The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

     The smoke of battle had drifted away from the battlefield at Tupelo, Mississippi on the hot afternoon of July 14, 1864, but the carnage of war lay spread across the open fields.

“Scattered at intervals over the field of a few yards are dull gray blotches half shaded by grass,” an officer from the 7th Minnesota Infantry recorded. “These are the Rebel dead. They have fought their last battle and lie generally in attitudes of rest; some of them look as if they had welcomed death. On the faces of two is imprinted a smile. One is a boy of 16 with delicate features, almost girlish in their beauty. His last gaze seems to have been directed toward his hand on the forefinger of which was a ring. A circle of purer white indicates its place; the ring was carried off as a trophy of the field.”

The following account of the Battles of Tupelo and Old Town Creek was written by an unknown officer of the 7th Minnesota Infantry, his account appearing in the August 5th 1864 edition of the Weekly Pioneer & Democrat published in St. Paul.

 


 

Memphis, Tennessee

July 23, 1864

          The first report of as battle is usually exaggerated. It is either a very great victory or an overwhelming defeat; our troops have been cut to pieces or they have sustained trifling loss. There was no exception to this rile in the case of General Smith’s late raid into Mississippi.

          On returning from Tupelo flushed with victory and laden with the spoils of war (namely a couple hundred contrabands, a few sheep, swine, cattle, a very few horses leaner than the Confederacy itself), we learned to our utmost astonishment that we had been defeated by Forrest with a loss of 6,000 men! This report corrected was followed by another that we were the victors; that we had utterly routed Forrest and had killed, wounded, or captured 4,000 of his men and that we had captured part of his supply train. This was nearer to the truth but required some modification.

I do not propose a correct statement of losses and gains as that will be given in the official reports. But we know to a certainty our own losses and as we remained in possession of the field after the battle of the 14th, it was an easy matter to count the dead of the enemy. We are sure that they lost five to our one. What was really captured consists of 56 prisoners, a larger number of Rebel wounded, two flags, and one of the guns taken from Sturgis.

The fight commenced on the 13th. A Rebel force of four brigades opened a furious fire on our trains from the woods and bushes on the right of the road. The writer had filled his canteen at a well by the wayside and got under a tree waiting for his regiment to come up. There was a cabin nearby in the vicinity of which a hundred or more stragglers were lolling in the shade, unconscious of the leaden storm that about to burst upon them. Suddenly the air was filled with whizzing messengers of death and roar like the crash of a falling forest. The stragglers got off in double quick. Your correspondent fell back in good order to his regiment which at that time was ordered to charge into the chapparal and dislodge the foe. The sight of gleaming bayonets was too much for the Rebs and they fled leaving six or seven wounded and our men masters of the field. Some of our men commenced gathering blackberries which are found here in rich abundance.

The 7th lost one man killed, Surgeon L.B. Smith, and four wounded. The enemy were for a time silenced but soon commenced shelling the town from a hidden battery. They had perfect range of the road and fired with great rapidity. It was their evident aim to cut the train in two and prevent the latter part from reaching the encampment and finally to capture it. In this design they utterly failed. Our men marched briskly through the storm of iron, bowing reverently as the shells shrieked above them, or dodging as they flew through the ranks. Our loss, considering our exposure, was not heavy and we reached camp in good time and good condition.

Cap pouch used by Hans Danielson of Co. G of the 7th Minnesota Infantry
(Minnesota Historical Society)


On the morning of the 14th, the battle proper commenced. Our pickets were driven in and the whole Rebel force moved upon our lines which were drawn up ready to receive them. The word was given “leaden rain and iron hail let their welcome be!” The clangor of small arms was followed by the roar of cannon and for three hours the battle raged, after which the Rebels ceased firing and fell back, leaving their dead and wounded in our hands.

 

“When they reached a point sufficiently near, the enemy commenced firing musketry. We laid low with bayonets fixed and when they came as near as they dared, we were ordered to charge. The 7th Minnesota led off but the Rebels being too fleet for us could not come near enough to stain our bayonets. The 7th gave them 40 rounds on the 14th without stopping. Our guns were then so hot that we could not hold them and we were relieved by the 12th Iowa.” ~ unknown soldier, 7th Minnesota Infantry

 

During the battle, the 7th Minnesota with the other regiments of the Third Brigade made a successful bayonet charge. Officers and men behaved with coolness and great courage. Colonel Marshall, while waving his hat caught a bullet in it, which was too nearly spent to go further. The feat was more than rivaled by Sergeant Lancaster of Co. K who caught a bullet in his teeth. I am sorry to add that made an ugly wound in his cheek though fortunately not of a dangerous character. In this action, the 7th Minnesota lost seven men killed- good men and brave soldiers. They were buried with the exception of Henderson in one grave not far from the spot where they fell.

