A Helter-Skelter Sort of Fight: A Wisconsin Greenhorn at Shiloh

     “Shiloh was essentially a private soldiers’ battle,” remembered D. Lloyd Jones of Co. C of the 16th Wisconsin Infantry. “After the first assault in the morning, regiments, brigades, and divisions had lost their identity. The boys realized that they were there to fight, and they fought without waiting for commands. It was this stubbornness and independence of the American volunteer soldier that won that day. The advance of the enemy was contested at every point. The boys were fighting on their own hook and they were thus kept from getting to the Landing before reinforcements arrived.”

          “This sketch of the Battle of Shiloh is written from the viewpoint of a private soldier without any military experience, and I only write briefly of what I saw. It seemed to me to be on the first day a helter-skelter sort of fight, everyone for himself and devil take the hindmost. My regiment lost in this battle 254 men: 79 killed or mortally wounded, 149 wounded, and 26 missing. Shiloh was one of the great battles of the war.”

          The 16th Wisconsin was one of the greenest regiments on the field at Shiloh; they had arrived at Pittsburgh Landing in late March and had not been issued live ammunition until Saturday night April 5th, the night before they went into action. Attached to Colonel Everett Peabody’s First Brigade of Benjamin Prentiss’ Sixth Division, four companies of the 16th Wisconsin were involved in some of the earliest combat of the battle as Jones relays below.

 

This camp scene depicts the headquarters of the 16th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Lieutenant Colonel Cassius Fairchild sits on the right; his brother Lucius Fairchild led the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry of the famed Iron Brigade. The 16th Wisconsin had only been with the army for a few weeks when it was thrust into the furnace at Shiloh. (Wisconsin Historical Society)


          On Saturday evening April 5, 1862, Companies A, B, C, and D of our regiment were ordered on picket under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Cassius Fairchild, and ammunition was served to us that evening for the first time. We had never “handled cartridges” except by motions up to this time. We marched in a southerly direction about half a mile or so, and I supposed we were picketing the entire division front, but I have since been informed it was our brigade front. Co. A was on the extreme right, Co. B next, then Co. C and Co. D on the extreme left.

          We threw out sentinels with the company as a reserve. At midnight, I was sent out as one of the sentinels. It was one of those balmy nights in the spring so common in that delightful climate. Everything around me was perfectly still. Nature was kind to us that night and the stillness was only disturbed by the occasional tinkle of a cow bell or the movement of some wild animal through the underbrush. I had never been in the woods alone at that time of night before. I thought of all the things I had read in the papers about how the Johnnies stole up to the pickets and killed them, and my imagination was so worked up that the slightest noise caused a great commotion in the region of my heart. I was simply delighted when I was relieved, as I had been several times on the point of firing at an imaginary enemy.

Private Horace H. Smith, Co. G, 16th Wisconsin Infantry


          As I remember it, it was about sunrise when I saw Captain [George H.] Fox of Co. B running from the right. When he came up to our captain, he said, “Company A is fighting and we must go and help them.” Both of them started to the left to Co. D and in a very short time returned with that company. We were ordered to fall in, leaving our knapsacks and haversacks in a pile in charge of a guard. We never did that anymore. We parted company with those knapsacks and haversacks forever. The knapsacks were fat, well-filled with all that went to make us comfortable from a housewife to a good woolen blanket, for we had been but three weeks out of our state and had not been required to do any extensive marching.

          The sentinels had been called in and like a lot of schoolboys we went off to help Co. A. After marching about a quarter of a mile, we saw several wounded covered with blood being carried to the rear. We were halted on a slight rise of ground and in front of us was a small ravine or rather depression of ground, and beyond that was a slight rise of ground. We had hardly dressed in line when we saw the Johnnies come up the hill in front of us. It looked like a solid line of battle. We fired at them, but our captain, thinking discretion was the better part of valor, ordered a retreat, and we didn’t hesitate upon the order of our going.

Lieutenant Colonel Cassius Fairchild, 16th Wisconsin
Wounded in the thigh April 6, 1862


          The enemy poured a volley after us, but none of our company was hurt. During the mad scramble for the rear, I was separated from my company and fell in with some Missouri troops who were camped to the right of my regiment and I stayed with them, firing behind hay bales until we were flanked from our position. When I discovered that I was lost, strayed, or stolen from my company, I was about as nervous a boy as there was in the state of Tennessee, but I continued firing off my old Belgian rifle until I ran out of ammunition.

