Bloody, Battle-Stained, and Miserable: A Wounded Buckeye Recalls Shiloh

It was more than 40 years after the Battle of Shiloh when Robert Fleming sat down to compose a paper regarding his experiences as a 19-year-old private during the battle.

As a clerk at the headquarters of brigade commander Colonel Jesse Hildebrand of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s division, Fleming had a safe behind the scenes viewpoint of the army going into action on the morning of April 6, 1862. But gripped with boyish enthusiasm, he left his desk duties behind and with a borrowed gun and cartridge box took his place in the ranks of Co. D of the 77th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The Confederate attack soon opened upon his regiment and Fleming was soon shot down by a Rebel bullet. Twelve hours later, with the regiment driven back to Pittsburg Landing and hobbled with his own painful wound, Private Fleming was distressed to find that his older brother James was aboard the same hospital boat as himself.

In an emotional passage, Fleming described his feelings as he cared for James in his final hours. “My brother James, a beardless boy two years my senior, was wounded about the same time I was,” he wrote. “Monday morning, I managed to reach his side. He was lying against one of the guards of the boat in a puddle of water, it having rained heavily during the night, and I saw at a glance that death was written on his face. I took off my shirt and got a man to take it out and fill it with hay for a pillow for him and got some stimulants to ease his pain as much as possible. He told me the doctor told him Sunday that his wound was mortal and lying beside him with my own wound still undressed, bloody, battle-stained, sore, and miserable, with the thought that I must communicate this sad news to our anxious widowed mother at home, my cup of sorrow was full. He passed away during the day Monday, giving loud orders to his company which, in his delirium, he was still commanding.”

Robert Fleming’s paper, entitled “The Battle of Shiloh As a Private Saw It” was published in Volume 6 of the Sketches of War History series by the Ohio Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion and is presented below in a truncated form.

 

This depiction of the Federal camp adjacent to Shiloh Church at left would have been an intimately familiar one for Robert Fleming. The Buckeye was on detached duty at brigade headquarters which is depicted at center as a grouping of Sibley tents. The tents of the three regiments of Hildebrand's brigade (53rd, 57th, and 77th Ohio), stretch into the distance. 

The dawn of Sunday morning April 6th opened on a spring day or superb beauty. The regiment was astir with the usual camp duties. There were no indications of the impending bloody conflict excepting the distant sound of an occasional musket shot from the pickets away out in front and as that had been going on at intervals for a day or two, we thought nothing of it. Company rolls had been called, breakfast had been eaten, and orderly sergeants had made their reports to the regimental adjutants, and the adjutants had made their report to brigade headquarters. I was at work compiling the brigade morning report from the regimental reports. The firing away out in our front became gradually more incessant and distinct, indicating that our pickets were being driven it.

The regiment was finally formed in line and advanced partly down the gentle decline leading from the tents to the creek which ran nearly parallel with our front and about 500 feet distant from the line of battle. This branch crossed the brigade line between the camps of the 57th and 53rd Ohio regiments. Here the regiment stood in line of battle for some time awaiting events.

Colonel Jesse Hildebrand
77th O.V.I.

The headquarters’ tents were deserted by everybody except myself and it was my duty to remain there and complete the morning report and care for the brigade records. [Colonel Hildebrand’s headquarters was located to the right of Shiloh Church] Occasionally a wounded man would pass along the road in front of headquarters on his way to the landing, and it was a difficult matter to do clerical work inside the tents when matters so exciting were transpiring outside. I ran out several trips past the church to the regimental camp where I could see the boys in line, then returning to my duties. Matters finally became so strenuous outside that I could remain in the tent no longer.

I had a brother in line, orderly sergeant of my company, and a large number of my schoolmates, and the impression was on my mind that the regiment was going to get into a skirmish and the boys would be writing home that they were all in it except “little Bob” and he was clerking at headquarters. As I went down to the tents of my company, I passed Colonel Hildebrand who was sitting on his big black horse watching the line of the brigade. The ground was open between Shiloh Church and the left of the 53rd Ohio and from Shiloh Church the whole line was plainly visible.

Another depiction of the Federal tents that surrounded Shiloh Church. During the period of Confederate then Federal occupation of the area, the church was slowly picked apart. By the time the Confederates had moved out in March 1862, the church lacked any pews and by the time the Federals were done with it, it lacked a floor. By the time the battlefield scroungers and trophy chasers were done, there was nothing left but a depression in the ground where the church once stood. Fleming recounted that men from his regiment engaged in souvenir hunting early in the battle, having thought they had driven off the Rebels for good. The American fascination with souvenirs has deep and long-standing roots. 

