A REBEL BATTERY’S FIRST SALVO WAS THE PRELUDE TO A STORM
THE UNTESTED CANNONEERS COULD NEVER HAVE IMAGINED
JON G. STEPHENSON
A Confederate artillery captain peered through his field glasses, calmly studying the distant tree line. It was a lovely day. A breeze ruffled the budding branches of the oaks that bordered the field, and sunlight filtered through the canopy. On the ground, however, the peaceful sunlight turned menacing, glinting from the muzzles of four 24-pounder field howitzers.
At once, the big guns across the way rocked back, and an impenetrable bluish haze obscured the captain’s view. A few seconds passed, then the rumble of the howitzers’ discharge washed over the hilltop where he stood. The earth shook as a flight of shells detonated all around him. Limbs were torn from the trees covering his position, and hot, jagged shards of iron showered the captain’s men, waiting at their six cannon. One of the gun team drivers screamed as a shell fragment ripped his torso, nearly tearing him in half.
Lowering his glasses, the captain turned. “By section!” he said, just loud enough to be heard over the din of the exploding shells.
“By section!” echoed three lieutenants.
“Fire!” the captain shouted.
The “number four men” on the leftmost pieces leaned into their lanyards, and the guns spoke. Seconds later, the center section fired, then the right. The captain again raised his glasses to trace the flight of the projectiles as their unearthly shriek filled the air. Just as he brought the glasses into focus, the soil around the enemy guns leaped into the air, and some of the men near them fell.
Behind the captain, the cannoneers bent again to their tasks, reloading the guns and raising a throaty shout as they worked. It was a cry of both satisfaction and surprise; these men, the gunners of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery, had just heard the sound of their guns for the first time. Here, on the green fields around Shiloh Church, near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, they had received their “baptism by fire.”
Less than a year earlier, the men of Stanford’s battery had been strangers to things military, farmers and tradesmen living a familiar and peaceful routine. With the coming of the Civil War, they were recruited for Confederate service by a respected tinsmith from Blackhawk, Mississippi, named Thomas Jefferson Stanford. On May 17, 1861, Stanford’s Mississippi Battery was accepted into state service at Grenada and, in November, into the Confederate army. On November 9, the battery arrived with its two 12-pounder field howitzers, three bronze 6-pounders, and one 3-inch rifle, at Columbus, Kentucky. It was just two days after the Battle of Belmont, in which Confederates were attacked by Federal forces under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. Stanford’s men had missed this fight, but they would get another chance at Grant and his troops.
The battery spent the winter in drill. As the weeks passed the men grew restless, fearing that the war would end before they saw action, according to Sergeant William Brown. “We had not learned to read the signs of the times,” Brown wrote, “for while we were expressing dissatisfaction at our inaction, movements were going on around us which later in the War would have told us very plainly that a move of some importance was about to take place.”
General Albert Sidney Johnston, given command over Confederate forces in the Western Theater by his longtime friend, Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, had constructed a thin defensive line stretching across southern Kentucky from Columbus to Bowling Green. In early 1862, however, the still unproven Grant drove the Confederate garrisons out of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, just south of the center of Johnston’s line. Other Federal troops under Brigadier General John Pope captured Southern strongholds at New Madrid and Island No. 10, south of Johnston’s western flank on the Mississippi River.
Johnston abandoned his Kentucky line and regrouped his forces at Corinth, the rail center of northern Mississippi. From there, he could advance his newly reorganized army–four corps, commanded by Major Generals Leonidas Polk, Braxton Bragg, and William J. Hardee, and Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge.
In late February, the Confederates began to move south. Stanford’s Mississippians, assigned to Polk’s corps, entrained some of their cannon, hitched up the others to their horse teams, and, recalled Brown, “on the evening of the first of March we left Columbus to the keeping of the Yankees.” Like the rest of Polk’s men, they were bound for Corinth.
Johnston planned to attack Grant’s 48,000-man Army of the Tennessee, then encamped on the west bank of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing–a little more than 100 miles south of Forts Henry and Donelson. After his and Pope’s victories over the Confederate river forts, Grant pictured the Western Rebel armies as nearly beaten and badly demoralized. One more decisive victory, he believed, might lead to the collapse of Confederate military resistance in the West. The final push, Grant decided, would be against Corinth. He chose Pittsburg Landing, about 20 miles to the northeast in Tennessee, as the staging area for his assault.
