Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Shiloh's Hornets' Nest

“In many cases, and certainly at Shiloh, the treatment of the events after the fact has had more to do with how we view the battles today than how they were actually fought.” –Timothy B. Smith, “Anatomy of an Icon: Shiloh’s Hornets' Nest in History and Memory,” in The Shiloh Campaign, Edited by Steven Woodworth pgs. 55- 75, (Southern Illinois Press, 2009), 56.


Some names and places associated with the Civil War speak for themselves. When one hears Pickett’s Charge or Bloody Lane, one would likely think of Gettysburg or Antietam. Places such as these are seared into our collective historical conscience. They represent both our country at its best and our country at its worst. Another such place is Shiloh’s Hornets' Nest.

View of the Sunken Road, just east of the Hornets' Nest

Sunken Road, running through the Hornets' Nest

Along with Albert Sydney Johnston’s death site, Shiloh's Hornets' Nest stands out as easily one of the most famous parts of the battlefield. Even if one visits Shiloh with just a passing knowledge of the battle and the battlefield, odds are they will be drawn to the Hornets' Nest.
In many ways, this makes perfect sense. The Hornets' Nest is located right smack dab in the middle of the battlefield. It has Shiloh’s sunken road running through it, an excellent place for hikes and walks. It has an abundance of monuments in and around it as well, including several state monuments, and the Confederate Memorial

One of the many monuments to Iowa regiments which fought in this area

  Union artillery positions, with the forest of the Hornets' Nest in the background

More importantly, for many years, historians have hailed the Hornets' Nest as the most important part of the Battle of Shiloh. According to the standard interpretation, as Federal forces fell back on the right and left flank, remnants of Benjamin Prentiss’s division and several brigades of W.H. L. Wallace’s division held fast, serving as a hindrance for the Confederate advance. Confederates who made gallant attempts to overcome these Union troops later compared the experience of the shot and shell flying through the air to the sounds and stings of hornets, thus creating the name, "The Hornets' Nest." After hours of heated fighting with numerous Confederate frontal assaults and artillery barrages, Federal forces at the Hornets' Nest were overwhelmed. The collapse of supporting troops on their right and left flanks meant that the attacking Confederates enveloped the position entirely; some Federals got away, but over 2,000 Union soldiers surrendered, including Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss himself (another post on Prentiss's division at Shiloh can be found here). If one takes a short walk into the Hornets' Nest woods, markers locating the surrender sites for many of these regiments can be found (these were easily some of my favorite markers on the battlefield).

 Surrender site of Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss

 Prentiss surrender site in the Hornets' Nest

David W. Reed, a veteran who fought as a part of an Iowa Regiment in the Hornets' Nest, became the first historian of Shiloh. His work and interpretations of the battle focused heavily on the Hornets Nest, sparking generations of historical works which likewise saw the action there as the central moment of the battle.  The Federal stand at the Hornets' Nest delayed the Confederate advance, allowing Grant time to form his last defensive line near Pittsburg Landing. Thus, Federal forces at the Hornets' Nest may have been captured, but they served a vital and indispensable purpose for Grant’s army that day. This interpretation, advanced first by Reed, picked up by later generations, and carried along by the long running Shiloh park film, is perhaps why the Hornets' Nest is such a famous aspect of the battle. 

 Sunken Road, on the Federal right flank in the Hornets' Nest, with Duncan Field to the left

 Across Duncan field (to the right), on the afternoon of the 6th, over 50 Confederate guns were gathered for an artillery barrage aimed at driving back Federal troops at the position above.

