Wednesday, August 20, 2008

16th Wisconsin's Experiences at Opening of Battle

When I was completing my history degree at the University of Colorado at Denver my final paper was "Wisconsin at Shiloh." I covered the three Wisconsin regiments in as much detail as was possible. I will provide some sections over the next week or so of this paper. Since I originally wrote the paper I have continued my research and will continue it in some fashion for the rest of my life, Shiloh fascinates me like no other battle.

As with most events at Shiloh there are many different versions of how the battle began. Concerning the beginning of the battle it is unclear exactly what Union troops were involved in the early skirmish around Fraley and Seay Fields. What is known is that in the fields south of Pittsburg Landing the 16th Wisconsin was engaged in the usual camp duties and in drilling until the evening of April 5th when Companies A, B, C and D were ordered out on picket duty under the commands of Captains Edward Saxe, George Fox, Horace Patch and Oliver Pease respectfully. They were also joined on picket duty that night by two companies of the 21st Missouri. This group advanced a mile or more to the right and front of their camps, placing them near Seay Field[1] The first variation of the story is that these units were going out to strengthen the picket line of the 12th Michigan. The second variation is that as these units are going out to help the 12th Michigan as it was already returning with wounded. Another account has the pickets of the 21st Missouri and 16th Wisconsin receiving the opening blows.[2] Stacy Allen, current Shiloh Park Historian, stated in a February 1997 article in “Blue & Gray” that Major James Powell led a combined force of 250 men from the 25th Missouri and 12th Michigan. At 4:55 AM Powell’s force was fired upon by cavalry vedettes in Seay Field.[3] The force sent out by Colonel Peabody under Major Powell consisted of the veterans of the regiment. Captain Joseph Schmitz’s Company B and Captain Simon S Evans’s Company E had charged the hospital building at the battle of Lexington, Missouri. The other company of the patrol, Company H, was led by Captain Hamilton Dill, a Mexican War veteran.[4]

Who fired the first shots was a very important distinction among veterans but has not really been solved by historians. According to markers at Shiloh the 25th Missouri’s reconnoitering party, consisting of companies B, E and H, engaged the Confederate advance pickets in Fraley Field from 4:55 to 6 AM. They then fell back to Seay Field where the 21st Missouri marker says that they, “re-enforced the reconnoitering party of 25th Missouri and the pickets of 12th Michigan and 4 companies of 16th Wisconsin at this place [Seay Field] and engaged the Confederate advance 30 minutes, soon after sunrise.” It was at this point that Captain Saxe of the 16th Wisconsin was killed, becoming the first officer killed at Shiloh. The next marker, about 350 yards to the east along reconnoitering road states, “The 21st Missouri, 3 companies of 25th Missouri, 2 companies of 12th Michigan and 4 companies of 16th Wisconsin were engaged here from 6.30 a.m. to 7.30 a.m.”[5]

Quiner states that about five o’clock that morning the Confederates attacked the 21st Missouri companies and drove them back. Their colonel, David Moore, soon rallied these companies. Captain Saxe also brought Company A to the help of the 21st Missouri and companies B, C and D of the 16th Wisconsin soon joined them.[6] Colonel Moore then told Saxe that his company could either fall in on the left or right of Moore’s regiment. Captain Saxe pulled off his coat and said, “Boys, we will fall in on the right; we will head them out.”[7] The united force then advanced up a slight rise of ground and found the Confederates concealed behind a log fence. The Confederates opened fire and Captain Saxe and Sergeant John H Williams, of Company A, were instantly killed and several more were wounded. The patrol became engaged in a brisk skirmish but was forced to fall back, carrying off the killed and wounded.[8] Another report claims that after Colonel Moore met the battered pickets of the 12th Michigan he sent for the rest of his regiment and advanced down present day reconnoitering road. Upon reaching the northwest corner of Seay Field they were fired upon. Colonel Moore was wounded at this point and Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey M Woodyard assumed command and placed the regiment on the brow of the hill in the field, facing west. This position was held for a little over half an hour. The Confederates tried to outflank the 21st Missouri and the 21st Missouri then moved to the northern end of the field. Lieutenant Colonel Woodyard says that it was at this point that four companies of the 16th Wisconsin joined him. Woodyard placed them to the east of the field on his left as the new line faced south. This line was held for about an hour when the Confederates again attempted a flanking maneuver. The Federals then fell back to the next hill at which place they were joined by Colonel Peabody, commanding the First Brigade, and the 25th Missouri. The 25th Missouri went into line on a hill to the right. This position was held about half an hour as the Confederates came in overwhelming numbers and the Union retreated to their camps. As they passed through the camps the men became disorganized and were rallied on the other side of the tents.[9]