Steep bluffs fronting the river greeted Grant’s arriving troops, bluffs that yielded to cultivated farm fields and gently rolling woods interspersed among deep, jagged ravines. There was adequate forage for the Union army’s horses and ample space for the encampments that would be needed while the army prepared its assault. More importantly, there were two roads leading from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth. Grant ordered Brigadier General William T. Sherman to establish the Federal base of operations, so Sherman advanced his 5th Division two miles inland from the river’s west bank–far enough to guard both roads. The remainder of the Army of Tennessee would camp between Sherman’s line and the river.
Johnston was under pressure to strike Grant before Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, then on the march from Nashville, could bolster Union forces with its 35,000 men. The pressure increased when Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, commanding a Confederate detachment at Bethel Station, on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad 23 miles northwest of Corinth, learned from captured Union pickets that at least three Federal brigades were concentrated around Adamsville, 15 miles from Bethel Station and just northwest of Pittsburg Landing. Reports of unusual activity in and around that Federal camp worried Cheatham, who feared the movements might be the prelude to an attack on his position at Bethel Station.
General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Johnston’s second in command, strongly supported an immediate attack on the Federal concentration around Pittsburg Landing, but Johnston wanted to wait for the nearly 20,000 Confederate reinforcements coming from Arkansas with Major General Earl Van Dorn. Generals Polk and Bragg joined Beauregard in urging an instant attack, but it was not until cavalry operating north of the Tennessee River reported Buell’s vanguard within 35 miles of Grant’s headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee, that Johnston gave the order to advance.
The troops of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery, remembered Ser-geant G.W. Jones, were told to ready themselves for a fight. “About tomorrow will come the tug of war,” Jones wrote. “I am beginning to feel pretty weak about the knees already. I can almost smell powder in the air.”
Unaccustomed to the discipline necessary for large troop movements and frustrated by torrential rains and muddy roads, the newly organized Confederate army took three days to get into position for attack. The army spent the night of April 5 camped within two miles of Shiloh Church, a small log meetinghouse around which Grant’s troops had spread their tents. Hardee’s corps bivouacked in line of battle only a mile southwest of Sherman’s division.
A strange mixture of anticipation and fear came over the mud-spattered Southerners as they awaited their first view of war. “We all look like shaking Quakers,” wrote Sergeant Jones. “We have several bowlegged boys in line, and you ought to see their knees knocking together.” Sergeant Brown recalled that “many a whispered prayer was uttered that night.”
Federal pickets at Pittsburg Landing had been reporting parties of Confederates before the Union camps since April 3. These reports increased in frequency and urgency on the afternoon and evening of the 5th, but Union commanders largely dismissed them. One notable exception was Colonel Everett Peabody, commander of Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss’s 6th Division. Unhappy with his superiors’ lack of concern, Peabody sent five companies of infantry to reconnoiter the woods fronting his camps. This patrol was crossing a large field belonging to a family named Fraley on April 6 at about 5:00 a.m. when it ran up against the advance pickets of Brigadier General Sterling A.M. Wood’s Confederate brigade.
The fight started slowly, wrote Sergeant Brown, “beginning with a shot now and then, but warming up as things became more distinct, until [the volleys] followed each other in rapid succession.”
Brigadier General Alexander P. Stewart’s 2d Brigade, to which Captain Stanford’s battery was attached, advanced along the Corinth-Pittsburg road. As the men filed past two farm cabins that were then serving as Johnston’s headquarters, Johnston pulled Stewart aside and instructed him to take his brigade to the east, toward the right of the rapidly developing battle line. The brigade turned onto a small farm lane known today as Reconnoitering Road. “Soon we came to more impressive marks of the battle,” Brown recalled, “the trees pitted by minié balls and the [wounded] scattered through the woods. The spirit of battle was around us.”
