that Illinois troops suffered casualties out of proportion to those suffered by the “cowardly Ohioans” is borne out in Stuart’s Brigade- the 55th Illinois suffered roughly 280 casualties in the battle.

The 71st Ohio's first position was along the Hamburg-Savannah Road but the regiment fell back across the creek after coming under Confederate shellfire and being flanked. Brigade commander Colonel David Stuart had ridden off to the brigade left and upon returning found that the 71st Ohio has inexplicably left their position. The soldiers of the other two regiments of the brigade complained that the 71st Ohio left them in the lurch, and when questions began to be raised about Colonel Mason abandoning his men during the fight, the regiment's reputation was seriously tarnished. A portion of the regiment stood their ground at Shiloh, but in the tangled forests and hills, their brigade mates couldn't see them and assumed the worst. 
(Map courtesy of  American Battlefield Trust)

Colonel Rodney Mason of the 71st Ohio was charged with abandoning his post, and barely escaped being cashiered in the ensuing public outcry. Ohio at Shiloh squarely lays the blame upon Colonel Mason for the regiment’s poor performance at Shiloh. “The regiment has been severely censured for its conduct in the battle of Shiloh and, so far as Colonel Mason is concerned, deserved the severest condemnation. At the first appearance of the enemy Colonel Mason put the spurs to his horse, basely deserting his men. And about this time the 19th Alabama made a rush at them and this in connection with the conduct of Colonel Mason precipitated a wild stampede to the rear, the men throwing away their arms in the flight. This made it impossible for Lieutenant Colonel Kyle, who was doing everything in his power, to rally them.” (Ohio at Shiloh, pgs. 37-38)

 It was an inauspicious beginning for a new regiment; several months later the regiment would be disgraced again when a portion of it (again under Colonel Mason’s command) was surrendered at Clarksville, Tennessee. “The death of its lieutenant colonel in its first battle and the dismissal of the rest of its officers not long afterward [as a result of the Clarksville surrender, Lieutenant Harter being one of the dismissed officers] had a dispiriting effect upon the regiment, and it came to be talked of as one of the unlucky regiments of the state,” wrote Whitelaw Reid.
Colonel Rodney Mason, 71st O.V.I.
(Photo courtesy of Larry Strayer)

Clarksville, Tennessee
April 24, 1862

          Dear Brother: 
    I wrote you some time since, say 30 days, and not receiving an answer I again attempt to give you some details of the past, present, and future. You no doubt have heard of the battle and various versions, too, but thinking that you might have seen some of the articles reflecting upon the conduct of the 71st Ohio, I will give you what I consider a true statement.

          We were in Sherman’s Division and Colonel Stuart’s brigade, consisting of the 55th Illinois, 54th Ohio, and 71st Ohio. One division was posted about two miles from us and we were posted on the extreme left, while the rest of our division was near the center. When the battle began we were without a commander, excepting Colonel Stuart who was acting brigadier general, and he knows nothing at all of military matters. Besides we had not one cannon nor any cavalry- just us three regiments there alone, and we were attacked by seven regiments of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi troops, aided by artillery planted on the heights. [General John K. Jackson’s brigade, consisting of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Alabama regiments along with the 2nd Texas struck the 71st Ohio’s position.]
Lieutenant Harter said that his brigade commander Colonel David Stuart "knows nothing at all of military matters," an assessment in which Colonel Mason agreed. Mason later claimed that Stuart denigrated the 71st Ohio in his official report as a way to "puff" the accomplishments of the 55th Illinois, Stuart's regiment. 

They advanced, and we gave them one volley, then they threw shell and grape into us and flanked us on the right. We fell back to another ridge and next to us below was the 55th Illinois who next came under their fire; when they fell back, the Rebels fell upon the 54th Ohio who also fell back. Then and there you might have heard Minie, grape, canister, round shot, and shells, and replied for two hours. Here we laid while on all sides you would see wounded and dead carried down the slope (we were lying on the side of a ridge; the whole ground is composed of ridges and ravines).

