"My boys from Cleveland, for God's sake do your duty!" The 54th Ohio Infantry at Shiloh

An account of the Battle of Shiloh from Second Lieutenant George W. Browning, Co. E, 54th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

The 54th Ohio Infantry was organized in late 1861-early 1862 with companies from all over the state: Allen, Auglaize, Butler, Cuyahoga, Fayette, Greene, Hamilton, Logan, and Preble Counties among others all supplying men for the regiment. The 54th Ohio wore Zouave uniforms in the early days of its service, one of only a few regiments from Ohio so attired. Thomas Kilby Smith, an attorney from Cincinnati, was appointed regimental commander following an active political career in which he studied law with Salmon P. Chase, served in the post office department, as U.S. Marshal for Southern Ohio, and as deputy clerk for Hamilton County.
Colonel Thomas Kilby Smith, 54th O.V.I.
The 850 men comprising the regiment arrived in Paducah, Kentucky on February 17, 1862 and was assigned to Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Fifth Division and assigned to the Second Brigade under the command of Colonel David Stuart. The regiment, as part of Sherman’s division, sailed south along the Tennessee River and camped near Pittsburg Landing in southern Tennessee in mid- March. The division went into camp near Shiloh Church and commenced the slow task of drilling raw troops into veterans. The regiment was still only a few weeks along in this process when it fought its first engagement at the Battle of Shiloh. Regimental losses in the battle were inconsistently reported: Grant’s report totaled 166 (15 killed, 139 wounded, 12 missing), Sherman’s report showed 189 (24 killed, 133 wounded, 32 missing), while Whitelaw Reid reported total casualties of 198.The number of men from the 54th Ohio present at the field was not specifically reported in the O.R., but Colonel Smith later wrote that he took 390 enlisted men into the fight; adding in line and field officers, the total for the regiment comes close to 400 which gives nearly a 50% casualty rate. 

The author of the following letter, George W. Browning of Co. E, enlisted from Brooklyn Centre, Ohio as a private on December 20, 1861 at age 32. [Brooklyn Centre is a neighborhood on the south side of Cleveland.] He was promoted to Second Lieutenant on February 5, 1862 and was serving in this capacity at Shiloh. He was later promoted to First Lieutenant but not mustered at that rank and resigned his commission February 13, 1863. The following letter was published in the April 26, 1862 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Democratic paper, which in part explains his comments regarding Colonel Smith, another Democrat.

While researching Lieutenant Browning, I came across an old listing for an auction from Cowan Auction House featuring a number of wartime letters from him to his wife Cinderella, one of which expands on his description of Shiloh written for the Plain Dealer. Lieutenant Browning had charge of the regimental commissary stores, but when the long roll beat on the morning of April 6, 1862, he asked Colonel Smith if he could accompany the regiment into the fight. “I was not obliged to go and in fact I am obliged to stay with my commissary stores unless the Colonel permits. I went and asked him to go and he said yes for he never denies me anything and I got ready,” he wrote his wife. “Our course was principally through the woods, through creeks, mud holes, and gullies, occasionally crossing cotton fields and passing the enemy’s houses. We were saluted by the barking of the faithful watch dog who in this country is constantly on his duty and still we moved on noiselessly. We came to a thick swamp and woods which no one but a soldier could get through.” (Source: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/civil-war-archive-1st-lieut-g-w-browning-54th-ovi)

Battlefield near Shiloh, Tennessee
April 11, 1862
          Dear Dealer: On Sunday morning April 6, 1862, the sun rose clear and at roll call we were ordered by Colonel Smith, who commanded the 54th, to have our men prepare their arms for inspection at 9 o’clock. I hardly thought then, and Colonel [Thomas Kilby] Smith never intimated to us, that we were to be inspected by Generals Beauregard, Johnston, Hardee, and Co. In a few moments the long roll was sounded and in a few minutes all who were able were in the ranks.
Colonel David Stuart of the 55th Illinois led the brigade at Shiloh until he was wounded in the shoulder; he then turned over command to Colonel T. Kilby Smith of the 54th Ohio. 
Our brigade, consisting of the 55th Illinois, along with the 54th and 71st Ohio regiments, was commanded by Colonel [David] Stuart and occupied the extreme left and the 54th was on the left of the brigade. [A return from April 5, 1862 showed a little over 2,000 men available for duty among the three regiments of Stuart’s brigade.] We marched, led by our gallant commander, about three-fourths of a mile and formed in line of battle on the brow of the hill where, laying down, we awaited the approach of the enemy in silence until they were within 20 rods, marching boldly up with their colors flying. [Colonel Stuart reported seeing the Pelican flag of the state of Louisiana, but the regiments that assaulted his position were General James Chalmers’ brigade consisting of the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 10th Mississippi regiments along with the 52nd Tennessee.]
The exposed location of Stuart's brigade on the extreme left of the Union line at Shiloh on April 6, 1862 allowed for the brigade to be flanked on both the left and right.  Early in the engagement, the 71st Ohio fell back in confusion after coming under Confederate artillery fire and retreated to a hill 150 yards to the rear, then fell apart completely. The Tennessee River was located just a short distance to the left rear, and after making two desperate stands, the balance of the brigade fell back to Pittsburg Landing late that afternoon. Federal gunboats helped to hold off the final Confederate assaults of the day. Buell's army began to arrive that evening accompanied by regimental bands trumpeting "The Star Spangled Banner," Browning wrote that "never did music sound so well." Stuart's men paid a heavy price at Shiloh: casualties in the 55th Illinois topped 250, while the 54th Ohio lost between 150-200 men depending on the report consulted. Losses in the 71st Ohio were much lighter.
(Map courtesy of American Battlefield Trust)

When we had the command to fire, it was very destructive to them. But in the mean time they had planted a battery [Gage’s Alabama battery] not a half mile from our camp and were pouring in a galling fire of grapeshot and shell. The enemy, who attacked us on the left, consisted of five regiments of infantry, a battery of artillery, and a regiment of cavalry, all commanded by General Hardee. Our commanders soon found themselves contending against a superior foe. Early in the engagement Colonel Stuart received a wound in the shoulder and then Colonel Smith took command of the brigade virtually, but in the evening was in full command by order of General Sherman.