By this time, the battery had drawn very near to the front. “We for the first time heard the soft fluttering sound peculiar to a rifled cannon shot,” Brown wrote. Captain Stanford called Brown’s attention to this eerie wail, pointing to the battle lines struggling at the far end of a long and narrow tract known locally as Rea Field. “The columns of dirt thrown into the air explained it all,” the sergeant continued, “and [another shot] crashing through the timber just over our heads shortly after informed us that we were now under fire.”
Stewart’s brigade continued along the farm lane until it reached a patch of open woods in front of a camp hastily abandoned by the 25th Missouri Infantry, of Colonel Peabody’s Federal brigade, “the tents standing and everything left as though the troops had only gone out on review,” remembered Brown. Corporal John Magee saw clear evidence that the Yanks had been caught completely by surprise: “All of their canteens and haversacks lay in wild confusion as though they had no time to get them.” In the Yankee tents, the Confederates found things more precious than gold to hungry soldiers. There were cheese, soft bread, fruits, potatoes–manna from heaven, as the Confederates saw it. They had long since consumed the three days’ rations they had prepared at Corinth, and their supply wagons were a long way to the rear. “We finished our breakfast at their expense as we passed through,” Brown wrote.
As the men rummaged through the abandoned campsite, General Stewart was, he later reported, approached by one of Johnston’s staff officers, “who directed me to move to the left and then forward.” As the infantry turned off the road, it left Stanford and his battery behind. “Owing to the fact that there were no distinct roads through the woods, and the undergrowth being quite thick, I found it quite impossible to follow the course taken by the brigade,” Stanford recalled. The captain prodded his men back into line and got them moving along the farm lane.
The cannoneers had traveled no more than a quarter of a mile when an excited Brigadier General Thomas C. Hindman galloped up and, according to Sergeant Brown, “announced with a flourish of language something like a school boy’s speech, that we were gaining a ‘glorious victory,’ the enemy giving way at all points.” It was just before 10 a.m., and the Federals were being driven from the battle lines they had hastily thrown together among their campsites. Hindman led Stanford’s battery to a slight elevation in front of some Yankee tents. This spot, in the southwest corner of a small area known today as Lost Field, was the camp of the 4th Illinois Cavalry, of Sherman’s division.
The Mississippians unlimbered amid the bedlam. Stewart’s infantry lay on the ground in line of battle a short distance to the front, heads down in the face of a thunderous Federal cannonade. Captain Stanford positioned his guns “as soon as possible in the face of a fire that was telling both on men and horses with terrible effect.”
“One of the enemy’s batteries, seeing us take position, opened at once,” wrote Brown. This “battery,” described in many soldiers’ accounts, was actually a cluster of Federal batteries, among them Battery D of McAllister’s 1st Illinois Light Artillery, armed with four 24-pounder field howitzers and emplaced some 600 yards away on the corner of Review Field, a large open plain the Federals had used as a parade ground.
Firing from the same area were Burrows’s 14th Ohio Battery, Dresser’s Battery D of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery, Morton’s 6th Indiana Battery, and Schwartz’s Battery E of the 2d Illinois Light Artillery. In all, 27 Union cannon bore on the Confederate front at this position. “Before we could fire, a shell blew up one of our ammunition chests; another one cut off the splinter bar of the third detachment; William Jones had his right arm shot off. Another [shell] almost cut one of our riders in two,” Sergeant Jones remembered.
Sergeant Brown stood very near the unfortunate rider. “The lead rider of my gun, John J. Bowen, who was standing by, holding his horses, was hurled some ten feet from where he stood by a cannon shot striking him just below the hip, tearing the leg nearly entirely away from his body. I started to him, but at a glance saw his condition; being but a few feet from him I could hear his cries of, ‘O Lord! O Lord!’ rising above the sound of battle. I heard them but a moment and they died away, as he passed ‘from time to eternity.’ Even before another man could get to [Bowen’s] horses to take charge of them, one was down, a shot through his back and the other with his leg shot off above the knee. The air seemed to be full of missels.”
Jones was mightily impressed with his first sight of the war. “Oh, how I wish I was a dwarf, just now, instead of a six-footer,” he exclaimed. “My hair, good heavens, is standing on end like the ‘quills of a scared porcupine.'”
