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Ozzy

The Sunken Road, refloated...

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What's in a name? In reviewing discussions of the 'Sunken Road,' argument seems to hinge on: Was it really sunken?... But, what if that is the wrong question? What if the real query is this: How did others who knew it, describe that location?

 

The position occupied by General WHL Wallace, which extended right from what remained of Prentiss' Division, has been characterized as: 'a mere farm road used by Joseph Duncan;' and as 'a narrow farm road' -- Historynet.com Battle of Shiloh (2006)

 

'The 12th Iowa... took up positions along an eroded wagon trace, which was the remains of the Purdy-Hamburg stage road, along the northeast edge of Duncan Field.' -- attributed to (Daniel 1997), in A Perfect Picture of Hell, (Genoways) p.312 (2001)

 

'Tuttle's men were in a line and in a most advantageous position... We remained on that line for hours, and repelled charge after charge.' -- attributed to John Stibbs, 12th Iowa, Co.D, in A Perfect Picture of Hell, (Genoways) p.26 (2001)

 

'an old washed out road, about three feet deep,' -- according to Erastus B. Soper, 12th Iowa, 'History of Company D,' (1898), found in Iowa Journal of History, Mildred Throne, ed., vol 56, no. 3, (1958)

 

'an old grass-grown country road' -- said Leander Stillwell, 61st Illinois, Story of a Common Soldier..., Ch. 3, (1916)

 

'That spot was designated by the Rebels as the 'Hornet's Nest.' A sunken road and ravine prevented more severe loss, and enabled them to hold their ground.' -- Henry I. Smith in History of the 3rd Iowa, page 46, (1903)

 

'an old, sunk, washed-out road,' and 'road cut' -- both descriptions found From Fort Henry to Corinth, by Manning Force, (1881)

 

'Our regiment lay just behind the summit of a small hill, which sloped off gradually both ways; to keep hid from the enemy, we lay so close upon the ground, that not a gun or anything else could be seen any distance.' -- F.F. Kiner, 14th Iowa, One Year's Soldiering, (1863)

 

'His line extended behind a fence and occupied an abandoned road.' -- General Cheatham, OR 10 (part 1) p. 438, (Apr 30, 1862)

 

'a force was found concealed in the bushes, in front of our left. The enemy were found to be strongly posted on the crest of the hill beyond.' -- Colonel R. M. Russell, OR 10 (part 1) p. 418, (Apr 8, 1862)

 

In trying to explain how the position was selected, General J.M. Tuttle said this in 1887, at the Hornet's Nest Reunion at Des Moines: '[General WHL Wallace] directed me to proceed to the front and take with me the artillery of the division under Major Cavender, which was then on its way to a field near by for inspection, and that he would join me with the other two brigades in a short time. I directed the march on the main road, which was filled with fugitives from the division of Sherman and Prentiss' camp, followers of all kinds, who were making their way to the river as fast as possible. By the time we arrived at the junction of the Corinth and Hamburg roads, the roads were clear of fugitives, and I took the Corinth road for the reason that as the firing was heavy on both flanks, it occurred to me that our center was unprotected. On crossing the ravine a short distance from the junction, the main road led through low ground, so I took an old road that led to the left and over higher ground...' From the booklet First Reunion of Iowa's Hornet's Nest Brigade, held at Des Moines, October 12 and 13, 1887, pages 12-13. 

 

Submitted for your consideration. All italics are mine. Most references easily found on the internet.

 

Ozzy

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Jim, thanks for your contribution. It would appear the 14th Iowa occupied the apex of 'the hill,' as seen from points further south. It would help explain the arrival of over fifty soldiers of the 21st Missouri in the vicinity.

 

Ozzy

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Actually, the 16th WI held the "Apex of the Hill" during Stephens attack and were replaced by the 14th Iowa so they

could replenish their ammo.

 

Jim

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Good point about units swapping position, to replenish ammunition. That's how the 61st Illinois ended up in the road, briefly, after being assigned to a battery.

 

Ozzy

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And that was how the 16th WI found itself near the Bloody Pond where Col. Allen get wounded. They spelled the 44th IND while they resupplied.

 

Jim

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The build-up at the Hurlbut-Prentiss-Wallace line was a lot more fluid than frequently portrayed. It would be difficult to determine who arrived first, and what were their subsequent movements, as it appears elements of all three commands (augmenting Sherman's detachment, already in place near the river) arrived nearly simultaneously. Whoever got there first, it was a good choice.