Lieutenant Colonel Woodyard finished his report by saying, “I cannot too highly praise the conduct of the officers and men of my command, and of the companies of the Sixteenth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, who acted in concert with me.”[10]

D. Lloyd Jones, a private at Shiloh who later served as the 16th Wisconsin’s adjutant, wrote that “to Company A of the Sixteenth Wisconsin, belongs the honor, if there is any honor in it, of firing the first shot in the Battle of Shiloh.”[11] He claims this because Saxe and Williams were the first men killed in the battle. Despite all the other reports of other units receiving the first attacks it seems that the 16th Wisconsin had to be the first attacked because of how Saxe and Williams were killed. They were shot at from behind a fence that ran along the road that all the pickets were using. Other pickets had just come down this road and if they had been shot at it seems highly unlikely that Saxe would have just walked his company down the road. What seems to be a very likely sequence of events is that Union pickets saw something moving in Fraley Field, it could have been Confederates or cows, and they fired. Confederate pickets also in Fraley Field fired their guns, but they had been doing this for the past few days during their march from Corinth to make sure that their guns still worked after being in the rain. The Union pickets then withdrew and came upon Saxe and Moore. Meanwhile the Confederates were moving through Fraley Field and Seay Field. When Saxe began his advance into Seay Field the Confederates opened fire and caused the first casualties of the day.

At daybreak wounded were being brought into the 25th Missouri’s camp and the companies were formed for battle. Lacking orders from division headquarters Colonel Peabody then had the long roll beaten which was soon spread throughout the division. Prentiss then rode up to Peabody and said, “Colonel Peabody, I will hold you personally responsible for bringing on this engagement.” Peabody responded, “General Prentiss, I am personally responsible for all my official acts.”[12] At 6 o’clock Prentiss ordered the now mostly reunited 16th Wisconsin forward, company A was missing. Colonel Allen moved them forward from camp about 440 yards* to a thicket of small timber. They waited here thirty minutes with no sign of the Confederates.# Prentiss then ordered the regiment to change front to the right. In this position the 16th Wisconsin soon received enemy fire from the front and left flank simultaneously. At this point the 16th Wisconsin checked the Confederate advance in their front but in other areas the Confederates drove the line back so Prentiss soon ordered the 16th Wisconsin to fall back. Colonel Allen retreated half way to camp so that he was now about 220 yards in front of his old camp. Stopping here they found themselves unsupported as the regiments to their right and left had fallen back even farther. Rather than fall back right away the 16th Wisconsin stayed and fought for a while until Prentiss again ordered them to fall back.[13]

Sometime during the initial combat Captain John Wheeler of Company G did something to catch Colonel Allen’s notice. “One of his men ran and got behind a tree. The Captain saw him and went and took him by the coat collar and drew him back and in front of his company and there held him and made him fire.”[14]

