Remembering Shiloh with the 14th Wisconsin

     In April 1895, William H. Tucker and Francis E. Engle, two veterans of the 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, traveled back to the battlefield to participate in the first veterans’ reunion at the newly created Shiloh National Military Park. Congress had mere months prior established the park and placed it under the jurisdiction of the War Department to manage. Tucker, who had served as a sergeant in Co. D, wrote the following account giving his impressions of the Shiloh battlefield as it existed in 1895 before the erection of the hundreds of markers and monuments that adorn the field today. To him, the task of interpreting the field was daunting. “It will almost require the aid of the spirits of the fallen heroes to locate the several positions held on that memorable 6th and 7th of April 1862,” he noted. “The grounds have grown up with another growth of timber and thick underbrush and with open fields now where timber stood then. As soon as they cut away the timber and thick underbrush, the lines will be more readily located and traced; until then, it is nearly all guess-work in most cases.”

 

Veterans of the Blue and the Gray posed for this image at the first veterans' reunion at Shiloh battlefield in 1895. William Tucker and Francis Engle are somewhere in this photo. 

At Corinth we secured a good team and light spring wagon and were well-equipped for the occasion. We found the general condition of the country in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee very nearly the same as during the war. There has been made no progress made whatever by the people and it looks about as desolate as when the war raged in all its fury and destructiveness. Where the battles were fought, the grounds are very much changed; the roadways that were then used by our armies are nearly all obliterated and grown up in timber and thick brush such as jack-oak. It was with the greatest difficulty and trouble that one can locate any particular camp or line of battle. We were more fortunate in locating our positions at Shiloh than many others will ever be as our regiment remained at Pittsburg Landing as provost guards until August 1861 which gave us a good opportunity to become familiar with the field.

Around Corinth many old earthworks are still found, the place having been strongly fortified by Beauregard during the siege and also by our army during the summer of 1862. The little town of Corinth has grown some and has a little enterprise in the way of a small woolen mill and a machine shop, but aside from this is the same old sleepy Corinth as before the war days. A visit to the Corinth National Cemetery was made where 5,727 Union soldiers are buried: 1,787 known and 3,940 unknown. The cemetery is well-located and beautifully laid out, surrounded by a handsome brick wall three quarters of a mile a little southeast of town on high ground. We met a number of ex-Johnnies and all seemed glad to shake hands with the boys who wore the blue.

We left for Shiloh and drove out 21 miles to Pittsburg Landing over the road upon which Halleck made his advance on Corinth. We found it very rough. On our route we could occasionally see old rifle pits, but they are mostly washed away, and only faint traces remained. When we arrived at Shiloh Church three miles from the Tennessee River, we found the old log church was destroyed at the time of the battle and every piece of timber taken away as trophies. I presume several million canes are made supposed to have been part of that famous church. Since then, on the same grounds have been erected a small frame church.

 

 “As soon as it began to get light, the mules sounded the reveille and woke me up. The rain had passed and it was clear and bright. We marched out from the teams and rolled up our blankets. Each company piled its blankets and haversacks and left a man to guard them. The first dead man we saw was a short distance from the clearing. He was leaning back against a big tree as if asleep, but his intestines were all over his legs and several times their natural size. I didn’t look at him the second time as it made me deathly sick. A little further one we saw lots of dead men scattered through the woods where they had fallen the day before. I was busy with my thoughts and feeling when Sergeant Johnnie Rockwood said ‘Boys, what makes you so quiet?’ No one answered, and I began to look at the others. All in sight were pale as ghosts. I know my face was as white an anyone’s.” ~Private Elisha Stockwell, Co. I, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

 

Tucker and Engle as they appeared in 1895 at the time of the reunion. 

At the church and Shiloh Springs, we found a number had already arrived and a decorated stand had been built for the speaking and several hucksters were on the ground ready for business with eatables, etc. On our way to the Landing, we stopped about half-way at a farmhouse which looked quite inviting owned by J.R. Duncan. We found we could obtain quarters for ourselves and team and told him we would soon return. Fortunately, Mr. Duncan lived at this same place as the old house was also destroyed at the time of the battle. He was then 11 years old. Nearby was his old peach orchard near the place where General Albert Sidney Johnston fell. A few yards from Duncan’s place was where General W.H.L. Wallace was killed on Sunday April 6th on the main road towards the Landing. Being so nicely located, we had many advantages to help us in our looking over the field. After going to the Landing and walking over our old camping grounds located on the bluff overlooking the river, we returned to Duncan’s farm for the night.