After falling back from Seay Field, the four companies of the 16th Wisconsin rejoined the rest of the regiment in their camp. Orderly sergeants tried to conduct roll call as the men scrambled to and from the camp kettles trying to grab a bite of breakfast when the Confederates appeared in the fields ahead. "We were drawn out in front of our camp to receive them," wrote Captain George C. Williams of Co. K. "We fought them for three hours when we were obliged to fall back and leave our camp and everything we had in it. I have lost everything except the clothes I had on, what I had in my pockets and haversack. The 16th was very badly cut to pieces." 


          I have read about the music of the Minie ball, but there was no music in it to me; it utterly failed to soothe my nervous breast. I found my regiment, or they found me about 10 o’clock, and after being supplied with ammunition we fell in and took position in the woods with no protection of any kind. I have since ascertained that this place was a trifle east and north of what some years afterwards was termed the Hornets’ Nest. Our colonel reported that we relieved an Indiana regiment [the “Iron” 44th] in this line, it being out of ammunition. These woods had but little if any underbrush and we could see the enemy coming quite a distance. We were lying down and when they came within the right distance, we rose up and commenced firing. I don’t know how long we stood there firing but I know we were finally forced back. Three-fourths of our loss was at this place when we were compelled to stand up and receive the murderous fire of an advancing enemy without the least protection. It must have been about 2 o’clock when we were forced to retire.

          At about 6 o’clock, what remained of our regiment rallied under the command of Major [Thomas] Reynolds who was the only uninjured field officer, and formed in line, the last of which was formed that day. There we repulsed the enemy and drove them back a short distance. Regiments, brigades, and divisions were reorganized during the night so that by morning, order had succeeded confusion, and what was left of the Army of the Tennessee was once more in fighting trim.

Captain Edward Saxe
Co. A, 16th Wisconsin
Killed in action

          The thought came to me then that this was the worst night I ever passed through. A year or two later, I probably would have thought nothing of it. We spent the night near the Landing. The rain came down in torrents and we had no shelter of any kind. I never saw it rain as it did that night. It literally poured. During the night, the gunboats Tyler and Lexington [add link] fired their guns at intervals and the unusual and terrible noise of the shells combined with the awful crash in the timber as they exploded reminded us infants in arms forcibly that we were not engaged in a holiday excursion.

Shiloh was essentially a private soldiers’ battle. After the first assault in the morning, regiments, brigades, and divisions had lost their identity. The boys realized that they were there to fight, and they fought without waiting for commands. It was this stubbornness and independence of the American volunteer soldier that won that day. The advance of the enemy was contested at every point. The boys were fighting on their own hook and they were thus kept from getting to the Landing before reinforcements arrived.

The feeling among the men at that time was that we had the tide of battle turned before the arrival of General Buell’s troops, and that with the assistance of General Lew Wallace’s division, we could have whipped them. But be that as it may, the arrival of General Buell’s army as timely and as we were nearly all “raw material,” it was an immense relief to us to have them with us.

Among the bodies buried next to the camp of the 16th Wisconsin after the battle was the first Federal officer killed at the Battle of Shiloh, Captain Edward Saxe of Co. A. "Captain Saxe was pierced by three balls and died instantly," it was reported. His orderly sergeant, John Williams, was struck down at the same time, and the men carried the bodies back to camp upon their rubber blankets. "The bodies of Captain Saxe and Sergeant Williams were left in a tent when the regiment was compelled to retreat back from their camp. After the battle, the bodies were found where they had been left, the Rebels having robbed them of the contents of their pockets and of their boots. Rude coffins were made of some boxes and they were buried side by side in the camp." 


Cavalry was called into action in the early part of the day, but these troops were soon withdrawn as it was impossible for them to maneuver in the heavy timber. They did more damage to our men than they did to the enemy. The curses they received from the infantry could not be rivaled this side of Hades. It seemed a foolish thing to bring cavalry among the infantry lines at such a time. When they were withdrawn from the front, they were formed in the rear to prevent stragglers from escaping to the Landing.

          This sketch of the Battle of Shiloh is written from the viewpoint of a private soldier without any military experience, and I only write briefly of what I saw. It seemed to me to be on the first day a helter-skelter sort of fight, everyone for himself and devil take the hindmost. My regiment lost in this battle 254 men: 79 killed or mortally wounded, 149 wounded, and 26 missing.

Private William H. Rice, Co. H, 16th Wisconsin Infantry
Wounded in action April 6, 1862

Shiloh was one of the great battles of the war. If our men had not stubbornly contested almost every foot of ground, the outcome might have been different. For had the enemy succeeded in getting to the Landing by noon, the result would have been an overwhelming disaster to our cause and possibly brought the war to a very different close. Who can tell?

 Source:

“The Battle of Shiloh: Reminiscences by D. Lloyd Jones,” Co. C, 16th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, War Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin. Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Volume 4, pgs. 51-60

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