The next stand was made directly in front of their camp. Company A returned from picket duty at this time. The fighting was pretty fierce here. Lieutenant Colonel Fairchild was wounded in the thigh and carried from the field. Colonel Allen had a horse shot under him and while remounting a new horse that one was also killed. Lieutenant David F Vail of Company K said that when the regiment withdrew to their camp the Confederates threw blankets into the bushes while they lay on the ground. Vail said that this did not fool his men and that they shot low. After the battle Vail would claim that scores of dead Confederates were found in front of the camp. In reflection he would remark that “human life is precious and it is surprising with what satisfaction opposing forces will shoot at each other at such times, when they feel that their work will be effective.”[15] Once again Prentiss ordered the regiment to retreat except this time he also ordered them to “take to the trees and hold the enemy in check as much as possible until re-enforcements could arrive.”[16] As they passed through camp Lieutenant Vail went to his tent and retrieved a picture of his future wife but left behind other things which he many times later wished he had also retrieved. Vail said that his company was ordered forward at this time by the adjutant, George M Sabin. They had barely gotten into position when they looked around and realized they were the only company that had responded to this order. He started to retreat but was wounded in the leg and fell to the ground. He lay there thinking whether he should stay or try to retreat again. He found that he could put some weight on his leg and was able to retreat to the Landing.[17] The men fell back slowly, firing upon the Confederates, until the advance of Hurlbut’s division appeared. Colonel Allen’s men then fell back behind Hurlbut’s line and reformed the regiment but finding that they were nearly out of ammunition the regiment fell back to resupply.[18]

[1] Quiner, Military History of Wisconsin, p 633.
[2] OR 10:1, 283.
[3] Allen, Stacy D. Shiloh! (Blue & Gray Magazine: February 1997) p 19.
[4] Morton, Charles. “A Boy at Shiloh.” Personal Recollections of the War of the Rebellion: Addresses Delivered before the Commandery of the State of New York, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Volume 3. (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot, 1992.) p. 58. The 25th Missouri was a slightly veteran regiment at Shiloh. It had fought at the battle of Lexington, Missouri but many men had been captured and new men had joined the regiment to replace some of the captured while other captured men had returned to the unit. One of the key features of that battle had been the Anderson House which served as a field hospital and a haven for snipers. Both sides fought to gain control of the house and ownership changed hands several times. The house is now part of a state park.
[5] Markers 213, 216 and 217.
[6] Quiner, Military History of Wisconsin, p 633. Quiner states that all four companies were with Saxe but other reports state that about 6 A.M. only Company A was missing from the 16th Wisconsin’s camp.
[7] Jones, “Shiloh.” p 56.
[8] Quiner, Military History of Wisconsin, p 633.
[9] OR 10:1, 283. Stacy Allen’s article does not have the space to deal with much detail and so Colonel Moore, Captain Saxe or Lieutenant Colonel Woodyard are never mentioned.
[10] OR 10:1, 284.
[11] Jones, “Shiloh,” p 58.
[12] Morton, “A Boy at Shiloh.” 59
* The original report lists all measurements in rods. I have converted them here to yards. 1 rod equals 5.5 yards or 5.292 meters. 440 yards is thus equal to 80 rods or 423.36 meters. 40 rods is also equal to one furlong and 8 furlongs equal one mile.
# In Colonel Allen's official report as found in the Wisconsin State Historical Society's files differs from report that appears in the Official Records in that Wisconsin's copy is missing one sentence concerning the early morning fight. The Official Records says "After remaining in this position about thirty minutes, waiting the approach of the enemy, I was ordered by General Prentiss to change front to the right . . . " Wisconsin's copy is missing the sentence before "I was ordered . . . " This might be simply an error on transcription on Wisconsin's part or perhaps Allen rewrote his report for a different recipient, Wisconsin's copy had been originally sent by Allen to August Gaylord, the state adjutant general. .
[13] OR 10:1, 285.
[14] Letter from Colonel Allen to August Gaylord, dated May 6, 1862.
[15] Vail, David Franklin. Company K, of the 16th Wisconsin, at the Battle of Shiloh. (Madison, WI: State Historical Society, 1993.) p 2.
[16] OR 10:1, 286.
[17] Vail, Company K, pp 2-4.
[18] OR 10:1, 286. Not sure what time it was then. Colonel Allen makes a reference to his men being nearly exhausted since they had been without food or water and fighting since 6 o’clock. Also it is not clear where they got the fresh supply of ammunition. I believe they were re-supplied in Wicker Field but that is only a guess based on the layout of the battlefield. They definitely would not have gotten supplies in Duncan Field and I doubt they would have fallen back as far as Cloud Field to get supplies so Wicker Field is the most logical alternative remaining.

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