Outright Murder: The 18th Wisconsin at Shiloh

Just one week after leaving Camp Trowbridge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the soldiers of the newly raised 18th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry found themselves under fire in the opening moments of the Battle of Shiloh. The 18th Wisconsin was not the only green regiment at Shiloh; large portions of both armies had never “smelt powder,” but few experienced such a rapid turn from peace to war as the rookie Badgers.  

They went to war under a plethora of fanciful names including one company of Tigers (Co. C styled themselves the Bad Ax Tigers), one company of Rifles (Co. H was called the Green Lake County Rifles), two companies of Guards (Co. A was the Taycheedah Union Guards and Co. K was the Union Guards), two companies of Infantry (Co. B was the Eagle Light Infantry and Co. E was the Portage Light Infantry), and finally four companies of rangers (Co. D was the Northwestern Rangers, Co. F was the Oshkosh Rangers, Co. G was the Alban Pinery Rangers, and Co. I was the Lewis Rangers).

To be sure, portions of the regiment had been in camp since January 7th giving its officers and soldiers “the benefit of excellent and arduous drill under the most competent instructors,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “None of the field and staff officers have as yet seen actual service, but they are the kind of men soldiers are made of and will undoubtedly do honor to the colors under which they fight.”

The Tribune had it wrong, at least as far as drill was concerned. “Thousands in this city remember the departure of the regiment, all raw and undrilled in the commonest details of military practice,” one Milwaukee newspaper offered. The heavy snows all winter prevented all but a few sessions of drill. “No one imagined that they would be called into any severe action for months, and many doubted whether the war would not close before they had an opportunity for fighting.” All agreed that there was excellent material in the regiment, “but everyone must have felt that to assign it to any important position on the battlefield would be outright murder.”

Co. B of the 18th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry went to war the March 1862 styling themselves the Eagle Light Infantry. The company went into battle for the first time a week after leaving Camp Trowbridge and lost three men wounded and 13 men missing including one of their lieutenants. The 18th Wisconsin would go on the see action at Corinth, Vicksburg, Allatoona, and would march with Sherman to the sea and through the Carolinas. They are pictured here in 1865, their hard work in the war now all behind them. (Wisconsin Veterans Museum)

But that’s precisely what happened. Arriving at Pittsburg Landing on Saturday afternoon April 5th, the rookies were assigned to General Benjamin Prentiss’s division who dispatched the Badgers to the right of his line in the woods just north of Spain Field. The men had spent the past week aboard river steamers and diarrhea had afflicted many of the men; meals had been sparse and the men’s digestive systems, used to good home cooked meals, struggled to adjust to the harsh army diet of hardtack and poorly cooked meat.

A few hours later, the equally green 15th Michigan arrived (sans ammunition) and went into camp to the left of the 18th Wisconsin. An order arrived directly that pickets be thrown out to guard the camps. “We knew nothing about picket duty,” Lieutenant Samuel B. Boynton of Co. B remembered. “No attention was paid to us by any officer from headquarters which was a great mistake for when our picket line was formed it only amounted to a camp guard.” There was a snafu with rations, too. All of the regiment’s supplies sat in a pile at Pittsburg Landing, presumably to be brought forward the next morning. With their guards patrolling mere yards away, the hungry men “spread their blankets upon the ground and lay down to sleep,” Boynton wrote.

“When morning came,” Boynton continued “only a few of the officers and men were dressed when we heard the long roll and the command, “Fall in! Fall in line of battle!” The men jumped for their guns, some being only half dressed, many were without shoes, others were without coats. We formed a line of battle and the men loaded their guns for the first time. This had hardly been done when the pickets came running in and just back of them came the Rebels, pouring down the side of a hill in front of us.” 

The 18th Wisconsin went into line about 40 rods south of their camp as part of Colonel Madison Miller’s brigade: the 16th Wisconsin on the right, then the 61st Illinois  at right center, then the 18th Wisconsin at left center, with the 15th Michigan on the left. The stars and bars carried by the Confederates led to confusion in the ranks of the 18th Wisconsin; the officers thought it was an American flag. “Major Josiah Crain rode along the lines and spoke to Colonel Alban; the colonel thought they must be our pickets being driven in,” one account recalled. “When Major Crain got back, the left companies had got in readiness to fire, being in a position where the Rebels could easily be seen, when Major Crain said, “For God’s sake, don’t fire, they are our own men!”

The camp marker for the 18th Wisconsin at Shiloh lies deep in the woods northeast of Spain Field. The regiment arrived there on Saturday, April 5th and fought the very next morning within sight of the camp, the marker stating that the regiment's "first position in line of battle was in front of this camp on the color line." 

That wasn’t a problem for the 15th Michigan as they did have a single cartridge in the regiment. They quickly departed the scene seeking an ammunition supply which left the flank of the 18th Wisconsin wide open; just as quickly, the 18th Wisconsin received an order to fall back to a line closer to camp. “We reformed in the open space between our tents and the advancing enemy and there awaited further orders,” one soldier said. “Before us was heavy timber and under this protection the enemy fired with comparative safety while we could only now and then catch a glimpse of their uniforms through the timber and shrubbery.”