When passing near the church I saw Adjutant Ephraim C. Dawes of the 53rd Ohio ride up to Colonel Hildebrand and salute and heard him say “Colonel, the enemy are coming in our left flank.” Colonel Hildebrand replied, instructing him to have the regiment change front to the left. I passed on down between the tents and Co. D quarters to hunt for a gun. [The regiment was armed with large caliber Austrian rifled muskets that Fleming reported ‘had a very unpleasant habit of kicking back when fired.’] As I passed the door of one of the tents, Basil Chalfant who was sick, came out of a tent with his gun and accoutrements on, evidently suffering greatly. I asked him if he would not loan me his gun and cartridge box a while, and he promptly consented.

Adjutant Ephraim C. Dawes
53rd O.V.I.

I went down and fell in line on the left of my company. My front-rank man was Second Sergeant E.A. McPeek and the man to my right was a little Irishman named John McInerney. The underbrush and timber were pretty well cleared off down as far as the creek in our front, but the large trees were standing. Our pickets were still being driven in, but we could not see anything until our own pickets commenced to emerge from the woods on the far side of the creek. I remember seeing Captain William A. Stevens of Co. A, who was with the pickets, dodging from tree to tree for protection as he made his way back over the creek to the regiment. We crouched down on our knees with our muskets ready for action as soon as our men came back to the lines and we could see any enemy to shoot at. The first intimation I saw that they were not far off was a musket ball striking a few feet in front of us and throwing the dirt over Sergeant McPeek and myself. He glanced around and gave me a very significant smile which I reciprocated.

Private Albert Hemmeger
Co. B, 77th O.V.I.


Finally, the enemy’s artillery opened, firing over our heads into our camp. The cannon balls commenced cutting the limbs off the trees over our heads and my particular fear at that time was of being killed by a falling limb. Before the enemy had emerged into full view, my right-hand man John McInerney received a ball just over his right eye. The blood spurted out profusely and I thought he was finished until I saw him jump up and step to the rear of the line and say to Lieutenant Jack Henricle, “Leftenant, do you think that went in dape?” It proved to be a glancing blow and though Johnny was knocked out for the battle, he returned and served until the close of the war.

All this time the enemy’s artillery was blazing away over our heads and suddenly the artillery fire trebled in volume, and all the furies of hell broke loose at once could not have made more din. We did not know whether the guns were all on the enemy’s side or not, but I well remember the feeling of joy when Major Benjamin D. Fearing came running along behind the line shouting at the top of his voice to make himself heard above the din of battle “Boys, those are our guns!”

Just at this time, the Rebel lines emerged from the woods across the creek: firm, compact, and terrible. They advanced into the creek to get the shelter of its banks and the battle opened in fury along the whole front. At about this time, General [W.T.] Sherman with his staff was near the flank of our left regiment the 53rd Ohio. The General was examining the front with his glasses. A volley at that moment killed Sherman’s orderly and the General exclaimed “My God, we are attacked!”

Our fire was too hot for the enemy in our immediate front and they disappeared from view in the brush beyond the creek. Some of our men thought the battle was over and several, among them Sergeant Major Gordon B. West, ran down to the creek in our front to secure some trophies from the battle. The lull did not last long, however, as they came back with redoubled force and settled down to that long series of sledgehammer blows, kept up almost incessantly during that long day. The Confederates made repeated attempts to carry our line, nut we as often driven back rapidly to the cover of the timber. General Sherman states in his official reports that Colonel Hildebrand held his own regiment in position an hour after the balance of the brigade had disappeared to the rear. As a matter of fact, the men in line were not aware that any officer held them there. I never heard any command to go or stay. The truth was the men in line were equal, if not superior, in average intelligence and army experience to the officers in immediate command. I know my own company had in its ranks as privates and non-commissioned officers quite a number of Latin and Greek scholars- men who later in the war became the company and regimental officers.



We could see off to the left of our brigade line that everything seemed to be giving away; in fact, the position of the 53rd Ohio was untenable from the start. If they remained in line with the brigade, their left flank stuck out in the air. They were probably caught executing the order for change of flank which I head Colonel Hildebrand give Adjutant Dawes and soon were swept from the field. When the 53rd Ohio was compelled to give way, it left the left flank of the 57th Ohio exposed and they in turn were flanked and compelled to retire. This left the left flank of our regiment unprotected and, as a matter of fact, the men in the left companies of my regiment had left-faced in their tracks and were firing at the enemy in the rear of the position first occupied by the 57th Ohio before we fell back from our first line of battle. There was no formal movement in falling back; the men in the left gradually sloughed off and passed to the rear singly and in squads as they were flanked.

I received a wound which knocked me out while we were still in front of the church. As I fell and felt that deathly shiver which many of my comrades have experienced and felt the warm blood spurting out, I thought I was done for. However, I soon struggled to my feet and boy-like, my first thought was to save and return the gun and accoutrements which I had borrowed. Realizing, however, that discretion was the better part of valor, I left the musket and made my way back through the regimental tents to the improvised field hospital in the small ravine back of our camps. While going through the camp, I encountered a wounded man of my company named Christopher Bowman. His left arm was shattered and bleeding profusely, but in his right hand he playfully displayed a canister shot and showed me where it had hit one of the buttons of his blouse and drove the button into concave shape.

