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Hike #3

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The third hike of the day began at the Shiloh Church. It was led by Mr Jeff Gentsch. Mr Gentsch is a professor of military history.  He is in the process of writing a book about how the terrain and physical features of the battlefield affected the tactics and the way the battle developed. This was the basis for all of Mr Gentsch's hikes. It turned out to be a most fascinating interpretation of the battle.

At the outset of the hikes Mr Gentsch explained how the technology during the civil war had outgrown the tactics being used at the time of the Battle of Shiloh. This was not really news. Everyone who has studied the war was aware of this. What suprised  me was that the tactics used by the armies were actually almost 400 years old.

In regards to the Battle of Shiloh Mr Gentsch pointed out that the Union forces had put themselves in a strong defensive position by accident. Also by disobeying orders. Regulations called for the union forces to be more compact than what they were. They were also to be connected together instead of the separate camps that actually existed. The Union forces felt like the rebels would not leave Corinth. So, they placed their camps along the ridge lines overlooking the supplies of fresh water. During the upcoming battle this accidental placement gave the Union the advantage of elevation and made for a strong defensive position. A position so strong that it could not be taken by frontal assault. Only by a flank attack. Personally, I had been aware that the 53rd Ohio had placed their camp in Rhea Field to be near the spring. I was not aware that the entire Union army had used this criteria when selecting campsites.

It was water that caused so much grief for the the Rebels during the attack. There had been a lot of rain in the days leading up to April 6th. The Shiloh Branch was full of water. The area below the Shiloh Church was soft, marshy, and inundated with briars and vines. I had known that these conditions had wreaked havoc on the Confederate battle plan in that area. What suprised  me was when Mr Gentsch pointed out that four confederate brigades were bogged down in that area for over 2 1/2  hours. This amounted to 1/4 of the striking power of the confederate army being bottled up in one place. Not only did this immobilization cause CSA forces to suffer heavy casualties , it gave the Union time to develop strong defensive positions.

The Battle for Rhea Field had always been of particular interest to me. I had heard about Appler and Waterhouse and the role they played. Until Mr Gentsch took us along the path of the 6th Mississippi and 23rd Tennessee took on the approach to Rhea Field did I realize the hardships these troops took before they even got to Rhea Field.

The first obstacle was a wide ravine that the confederates had to cross. You could look to your left front and see Waterhouse's Battery in a commanding position. Waterhouse had the range on that ravine and inflicted a lot of casualties as the rebels crossed it.

The next obstacle was the west fork of the Shiloh Branch. At the time of the battle this stream was running bank full. This would have been about chest deep. This obstacle broke up the confederate organization and  caused the troops to emerge from the woods in piecemeal fashion. When they were able to move they presented a broadside to the Union artillery. To make matters worse they were sillouetted against the white tents of Appler's camps. Only target practice would have been easier for the federal gunners.

The final straw was when the troops moved down the streets of the 53rd Ohio camps. The confines of these streets caused the troops to bunch. This provided an excellent target for Waterhouse. It also made a perfect target for the 53rd when Mr Appler decided to fire the first volley.

The result was disastrous. Men fell by the dozens. Both the 6th and 23rd retreated back to the ravine.  The 23rd Tennessee could not be reorganized so the 6th Mississippi made the second attack alone. In this attack the regiment was reduced to a mere burial squad suffering 71% casualties in the two attacks on Rhea Field. This site was prematurely lost when Colonel Appler suffered his well known meltdown.

From Rhea Field to we moved to Marker 305 on your Shiloh Battlefield map. It was from this point  that the 13th Tennessee was able to mount a regimental size attack on Waterhouse's Battery. When standing at this marker and listening to Mr Gentsch's explanation you could easily see the route taken by the 13th Tennessee and how the troops used to terrain as shelter. This caused the battery to withdraw up the hill where it was again attacked. Again you could see how the the 13th used the terrain to their advantage in attacking the battery at this position. This attack resulted in the basic destruction of the battery with three guns being captured and the rest being disabled.

Another point where terrain played an important role in the battle was the capture of Burrows Battery by Wood's Brigade.  Stand at Marker 440 and look to your right rear. You can easily see the deep depression used by the 16th Alabama and 27th Tennessee for cover when attacking this battery. The successful capture of this battery broke the Union line in this sector.