During the three days of the reunion (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) and until the rain came Saturday mixed squads of both armies were scattered in places over all the battlefield. The greater portion of the throng, however seemed to remain around the Landing and Shiloh Church and but few looked the field over except those who were at the great battle of Shiloh. There were at least 4,000-5,000 old and young men, women, and children on the ground including about 500 ex-soldiers of each army and but very little shelter. Many came in all kinds of vehicles, single and double-axle, ox teams, mule teams, horses, and many mounted on horse and muleback. Some of the wagons, one would judge, were used helping Noah to unload when he landed his ark…

“All I remember for a while was that I loaded as fast as possible and wherever I saw a Secesh, I shot at him and that was what everyone there did. There is no use in trying to describe the battle because I cannot do it. All I know about it is that we drive the Rebels, they drove us, then we would drive them again. We charged on one of their batteries and took it and then they charged in turn and we couldn’t hold it so we spiked the guns and set fire to their cartridges so they couldn’t use it on us anymore.” ~Private James K. Newton, Co. F, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

 

Charge of the 14th Wisconsin on April 7, 1862 when they overran the Confederate battery. General William Sooy Smith later delivered a MOLLUS paper that disputed the claims made by the veterans of the 14th Wisconsin, which set off quite the controversy between Smith and the Badgers. The weight of evidence appears to support the claims of the 14th Wisconsin. 

The 14th Wisconsin was an unassigned regiment but fought on the line with Crittenden’s Division of Buell’s army and was temporarily assigned to William Smith’s brigade, this being the advanced line on Monday morning. This position held on Sunday night by Grant’s army and the arrival of General Lew Wallace with his veteran division  made it safe from being further pushed back. The part taken by the 14th Wisconsin was quite an important one. On Monday morning it charged a Rebel battery belonging to Trabue’s Brigade of Breckinridge’s Corps, killing the horses and going beyond the guns. But not having ample support, it was compelled to fall back, yet again rallied and made another charge, this time securing one gun and caisson complete. This gun was spiked by Lieutenant George E. Staley of Co. D. We then advanced to the left front.

 

“The cannon balls flew around us like hail for about an hour then the order came from General Crittenden to charge, and away we went at them, right through the brush and captured their battery. We fell into an ambush and had to retreat, but I spiked a splendid 12-pounder before I left amidst a perfect shower of bullets. We rallied and charged four times, but not being properly supported had to retire until the last time when we held the ground. The Rebels had removed all the guns but the one I spiked which was useless.” ~First Lieutenant George E. Staley, Co. D, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

 

Major Hancock, who was then commander of the regiment, left a strong guard to hold our trophy. Upon our return to the Landing that night, the gun and caisson were taken away. In three of four days, Governor Harvey of Wisconsin came to Pittsburg Landing on his return arranged to take the piece of artillery home to Wisconsin. This gun and caisson ever since have been held at Madison as a trophy belonging to the regiment. At the next reunion, steps will be taken to return the gun and replace it upon the very spot it was captured, there to remain as a tablet marking the location held by the regiment. It will be a point to which visitors to the field can readily locate lines that were so persistently held on Sunday and the beginning of the fight on Monday; this position being immediately to the right of the Hornet’s Nest and old sunken road and to the left of the Corinth road near the creek. In our rear was the old Hamburg road and along this line lay our heavy reserve line Monday morning.

The large trees which stood on the field at the time of the battle are nearly gone. At the time, the timber was riddled by shot and shell and what was left has been taken up for rails. The grounds have grown up with another growth of timber and thick underbrush and with open fields now where timber stood then. It will almost require the aid of the spirits of the fallen heroes to locate the several positions held on that memorable 6th and 7th of April 1862. Many locations are pointed our where the Hornet’s Net was, and as many more where Johnston fell and where the bloody pond was, and where Prentiss surrendered, or where this or that event took place.

 

“Once while the regiment was lying down in the brush, a regiment of Secesh bearing the Rebel flag approached without perceiving us. They were marching in four ranks when they became aware of our presence and attempted to escape by filing off to the right. Major Hancock gave the command and the boys raised themselves to their knees and poured volley after volley into them. The Rebels did not fire a gun but dropped their flag and guns and skedaddled. We passed over the ground afterwards and the enemy’s dead lay so close together that a person might walk for rods by stepping from one corpse to the other. Their flag was picked up, torn into shreds, the blue field being the only part attached to the staff.” ~ Sergeant John M. Read, Co. E, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

 

The commissioners that were recently appointed by Congress to purchase the battlefield and make it a National park were on the grounds looking over the situation. As soon as they cut away the timber and thick underbrush, the lines will be more readily located and traced; until then, it is nearly all guess-work in most cases. Enough trees will be left standing to make it a beautiful place. A few regiments and very clearly locate their positions held at the time of the battle. The land for miles around Pittsburg landing can be bought for from one to four dollars an acre. Those who own the lands where the battle was fought think they have a corner on the government and options have been taken for these lands as high as $12 an acre. This boom will be broken; the commissioners will not play this advanced price and in time the price will be all right and the government will may the purchase. As the appropriation has been made, the improving of the grounds will soon be made.

 

 

Sources:

“On Hard-Fought Fields: A Reminiscent Trip by Two Comrades of the 14th Wis.,” Sergeant William H. Tucker, Co. D, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, National Tribune, May 2, 1895, pg. 3

Abernethy, Byron R., editor. Private Elisha Stockwell, Jr. Sees the Civil War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958, pgs. 15-16

Ambrose, Stephen E., editor. A Wisconsin Boy in Dixie: Civil War Letters of James K. Newton. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961, pg. 15

Letter from First Lieutenant George Staley, Co. D, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Quiner Scrapbooks, Wisconsin Historical Society

Letter from Sergeant John M. Read, Co. E, 14th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Quiner Scrapbooks, Wisconsin Historical Society

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