In more recent interpretations of the battle, historians such as Shiloh Park Historian Stacy Allen and former Shiloh ranger Timothy Smith have advanced theories that the Hornets' Nest was not the key to the battle. In fact, they suggest, using detailed views of the battle, that the heaviest fighting occurred both east and west of the Hornets' Nest, particularly to the west, where the divisions of William T. Sherman and John McClernand fought a brutal struggle against nine Confederate brigades on the Union right flank. Allen and Smith have argued that rather than the stand at the Hornets' Nest, Confederates lost the battle due to confusing terrain, not understanding the position of the Union army, and a lack of cohesion in the Confederate attacks that day. Johnston's battle plan had called for the Confederates to turn the Federal left flank close to the Tennessee River; the Confederates could then push Grant’s army back on the swampy land around Owl Creek, forcing the surrender or destruction of the Army of the Tennessee. Moreover, these historians have argued that the fighting around the Hornets Nest was relatively light compared to elsewhere on the field. While several fierce Confederate charges were made, they were not as great in number as others may claim.
After doing extensive reading on the battle over the last few weeks, I would have to say that I personally agree with the newer interpretation of Shiloh. I find the Hornets' Nest to be a fascinating, compelling, and important part of the battle. But, I don’t see it as the one area where the Union army was saved or turned the Confederate tide. In a battle as vast and complicated as Shiloh, there cannot be just one area where the tide turned (same thing with Gettysburg: sorry Chamberlain, you were great, but so was George Sears Greene on Culp’s Hill). Perhaps it was the fierce fighting of Sherman and McClernand as they fell back, the stubborn stand of Prentiss and Wallace at the Hornets' Nest, the death of Johnston, the firm last defensive line of Grant, and Beauregard’s decision to halt the attack that evening which together conspired to slowly turn the tide from Confederate surprise to Federal defensive stand on April 6. Of course, all of these factors were ultimately influenced by the confusing terrain and the jumbled Confederate attack. It all goes back to the necessity of understanding the terrain and the field to understand how battles were fought and why they ended as they did.

 Park wayside marker for the Hornets' Nest surrender. The portion of the Federal line running along the road in the foreground was held by two brigades of Brig. Gen. W.H.L. Wallace's division

Along with Allen and Smith, the late historian O. Edward Cunninghman’s thesis on the battle, which was published posthumously and edited by Gary Joiner and Timothy Smith, elucidates these newer interpretations of the battle quite nicely. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested. For the other historians who I have mentioned, Shiloh historian Stacy Allen penned a great two part piece on Shiloh that appeared in the Blue and Gray magazine in the late 1980s, which is a must read. Timothy Smith has written a few fantastic books on the battle and the battlefield, among which are The Untold Story of Shiloh, ThisGreat Battlefield of Shiloh, an upcoming book on the fight for Corinth which followed Shiloh (titled Corinth,1862). Smith also penned an essay specifically on the Hornets Nest which can be found in The Shiloh Campaign, edited by well known historian Steven Woodworth. Anyways, these are just a few thoughts from your humble blogger/Antietam ranger, who will be the first to admit his lack of expertise in the field of Shiloh studies (If you can permit me to write in the third person, that is). If you are interested in this topic, feel free to check out some of these outstanding works on the battle that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading over the past few months (you will find that the titles are linked to amazon.com pages for the books). I thought a brief historiographical piece and my thoughts on the topic would be a much more interesting way of showing off my Hornets' Nest pictures. If you are like me, then you find how we interpret Civil War battles to be just as fascinating and important as the actual battle itself.   

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shiloh's State Monuments

I have been quite busy as of late working on several projects, which I will hopefully be able announce/post about on here soon. One of them is my upcoming Shiloh presentation for the James A. Garfield NHS Major Battles of the Civil War series, which will take place on April 11 at noon, at the Mentor Public Library (all are welcome, the program is free, call ahead for reservations at 440-255-8811).

Thus, for today's post in my ongoing Shiloh series, I thought I would go with some pictures of various state monuments from my visit. Below, you will find nearly all of the state memorials at Shiloh, save for the Alabama and Kentucky memorials (I saw each, just seemed to forget to take a picture, oh well, there is a good reason to go back!).

Iowa State Monument
 Located near the park Visitor Center, and near Auto Tour Stop1, Grant's Last Line. 


