The Shiloh Battlefield is covered with forestation, interspersed with various farming fields. Any study of the battle is invariably filled with numerous references to specific fields while describing the ebb and flow of the fighting. One of the fields which I spent time in during my recent visit to Shiloh was Rhea field. Because Sherman is one of my favorite figures from the war, I had to see some of the sites where he fought during Shiloh, and Rhea Field was at the top of the list.
This is where the 53rd Ohio was encamped at the start of the battle. As the southernmost camp in Sherman's command, the men of the 53rd Ohio were the first troops in Sherman's Fifth Division to encounter the Confederate advance. This was also where Sherman himself first saw Confederate troops advancing on his position. He sustained a mild hand wound while riding among the lines of the 53rd Ohio that morning.
Shiloh is covered with markers of all sorts. In my opinion, the most unique ones were those locating where Union camp sites were at the start of the battle. The above picture shows such a marker for the campsite of the 53rd Ohio, the first regiment from Sherman's division to become engaged. The marker points toward where the center of the regimental camp was on the morning of April 6, 1862.
As the sounds of musket fire grew early on the morning of April 6, Colonel Jesse Appler of the 53rd Ohio recognized that somethingwas wrong. He was hearing the sounds emanating through the woods from the initial skirmish fighting near Fraley Field between the first Confederate battle line and portions of Colonel Everett Peabody's brigade. Appler, whose worries over a possible enemy attack had been rebuffed by Sherman just the day before, had pickets and patrols out beyond his camp on the evening of the 5th and morning of the 6th. With the onset of the Confederate attack, Appler's pickets came scampering back into camp, causing alarm among the men of the 53rd Ohio. Appler ordered his regiment into battle lines, facing west, against approaching Confederate troops from Patrick Cleburne's brigade.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Sherman arrived at the 53rd Ohio camp. He had sent a note to Appler earlier that morning, suggesting that he "must be awfully scared over there." Upon arriving, however, Sherman soon realized the approaching threat to his forces.
Appler's battle lines were formed along the eastern edge of Rhea field (to the right of the picture above). As Confederate skirmishers emerged out of the trees on the western edge of Rhea field (to the left of the edge of the above picture), they sent a volley of musket fire into the Union ranks. As was the case with many Confederates that day, these Southerners were firing buck and ball ammunition. Upon seeing the enemy fire a volley, Sherman threw up his right arm in surprise; a small musket ball lodged in his hand, causing a relatively minor wound. One of Sherman's staff officers, Sergeant Thomas D. Holliday, was hit in the head and killed instantly. Realizing what was happening, Sherman was said to exclaim, "My God, we are attacked!" He quickly rode back toward his headquarters, promising Colonel Appler that he would send reinforcements. At that moment, Sherman knew that he needed to rally his division as quickly as possible to form a strong defensive line. Sherman's fight at Shiloh had begun.
(Appler's 53rd Ohio, whose camp would have been in the foreground, aligned themselves along the far tree line)
The Confederates who were advancing on Sherman's position were two regiments from Patrick Cleburne's brigade, the 6th Mississippi and the 23rd Tennessee. Due to the confusing terrain, these two regiments had veered off to the right upon reaching the Shiloh Branch of Owl Creek. After advancing through the campsite of the 53rd Ohio, these two regiments made numerous assaults across Rhea Field against the Ohioans. Over the course of the next hour, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., the 6th Mississippi sustained the bulk of its casualties that day. Overall, the regiments lost 300 out of its 450 members on that April 6, a 70% casualty rate, one of the highest for any Confederate regiment in the war.
Trees blossoming in the woods from which the 6th Mississippi launched their attacks.
This picture shows the perspective of Rhea Field for the attacking Confederates. The men of the 6th Mississippi and 23rd Tennessee had to advance from this position, across the open field, over the ridge line, and continue on against the 53rd Ohio, whose men were ensconced safely in the far tree line. After several charges and over an hour of fighting, while the Ohioans were exacting a fearful toll on their Confederate attackers, Colonel Appler's nerves got the best of him; Appler suddenly ordered his men to fall back. This was a disastrous development for the Fifth Division. While Sherman was riding through his various camps to organize a battle line, his left flank was already caving in.
Rhea Field can be seen in the distance. The creek in the foreground is Rhea Springs, or the East Fork of the Shiloh Branch of Owl Creek.
When Appler ordered his men to fall back, then retreated past this creek and into the woods, heading toward the Shiloh Church and Sherman's main lines (from right to left in the above picture), just a few hundred yards north.
Following the retreat of the 53rd Ohio, the 57th Ohio, whose monument is pictured above, became the new left flank regiment for Sherman's immediate command near the Shiloh Church. Sherman's division had four brigades, those of McDowell, Hildebrand, Buckland, and Stuart. The first three were all fighting with Sherman near the Shiloh Church, while Stuart's brigade, camped rather far from Sherman's headquarters, became detached, and ended up fighting on the far left flank of the Union army that day.
To remind us that these monuments are much more than picturesque markers, on the edge of Rhea Field, there is one of Shiloh's many burial trenches. No doubt, this trench contains many of the soldiers from the 6th Mississippi, the regiment which suffered 75% casualties in its assaults across Rhea Field on the morning of April 6, 1862.