Defending the Peach Orchard: An Iowan at Shiloh

     Sergeant John T. Boggs of the 3rd Iowa had fought for hours defending the Union line that ran through the Sarah Bell cotton field and peach orchard, but as daylight faded, he saw that his brigade was being flanked left and right, and that it was high time to retreat.

          “The Rebels had driven our lines back some four miles already and things began to look rather gloomy. Captain Smith took command and ordered our retreat. It was just in time, too, to save our bacon- it was every man for himself. When I got to our camp the Rebels were on two sides of it. This took me by surprise, and I thought I was a gone goose. But I had good faith in my running qualities and said to myself, here goes it. With musket in hand and my neck stretched out like a sand hill crane, I started through a heavy crossfire from the Rebel musketry. At every jump I thought it would be my last. I could see men fall all around me and before I reached the brush some cuss shot at my long-legged boots, the ball striking off the heel and glancing off without doing any damage,” he wrote shortly after the battle.

          The carnage Boggs left behind around the Bell farm was breathtaking. “In one place lay nine men, four or five of ours and about as many Rebels who from indications must have had a hand-to-hand fight,” recalled a reporter who visited the field a few days later. “They were all dead and bore wounds evidently made with bayonets and bullets. Two of them had hold of another’s hair and others were clenched in a variety of ways,” he recorded. “One seemed to have had a grip on the throat of his antagonist and been compelled to relinquish it judging from the frigid marks. The most singular attitude of any I have ever observed was that of one Union soldier the position of whose body was similar to that of a boy’s when he is playing leapfrog.”

The 3rd Iowa fought at Shiloh as part of Colonel Nelson G. Williams’ First Brigade of Brigadier General Stephen Hurlbut’s Fourth Division of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. The regiment sustained a loss of 187 during the battle: 23 killed, 134 wounded, and 30 missing out of 560. Sergeant Boggs’ letter initially appeared in the April 25, 1862, edition of the Cedar Falls Gazette.

 

The popular depiction of Hurlbut's division defending the Peach Orchard shows the action in mid-afternoon of April 6, 1862. It was open field straight-up fighting between the two armies with nothing in the way of field fortifications to get it the way. Large portions of both armies, like the 3rd Iowa, were still armed with smoothbore muskets whose effective range of 100 yards or less forced the armies to get within close proximity of each other. 

 

Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee

April 13, 1862

 

          It was Sunday morning the 6th and the camp of the 3rd Iowa was as quiet as usual. All at once the sound of cannon was heard in the distance. Some thought it was a salute being fired, while others said the enemy was making a march upon us, conjecturing that 4 a.m. was rather early to fire salutes. We did not have to wait long ere the sound of cannon broke forth in another direction and the rattle of musketry was also heard. By this time we began to get uneasy.

          The order to fall in was given and every man that was able jumped for his shooter. Our division was formed, and we marched in the direction of the first firing with General Stephen Hurlbut, Colonel Nelson Williams, and Adjutant Fitzroy Sessions at our head. We had not gone more than a mile and a half when the General ordered us to halt. By this time it was getting pretty hot on our right. Our battery was planted in the edge of the timber while we lay back in the brush waiting for the devils to come up. We could see their flag through the brush and at first thought it was our own, but when they opened on us with their artillery, we found out our mistake.

         

General Stephen A. Hurlbut

“We were in Hurlbut’s division, and it is due to Hurlbut to say that for once he was not drunk and that he performed his part well. Early in the action a cannon shot passed through the horse of Colonel Williams, tearing his saddle to pieces, and injuring the Colonel so much that he had to be carried from the field. The colonel’s limbs were paralyzed for several days but he is now recovering use of them.”~ St. Charles, Co. K, 3rd Iowa Infantry

 

          Their first shot tore off a large limb of a tree directly over our battery and the second shot killed Colonel Nelson’s horse, the ball passing through his loins. The concussion of the shell injured the Colonel’s back so that he had to be carried from the field. By this time our artillery men had fired two shots and the third shot from the Rebel gun frightened them so that every man left the artillery. There we were without the use of our artillery. I could not help shedding tears when I saw the cowards run. [Boggs is referring to the 13th Ohio Battery- see Daryl Smith's “The Unlucky 13th at Shiloh” ]

