The 20th Tennessee at Shiloh

     When Dr. William J. McMurray of the 20th Tennessee looked back on the Battle of Shiloh, he argued that better arms made all the difference. Three months prior at the Battle of Mill Springs, his regiment went into the fight with flintlock muskets, only one out of five of which would fire in the rainy damp conditions experienced on the field that day. It is little wonder that his regiment and the rest of Zollicoffer’s command performed so poorly on the field when equipped with such useless shooting irons.

“Only a few days before the Battle of Shiloh, the 20th Tennessee drew new Enfield rifles with new accoutrements and English ammunition, and if there was ever a body of men that appreciated a good thing, it was this regiment for they had experienced the inferiority of their arms to that of their enemy on the battlefield,” McMurray recalled. “And now we were well-armed and equipped, we thought that the 20th Tennessee regiment was able to meet successfully a like number of any troops. When the accoutrements were being issued, one box turned out to contain 33 pairs of sewed boots. As there were ten companies in the regiment, in order to acquaint the men with their new guns, Colonel Battle ordered that three pairs of boots be issued to each company and captain have his company shoot 200 yards off hand and the three best shots in each company to take the boots.”

McMurray’s account of Shiloh is drawn from the History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment Volunteer Infantry, C.S.A. published in Nashville in 1904.


An imported English .577 caliber Enfield bullet including the wooden plug in the base; the 20th Tennessee was issued this type of ammunition along with P53 model Enfield rifles just days before Shiloh, replacing their outmoded and unreliable flintlocks. The better arms certainly gave morale a boost in the days before the battle and allowed the regiment to give a better account of itself than at Mill Springs. 

          The Reserve Corps composed of the brigades of Trabue, Bowen, and Statham under Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge moved out from Burnsville and struck the Monterey Road; the 20th Tennessee was in Statham’s brigade. All of this moving out was on the 4th of April and the army camped that night on the various roads. On the 5th, we moved cautiously and formed in two lines of battle that day and night with our left resting on Owl and Snake Creek and our right on Lick Creek. We laid in line of battle all night and were not allowed to have any fire or loud talking, we were so close to the enemy. Before sunrise on the morning of the 6th, our skirmishers began to advance, and the great battle of Shiloh opened.

          We passed through the camps that the Yankees had been driven from, then across a mule lot of about three or four acres and beyond this lot, McArthur’s brigade of W.H.L. Wallace’s division of the Federals was lying across a ravine waiting for us, and they gave Statham’s brigade a warm reception. The 20th Tennessee met the 9th Illinois in a death struggle on the edge of the ravine which lasted an hour and a half, and during that time the 45th Tennessee that had never been in an engagement before became confused in passing the fences of the mule lot. Being a little in the rear and to the left of the 20th mistook us for the enemy and poured a very destructive fire into us. Colonel Battle sent a courier to Colonel Searcy commanding the 45th to tell him that he was firing into his own men. About this time, the Federals brought up a regiment and flanked the 20th Tennessee on the right which caused the right wing of the regiment to swing back as far as the regimental colors.

This group of eight Confederate prisoners of war all hail from the 20th Tennessee; this image was taken at Rock Island camp in Illinois. 

          In a few minutes, a Louisiana regiment came to our assistance and drove back the flanking party. The right wing of the 20th Tennessee advanced with the Louisiana regiment and our line was re-established. Colonel Battle’s horse was killed here. The battle had been raging at this point for more than an hour; I had fired 30 rounds while on the edge of this ravine and the barrel of my new Enfield had become so hot that I could only hold it by its wooden stock. About this time, General Breckinridge on a magnificent bay horse rode up to Captain Thomas B. Smith in command of Co. B of the 20th Tennessee and ordered the charge that swept McArthur’s brigade out of that ravine and drove them pell mell for 500 yards across a level burnt district to another ravine where they attempted to rally.

          The 20th Tennessee was following the 9th Illinois so closely that they were on a portion of them before they could form. A little red-headed Irish boy from Co. A and I captured a first lieutenant and two privates at the second ravine. The Irish boy took charge of the two privates and I took charge of the lieutenant. We started to the rear with them and in the confusion and smoke we became separated and while escorting my prisoner backed over the burned district, we came across his captain who was killed. He remarked that his captain had on his person some very valuable papers that would be of much service to his wife. He asked my permission to take them which I refused, because his captain had buckled on him a sword and a pistol and, as I had disarmed my prisoner once, I could not let him have an opportunity of rearming himself. We were alone in the bushes and smoke and I knew he was a powerful man, and I was nothing but a lad. He insisted that he should get the papers and started towards his captain when I was forced to cock my Enfield and level it on my prisoner and told him that if he touched his captain that he would be shot. He did not wait for a second order.

Sergeant William J. McMurray
Co. B, 20th Tennessee

          After my prisoner and I had passed his captain going to the rear, we entered into conversation about the battle. He told me that he was a first lieutenant in the 9th Illinois regiment of McArthur’s brigade and that his captain and about 20 of his company had been killed and he did not know how many had been wounded. I took my prisoner on to the rear and guarded him until Prentiss surrendered, and put him in with them and the officers took charge of me and made me help guard the prisoners all night in the rain. The 20th Tennessee was not engaged anymore that day and about dark the regiment was withdrawn a short distance and lay in line of battle. It rained and rained almost the entire night and the Yankee gunboats shelled the woods all around with their big guns and we there in the mud and rain waiting for another day that the machines of death might begin their work.

          On the morning of the 7th, Statham’s brigade was formed in line and took two or three positions and later went to the support of a battery that was having a duel at close range. The enemy’s infantry was formed and reinforced by 25,000 fresh troops under General Buell during the night. Our exhausted troops, who had not slept any for two nights and were in the battle of Sunday, moved on the enemy who were fresh and in greatly superior numbers; we were repulsed, and our battery taken. The command rallied about 400 yards in rear of the battery in an irregular line when two regiments reinforced us, and we moved forward again to retake the battery that we had lost. The fighting was at such close range that the smoke from the enemy’s battery blinded us, but we not only retook our battery, but another battery of the enemy’s and re-established our line where we were in the early morning.

          It was in the first charge on the morning of the 7th that the 20th Tennessee sustained its heaviest loss, by the wounding and capturing of our colonel and the death of the gifted, gallant, and brave Joel Allen Battle, Jr., who was adjutant of the regiment. He had been severely wounded in the battle of Mill Springs in the shoulder from which he had not recovered. Battle went into Shiloh with his arm in a sling, went all through the battle on Sunday and was killed early Monday morning. His remains fell into the hands of the enemy, members of the 81st Ohio some of whom were students with him at Miami University of Ohio in the years 1859-60. They found their fellow student dead on the bloody field of Shiloh and had him decently buried.

          After the second charge of the 20th Tennessee on Monday morning, nearly all the heavy fighting was over, but there was heavy skirmishing the greater part of the afternoon; until the late in the evening the Confederate forces began a retreat back to Corinth. General Breckinridge’s division acted as a rear guard and laid near the field of battle for three days and the enemy with all their fresh troops made no offer whatever to pursue. The 20th Tennessee went into the battle of Shiloh with 380 men rank and file and lost in killed and wounded 158. Our colonel was wounded and captured, our adjutant killed, and the regiment soon after the battle reorganized.




McMurray, William J. History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment Volunteer Infantry, C.S.A. Nashville: The Publication Committee, 1904, pgs. 208-212


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