I heard that Lieutenant Colonel [Barton S.] Kyle was wounded, so I went up the line and found him resting on his elbow, partly shielded from the balls by the rising ground. I asked him if I could do anything for him, and he said, “give me a drink and then open my vest and see if the ball passed through me.” I done so and found that it had lodged, he then asked me to wash his face, saying that he was shot through the lungs and wanted me to take him from the field. He gave me his watch, money, and sword. I passed up and down the line and couldn’t get a man to assist me. The regiment had begun to retreat, and the enemy was just across a ravine and had their battery planted and was plowing up the ground with grape. I could distinctly see the lone star on their banner [2nd Texas Infantry].

I ran back to Colonel Kyle and he saw the men falling back and he said, “stay with me, Newt.” Our men at that time had crossed the hollow and many were beyond the hill and out of sight. I again called to them not to leave their Colonel, and calling a sergeant, he rallied three men and came back through the fire of all the enemy and putting their guns under him, we bore him over the knob while on every side the balls raked the earth or ‘splat,’ they’d strike a tree. Not one of us was hurt although many had their clothes riddled and one ball cut my pants at the knee.

When once over the hill and comparatively out of danger, a whole company came to our assistance and I went ahead and secured an ambulance. We unloaded one man who was wounded in the face and put Colonel Kyle in his place. I sat down to rest in company with one of our company, but we hadn’t sat long when balls began whistling rather close and we looked where they were coming from and there, within 150 yards of us, came the Rebel sharpshooters, and at the same moment went down two men near us. My men fired twice in succession when some more rallied and we then retreated.

Lt. Col. Kyle died at 3 P.M. the afternoon of April 6, 1862 aboard the steamer S.S. Chanceller.
He is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Troy, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Find-A-Grave)

After this I crossed the hills with Harvey Hart [Adjutant James H. Hart] and joined the 55th Illinois and went to the river and then we had a brisk fight about dusk. That was the grandest sight I ever saw, to see that circle of batteries thundering away, the shells striking trees and exploding, and in return receiving shell and round shot, tree tops cut off and falling, etc. We (the 71st, 54th, and 55th) were posted to the left and between the batteries. Pretty soon they made a dash when we opened with musketry and for about 20 minutes there was the most terrific noise, flashes of guns that I ever saw or heard. At last the order “cease firing” passed along the line when all was quiet. Then we laid down on our arms while General Buell’s men marched up from the landing with drums beating and filed in before us. We marched back to the bank and there laid on the ground without blankets while the rain poured down on us. We had had nothing to eat since morning.

Early in the morning [April 7th] we got a hard cracker and a piece of meat all cold and wet, and we started for the field where we could hear the cannon peal after peal, commingled with the clatter of musketry. That road wasn’t long for all at once we marched out into an open field and halted while before us was one of the dreadful artillery duels going on. We were on the highest ground which sloped off to the wood where the enemy was posted a short distance back on a little knoll while our men were in the edge of the woods and our artillery lower down in the field. We could see the whole fight, see our infantry advance, theirs retire, but presently shells began falling in our rear.

71st O.V.I. monument at Shiloh

They were firing on us, so we fell behind a ridge, but a ball fell in the ranks which killed three men. That was rather too warm for us, so we were ordered forward across the field, which we did until we reached the road in the woods when the battery was again turned on us. This time the grape and canister came in earnest. We were ordered to charge the battery and did so, but the enemy left their long entrenchment too quickly for us. Here was the horrible clatter of all kinds of deadly missiles we passed in the two days’ fight, and it was kept up until about 5 o’clock, we advancing and they retreating, but we never ceased firing.

About 4 o’clock as I was looking on the batteries fighting I received a ball through my canteen and blouse which knocked the skin off and bruised me some but did not enter the flesh. I thought had first my hip was badly shattered which I’m happy to say was a mistake, as I’m sound now except for my blouse which has the bullet hole in it.

