A Riverfront View of Shiloh

     If anyone truly had a ringside seat to history, it was James Fitzpatrick aboard the U.S.S. Lexington. On Sunday morning, April 6, 1862, the 448-ton timberclad gunboat was resting quietly at anchor off Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee alongside its fellow timberclad the U.S.S. Tyler. A thunderous noise to the southwest aroused the gunboat crews to the opening of battle and by the early afternoon, Fitzpatrick saw the panicked Federal troops swarming along the banks of the Tennessee River. “Up to 4 p.m. the fighting was brisk on both sides, but it was plain to see that we were having the worst of it," he wrote. "Our men came in by the hundred without arms, having thrown them away, and nothing could induce them to rally again. The day seemed to be entirely lost. The enemy’s shot and shell were falling all around us, but we could not fire for fear of killing our own men.”

          Just before 6 o’clock, General Grant signaled the gunboats to open fire, and nearly every participant of the battle noted the incessant cacophony of noise generated by the heavy guns booming throughout the night. “Colonel Jesse Appler of the 53rd Ohio says the sweetest music he ever heard in his life was the whistling of the gunboat shells through the trees,” noted Fitzpatrick.

          Master Fitzpatrick who eventually rise to command of the Lexington, this blog having recently featured his account of the Third Battle of Fort Donelson. Fitzpatrick’s account of Shiloh was among the first published by the Portsmouth Times in the aftermath of the battle.

 

The Lexington and Tyler in action at Shiloh, busily shelling Beauregard's last assault on the evening of Sunday, April 6, 1862.  The two gunboats continued to drop shells into the Confederate camps all through the rainy night; the Tyler until about 1 a.m. then the Lexington until dawn. Union control of the Tennessee River proved the salvation of Grant's army as it permitted the arrival of thousands of reinforcements from General Don Carlos Buell's army, including my great-great-great uncle who was serving as a sergeant in the 39th Indiana. 

United States Gunboat Lexington, off Pittsburg, Tennessee

April 12, 1862

          The enemy, 80,000 strong under the command of Generals Beauregard and Johnston attacked our forces at this place on Sunday morning the 6th at 4 o’clock and drove Generals Sherman and Prentiss from their positions with the loss of their batteries and a great many killed and wounded. General Prentiss was taken prisoner. A great many Ohio troops behaved badly, and one regiment of Indiana troops threw down their arms and surrendered at the first fire. Up to 4 p.m. the fighting was brisk on both sides, but it was plain to see that we were having the worst of it. Our men came in by the hundred without arms, having thrown them away, and nothing could induce them to rally again. The day seemed to be entirely lost. The enemy’s shot and shell were falling all around us, but we could not fire for fear of killing our own men. If we could keep them back until morning, all would be well as General Nelson was then in sight.

          At 5:45, the enemy planted a battery on our left and only 300-400 yards from the main body of our men and commenced firing. Our battery returned the fire but very feebly and everything seemed to be lost. At 5:55, General Grant signaled for us to fire and the Tyler and this boat opened fire immediately. We were in close range and sent every shell home to them with a will. At 6:15, they were in full retreat on our left, having left some of their guns, two of them having been dismounted by our shells. At 7 p.m., the firing on shore ceased for the night, but the Tyler kept up a fire of shells until 1 o’clock. At that time, they drew off and we took their place until daylight, firing an 8-inch shell every 15 minutes. We got the direction of the enemy’s camp by their fires. It commenced raining at midnight and was very dark, and we could trace every shell by the two boats.

The U.S.S. Tyler with its crew mustered on the bow in this image from the Liljenquist Collection of the Library of Congress. The Tyler and Lexington look similar in appearance as both were sidewheel steamers of approximately 180 feet in length, but the Tyler was about nine feet wider in beam and a hundred tons heavier in displacement. Both vessels carried 8-inch guns and could cruise along at 7-8 knots. The Confederacy at this time had nothing on the Tennessee River to confront these black-painted behemoths. A Confederate observer described the gunboats as "black, ugly things, wrapped as they are in the habiliments of death and mourning, well representing the principles upon which this unholy war is waged."

I have visited the ground which was shelled by the two boats. The trees look as though a hurricane had passed through them, and at every step you can see dead men and horses. In one place I was shown eleven men killed by one of the gunboat shells and at another place nine, and another six or men and five dead horses. Colonel Jesse Appler of the 53rd Ohio says the sweetest music he ever heard in his life was the whistling of the gunboat shells through the trees.

The "sweet music" of the gunboat shells might have been music to the ears of Colonel Jesse Appler, but the widespread denunciation of his 53rd Ohio regiment after Shiloh (coupled with his own lackluster performance) soon led to his dismissal from the army. Master Fitzpatrick hesitated in his first letter to name the Ohio regiments who "behaved badly" at Shiloh, but a subsequent letter named both the 53rd and 77th Ohio regiments among several others, both of which had companies from his hometown of Portsmouth. 

At 4 in the morning on Monday, General Nelson commenced the fight with a cheer, having crossed the river in the night and slept under a tree with his men ready for action in the morning. He held his ground with 9,000 men for five hours against 30,000 of the enemy. At 10 a.m., reinforcements came to his assistance and the enemy commenced retreating. At 3 p.m., they were in full retreat all along the line with our men in close pursuit. It rained all Monday night, and the roads are almost impassable for artillery. On Tuesday, our men took some of the enemy prisoners and took all of our men back who were taken by the enemy on Sunday. Tuesday it rained all night again. All kinds of reports were coming in, one saying that Beauregard is badly wounded, General Johnston and General Ruggles of Tennessee are killed.

Our loss is very heavy. We have already buried over 2,500 bodies, and the wounded are dying by the hundred. The enemy’s loss is still greater than ours. I could give the names of several Ohio regiments which ran the moment the enemy opened fire on them. Our captain tried to get some of them to form and go back but love of country nor threats of punishment were of any avail. They kept on running for dear life. I suppose General Grant will get the praise for the victory, but General Nelson is the man entitled to it. He did the fighting and ought to get the praise. General Halleck arrived here this morning; we fired a salute in honor of him.

 

Brigadier General William "Bull" Nelson, the true hero of Shiloh? Master Fitzpatrick thought so. "General Grant will get praise for the victory, but General Nelson is the man entitled to it. He did the fighting and ought to get the praise," Fitzpatrick wrote. Fitzpatrick's sentiments may be clouded by his affinity to stick up for a fellow member of the Navy- Bull was a U.S. Navy lieutenant before donning the uniform of brigadier general. 

Source:

Letter from Third Master James Fitzpatrick, U.S.S. Lexington, Portsmouth Times (Ohio), April 26, 1862, pg. 2

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