First Lieutenant John P. Knight, Co. I, 3rd Iowa
Wounded in breast and foot and captured April 6, 1862

          The Rebel infantry kept advancing upon our left wing when our men opened fire on them. This was my first shot at the Secesh, and I took good aim, you bet. We were ordered back to form another line of battle and when this was done, we were ordered to forward march to the field where we lay on the ground waiting for the enemy to get within gunshot. We had not long to wait. Here they come in battle line through the field. We waited until they got within 20 rods of us when we gave them a full dose of Northern pills which took good effect on the gray devils. After the first fire we gave them, it put me in mind of a windrow of stumps and chunks piled up. We left a row of their dead and wounded the length of the field. Here is where the 3rd Iowa did their work and won honors that will ever stand high in history. General Hurlbut did his duty and stood by us like a man. It was the 17th Louisiana regiment, called the New Orleans Guards, one of the best regiments in the South that the 3rd Iowa fought in that field. Those that were not killed ran like cusses.

 

“The newspaper squibs that the Rebels are not well-armed is all moonshine. I reckon they shot with something besides shotguns for a good portion of the balls were elongated ball for rifled guns. Their cartridges, too, were many of them of English make and had the Birmingham mark upon them and were filled with far better powder than ours. Of course, there were some shotguns and now and then a flintlock musket and a fair sprinkling of Harper’s Ferry muskets, and some Jager rifles which are an excellent gun.” ~ Private William H. Nichols, Co. K, 3rd Iowa Infantry

 

Musician Able Andrew Franklin, Co. A 3rd Iowa Infantry

          But the battle still raged on our right and left and I knew that the Rebels were flanking us. After standing under a heavy fire for over seven hours, the right and left gave away and we were forced to retreat. The Rebels had driven our lines back some four miles already and things began to look rather gloomy. We were within a half mile of our camp, the Rebels receiving reinforcements, and no one to support us and most of the division had left us. Captain Smith took command and ordered our retreat. It was just in time, too, to save our bacon- it was every man for himself. When I got to our camp the Rebels were on two sides of it. This took me by surprise, and I thought I was a gone goose.

But I had good faith in my running qualities and said to myself, here goes it. With musket in hand and my neck stretched out like a sand hill crane, I started through a heavy crossfire from the Rebel musketry. At every jump I thought it would be my last. I could see men fall all around me and before I reached the brush some cuss shot at my long-legged boots, the ball striking off the heel and glancing off without doing any damage. This was the only scratch I received. It was nearly sundown when we formed into line of battle again and waited for them to advance. But they smelt enough, and our fighting was done for the day.

Private James M. Gemmill
Co. C, 3rd Iowa
Wounded in knee April 6, 1862

We laid on our arms all night through a heavy rainstorm, but this did not discourage us, and we would give them another round when daylight came. Buell reinforced us about sundown and landed a small force that evening which made a bayonet charge and drove the enemy back. The gunboats kept shelling them all night and our siege guns did good work, one a 32-pounder and another a 64-pounder. Monday morning, our battle lines were formed with General Buell at the head and an attack was made upon the Rebels. This took them by surprise. Beauregard told his men Sunday evening that all he wanted of them was to fight two hours Monday morning and he would clean us out, but he was mistaken.

We fought them until 3 p.m. when they gave up the ghost and ran like devils. The 8th and 12th Iowa and some Ohio regiments were taken prisoners. I presume they took 2,000-3,000 of our men. As near as I can learn we took 400-500 of theirs. They beat us on prisoners, but we made up for it on the killed. Our loss is estimated at from 8,000-10,000 killed and wounded; theirs is much larger.

 

Sources:

Letter from Sergeant John T. Boggs, Co. K, 3rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), April 25, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from Private William H. Nichols, "St. Charles," Co. K, 3rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), April 25, 1862, pg. 2

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