Tuesday, September 9, 2008

William Sooy Smith

There is one final chapter to the controversy regarding the captured gun at Shiloh. At the March 3rd, 1897 meeting of the Wisconsin MOLLUS captain FH Magdeburg of the 14th Wisconsin read a paper on his regiment’s action at Shiloh. He was prompted to do this because of an attack made by General William Sooy Smith* upon the 14th Wisconsin’s record. On October 13th, 1892 Smith read a paper before the Illinois MOLLUS in which he said the following:
At the battle of Shiloh, on the second day, my brigade consisted of four
regiments, three of which were in line, and one was in reserve in a sheltered
position a couple of hundred yards to the rear. On our right was Barnett’s
Battery, supported by my strongest regiment. This regiment had just come
to the front a full thousand strong. It was perfectly green, and without
drill, discipline or experience. It had received its arms but a few days
or weeks before the battle; but this I did not know, as it was assigned to my
brigade only the day before the fight. In the morning we were fiercely
attacked by the enemy, and this regiment broke and ran away in spite of every
effort that could be made to rally it. Barnett’s Battery was left without
support, and was for a time in imminent danger of capture. My reserve
regiment, numbering about five hundred men, was brought up as quickly as
possible, and took its place in line, opening fire just in time to repulse the
enemy. I saw nothing more of my big regiment of raw recruits during the
fight. A year or two after the war closed, I saw in the principal hotel of
a neighboring city a large picture representing a regiment charging in gallant
style. Its alignment was perfect, and all its company and field officers
were in their proper places. And what was my surprise when I read the
legend, “Gallant charge of the -- regiment at the battle of Shiloh,” the very
regiment whose conduct I have described![1]

Later in the day it was the good fortune of my brigade to capture Stanford’s
Mississippi Battery of six guns. We bivouacked on the field that night
about the position that had been occupied by this battery. The next
morning it was found that two of the guns had disappeared. Search was made
for them, and it was discovered that one of the pieces had gone to replace a gun
that had been lost by one of our batteries during the first day’s fight.
No trace of the other could then be found; but I have since been informed that
it is now at the capitol of the state from which my big regiment came, bearing
the inscription, “Captured at the Battle of Shiloh,” by this very
regiment. I could perhaps pardon the conduct of the regiment on the field;
but the lying picture and the theft are without excuse or palliation.[2]

This obviously aroused Captain Magdeburg’s fighting blood. As president of his regimental association he took it as his job to refute all claims against the honor and valor of his regiment. He did not find out about Smith’s comments until January 1896 but he then immediately applied to the Illinois Military Order Of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) for a chance to speak at one of their meetings to refute the charges directly. He was told that all meeting programs were full and that he should contact them again after their annual elections in May. He then applied again and after a long delay was told that his application had “been overlooked or mislaid” and that once again all dates were filled until after the next annual election. Since Captain Magdeburg could not directly refute the charges to the Illinois MOLLUS he decided to do so before the Wisconsin MOLLUS.

He started off by stating that the 14th Wisconsin had organized at Camp Wood in November 1861, had received its arms in early January and was mustered into Federal service later in the month. The regiment had received drill from the time it entered camp until it left camp on March 8th. They then went to St. Louis where drill was done and then went to Savannah where drill was also done.[3]

“An officer is forever estopped denying the truthfulness of an official report of a subaltern, if he fails, at time or receiving and forwarding the same, to endorse such report as incorrect or untruthful,” Magdeburg said in his rebuttal. With that military rule in mind Magdeburg wrote to the Record and Pension Office in Washington D.C. asking them to look at the reports placed by Colonel Wood to see if Smith wrote anything on them. Since Wood’s reports stated that he captured a battery and that his men spiked two guns if Smith did not write anything on those reports then by Magdeburg’s reasoning they had to be accurate. The Record and Pension Office wrote back that there were no endorsements on Wood’s reports. To Magdeburg’s mind this solved that issue.[4] At this late date from the battle it is nearly impossible to declare one way or the other who did what. In light of all the evidence though it seems very probable that the 14th Wisconsin did capture that battery and did not steal the gun to take to the capitol. One thing in the 14th Wisconsin’s favor concerning endorsements is that Smith had graduated sixth in his class at West Point in 1853 and so it can be presumed that he knew about the proper way to dispute a subordinate’s report.[5]

It should be remembered that in General Smith’s report he made no mention of the cowardice of the 14th Wisconsin. He did however acknowledge that the other three regiments “each have cause to regret and detest the conduct of a few of their officers and men.”[6] If this gun was taken from him during the night why did he not mention that fact in his report? Also these guns were captured in part because the horses that would have pulled them away had been killed. For someone to steal it during they night they would have needed a team of horses or a good amount of manpower. If Smith is to believed in 1892, this happened to him twice during the night and no one saw or heard it happen. There would have been guards up at night. There were soldiers looking around for missing comrades. It also probably would have been a tough night to sleep because there were dead bodies near by (some of them a day old and pretty smelly) and also wounded men moaning for aid. Somehow with this many distractions from sleep Smith’s men did not see or hear someone come along and steal two cannons from his command.

Finally, a cannon does not just end up magically in Madison. A cannon is a big heavy object that someone had to forcibly move. Since it is so heavy whoever took it did not act alone. Also since it is so big it is not easily concealed. Magdeburg remembered that when Governor Harvey came upriver he was presented with the cannon. Magdeburg thought that Halleck gave it to him but was not sure. When he wrote to the Record and Pension Office about the endorsement issue he also asked them to look for an order from Halleck presenting the cannon to the Governor. They looked through the orders up to September 1862 but did not find such an order.[7] In 1897 there were only two surviving members of Harvey’s trip. One was in a terrible mental and physical state and so Magdeburg could not contact him but the other ,George R. Stuntz, a legislator at the time of the trip, was in fine health. Stuntz wrote Magdeburg that he remembered the incident well and that it was Grant who let Harvey take the cannon home as a trophy.[8] Reed wrote in his history that the 14th Wisconsin “assisted in the capture of a battery, one gun of which was awarded to this regiment and sent to the State of Wisconsin.”[9]

Magdeburg was especially upset that Smith waited until 1892 to bring theses charges against the 14th Wisconsin because “the gravest of them - cowardice and theft - were known to him ever since the battle, while the other causes of his denunciations and attack had come to his knowledge one or two years after the close of the war.” He was particularly upset because Halleck, Grant and most members of Harvey’s trip were now dead and could not help refute the charge. Another of Magdeburg’s points was, “He must have known that, when he brought his accusations to public notice at so late a date, he placed his victims in an almost hopeless position to disprove his cruel and wanton charges. He must also have known that it would be an almost impossible task for any one to disprove by documentary evidence, a charge of theft, made over thirty years after the same is claimed to have been committed.”[10]

* Although a colonel at Shiloh, Smith would rise to the rank of Brigadier General.
[1] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” pp 176-7.
[2] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” p 177.
[3] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” p 178.
[4] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” p 184.
[5] Warner, Generals in Blue. p 464.
[6] OR 10:1 366
[7] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” p 184.
[8] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” p 186.
[9] Wisconsin Shiloh Monument Commission. p 210.
[10] Magdeburg, “The Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry,” p 186.

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