The captain gave the order to fire, and for the first time, Stanford’s Mississippi Battery heard the sound of its own guns. According to Sergeant Brown, the battery fired by section, “and three deep tunes went rolling over the field of battle for the first time. Though this was our first firing, we were well drilled in the manual of the pieces, and the boys worked sharp, quick, and with a will, every man at his post. Our opponents replied with no less spirit and most ungratifying precision. It was clearly a trial of mettle and skill between ours and the enemy’s battery.”
The battery’s performance drew the attention of corps commander Polk, who wrote in his official report of the battle that Captain Stanford and his men, “from the scarcity of ammunition, had never before heard the report of their own guns. Yet, from that facility which distinguishes our Southern people, under the inspiration of the cause which animates them, they fought with the steadiness and gallantry of well-trained troops.”
The Yankee projectiles tore through the underbrush near Stanford’s position. “A shot struck a tree standing a few feet from us, striking me with the bark and splinters,” remembered Brown. “Looking to the right, I saw a horse have his leg taken off below the shoulder by a cannon ball.”
Stanford’s battery doggedly kept at its task. “Our firing soon began to tell on the enemy, and they began to be less accurate in their aim, and to slacken their fire,” wrote Brown. “Observing this, we exerted ourselves, if possible, still more and, I think, in not more than ten minutes from our first shot the enemy’s guns had ceased to reply, and we were ordered to cease firing.”
The battery enjoyed a momentary lull as the Confederate infantry, eight brigades with three more following close behind, advanced on the Federal line on the Hamburg-Purdy road. The 4th Tennessee of Stewart’s brigade seized one of McAllister’s 24-pounders and drove off the other three. The other Federal batteries and their infantry supports were overwhelmed by the massive Confederate assault. Seventeen Federal cannon were captured.
In all likelihood, it was the need to meet the huge Rebel infantry attack that had caused the Union artillerists to cease firing at Stanford’s battery. In any case, the lull gave Stanford’s men a chance to pull themselves together, to start their wounded to the rear, and to say a last good-bye to their dead comrades. The respite, however, was all too brief.
Ordered to advance, the Mississippians moved forward through the carnage of war. Brown described the horror: “The dead almost covered the ground, being across each other and in every position, Rebels and Yankees together. Horses had fallen…the reins still grasped by cold, pale hands. Troops still held their guns in the various positions in which death had found them. One team of six horses, all dead, lay still harnessed to the limber of a gun.”
Although firm documentation of Stanford’s position at this point in the battle is lacking, Brown’s vivid description indicates the battery probably advanced through the position once occupied by Burrows’s 14th Ohio Battery. Captain Jerome B. Burrows lost all his guns, 70 of his horses, and 30 of his men in the crushing Confederate assault. The Mississippi cannoneers were deeply impressed by the terrible sights they beheld, and any doubts about their enemy’s bravery evaporated. But there was little time to ponder these things, Brown remembered, as the Mississippians drew nearer to the heavy fighting in their front. “There was no intermission. True, at times, the fighting would be heavier, generally preceded by a cheer. These cheers were sure to be followed by such crashes of musketry and roar of artillery as to tell of a death struggle or a charge and then quieting off to an almost monotonous rattle.”
The battery most likely participated in the fighting that swirled around the intersection of the Hamburg-Purdy and the Pittsburg-Corinth roads. It was in this area that Sherman and Major General John McClernand attempted to gather enough of their stunned troops to halt the still-advancing Confederate battle line. Captain Stanford reported that during this part of the day he “occupied positions under orders from General Beauregard” until a crisis growing elsewhere on the field made it necessary for the battery to move to the east.
A little more than a half-mile east of the crossroads, Confederate generals sent regiments in twos and threes against a stubbornly resisting mass of Federal forces drawn up in a curving line of battle behind a rail fence separating the Duncan farm field from a narrow, sunken road. Beyond this road was a thick stand of timber, a heretofore nameless piece of real estate soon to be known as the “Hornets’ Nest.” Grant had ordered the position to be held at all costs.
As the battery drew near this fierce contest, it encountered Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles, a grizzled old man with a long, flowing gray beard. Ruggles, commander of Bragg’s 1st Division, ordered Stanford’s battery to unlimber next to Edward P. Byrne’s Kentucky Battery, so the massed cannon could add their weight to the effort to break the Union line.
