The 53rd Ohio and the Shame of Shiloh

    The 53rd Ohio, perhaps more than any other Federal regiment, was marked by what I would call "the shame of Shiloh." The initial newspaper reporting of the battle specifically called out the 53rd Ohio (among others) for running away without firing a shot, labeling the Ohioans cowards who "cut and run like so many sheep," and that men of the regiment were bayonetted in their beds; all of this was the purest bunk and a fine Civil War era example of "fake news," but the men certainly felt the sting of public criticism of their actions and chafed considerably at being labeled as cowards not only by the press, but by their own divisional commander William Tecumseh Sherman. 

The confidence that the men had in Colonel Jesse J. Appler of the 53rd Ohio was destroyed in the opening moments of the Battle of Shiloh. Appler failed to meet the harsh test of Civil War combat and was branded a coward. No one could have predicted such a result during the heady days at Camp Diamond where recruits were promised "good uniforms and camp equipage" and "Pay from the day of enlistment" in Appler's regiment.  


    General William T. Sherman's opinion of the regiment, and more specifically its colonel Jesse J. Appler, suffered in the days leading up to Shiloh. For days, Appler had been sending reports back to Sherman reporting rampant Confederate activity in his front. About 4 in the afternoon of Saturday April 5th, Colonel Appler dispatched a patrol to bring in some mounted men he suspected of being Confederates. The patrol was fired upon by what they reported to be a picket line and Appler, convinced now that the Rebel army was in his front, ordered the regiment under arms and dispatched Lieutenant Joseph W. Fulton of Co. B to so inform Sherman. "By the time the regiment was formed, Fulton came back and said in the hearing of many of the men, 'Colonel Appler, General Sherman says take your damned regiment to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth," reported Adjutant Ephraim Dawes. "There was a laugh at the colonel's expense and the regiment broke ranks."

     Colonel Appler's actions before April 6th marked him as a "nervous Nelly" in Sherman's eyes, but the fact was Appler was right. The entire Confederate army of the West under General Albert Sidney Johnston was moving into position that afternoon for a dawn attack. "Colonel Appler was a man about 50 years of age but of fine presence," Adjutant Dawes remembered. "In early life he had served on the sloop of war Hornet. He had little education but much general intelligence; good ideas of discipline but no knowledge of drill nor of the army regulations." 

    The regiment had left Ohio in February, suffered in the muddy camps at Paducah long enough to be issued arms in early March, then sent South to encamp at Pittsburg Landing. None of the senior officers of the 53rd Ohio possessed much military experience; the regimental major upon whom much was expected due to his prior service with the 1st Ohio was too sick to ever drill the regiment, so the 53rd Ohio went into battle having never had a battalion drill, and with few of the men ever having fired their .54 caliber Austrian Lorenz rifles.

    However right Appler might of been before April 6th, his actions during the battle marked him as a rank coward in the eyes of not only Sherman but most of Appler's own men. After Shiloh, Sherman took both Colonel Appler and the 53rd Ohio to task. He called them a "pack of cowards" and charged that if they ever ran again in battle "he would take as much pleasure pouring shot and shell into them as the Rebels." One veteran recalled that "our general blamed us for giving way and made us a long speech in which he said that sufficient support was at hand."

    The sting of Sherman's rebuke still rankled 38 years later as regimental historian John Duke of the 53rd Ohio remembered the unfairness of the charge. "It is well to note that we had no fortifications of any any kind for our use, our entire force being in an unorganized condition resembling more a mob than a well organized and equipped army," he wrote. "Notwithstanding all this, the battle was fought and won more as the result of good luck than good generalship, yet after the battle, some of these same gentlemen wearing epaulets called some of the regiments into column by companies and criticized their conduct at the onset of the battle. The conclusion is inevitable that we were wanting in strategic leadership. Someone was to blame and if these gentlemen could find a scapegoat, they might escape just condemnation for poor generalship and thus it was that the 53rd Ohio and 77th Ohio were censured."