After lying at the hospital perhaps a half hour, the surgeon, seeing that the left flank of the brigade was entirely turned, ordered all who were able to go to the rear and with the aid of two sick convalescents, I reached the river shortly after noon and was placed on the hurricane deck of one of the steamers. Every available foot of space on the first deck and cabin was filled with wounded men. From this position, I had a good view of what was going on along the landing. There was a motley crowd of sick men, teamsters, company servants, and straggling soldiers. I never noticed, however, any evidence of panic among them and have never thought the number of stragglers was much greater than is usually found in the rear of any army during a great battle.

Men were kept busy with stretchers carrying men off the boat as fast as they succumbed to their wounds and laying them in a row on a level ledge about half-way up the bank. While watching this rapidly increasing line of dead soldiers, I noticed one of those who had been carried out as dead attempting to raise his head. Two Sisters of Charity who were on the boat quickly went to his aid with water and other restoratives and he was again brought aboard.

Federal steamboats at Pittsburg Landing after the battle. It was aboard a ship like one of these that Robert Fleming's brother died. After his death, Robert had a coffin made and helped bury his brother in what is now Shiloh National Cemetery. Sergeant James Hugh Fleming, who died at just 21 years of age, remains there today. 

My brother James, a beardless boy two years my senior, who was first sergeant of our company was wounded about the same time I was. I learned late Sunday evening that he was on the same boat and was desperately wounded. On Monday morning I reached his side. He was lying against one of the guards of the boat in a puddle of water, it having rained heavily during the night, and I saw at a glance that death was written on his face. I took off my shirt and got a man to take it out and fill it with hay for a pillow for him and got some stimulants to ease his pain as much as possible. He told me the doctor told him on Sunday that his wound was mortal and, lying beside him with my own wound still undressed, bloody, battle-stained, sore, and miserable with the thought that I must communicate this sad news to our anxious widowed mother at home, my cup of sorrow was full. He passed away during the day Monday, giving loud orders to his company which, in his delirium, he was still commanding. I directed the making of a rough board box ty the boat carpenter and he was buried near the old log house on top of the hill where his remains still lie, on that ground hallowed by his blood and that of other brave boys.

Among the wounded in Sunday’s fight was Corporal John Morris of my company. He was my nearest neighbor at home, had been my schoolmate, and we enlisted together. No one of our regiment saw him after the battle. It was known that his leg was shattered below the knee, and that he had a thigh wound in the same limb and he was left on the battlefield when it was occupied by the enemy. Some weeks later an official report came to the regiment that he had died in a Cincinnati hospital. T became incumbent on me to write a letter of condolence to his parents and as he had been a model soldier and fighter, I had a good subject. He was home to read my letter when it came, and he said it was certainly a first-class obituary and almost made him weep.

Morris told me that the doctors had wanted to cut off his leg on the battlefield, but he fought them off, saying he did not want his corpse worse mangled than the Rebel bullets had left it. His father came to Cincinnati and took him home. Another poor fellow had doubtless been put in his cot without changing the number and died there, the mother of some poor boy may yet be mourning the unknown fate of a lost son.

"Some of the regiments, it is even said, ran without firing a gun. Col. Appler's 53rd Ohio is loudly complained of on this score and others are mentioned." The 77th Ohio was one of the "others" mentioned in this early reporting that appeared in the Chicago Tribune

I desire now to touch on a matter the mention of which has always aroused a feeling of the utmost indignation in the breast of every member of the 77th Ohio. About a week after the battle, the newspapers reached us from the North containing outrageous accounts of how the troops had been surprised and bayonetted in their tents; of how some of the Ohio troops behaved shamefully and particularly how the 77th Ohio ran without firing a gun! Some cowardly correspondent of a Chicago paper started the lie and it never got less as it traveled. Even as late as a few years ago a comrade of an Ohio regiment which fought in the Army of the Potomac asked me about our being disgraced at Shiloh. In answer, I showed him a photograph of the monument of the 77th Ohio Regiment near Shiloh Church and this is what the inscription on the granite says: “This regiment was engaged here from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. April 6, 1862. On the 8th it joined in pursuit of the enemy and was engaged in the fight near Mickeys. Its losses on the 6th, 7th, and 8th were one officer and 50 men killed, 7 officers and 109 men wounded, and 3 officers and 48 men missing, total 219.”

The mortality of this regiment was only exceeded by two regiments in the entire battle, the 9th Illinois having a death list of 61 and the 6th Iowa 52. The 55th Illinois was exactly equal to our regiment at 51 killed. The personal and individual valor of the American volunteers who handled the muskets and who were ignorant of their own defeat carried the day at Shiloh. The humble private values his heritage of honor as much as the greatest general; great generals as well as private soldiers must take their first lessons. There is no part of the writer’s army record in which he takes as much pride as in having been one of the boys behind the guns at Shiloh.

 

 

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