Our first stand was a desperate one and we fought against fearful odds for some time until we were ordered back about half a mile. There for four long hours and 20 minutes three small regiments held the extreme left without a piece of artillery or cavalry or anything to support us, and had it not been for the good generalship of our gallant colonel and Major [Cyrus W.] Fisher, the 54th might have been annihilated. [Browning was being generous here- Colonel Stuart complained in his report that the 71st Ohio inexplicably left the line and the action Browning is describing was fought by the two remaining regiments of the brigade. The poor performance of the 71st Ohio elicited widespread public comment.] The dead and wounded were falling in all directions. And here let me make note of a little incident. The only flag which we have ever had in the regiment is the one presented to Co. E (Captain Henry Richardson) by Gaston G. Allen in behalf of the Bigelow Lodge, and when our color-bearers were shot down and the flag fell a second time, Colonel Smith rode gallantly up amid a shower of bullets and the yells of the enemy and bore the flag away. Despite this, we were obliged to fall back for the purpose of procuring ammunition.
Brigadier General James R. Chalmers
Our second stand at this place was a terrible one, and I heard one of their wounded officers say that twice their men wanted to charge on us, but General Hardee told them we must have a large reserve or we would never make such a stand. But we had no reserve, horses, or artillery. We were flanked but retired in good order some half a mile where we got some ammunition, and at 4 o’clock engaged them again and fought till dark. First Lieutenant [Silas W.] Potter [Co. E] was carried from the field in the early part of the engagement, knocked senseless by the concussion of a shell. At 4 o’clock the enemy had forced our left nearly to the landing when the gunboats opened a destructive fire upon them which they kept up all night.

At this time the struggle was desperate. Sometimes we drove them inch by inch, and again they drove us. At this time our case looked doubtful, but relief was at hand. Buell had arrived and his troops were crossing the river and came marching up at 5 o’clock on quick time, their bands playing the Star Spangled Banner. Never did music sound as well and never did men take such new courage. At dark the battle ceased only to be renewed in the morning. Our men slept on their arms in a heavy rain all night and in the morning Colonel Smith rode at the head of his command to lead them to another day’s battle. The second day I shall not undertake to describe. The enemy was continually driven back inch by inch, and we charged and took several batteries. Never did men hear such musketry and a perfect hail of grape and shell. Once during the day Colonel Smith had command of another brigade and was ordered by General Sherman to keep them and fight them, which he did effectually.

I am too much worn out to give any of the details of Monday but suffice it to say that at 4 o’clock they were in full retreat, leaving behind them all their dead and many of their wounded. We have since been busy gathering up their wounded, feeding them, and administering to their wants. They appeared very thankful, many of them having been wounded early in the engagement on Monday and had not a mouthful of food until Wednesday. They claim to have been grossly deceived.

After Colonel Smith took command of the brigade, our regiment was under the command of Major Fisher. Captain Richardson of our company is well-known in Cleveland and our company was nearly all recruited there. Captain Richardson behaved gallantly. While his men fell around him, he was cheering the balance on to victory and I once heard him say, which struck me sensibly, “My boys from Cleveland, for God’s sake do your duty!” And I think he can testify they did. The killed, wounded and missing of our company total 20.

All is confusion and every effort is being made to provide for the wants of the suffering. I am writing on a barrel head and have had no sleep for three nights. My object in writing is more particularly to show you the gallantry of Colonel. T. Kilby Smith, knowing him to be a personal friend of yours. I bear testimony to his bravery. I was in the fight under him the two days. [Colonel Stuart also sang Smith’s praises in his official report. “Colonel Smith, from the beginning to the end of the engagement on Sunday, was constantly at his post rallying, encouraging, and fighting his men under incessant fire, regardless of personal safety.”]
Engraving of General T. Kilby Smith from
Whitelaw Reid's Ohio in the War

Lieutenant Browning wrote his wife in an attempt to explain the aftermath of Shiloh: “It is a beautiful clear morning down in Dixie’s land. The sun rises clear and bears down on the many rough and rude graves which dot this battlefield. The ground here is of a set surface and they have dug holes and threw them {the dead Rebels] in by dozens and by twenties. As I ride over the field the sight is a terrible one. The thought of being thrown in a mud hole with a blanket wrapped around and not covered six inches deep is horrible to anyone, but as a soldier sometimes the thought shocks me.” (https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/civil-war-archive-1st-lieut-g-w-browning-54th-ovi)


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  3. On page 193 of Life and letters of Thomas Kilby Smith, Brevet Major-General, United States Volunteers, 1820-1887, Col. Kilby Smith says he took into battle less than 400 men. On 196 he clarifies that to 390 enlisted men. So maybe just over a little over 400 if you include the line and field officers. Of course, that makes the percentage of casualties closer to 50%!
    He mentions a lot of men sick or on fatigue duty away from the regiment.

    1. Thanks so much- I will update the post accordingly.


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