Observing the effect of the artillery fire, Ruggles determined that more guns were needed. He sent his staff officers to gather every battery they could find. Beauregard assisted in this effort, shifting infantry and artillery from the Confederate left after the withdrawal of Sherman’s and McClernand’s divisions at about 3:00 p.m. Soon, eight more batteries and one section had drawn up into what would become known as the Ruggles Line. In all, some 53 field cannon took aim at the beleaguered Federals in the Hornets’ Nest–Union troops from Brigadier Generals Benjamin Prentiss’s, Stephen A. Hurlbut’s, and W.H.L. Wallace’s divisions.
It was about 4:30 p.m. when the massive gun line opened fire. Shot and shell tore into the trees sheltering the Union battle line, sounding to one Federal lieutenant “like a mighty hurricane sweeping everything before it. A blaze of unearthly fire lit the scene.” A captain remembered, “the shells and shot passed over us terrifically at about the height of a man’s head from the ground while setting down.”
The Confederate infantry stepped out into the field as the artillerymen paused to reload. “One of those wild shouts went up,” wrote Brown, “followed by the sharp crackling of thousands of [muskets], and the enemy was swept from his last stronghold.”
Some 2,000 Federals were captured, along with General Prentiss. Wallace lay mortally wounded near the Pittsburg-Corinth road. The Confederates, too, had paid a price; while overseeing the advance of the Rebel right flank, General Johnston was struck in the leg by a minié ball. Not realizing the seriousness of his wound, he had continued to direct the assault. Minutes later, he reeled from his saddle and collapsed. Carried to a nearby ravine by his staff officers, Johnston died of blood loss as his battle line encircled the Hornets’ Nest.
As the Hornets’ Nest gave way, hundreds of bluecoats broke and ran for Pittsburg Landing, to the cover of a line of defense hastily assembled by Grant. This “last line” was anchored by a half-mile array of cannon–better than 50 guns–running from the bluffs near the Tennessee River along the lip of a deep ravine that stretched inland from the mouth of a stream known as Dill Branch, to the south of Pittsburg Landing. Grant’s last-ditch defensive line was a convex arch stretching a mile and a half west-northwest from the Tennessee to the bluffs overlooking Owl Creek about two miles west of the landing.
Stanford limbered up his guns and followed the Confederate infantry as it pursued the Yankees, rolling through the shattered cabin and barns of the Duncan farm. The acrid smoke of burning cotton bales filled the air. Small arms discarded by the fleeing Federals littered the ground, remembered Sergeant Brown. “Passing to the left and going perhaps half a mile,” he wrote, “we fell in with our line of infantry, lay down and our guns were placed ‘in battery’ or in fighting attitude.”
Shells began to burst around the battery. “By the time we had got our guns ready for action,” recalled Brown, “the shelling became terrific.” The Mississippians soon learned that the shells were being fired by Union gunboats anchored in the Tennessee River a short distance away. “The boats were concealed by the trees,” wrote Brown, “but the heavy smoke rising from every discharge showed where they were.”
The battery was ready to return fire, but Stanford was ordered to wait, Corporal Magee recounted, “for fear they could easily get our range, it now being dark, [and] they could easily see the flash of the cannon from the river.” Finally an order came that perhaps determined the outcome of the Battle of Shiloh. Feeling that his men were too exhausted to continue and that victory was certain to follow the next day, Beauregard, now in command of the Confederate army, ordered his men to disengage and camp for the night.
The wheels of Stanford’s cannon jolted over hundreds of discarded muskets as the battery rolled back through shattered Federal campsites, “which our men now occupied, and began to light up with their camp fires,” wrote Brown. “The bodies of the slain lay as thick as autumn leaves. Lights were moving in every direction as the living hunted for the lost friend. Sad groups stood here and there around the still white faces of the loved and honored.”
The battery pulled up near a campsite once occupied by Schwartz’s 2d Illinois Light Artillery, one of the batteries with which the Mississippians had dueled that morning. Here, General Stewart’s surgeons had established a field hospital. The gunners, exhausted, slumped to the ground near a campfire whose light revealed many torn and mangled bodies lying nearby. The moans and cries of the wounded being treated at the field hospital filled the evening air, and all were shocked and saddened by the news that Johnston had been killed. “It was a gloomy night,” Sergeant Brown remembered.