    The residents of southeastern Ohio could scarce believe their eyes when they read the reports in the Cincinnati Gazette and the Chicago Tribune which labeled their local regiment as cowards. "The 53rd Ohio regiment is accused of showing the white feather at the battle of Pittsburg," the Gallipolis Journal reported on April 17th. "It is very certain that the regiment was entirely ignorant of the army drill and never had been provided with arms until they arrived at Paducah on their way to the seat of war. It cannot be that a regiment with such officers can become totally demoralized." The Ohio State Journal opined that the "disgrace of the 53rd Ohio is deeply mortifying to our state pride. This regiment was enlisted on the borders of southeastern Ohio is composed chiefly of miners, foundry men, coal men, and such others as are found in the coal and iron regions of the state. The regiment thus constituted must have contained most excellent military material. With such material in the rank and file, we cannot comprehend how there should have been such a demonstration by the whole regiment."

    To fully understand what occurred to the 53rd Ohio in the opening moments of Shiloh, let's let the soldiers themselves set the scene and describe the action. First Sergeant Milton K. Bosworth of Co. K stated that the regimental camp was located in Rea Field "in a large peach orchard beside a beautiful spring. The country hereabout is rolling, considerably cut up with shallow runs and covered with oak and thick underbrush with small clearings at distant intervals. The rock underneath is coarse pudding stone and by its disintegration forming a cold, heavy clay soil full of pebbles, poorer in quality that any soil found in the state. A more dreary, desolate country cannot be found than this, fit for nothing save a battle."

     "Lyon" described the 53rd Ohio camp as being located "on the main ridge road that leads from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth. We were encamped about 100 yards east of this road in advance of the balance of our brigade about 500 yards. Our regiment was about 500 yards in advance of every other regiment with no troops on either side of us." First Lieutenant George E. Cutler of Co. G noted that "our position in line of battle was an open field with a dense growth of timber and underbrush in front which completely concealed and covered the enemy. On our left was an open space of half a mile and on our right was an open space of a quarter of a mile so that our regiment was entirely disconnected even from its own brigade and had a position the most difficult on the line to hold." One advantage the camp did enjoy was its proximity to a nearby spring, but John Duke recalled that this proved not much of a blessing as the water contained "that which is prejudicial to health."



    The strength of the regiment also bears some discussion. Sickness had run rampant in these rookie troops, hundreds of the men coming down with the "Tennessee quickstep" from drinking the dirty Tennessee River water during the regiment's passage up the river from Paducah. Their weakened condition left them even more susceptible to typhoid fever which was reaping its harvest of death within the regiment in the days leading up to the battle. One officer indicated that roughly 250 men of the regiment were in the hospital on the morning of the 6th, more than a third of the total strength. This marked an improvement from the end of March when two-thirds of the regiment was unfit for duty: "It was difficult to muster enough well men for squad drill or guard duty," Duke recalled. One sergeant recalled that of the 900 men of the regiment, 100 were sick back in Ohio, 200 were unfit for duty, and another 100 were away from the regiment on detached duty leaving about 500 men in the ranks. 

    Sergeant Bosworth described the night before the battle and its opening moments. "Sixteen men of my company [K] were all the pickets our regiment had out," on the night of April 5th. "We went out 200 yards Saturday evening on picket. They returned at daylight without having been disturbed. About 4 a.m., our colonel became uneasy and sent out Cos. B and D in another direction on the direct road to Corinth which ran parallel to our camp on the west at a distance of about 100 yards but out of sight from the underbrush. About half past 5 they found the enemy advancing in lone lines of battle in the most beautiful order on every side save the direction of our camp. Bear in mind that they were not 200 yards from the camp and were the first to discover the enemy. Mutual volleys were fired and a rapid retreat followed on the part of the skirmishers," Bosworth recalled.

Major Ephraim C. Dawes, 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

    The long roll was beat and the camp of the 53rd went into an uproar. Adjutant Dawes described Colonel Appler as caught up in the excitement of battle. It was as if all the fears of the past days had come home to roost, and Appler started to come apart apart under the strain. "The colonel sent me to inform the regiment; then called me back and directed me to go to Colonel Jesse Hildebrand, our brigade commander; again he called me back and finally sent a soldier to the brigade picket line to ascertain and report the facts," Dawes wrote. Appler then sent two more companies to reinforce the picket line and soon spied the Confederate line approaching from the south. "Appler ordered the regiment to move to the left of the camp facing south and directed me to go to the head of the column and halt it at the proper point. As we filed left, one of the companies that had been sent to support the pickets came back  through the brush, the captain exclaiming as he took his place in line, 'The Rebels are thicker than fleas on a dog's back.'