 Illinois State Memorial
Located at the intersection of the Hamburg-Purdy and Corinth-Pittsburg Landing roads, near Auto Tour Stop 13, Water Oaks Pond.

Tennessee State Memorial
Located adjacent to Illinois State Memorial, pictured above.


Texas State Memorial
Located along the Hamburg-Purdy Road, between the intersection with 
the Eastern Corinth Croad and the Hamburg-Savannah Road

 Arkansas State Monument
Located at Tour Stop 10, the Hornet's Nest, 
where the historic Sunken Road crossed the Eastern Corinth Road

Wisconsin State Memorial
Located near Tour Stop 10, in the wooded area of the Hornet's Nest


Michigan State Monument
Located at the intersection of the Corinth-Pittsburg Landing Road and the Hamburg-Savannah Road

Missouri State Memorial
Located just north of Tour Stop 17 along the Hamburg-Savannah Road

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shiloh's Rhea Field

This is the latest post in my ongoing series from my recent visit to Shiloh. Rather than posting everything at once, spreading the posts out allows for more detail and more pictures. Hope you enjoy.

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.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Battle of Shiloh Begins: Fraley Field and Colonel Everett Peabody

To resume my series of posts on Shiloh, stemming from my recent visit there and leading up to the 150th anniversary of the battle two weeks from now, I thought I would start getting in to some of the stories and people from the battle itself. Previous posts have covered the National Cemetery, Confederate Burial Trenches, and the Confederate Memorial at Shiloh.

Following a several day long march north from Corinth, by the evening of April 5, 1862, Confederate forces were bivouacked just a mile or two away from the Federal campsites surrounding Pittsburg Landing. The southernmost Union campsites, those who would feel the initial brunt of the Confederate attack the next day, were those of William Tecumseh Sherman's Fifth Division and Benjamin Prentiss's Sixth Division. Both commanders repeatedly dismissed evidence and warnings of the approaching Southern force (more on Sherman's role to come).

While many Union officers felt the odds of a Confederate attack at Pittsburg Landing were virtually nonexistent, one who did not believe that an attack was beyond the pale was Colonel Everett Peabody of the 25th Missouri Infantry. As the ranking officer in his brigade, Peabody was the commanding officer for the First Brigade of Prentiss's Sixth Division.

Born on June 13, 1830, Everett Peabody graduated from Harvard in 1849, and soon began work as an engineer. A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, Peabody set out for the west to make his living and ply his engineering skills in the construction of railroads. Finding himself in Missouri at the start of the war, Peabody's initial service was as a Major of volunteers in the 13th Missouri. Known for impetuousness and a hot temper, Peabody was wounded twice during the siege of Lexington in September 1861, where he was also captured. After being exchanged in December of 1861, Peabody found himself assigned to Prentiss's division in early 1862. Having been in a battle where he was both wounded and captured, Peabody was one of the few Union officers at Shiloh who could claim actual battle experience.

 During his time in the army leading up to Shiloh, Peabody had a persistent belief that he would not survive the war. Writing to his family in late 1861, Peabody proclaimed, "I have a sort of presentiment that I shall go under. If I do, it shall be in a manner that the old family shall feel proud of it." Just a few days before Shiloh, Peabody predicted his impending death in a letter to his brother: "Say to them all at home, that if we have good luck, I shall win my spurs." (Sword, 139-140)

Colonel Everett Peabody

Colonel Peabody was quite nervous on the evening of April 5. The first few days of  April were filled with repeated skirmishing south of Union camps, as well as reported sightings of Confederate cavalry, infantry, and artillery. Not being able to sleep, Peabody went to the tent of Captain Simon Evans, and together they discussed their apprehensions of a Confederate attack. Peabody had requested that artillery be placed in front of his campsites, but Prentiss had dismissed it as unnecessary. Without authorization from Prentiss, Peabody sent for Major James Powell of the 25th Missouri, ordering him to take a patrol consisting of three companies from the 25th Missouri to reconnoiter out past the army's pickets, hoping to discover exactly what was going on to the south. Several companies of Michigan infantry would end up accompanying the patrol as well. As the patrol headed out at 3 a.m. on the morning of the 6th, Peabody was there to see the men off on their mission, predicting to them that he would not survive the day (Sword, 141).