Rummaging through an abandoned Federal tent, Private Edmond Buck discovered a Testament. Buck sat down near the campfire in the drizzling rain, seeking comfort in the pages of the Bible. All this terrible day he had managed to concentrate on his duties, to avoid thinking of the carnage surrounding him. In the quiet of Sunday morning, it all caught up with him. “I could not help but cry and pray for a merciful God to console the suffering and spare the living,” he wrote.
As work parties buried the dead, a heavy rain began to fall, much to Sergeant Jones’s distaste. At midnight, after standing guard for two hours in the downpour, he wrote: “The lightning is flashing and the thunder is roaring. But Oh! It is sweet music compared to the artillery thunder we have had all day. I am now going to lie down on the soft side of a plank and rest, for I am certainly used up.”
All through that wet and dreary night, Buell’s Army of the Ohio disembarked from troop transports moored at Pittsburg Landing and marched up the bluffs to bolster Grant’s “last line.” These fresh soldiers had to push their way through hundreds of men who had been shattered, physically and mentally, by the Confederate assault. Many of the battle’s weary veterans refused to fight any further, but far more of them were revived by the sight of reinforcements. Unaware of these developments, Beauregard and Bragg bedded down for the night, sharing Sherman’s personal tent.
At daybreak, the reinforced Federals struck. The Confederates farthest away from the river were roused from their fitful sleep when the sound of the first volleys of musketry rippled across the hillsides and fields. Very soon, wrote Sergeant Brown, “an officer came up and ordered us to the support of Gen’l Breckinridge, as the enemy was concentrating in his front.”
One of Stanford’s guns, disabled the day before, had been sent from the field, leaving the captain with five working pieces. He quickly had his battery rolling toward the front. “We went about a mile, and took a position near the centre,” Magee remembered. The battery unlimbered amid a battle line drawn up at almost the same spot from which they had fired as part of the Ruggles Line the day before. The Mississippians were about a mile and three-quarters southwest of Pittsburg Landing. Stanford’s Mississippians took a position supporting Colonel Winfield Statham’s and Colonel Robert Trabue’s brigades of Breckinridge’s corps.
As the fighting intensified, Stanford’s battery was sent forward into a clearing known as Duncan Field to counter a Union battery that had opened fire on the Confederates. Beyond Duncan Field, shielded from view by the trees beyond the Sunken Road, was Captain Joseph Bartlett’s Battery G, 1st Ohio Light Artillery. “The only sign we could see of them was the smoke rising from the bushes where they hid,” wrote Sergeant Brown.
Captain Stanford opened fire on the Union guns at once. This, Brown recalled, drew an immediate response. The Rebel battery found itself enveloped in a hellish maelstrom. “From those bushes came such a succession of deafening peals of thunder as I had never heard before, seeming to almost lift us from the ground,” Brown remembered. “A mad storm of shot, shell, and canister swept by us. The flash, the roar, and the iron storm continued to come without intermission.”
This firestorm stiffened the Mississippians’ resolve, according to Brown: “We were far from submitting quietly from the fierce torrent of their anger, and I have no doubt that our guns made their position nearly as disagreeable as ours.” Raising a lusty battle cry, the Confederate infantry passed through the artillery line and charged. An unbroken roar of musketry greeted the grayclad troops as they drew near the woods beyond Duncan Field. “The storm that swept through the thick undergrowth could not be withstood,” Brown wrote. “The line that charged came back in confusion, so deadly was the reception they had met, and so demoralized by the shock, they could not rally around our battery.”
Captain Stanford stood amid the chaos, Brown continued, and “called on [the infantry] in vain to rally, and not let his guns fall into the hands of the enemy, telling them we could drive the Yankees back with the battery if they would stand by us.” Unwilling to join in the infantry’s retreat, Stanford calmly ordered his men to prepare to give the enemy “a warm reception. This we did as soon as their front was unmasked, and for thirty minutes we held them in check, their ranks broken and wavering in many places, showing plainly that but a little better support from infantry, which was not given us, would have sufficed to have routed them completely.”