    "I halted the regiment at the proper point and looking to the right, saw the Confederate line of battle apparently within musket-shot of us and moving directly toward our right flank. The sun had risen in a clear sky and the bright gun barrels of the advancing line shone through the green leaves. I gave the command, 'Front! Left dress!" and hastening to Colonel Appler who was in the rear of the center of the regiment said in a low tone, "Colonel, look to the right!" Colonel Appler looked up and with an exclamation of astonishment said, "This is no place for us!" He commanded, "Battalion, about face, right wheel!" [This move took the regiment from fronting south to fronting on the west.] Appler's order brought the regiment back through the camp. Colonel Appler, marching in front, cried out a number of times in the loudest tones of his shrill, wavering voice, "Sick men to the rear!" The regiment halted at the brow of the elevation in the rear of the officers' tents, marched ten paces forward, faced about, and the men lay down in the brush where the ground began to slope the other way," Dawes stated.

    At this point, General Sherman and staff galloped into the 53rd Ohio's camp. Facts soon proved that this alarm was no delusion of Colonel Appler's mind; it was a legitimate threat to the army. "I saw the Confederate skirmishers emerge from the brush which fringed the little stream in front of the regiment's camp halt, and raise their guns," Dawes wrote. He called out to a nearby lieutenant Eustice H. Ball that Sherman was about to be shot. Ball ran shouting "General, look to your right!" General Sherman dropped his glass and looking to the right, saw the advancing line of Hardee's troops. He threw up his hand and exclaimed, 'My God, we are attacked!" The enemy's skirmishers fired and the orderly fell dead by the General's side. Wheeling his horse, Sherman galloped back calling to Colonel Appler as he passed him, 'Appler, hold your position. I will support you!" Dawes recalled. 

General William T. Sherman

    Support soon arrived in the form of two James' rifles from Battery E of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery under Captain Allen Waterhouse; the guns went into battery on the right flank of the 53rd Ohio facing west, but they didn't stay there long. "The camps of Buckland's and Hildebrand's brigades were in sight, all of the regiments were in line while those of Buckland's brigade were marching forward," Dawes continued. "I heard a sharp rattle of musketry far to the left on General Prentiss' front and the long roll beating in McClernand's camps. At 7 a.m., a Confederate battery fired its first shot cutting off a treetop above Co. A. The two pieces of Waterhouse's battery each fired a shot, limbered up and returned to their camp. A Confederate regiment came through the line of our officers' tents. Colonel Appler gave the command to fire; there was a tremendous crash of musketry and the battle was fairly on. The first fire of our men was very effective. The Confederate line fell back, came forward, received another volley, and fell back again, We seemed to be winning, but our colonel, who was standing behind the left wing cried our, "Retreat, and save yourselves!" [Much ink was spilled in the Chicago newspapers blaming the 53rd for abandoning the Waterhouse's battery at this point; the Ohioans clearly had a different version of the story as told here.] 

     Sergeant Bosworth continues the tale. "On came the Secesh, the heaviest column through our camp against our front on the west; another column on our left flank, the south and rather behind us, while a third heavy column was pushing its way up a ravine between us and and the rest of the army on the right and north. Long before we retreated they were in a direct line between us and the rest of the army and had it not been for the ravine behind and to the right which sheltered us, they would have accomplished their design and all of us would have been prisoners. On they came, the bayonets flashing brightly in the morning sunbeams with the steady measured tramp with wonderfully regular lines that regulars only could imitate. When head of the column in front was within 50 yards and the one of the left within 150 yards, we fired. We were concealed so well that their return fire wounded but few."

    "Then was the time and there was the place for us to have made an obstinate resistance until the whole force would have been aroused," Bosworth noted. "True, we would have finally been forced to retreat and might have lost many men, but we would have killed more of the enemy and saved the battle on Sunday if we had stayed there half an hour. But Colonel Appler simply traveled and cried "retreat" not telling us how or where to rally. We rallied without his help twice only to hear and see the same thing repeated minus the firing on the enemy. The last time he hurried three miles to a steamboat, leaving us to look our for ourselves. Others, following the example of the colonel, fled to the boats and about a third remained with the regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert A. Fulton."

