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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Rude Awakening at Shiloh

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburgh Landing, at which unsuspecting Union forces narrowly escaped a surprise attack from their Confederate foes. For hundreds of young men from Wisconsin, it was the first exposure to combat. For nearly 300 of them, it was also their last.

Caught by Surprise

About 65,000 Union soldiers had camped on the banks of the Tennessee River near Pittsburg Landing, including Wisconsin's 16th and 18th Infantry regiments. Their commanders believed the enemy was far away when in fact a Confederate force of 45,000 was just two miles south, on the high ground above the river. At dawn on April 6, 1862, they descended on the complacent Union soldiers.

The 16th Wisconsin Infantry was the first to encounter the sneak attack. Lt. Col. Cassius Fairchild was wounded at the outset. Col. Benjamin Allen of Pepin had two horses shot from under him. Over the course of the battle, 265 soldiers from the 16th were killed. The 18th Wisconsin Infantry had left Camp Trowbridge in Milwaukee only a week earlier. It lost 24 men, including Col. James Alban who was fatally wounded by a bullet through the lungs. At the end of the day, the two sides had fought to a draw and both called for reinforcements.

Among those were the 14th Wisconsin Infantry. They were held in reserve through the cold and rainy night and ordered to advance at dawn to the front lines early on April 7th. Climbing uphill over the bodies of their dead and wounded comrades, they helped drive the Confederates from the field in the fiercest fighting of the war to date. One Wisconsin lieutenant, who came through the battle unscathed, counted 12 bullet holes through his uniform. More than 20,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.

Appalled by the Carnage

For most of the Wisconsin soldiers, it was a gruesome introduction to military life.

One unidentified soldier in the 14th described entering combat on the second morning in a letter home: "At daylight we were sent forward. This route to the scene of strife opened strange scenes to our eyes, for our path lay over a portion of the ground so hotly contested the day before. We passed by and over the dead and wounded of Sunday — poor, ghastly, mangled forms of friend and foe, with their pale faces turned to view — poor fellows with their heads shot off, their vitals torn out, their limbs lost or mutilated, and some still writhing in feeble and speechless agony, who had lain through the long and stormy watches of that fearful night, with no one to care for or help them. It was a fearful, sickening sight, and many a strong, brave man turned his head aside."

A comrade in the same unit wrote to his hometown newspaper, "We started on double quick and soon arrived on the battle ground... May I never again be compelled to witness the horrible spectacle that was presented to us during the battle and after its close. Men were mangled, and bleeding, and dying by scores and hundreds. One poor rebel, during the battle, undertook to run away on all fours when a cannon ball struck him, tearing him in pieces, and scattering his limbs in different directions."

Gen. Grant wrote afterwards that the main part of the battlefield was "so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground."

To Learn More

A detailed summary of the battle is in William D. Love's "Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion" (Chicago, 1866). Dozens of letters, maps, newspaper articles, and images related to Shiloh are available for free at our digital collection, Wisconsin in the Civil War.

:: Posted in Strange Deaths on April 5, 2012
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