Suddenly, it grew ominously quiet. “The firing from the enemy’s guns had ceased,” wrote Brown. “We knew what it meant. The infantry was advancing.” Stanford’s battery renewed its fire, sweeping the underbrush with canister, but still, on came the Yankee infantry–two full, fresh brigades from Buell’s army. They were Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle’s 11th Bri-gade of the 5th Division and Brigadier General Lovell H. Rousseau’s 4th Brigade of the 2d Division.
“They filed past in four ranks, with the intention of flanking us,” Stanford wrote. “It was then the grape had the most terrible effect upon them. Large gaps were made by every gun at each discharge. Three regimental flags being in full view, I gave orders to point at them, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing two of them fall to the ground, both being raised again. One was again cut down. Being hard pressed, and almost surrounded by their large force, I determined to withdraw my command, or such part of it as I could move.”
“All our guns limbered up,” remembered Brown. “My gun having an open way moved out first.” Brown took his cannon back a short distance to the edge of Review Field, just southwest of Duncan Field, where he discovered Stanford’s other four guns were not behind him. He turned his gun around to await them, and still finding himself under fire, Brown decided to unlimber again.
Just as Brown was about to open fire on the pursuing Federals, General Breckinridge rode up along with his son. The general ordered Brown to hold his fire for a moment, because he thought his infantry was still in the woods in Brown’s front. A moment later, however, the intensity of the musketry from the woods changed Breckinridge’s mind. “The little jets of smoke darting out from the bushes, and the ‘zipping’ of balls left no doubt in our minds as to who occupied that side of the field,” wrote Brown.
With only four men left to operate his gun, Brown set to work. “[William W.S.] Rondeau dealt out the ammunition and John Sledge brought it to the gun and placed it in the muzzle. I rammed the charge down, withdrawing the rammer and throwing it down, stepped to the trail to see that the gun had the proper range and then fired, full into the bushes.”
All this time, Brown was in plain view and completely unprotected. “Why I was not killed I do not know, unless there was a power that turned aside the balls, for the others being in the rear of the gun. I was certainly a fair target.”
The remainder of the battery was in similarly dire straits. The captain had unlimbered his other four guns a short distance to the right of Brown’s piece and resumed his fire, believing he could stem the blue tide. “Our boys stood bravely at their posts,” Sergeant Jones wrote. “The loud peals of artillery fairly shook the earth with their incessant roar, while the more deadly clang of musketry rolled in peal after peal across the woods.” It was almost too much for Jones. “Never, never do I wish to be in such a hot place again,” he wrote. But the Union assault struck with renewed fury. “On, on they came,” lamented Jones. “We were pouring it into them by well directed and rapid firing. They were falling thick and fast.”
The weight of the Federal onslaught was just too much. “The enemy,” remembered Corporal Magee, “came upon the battery like an avalanche. We stood firm, pouring the canister into them until they got within 75 yards.” At this point, the guns were ordered to fall back. With most of the horses dead, however, three cannon had to be left behind. “These, however, we did not abandon until the last moment,” Stanford wrote, “making [the Yankees] pay dearly for their purchase.”
Brown’s gun, too, was lost. The sergeant’s surviving men were trying to limber up when a storm of minié balls cut down several of their horses. “As soon as we saw the horses down, we dropped the trail of the gun and all hands put off through the bushes at something better than a double quick,” Brown wrote.
Brown himself was shot in the leg as he attempted to mount his horse. “The sensation was like that which I suppose would be caused by a man striking a double handed blow, with a handspike across the thigh,” he said. The ball passed through his thigh, caromed off his saddle, and slid into his boot, where it was later discovered by a surgeon. In terrible pain and unable to contribute further to the fray, Brown edged his mount away from the front.
As Stanford and his men withdrew, Beauregard pulled his remaining troops together for a last attempt at stemming the Federal counterattack. Establishing a line centered on a small pond known today as Water Oaks Pond, near the Shiloh meetinghouse, the Confederates gamely waded across the pond only to be knocked back by the revitalized Union line. Beauregard was watching this last, forlorn assault when his adjutant general, Thomas Jordan, approached. Jordan did not mince his words: “General, would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?” Beauregard nodded sadly; “I intend to withdraw in a few moments.” Soon, the order was given. By 3:30 p.m., the retreat had begun.