53rd Ohio monument in Rea Field at Shiloh

   "Two or three companies on the right whose commanders did not hear this order stayed until they saw the remainder of the regiment going back in confusion and then marched back in an orderly manner to a ravine in the rear of one of McClernand's regiments that had just come up," Dawes remembered. "Here our regiment rallied without difficulty." The battle raged in front of the regiment but with McClernand's men in front, the 53rd suffered only from dropping fire. Dawes recalled that he saw the 57th Ohio of his brigade falling back through their camp  and saw a chance to get into the action. "It seemed to me that we could help them by moving the length of a regiment to our right and perhaps save our line" he wrote. 

    "Therefore I ran to the where the colonel was lying behind a tree and stooping over said, 'Colonel, let us go and help the 57th; they are falling back.' He looked up, his face as white as ashes; the awful fear of death was upon it. He pointed over his shoulder and squeaked with a trembling voice, 'No, form the men back there.' Our miserable situation flashed upon me. We were on the front of a great battle. Our regiment had never had a battalion drill. Some of the men had never fired a gun. Our lieutenant colonel had become lost in the confusion of the first retreat, the major was in the hospital, and our colonel was a coward!" Dawes stated. Colonel Appler soon bolted from behind his protecting tree and made tracks for Pittsburg Landing where he apparently spent the remainder of the battle sheltering under the protection of the Federal gunboats. He explained to fellow Portsmouth native James Fitzpatrick of the U.S.S. Lexington after the battle that "the sweetest music he ever heard in his life was the whistling of the gunboat shells through the trees." 

    Those left in the ranks after the colonel bolted from the field continued to battle with the Confederates for the rest of the day, but the die had been cast: stories began to filter through the army that the 53rd Ohio had fled at the first shot and as proof positive, there is their own colonel cowering on the river bank! Dawes blamed the stories on the sick men who fled from the camp at Appler's order. "From the rear of all the camps hundreds of men hastened to the rear," he wrote. "The sick, the hospital attendants, teamsters, the cooks, officer's servants, the sutlers, and some who should have been in line. In great numbers and without arms they streamed back through the camps of McClernand's division carrying the news of the attack. announcing their units, and giving a basis to the report that the entire front line had given way without firing a shot," he noted.


    A few days after the battle, Colonel Appler showed up in the 53rd Ohio's old camp; his return proved that he had lost the faith of his men. "When he did appear, the boys hissed and hooted at him and cried out "Shoot him! Shoot him!" David Neal of Co. I reported. "Colonel Appler wished to resign but was informed that his resignation would not be accepted, but that he would be cashiered, dismissed from the service, and sent home in disgrace. "Served him right" will be the verdict of the whole people."

     As the facts of Shiloh began to hit the newspapers, even the Chicago Tribune, first to lambast the cowardly 53rd, changed its tune. "They and other regiments accused of bad behavior affirm that they are as brave as others and will wipe off the stain before the war is over," it reported. "As the details of the surprise are unfolded, our indignation at these Ohio regiments is a great deal mitigated. Being raw recruits who had never been drilled, they were all confused but still would have stood their ground had not their colonel dodged." 

    It was agreed then by General Sherman, the men of the 53rd Ohio, and the newspapers that Jesse Josiah Appler was the villain of the affair and upon him the mantle was coward was bestowed. The disgrace of the 53rd Ohio at was thus solely blamed on the "arrant coward" who led them. Ohio at Shiloh states as much. The army quickly sent him packing: he was discharged from duty April 18, 1862 and sent back to Portsmouth, Ohio where he lived until 1887, the cloud of Shiloh permanently affixed over his head. 


Sources:

Duke, John K. History of the Fifty-Third Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry During the War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1865. Portsmouth: The Blade Printing Co., 1900 (Adjutant Dawes' account of Shiloh is within this volume)

"The 53rd Ohio Regiment," Gallipolis Journal (Ohio), April 17, 1862, pg. 2

"The Fifty-Third Ohio," Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), April 14, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from First Lieutenant George E. Cutler, Co. G, 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Ironton Register (Ohio), May 8, 1862, pgs. 2-3

Letters from First Sergeant Milton K. Bosworth, Co. K, 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Pomeroy Weekly Telegraph (Ohio), May 2, 1862, pg.2 and May 9, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from "Lyon," 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry,  Ironton Register (Ohio), May 15, 1862, pg. 2

Article about Private David Neal, Co. I, 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Ironton Register (Ohio), April 24, 1862, pg. 3

"The Ohio 53rd," Chicago Tribune (Illinois), April 24, 1862, pg. 1

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