The Rebel line advanced and kept working around the open left flank of the Badgers. But soon the two lines closed and opened fire upon one another. “We received the brunt of the enemy’s charge which was in column, they deploying on their right in order to flank our left, exposing us to a crossfire,” Lieutenant Thomas J. Potter of Co. A recalled. “Before we could hardly imagine it, we were engaged in one of the fiercest fights yet fought in this rebellion,” another soldier stated. “The 18th Wisconsin stood up to the rack like old veterans. The shot and shell rained around us, but our brave boys stood pouring the leaden hail into the enemy until they were ordered to fall back.”

“It was an awful sight to see the ground covered with dead and dying mangled in all shapes,” Sergeant Calvin Morley of Co. C mentioned in a letter to his wife. “Some with an arm off, some with severed heads, and others with both legs off. Our heavy Belgian balls smash the bones so that amputation is the only remedy. I saw many with broken limbs, left to linger out a few days of pain and die for want of medical aid.” One officer recalled seeing a man “with his whole diaphragm torn off. He was holding up nearly all of his viscera with both hands; his face expressed a longing for assistance and an appreciation of fatality.”

Time after time, the Badgers would fire a few rounds, then be ordered to retreat a few more rods to a new position deeper in the woods. The ground sloped towards a ravine in their rear; the regiment held together reasonably well until the men reached the ravine. But once they started to climb up the opposite slope, they were dreadfully exposed and casualties quickly mounted. “They rallied in considerable disorder as the enemy was not 20 rods distant, in overwhelming force, and giving a crossfire,” one account stated. “Passing through the ravine, the loss was very heavy. While thus making the best of a terrible situation, the right of the Rebel forces was marching steadily along the ravine to the left and getting into their rear.”

American Battlefield Trust map depicting the initial line held by the 18th Wisconsin and other regiments of Colonel Madison Miller's brigade of Prentiss's division on the morning of April 6, 1862. Crossing Spain Branch ravine in their rear cost the regiment heavily and what organization remained began to fall apart. 

“It was bad generalship,” one Badger offered. “To resist the whole Rebel army, three or four new volunteer regiments were formed in an open field with neither artillery or infantry within a mile to support them, or behind whom they could reform. It could scarcely be denominated an oversight.”

Before leaving Wisconsin, Colonel James S. Alban sent a note stating that “whatever you may hear of the 18th Wisconsin, he will never hear that it ran from the enemy.” Colonel Alban eventually would number among the slain. Struck in the midst of combat that beautiful Sunday morning, Colonel Alban’s horse bolted, dragging the colonel whose foot was caught in the stirrup. By the time his servant managed to extract Alban’s foot, the former attorney had been knocked senseless. “The ball entered near his right shoulder blade and passed out the front of his neck,” one report stated. He expired a few days later. “The colonel could say but little, but before his death, he said, “James, my men have fought well. I hope they will be seen to.”

“Our regiment suffered badly,” another soldier stated. “After the first retreat, part of them collected together and prepared again for the conflict. They were led into action in heavy timber west of an open field and here did some of the hardest fighting. But the whole line at last retreated, and with them went the 18th Wisconsin. It was now almost worthless in point of efficiency. The battle played sad havoc on them.”

“In the confusion arising from this heavy loss and before they had time to even think of retreat, the Rebels were right among them taking prisoners and firing almost in their faces,” one account stated. “They broke in squads and retreated as best they could, scattering and finding a place to fight here and there among the other regiments.” Lieutenant Boynton recalled glancing over his shoulder and seeing “a hundred Johnnies after me. One cuss got pretty close and shouted, “Run, you black abolitionist, run!” He need not have said that for I was doing my level best then.” More than 150 men from the 18th Wisconsin would be captured during this final retreat.

“The men stood every attack with great firmness and fortitude,” Chaplain James Delaney explained. “At length, after the fall of every field officer, the regiment broke and a number of them fled to the landing.” By the end of April 6, 1862, less than a hundred men remained in the ranks of the 18th Wisconsin, the balance of the regiment either dead, wounded, and scattered throughout the woods. Out of the 960 men who left Milwaukee, 24 would be killed at Shiloh; another 82 would suffer wounds while 174 men would be listed as missing in action. All of the staff officers went down: Major Josiah W. Crain was killed, struck twelve times in rapid succession, while both Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Beal and acting Adjutant Edward Coleman went down with wounds. More than a quarter of the regiment was lost scarcely a week into their term of service.



“The 18th Wis. At Shiloh,” Second Lieutenant Samuel B. Boynton, Co. B, 18th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, National Tribune, September 12, 1901, pg. 3

Quiner Scrapbooks, Correspondence of the Wisconsin Volunteers, 1861-1865. Volume 6. Wisconsin Historical Society


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