So ended the first battle fought by Stanford’s Mississippi Battery. “The blaze of victory,” wrote Brown, “was lost in the gloom of defeat.” Stanford led his badly shaken command back toward Corinth, satisfied that he had done his best on Shiloh’s field. “The effect of my determined stand, after all support had left me, though disastrous to my immediate command, was certainly beneficial to our common cause, as it gave commanders of infantry regiments time to rally their forces before getting into a complete rout.”
As he made his way from the field, Brown came to a field hospital, where he was helped from his saddle and his wound was treated enough to allow him to continue to Corinth. After lying for what seemed an interminable time “surrounded by the wounded of every class from the ‘slight’ to the ‘mortal,’ some crying out under the examination of the doctors, others already dead,” Brown was loaded into “an ambulance containing several of our wounded boys in charge of [Lieutenant Ansell A.] Hardin.”
After camping the night of the 7th in the same spot where they had bivouacked on the evening of the 4th, Brown, “with one or two other wounded men, was placed in a wagon containing tents and tent poles, cooking utensils, picket rope, and various other articles equally comforting to a wounded man. I was placed in this irregular mass with only a blanket spread under me.” None of the uninjured men around Brown seemed to have any thought for the comfort of the wounded. “The only thing that made the conditions endurable was the thought of getting away from the Yankees,” he wrote.
The wagon neared Corinth by nightfall, but with only two miles left to go, the driver refused to continue, saying his team was too tired. Spending another dreary night with only a tattered tent and a wet blanket for warmth, Brown slept fitfully. “In my dreams, I was on the field of battle crawling among the killed and wounded dragging after me my painful and helpless leg,” he remembered. Early the next day, Brown reached Corinth, where he was treated for his wound and granted a convalescent furlough.
Stanford’s uninjured cannoneers trudged back to Corinth along a roadway strewn with discarded supplies, a road Corporal Magee described as the worst he had ever seen. “In one sink hole,” he wrote, “a mule was mired half way up to his back, and I do not think he ever got out.” As they walked, the men picked through the refuse of battle, retrieving useful items like candles and soap.
Reaching Corinth about April 10 or 11, Magee and the rest of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery set out to reorganize for the fighting that lay ahead, all of them veterans now. Four of their comrades had been killed during the two-day battle at Shiloh. Another 14 had been wounded, and two captured. The battery had lost 50 horses to Federal fire, forcing the gunners to leave four of their cannon and six caissons on the field.
Stanford’s Mississippians would fight again. After a rest and refit at Corinth, the battery rolled across the storied fields of the Civil War’s Western Theater with the Army of Tennessee. Stanford and his men made themselves felt again and again, at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Stone’s River, Chickamauga, and Atlanta, earning for their unit the sobriquet “Ol’ Reliable,” because it could be counted on when the going was rough.
At Resaca, Georgia, on May 15, 1864, Stanford fell to a sharpshooter’s bullet. His battery continued for another six months under Lieutenant Hardin’s command, refusing to yield until a cold day outside Nashville, Tennessee. That day–December 16, 1864, the second day of the Battle of Nashville–the battery anchored Lieutenant General Stephen Dill Lee’s line on Overton Hill, just off the Franklin Pike. Unable to dislodge the battery with infantry, the Federals brought up five batteries of their own. One of these was Captain Adam P. Baldwin’s 6th Ohio Battery. In his official report, Baldwin claimed that his battery alone placed 696 rounds onto Overton Hill during the duel.
Stanford’s Mississippi Battery was shattered, escaping with only a caisson and two limbers, which were used to pull away some guns from another nearby battery. Stanford’s unit was not refitted, but sent to garrison an earthen emplacement known as Fort Stonewall, on the Alabama River. There, they quietly spent the last days of the war, before being surrendered by Lieutenant General Richard Taylor at Citronelle, Alabama.
Receiving their paroles at Cuba, Alabama, in late May 1865, the tired survivors of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery started home. As Sergeant Jones put it, they were “not whipped, but outpowered.” CWT
Jon G. Stephenson, a freelance writer and graphics designer, has published several Civil War-related articles. He serves as adjutant of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery, a living-history group.