After the battle I went across the country to our camps where I found things considerably damaged. The Secesh took everything I had except what I wore, and in my tent lay a wounded Mississippian; I moved him into another tent and lay me down to sleep and he to die. All night long you might hear the wounded Secesh calling for help, but no help came except the one I moved out who I found dead in the morning. Four dead men lay behind my tent while all around you could see them. There was about 150 dead and wounded in our camp, among them General Albert S. Johnston, who we buried in our camp. During the fight all went well, but to sit down and think of the danger we passed and the dead and dying all is rather calculated to make a person wish never to witness such scenes again.

Lieutenant Harter wrote that the body of Confederate commander General Albert Sidney Johnston was buried in the camp of the 71st Ohio. While Johnston was indeed wounded and died near their camp (as shown in the map above), the General's body had been hauled back to Corinth during the battle. I've seen several accounts from Ohioans claiming to have seen General Johnston's body left on the field at Shiloh; they are either mistaken or the body of another Confederate officer bearing a resemblance to General Johnston was the one they found. 

Our regiment is spoken of as running which is in part true, as some of our officers did run and badly, too, beginning with the Colonel [Rodney Mason] and of course a part of the men, but about 250 stayed through the two days fight and now after the battle is over and our loss is made known, General Halleck sent us to this point to recruit as nearly one half are sick.

[Colonel Mason gave his own version of Colonel Kyle’s demise in a letter published in the Cincinnati Gazette which was republished in several southwestern Ohio newspapers. Colonel Kyle “was sitting in conversation with Lieutenant Mason of Co. C [the state roster does not show a Lt. Mason in the regiment] leaning forward on a log when a bullet struck him in the center of the right breast passing nearly through his body diagonally to the left hip. He called to me immediately as I was only a few feet from him and told me he was wounded and pointed out the place and fell back upon the grass, as I supposed, dying. It was a terrible blow to all of us. I put him in charge of one of the officers to see that he was properly cared for.” (Troy Times, May 15, 1862, pg. 2)]

Colonel Kyle’s obituary from the Springfield Republic also expands upon Lieutenant Harter’s description of his retrieval of Colonel Kyle. The colonel “was shot while rallying his men about 10 o’clock on Sunday by a musket ball which entered his left lung, causing an internal hemorrhage. Lieutenant Harter saw him fall and though the order had come to fall back for the second time on that dreadful day, he ran to his beloved commander’s side. The Colonel said, “Newt, take me off or stay with me.” The lieutenant answered, “We will take you with us.” He then ran forward and called Captain Sol J. Houck of this city and Sergeant [William H.] McClure of New Carlisle and they returned with the lieutenant within 150 yards of the approaching enemy, took the Colonel in their arms, and carried him away though the party was shot at constantly until a friendly knoll intervened. The lieutenant in this service had his pantaloons across his back cut by a Rebel musket ball and another went through the sleeve of his blouse. Colonel Kyle lived five hours, dying about 3 P.M. He was conscious to the last; he knew his condition and met his end calmly and manfully.” Colonel Kyle died aboard the steamer S.S. Chanceller the day before his 37th birthday. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Troy, Ohio. (Springfield Republic, April 21, 1862, pg. 2)]

Lieutenant Harter was discharged (dishonorably at first, later changed to an honorable discharge) August 29, 1862 for his role in the surrender of Clarksville, Tennessee. He later served as Adjutant of the 147th Ohio. He died July 28, 1866 at age 31 of a short illness and like Colonel Kyle is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Troy, Ohio.

The 71st Ohio was primarily recruited from the southwestern portion of the state. Troy, the enlistment and burial place of both Lieutenant Harter and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle, is circled on the map above. 

For further reading on the service of the 71st Ohio, I recommend Martin Stewart’s Redemption: The 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War which is available through Amazon here


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