Last Chance Defenders of Shiloh

Charles Overton of the 50th Illinois had been detailed as a hospital nurse, but upon hearing the opening sounds of battle of Shiloh, he volunteered to take his place in the ranks.  Soon thrust into action, he recalled the desperation of the fight at the end of the first day of the battle when his regiment was supporting a battery of siege guns atop Pittsburg Landing.

“Here we had three good batteries in position, and we determined to make a desperate stand and drive them back or die,” he wrote. “Our place was just in the rear of the principal battery. There was a part of the regiment on the right and part of another on the left, and 10-15,000 men all in disorder between us and the river that would not budge an inch to help us. Captain King made a short speech, asking them for God’s sake, to come and help us defend that battery, our last chance. A few rallied to its support. It was now between sundown and dark. The Rebels threw a heavy force in on the left and made a desperate effort to take the batteries, evidently with a determination to get possession of the landing in which case we might have been forced to surrender our whole force. Captain Gaines made a short speech and told us to give them the cold steel and said he would leave every man of the 50th on the field before they should take that last battery. We all felt about the same way.”

The 50th Illinois was attached to Sweeny’s Brigade of General W.H.L. Wallace’s Division and during the battle lost 12 men killed and 66 wounded. Private Overton’s letter was originally published on the second page the May 14, 1862 issue of the Mineral Point Weekly Tribune in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.

 

First Lieutenant William Haselwood of Co D, 50th Illinois was wounded in the arm on April 6, 1862 but survived the battle, eventually rising to the rank of captain. 

Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee

April 10, 1862

          I will try and give you an idea of the position of our forces. The course of the Tennessee River is north and south. Our forces were encamped on the western side from the river back some four or five miles. The outside of our encampment formed a kind of semi-circle seven or eight miles around. Above us, our lines extended nearly to the river. Below there is a swamp so that we only came within two miles of the river at that point. Our forces numbered about 60,000 men. It will seem very strange that we were surprised by the enemy, yet so it was, and we were entirely unprepared for an attack. Somebody was greatly in fault.

          Our lines were attacked on Sunday morning about 4 o’clock near the center, Beauregard in person leading the enemy 100,000 strong, each Rebel with his canteen filled with whiskey and gunpowder. They had staked everything on this battle and such desperate fighting is hardly known in the annals of history. The long roll beat for our regiment a little after daylight. Our regiment brought out 340 men. We were ordered to the left flank two miles up the river. By this time, it was a continual roar of musketry and cannon for miles; there was no cracking about it. My God, it was awful! Fort Donelson was nothing but a skirmish compared with this!

          Our men fought and fell like heroes, as they were, but the Rebels, stimulated by their gunpowder and whiskey and feeling that this was their last chance, fought like demons and our men began to give back foot by foot, fighting all the time. The scene cannot be exaggerated on paper. In planting batteries, we would lose from five to ten horses before we could get them placed. They took a good many of our batteries, burnt some of our tents, and on they came foot by foot. Finally, they threw a heavy force in on our left. Now the battle commenced here. One line of our men was some distance in front of our regiment and it had not yet come our turn, but the bullets were flying around us thick and heavy. We were lying flat on the ground and most of them passed over, but it was no comfortable position I can assure you. The line in front of us fought like tigers and many a poor fellow was left on the field, but the enemy (five to one on this flank) came rushing on, and our front was forced to fall back amid a perfect shower of musketry and cannon balls.

Colonel Moses M. Bane, 50th Illinois
Bane lost his right arm to amputation at Shiloh


          On came the Rebels as our front fell back in our rear and now it came our turn. I was among the number ordered in front as skirmishers. We went several rods in front of the regiment. In a short time, our colonel [Moses M. Bane] was shot through the body and arm, our lieutenant colonel [William Swarthout] shot through the leg and taken prisoners, our adjutant [Thomas Brown] killed, and our major [George Randall] ran, so we were left without a field officer. Captain [Thomas W.] Gaines took command. The skirmishers were firing across a hollow. Where I as there was an opening clear across. I would step inside into a bunch of bushes, lie on my back and load, then crawl out into the open space and fire on a squad on the other side. The fifth time I came out, an old Secesh raised his gun, took aim, and blazed away at me, but not being a good marksman, his ball plowed the ground about four feet from my head. It was now my turn, and I think from the movement, he fired no more guns. We stood there till they came within 30 yards of us, when we had to fall back as they outnumbered us fully five to one and they fought like demons. We fell back fighting all the time. They followed and flanked us both right and left, a crossfire on us all the time. I was hit with a spent ball in the side, but as it struck my belt it did me no injury.