The Third Brigade was by no means the only one engaged, but the principal losses were in this brigade as they bore the brunt of the battle. The regiments composing the brigade are the 12th Iowa, 35th Iowa, 33rd Wisconsin, and the 7th Minnesota. The colored troops fought gallantly and were never once beaten. The artillery, of which there were several batteries, was handsomely managed. The cavalry also performed their part well. In fact, there was not a regiment on the field that misbehaved.

 

“The bullets were flying thick and fast. Colonel Wilkin sat on his horse and when he was struck, he was giving his orders as coolly as he ever did on dress parade. He was shot under the left arm, the ball passing through the body and coming out under his right arm. He was instantly killed. I had left him but a moment before with an order and before I had delivered it, heard that he had fallen. He never spoke after being hit but fell from his horse and was dead before reaching the ground.” ~ Captain John K. Arnold, Co. A, 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry

 

Almost every part of our lines had been attacked and everywhere the enemy had been repulsed. Every part of the encampment had been under fire either from musketry or cannon and bore sad evidence of it. There lay the dead or dying steed, his rider perchance pulseless beside him. There lies, as in in a gentle slumber, all that remains of our brave Colonel Alexander Wilkin. Beside him lies the lifeless form of a slender lad, evidently an officer, but I know not of what rank or name. I only hear the order to bury the youth beside the man. The very trees bear evidence of the strife. They are scarred and broken by the storm or shot and shell. One oak tree, two feet thick, was pierced through by a cannon ball which killed a horse and rider after its passage through the tree. We had one gun carriage broken and the artillerists are making a bonfire of its wheels as they do not intend to leave them to support Rebel guns.

The 7th Minnesota mustered into service in the fall of 1862 and spent its first year of service combatting the Sioux during the Dakota War. The first two battle honors on the flag are for Wood Lake (September 23, 1862) and Big Mound (July 24, 1863) fought against the Sioux. The 7th transferred to St. Louis in October 1863 and then to Paducah, Kentucky. Sturgis' defeat at Brice's Crossroads led to the regiment being sent to Memphis as reinforcements and they subsequently took part in A.J. Smith's campaign in northern Mississippi. 


The cannons are now silent and there before them is the field of death, a long grassy slope skirted with straggling bushes. The white cloud of battle has lifted from its surface and melted into thin air. Scattered at intervals over the field of a few yards are dull gray blotches half shaded by grass. These are the Rebel dead. They have fought their last battle and lie generally in attitudes of rest; some of them look as if they had welcomed death. On the faces of two is imprinted a smile. One is a boy of 16 with delicate features, almost girlish in their beauty. His last gaze seems to have been directed toward his hand on the forefinger of which was a ring. A circle of purer white indicates its place; the ring was carried off as a trophy of the field.

Some Southern women come upon the field and discovering the bodies of a brother or lover raise a piteous cry. Alas, this piteous cry shall rise from homes a thousand miles away. Such is war- a horror of horrors, only relieved by the soldier’s faith and devotion to his country. To the true patriot, it is still sweet and honorable to due for the native land.

The battle was fully renewed on the morning of the 15th, but a show of fighting was kept up by the artillery and one or two brigades, the remainder of the corps moved out of camp. The rear guard followed and the bloody field of Tupelo was left to the enemy who found there only their unburied dead. When six miles on our journey, they shelled our train, but the guns were soon silenced and they did not again renew the attack.

We are now in Memphis expecting marching orders but to what point has not transpired.

 

Yours,

E.

 

Sources:

Letter from unknown officer of 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Pioneer & Democrat (Minnesota), August 5, 1864, pg. 3

Letter from “Seventh,” 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Pioneer & Democrat (Minnesota), August 5, 1864, pg. 3

Letter from Captain John K. Arnold, Co. A, 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Pioneer & Democrat (Minnesota), August 5, 1864, pg. 2

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