 

Ozzy

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The real importance of the Sunken road was not that it was an actual sunken road but the position of the armies in the battle.  The union position was, as you are aware of, Wallace's Division in line from above the Main Corinth Road to the Eastern Corinth road where the remnants of Prentiss' Division continued the line east to where it joined up with Hurlbut's division.  This position was a strong position for several reasons which included the trees, underbrush, the elevation of the terrain and the farm lane called the sunken road.  The effect of the sunken feature which was much discussed through the years and the importance was increased because the semi-vertical edge of the road.  This edge offered some protection for the union defenders specially so because the rebels were attacking through a field that had a small upslope.  This resulted in the rebels, if they fired in a strait line along this slight up turn in elevation, resulted in their firing upwards.  this meant better protection for the northern soldiers and the rebels were in a open field.  True there was underbrush but try hiding behind a pile of leaves for protection. 

 

Using the bigger picture, the rebels launched about 6 attacks (not 7 or 8 as claimed by some) all of which failed and the union position held firm.  The rebels finally realized they had to attack both the union flanks.  The success of the attack launched by General Albert Sidney Johnston at 2 pm contributed to the rebels later recognition they had to switch from a frontal attack to that of a flank attack  on the sunken road position.  Johnston's men were the troops from the formations of the 2 pm attack that swept Hurlbut's troops aside and back up the River road and then they turned inward to the area known as Hell's Hallow.  These men were those of Withers' Division, ( Chalmers and Jackson's brigades) and Bowen's brigade of the Reserve Corps.  Combined with the advance of Cleburne's, Stewart's and other confederates soldiers from several broken units on the union right flank, the two union flanks were collapsed and soon the rebels soon joined together but only after most union solders fled.

 

This battle should be known as the battle of the union flanks and not the battle for the sunken road.  Look at and study the movements of the confederates brigades as they were drawn into the battle in the center of the entire battlefield.  Then you can see the union collapse and the rebel advance to the Dill Creek ravine.  This are my thoughts of a true tactical situation to be studied for a deep appreciation of a field problem.  I welcome your thoughts.

Ron              

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Ron, thanks for adding your incisive assessment. Concerning the selection of the location of WHL Wallace's Division, Tuttle suggests that 'the old road' was chosen, not because it was 'sunken,' but because it 'led to relatively higher ground.' So, I suppose we could call it the High Road.

 

Once established, and linked in with Sherman, McClernand, Hurlbut and Stuart, (connecting Owl Creek practically to the Tennessee River), it became an extremely strong, readily defensible line, with numerous supply routes from Pittsburg Landing. It is said that Stuart's force, in the anchor position, was somehow overlooked by the Rebels, and resulted in energy being expended further west of his anchor than it should have been. I do not see how Forrest would have let this happen. My own gut says, after a whole morning spent driving the Federals from one position to the next, and always in reverse, there seems to be an expectation on the part of the Confederate leadership that this line will be no different. Just demonstrate resolve...

 

Because Wallace, Prentiss, Hurlbut and Stuart held firm, the focus shifted to the far west, where Sherman and McClernand were finally pushed well back... and probably too far back. Somewhere in the process, Colonel Sweeny,(3rd Brigade, Wallace's Division) led his 7th and 52nd Illinois regiments away to the northwest, without orders, and opened up an unfortunate gap to the west of the 58th Illinois. When this gap was discovered, Confederate infantry took full advantage, advancing north through a finger of woodland, beginning about 3- 3:30.

 

When Confederate effort was again increased against the Federal line nearest the Tennessee River, a large enough force was brought to bear, about 2:30- 3:30, that engaged the 41st Illinois, and dislodged them from the line. CSA General Johnston was killed in the process. At this point, the decision was taken to commence an 'orderly withdrawal' of Hurlbut's and Stuart's troops, back towards Pittsburg Landing. The success of Hurlbut's withdrawal can be measured by how few of his men were taken prisoner; his regiments are intact.

 

To the west side of the Hornet's Nest, WHL Wallace seems to have been appraised of Hurlbut's decision: he commenced orderly withdrawal of the 2nd and 7th Iowa, leaving the 58th Illinois, the 12th Iowa, and 14th Iowa.

 

Now, Ruggles' Grand Battery opens up...

 

To the east, instead of chasing after the retreating Hurlbut, the Confederates turn attention to Prentiss' Division: he bends his line to face attacks coming from the southeast.

 

To the west, the 2nd and 7th Iowa are nearly to safety, when WHL Wallace is shot down. The withdrawal of the remaining elements of his division is too long delayed. Rebel forces taking advantage of Sweeny's gap race north, turning ever to the northeast. In Hurlbut's absence, Rebel forces occupy his former position, moving ever north, with the leading units turning northwest. The 2nd and 7th Iowa are probably the last intact regiments to escape the trap. Wallace's and Prentiss' remaining men, over 2200 in total, are forced to surrender, by 4:30- 5 o'clock.