          The fight still raged on every hand. They pressed us so hard on the right and left that we were compelled to fall back or be taken prisoners. The Rebels kept sending in fresh troops and crowding us very hard. Our men began to be discouraged and regiments were scattered in every direction. Many of our men were on the bank of the river and would not move back an inch. Some swam the river and a few were drowned in attempting it, others were fighting desperately. Our men drove them back on the right while on the left we had retreated to within a half mile of the river. Here we had three good batteries in position, and we determined to make a desperate stand and drive them back or die.


Our regiment now mustered 115 men. Our place was just in the rear of the principal battery [Stone's Battery K, 1st Missouri Light Artillery]. There was a part of the regiment on the right and part of another on the left, and 10-15,000 men all in disorder between us and the river that would not budge an inch to help us. Captain [Selah W.] King [Co. G] made a short speech, asking them for God’s sake, to come and help us defend that battery, our last chance. A few rallied to its support. Just then word came that Buell had arrived with reinforcements, and in a few moments, we heard their music as they were crossing the river, and three such cheers went up then and there that are not often given. It was now between sundown and dark. The Rebels threw a heavy force in on the left and made a desperate effort to take the batteries, evidently with a determination to get possession of the landing in which case we might have been forced to surrender our whole force.

Captain Gaines made a short speech and told us to give them the cold steel and said he would leave every man of the 50th on the field before they should take that last battery. We all felt about the same way. On came the Rebels in full force. Just then one of the gunboats got in range and began to play on them. They opened their battery on us and returned the compliment. We had 18 guns in total in three batteries. It was now a continual, deafening, deadening roar of artillery. We had our 64-pounder that would come in about three times a minute throwing a perfect stream of fire for 40 feet. The guns from the boats then came in above all the rest, throwing shells in over our head. By this time, the enemy infantry opened on the battery and the regiment on the regiment of us began to waver. But the officers with drawn pistols rallied them. I never saw men work as the artillerists did then.

Just then, the Rebels came up on our left and opened a crossfire. Every man of us (we had been lying on the ground) raised with bayonet fixed and thought our time had come. But the gunboats opened thick and fast. The artillery whirled in an instant and raked them fore and aft. They retreated. Just then, Buell’s men began to come up and we felt the day was ours. In a short time, the firing ceased for the first time since 4 o’clock in the morning. There had not been a moment for over 12 hours but what there was a continual roar of musketry and cannon. I do not think such an instance was ever known before.

A little after dark it began to rain, and in a short time in came down in torrents. We remained in line of battle until about 2 o’clock in the morning. Buell’s forces were crossing all night and he said e would whip them before night or drive them to perdition. At 2 o’clock we were relieved by Buell’s men. We could not sleep for the gunboats kept throwing shells all night.

Lieutenant Colonel William Swarthout
50th Illinois

          Before daylight on Monday morning, we were aroused by the boom of cannon. Our men now commenced the attack and drove the Rebels over the ground we had lost the day before, but they were strongly reinforced and fought for life or death, but it was no use. We took our artillery back and many of their guns also. About 4 p.m., they commenced to retreat in good order and preserved it about four miles but our cavalry, infantry, and, artillery followed them so close that in a short time there was a general stampede. We had fresh troops and they took many prisoners. They took just about 7,000 of our men Sunday, but we took a good many of them back on Monday, among them our lieutenant colonel.

To pass over the battlefield, the most horrible sight is presented. I have been over but a small part of it since the fight, but I have seen enough. Some of their officers we took prisoner and they say that their loss on the first day in killed and wounded was not less than 20,000. I don’t know that it will reach that number but judging from the appearance of the field it cannot be much less. Their loss is reported two or three to our one. One of the prisoners said that one of our heavy pieces in range of one of their regiments just coming in line killed or wounded every man in the regiment except 75. I saw 12 killed within ten feet of each other. In the small hollow, 400 dead were counted. In one place near the center of the line, they lay in rows of hundreds. In another place, the shells had set the leaves on fire and scores of them were burned to cinders. In one tree I saw 50 bullet holes.

Our loss is not ascertained though it will probably reach 15,000 in killed, wounded, and missing. Our regiment had 75 killed and wounded. I never want to see another such battlefield.

 

Banner awarded to the 50th Illinois Volunteer Infantry for winning a drill competition features the corps badge of the 15th Army Corps. 

Source:

Letter from Private Charles E. Overton, Co. G, 50th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Mineral Point Weekly Tribune (Wisconsin), May 14, 1862, pg. 2

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