Mr Gentsch also pointed out that tactics often evolved as the battle progressed. Lack of success made commanders rethink what they were doing.

A case in point was the attack on McAllister's Battery by the 4th Tennessee. The 4th attacked across Review Field and quickly sustained heavy casualties. Instead of continuing on this course they moved into the woods on the west side of the field. They continued the attack and succeeded ind driving off the infantry supports and captured the battery. A disastrous development for the federals that contributed to the breakup of the federal line in this area.

This is the point where the hike ended. For me this hike and the ones to follow caused me to look at the battlefield in a different light. I have studied the Battle of Shiloh in detail. I had known where certain batteries had been captured. Where certain lines had been placed.. Now, for the first time I was beginning to stand back and ask the question as to why.. Often the answer was the terrain and natural physical features of the battlefield.

 

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Guest 23rd tenn

great report rebel,

I too really enjoyed this hike. I've always been interested in the 23rd tenn, (does my username give this away) as I had four ancestors in the regiment. I've always knew they made the attack across Rhea field but until that day I'd never made the same trek to get there as what we did that day. I'd say where we crossed Shiloh branch was more in the vicinity of the 6th Miss and that the 23rd would have been further to the right. Easy to understand when coming up into the field why the 6th took such a beating by Waterhouses artillery as they were at point  blank range.

I do hope I can remember to keep a lookout for Dr Gentsch's book when it's finally published. Also hope he returns next year to do some more of the hikes.

 

Randy

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Great job, Dan. Steve owes you a free lunch for that one. :)

That was one of the points Jeff made during the weekend that I really thought stood out - the way the Confederates, in attacking Sherman, used the surrounding terrain to adapt on the fly to try and overrun that position. In way, it just seems to be common sense, especially if you're standing out there in Rea Field, or over on the other side of the Corinth Road where the other regiments of Cleburne's brigade were trying to attack Buckland. That's just a killing field, and it makes you think, if I'm a Confederate soldier here, what do I do? I sure wouldn't want to attack straight up that hill, so I very well might start looking for an alternative. That's exactly what they did.

But the poinit I think worth remembeing is, it isn't what they had been trained to do. As you state, Dan, Jeff talked about how the tactics in use at the start of the war, and at the start of this battle, dated back for centuries. That's what they had been taught. Then at the start of the battle here, they had to toss it out the window because it was getting them butchered.

Good report. :)

Perry

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Randy,

I wish I would have run into you on that hike and learned your ancestor was in the attack there. I'd love to have heard what you thought about re-tracing his steps. I think you're right, they may have been a bit more to the right of where we were, but the experience was probably about the same.

That's one thing I always try to do when I'm out on a certain part of a battlefield, is imagine what it might have been like for the soldiers who were there during the battle. It can be a challenge, but there are moments. Most of the time, they leave me shaking my head in wonder.

 

Perry

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Guest 23rd tenn

no doubt that tactics did change thru out the battle as commanders started using the terrain to their advantage, but it seems to me that the commanders who learnt this were not above regimental. Thru out this hike we followed different regiments at different places and they all used terrain to make attacks and to move around. Brigades though were still flung across open fields during this battle and even in future battles. Just don't seem that the lessons that should have been learned here were carried into the future.

 

Randy

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Guest 23rd tenn

Perry, I overlooked your post. As to how I felt as I was  re-tracing the steps of my ancestors (there were 4 of them in the 23rd at that time) I did wonder as we were crossing Shiloh branch how they must have felt, no doubt hearing the roar of battle while crossing, possibly bullets and  artillery rounds even then coming in on them. I even wondered if perhaps at least one of them might have been in a group that when they first emerged from the woods might have seen Sherman and his staff on the other side. Sherman did in fact get wounded in the hand at this particular time, although I think it might have actually been Cleburne's skimishers the 15th Arkansas who shot at him and his staff.  Still it's nice to think that perhaps it was an ancestor who got some lead into him. As far as I know it's one of the only times I know it's documented of a high ranking union officers being close to where some of my ancestors were at the same time in the battle. I also wondered as we crossed Rhea field if perhaps one of the wounded who lay on the field was one of my ancestors, I know that one of them did get wounded in the ankle during the battle, I just don't know when. 

Hopefully next year we'll get the opportunity to do the hikes together.

 

Randy

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