Fraley Field

That morning, in Fraley Field, Powell's patrol discovered the front lines of the looming Confederate attack, consisting of troops from William Hardee's Corps of the Army of the Mississippi. Just after 5 a.m., Powell's patrol entered into a skirmish fight with Confederate pickets from the 3rd Mississippi Infantry Battalion.

 As sounds of skirmishing began filtering back to Prentiss's camp, Peabody sent several companies from the 21st Missouri to Powell's assistance. These reinforcements would be far too few, as by 6:30 a.m. the main Confederate battle line began to emerge from the distant tree line. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard described the Confederate advance that morning as "an Alpine avalanche." The masses of attacking Confederates quickly pushed back the relatively small Federal patrol. 

Together, Powell's men, along with Colonel David Moore's five companies from the 21st Missouri made several brief stands on their way back to their campsites, slowing the Confederate advance in small increments. Soon, in the manner of a gathering storm, the battle began to draw in various regiments from Prentiss's division. Angered with what he believed to be the unnecessary start of a major battle, Prentiss lectured Colonel Peabody on his patrol, telling him he was "personally responsible for bringing on this engagement." Peabody, never one to back away, responded that he was indeed responsible, as he was for all of his actions.

 Regimental marker for the men of the Union patrol at Fraley's Field

While it isn't my intention here to provide a blow by blow detailed account of Prentiss's fight during the first few hours of the battle, it is sufficient to say that it was highly confusing for both Federal and Confederate soldiers alike. Much of the fighting occurred in a disjointed manner, as various regiments had difficulties linking up due to their separate campsites and the confusion of what was for many their first major battle. This would be a common theme for the fighting that day. Hardee's corps crashed headlong into Prentiss's camp, and tangled terrain, camp sites, and battle lines meant that the fighting largely occured at a regimental and brigade level. The first officer of the battle to fall was Confederate Brigadier General Adley H. Gladden, who was struck squarely by an artillery shell while riding his horse. Gladden's arm was ripped to shreds, and despite being evacuated to Corinth, he would die six days later.

Mortuary monument for Brigadier General Adley Gladden

As the battle swirled around him, Everett Peabody did what he could to solidify the Federal lines. Prentiss sent word to other division commanders, informing them of the Confederate attack and requesting reinforcements. Riding through the camp of the 25th Missouri, attempting to rally the men, Peabody was in great pain. He was suffering from four wounds: one each to his neck, hand, thigh, and torso. It was here, in the clearing shown in the photo above, where Peabody's premonition of death came true. A fifth ball struck the colonel squarely in the face, knocking him from his horse. Peabody was dead upon hitting the ground. By 8:45, Confederates had overrun the camps of Peabody's brigade, and a desperate retreat had begun.

 Mortuary Monument for Colonel Everett Peabody

While Peabody died early on at Shiloh, his contributions at the battle were great. Union forces were certainly not prepared for a major battle, but they were not caught entirely unaware. Thanks to Peabody's early morning patrol and vigilance, Prentiss was alerted of the Confederate attack before it reached his camp in full force. Nearby, Sherman was likewise able to begin gathering together his men before his camps were overrun. Despite their warning, Prentiss's Sixth Division was pushed back, with various elements soon regathering along a slightly sunken road to make a defensive stand at the center of the Union line (more on this to come). Indeed, while their fight had been intense, the day was just beginning for Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss and the men of his Sixth Division.

Immediately following the battle, Everett Peabody was buried close to where he fell. His remains were later re interred in his native Massachusetts.