 

By the time the prisoners are processed, the sun is nearly gone. Grant lives to fight another day.

 

(Summary compiled from the works of Reed; Rich; Kiner; etal... Sweeny's Gap first encountered via WHL Wallace: unheralded defender of the Hornet's Nest , featuring Bjorn Skaptason.)

 

Ozzy

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Hello Ozzy, 

Thanks for your fine post above.  It is thought provoking and I enjoy that type of a post.  However, there are several points I wish to speak to as they don't appear quite right.  Since these represent your thoughts they cannot be labeled as a mistake but as a talking point.

1.  First paragraph, "sunken road", This old country road was at the point the advancing troops of WHL Wallace's division met the retreating troops of Prentiss' division.  They deployed into a line of battle on the sunken road along Joseph Duncan's field.  Hurlbut's and Prentiss' divisions filled the position to the east of the Eastern Corinth road.  The "relatively higher ground" helped to draw the union troops to this position. 

 

2.  Second paragraph, The union line manned by Sherman, McClernand and Stuart was not an "extremely strong, readily defensible line" nor did the line run to the Owl Creek nor did it run to the Tennessee River.  It actually bent to the north up the Tilghman Branch Ravine towards the Snake Creek.  This line fell short of the Snake Creek ending about even with the Jones Field.  The fighting on the east flank was more fluid with Stuart's brigade withdrawing through several positions each was only briefly held.  They were forced out by the rebels who attacked frontally and by the flanks.  Stuart attempted a stand in the woods east of the Wicker field but this position collapsed immediately and resulted in Stuart's remnants fleeing through the Cloud field back to the union "final line". 

 

3.  Second paragraph, Your description of Stuart's position as a "anchor position and that they "were overlooked by the rebels" is not accurate.  Stuart's brigade was not an anchor as they were in constant retreat only with brief halts to fight for their lives.  They lost every position they attempted to establish.  They were not overlooked by the rebels as demonstrated by the repeated frontal attacks of Chalmer's brigade and two regiments of Jackson's brigade.  They were also attacked on their right flank by the other two regiments of Jackson's brigade and the troops of Bowen's brigade.  Wither's division and Bowen's brigade fought Stuart's brigade almost constantly from 2 pm to 4 pm with brief halts to reform.  Very heavy fighting took place here in the ravine country east of the River road.  

 

4.  Second paragraph, Forrest could not have "have let this happen" as he was not in command of these troops in this fight.  He was busy with his own fight near the Manse George cabin on the northwest side of the Sarah Bell cotton field.  He made an ill advised cavalry charge up through the trees and the underbrush from the Daniel Davis wheat field towards the sunken road.  After poor results and his men being bogged down by the terrain and the federal resistance, he moved his command east past the River road and down into the bottom lands on the extreme rebel right flank.  He was not involved in the fighting in the ravine country.   

 

5.  Third paragraph, The line of Wallace, Prentiss, Hurlbut and Stuart held firm" (you omitted McArthur's brigade) did not hold firm particularly on the right flank (Sherman and McClernand) and the left flank (Stuart and McArthur).  Stuart was attacked in the ravines and McArthur in his position on flat ground east of the River road by Wither's division and troops of Breckinridge's division.  The rebels attacked applying strong pressure forcing both Stuart and McArthur back until finally both brigades fled back to the landing.  Both Stuart and McArthur were wounded. 

Wallace's division held until McClernand retreated back and uncovered Wallace's right flank.  This movement by McClernand opened the way for a rush of rebel troops to advance through the gap left by McClernand.  These rebels moved against Wallace's by moving into his rear and gaining the road he needed for his withdrawal.  This road is the Eastern Corinth road.  

 

6.  Fourth paragraph, The attack you mention as "brought to bear, about 2:30-3:30" actually began at 2:00 PM and was the major attack conceived by General Albert Johnston to get the confederate attack moving forward.  This was the largest and most important attack of the rebels during the day.  It was against the union left flank on both sides of the River road against Hurlbut's division, McArthur's and scattered units of Stuart's brigades.  Please take note that this attack took place east of the union sunken road position and led to the collapse of the union left flank and the retreat of Hurlbut's division, and the remnants of McArthur's and Stuart's Brigades.  General Albert Sidney Johnston was wounded in the eastern portion of the Sarah Bell cotton field and moved back across the River road to the ravine where he died at 2:30 pm.  The location of where he was wounded was verified by comparing several of the Shiloh books and several reports from the Official Records volume 10.  The rebel attack continued, advancing up to the Wicker field which is past the sunken road, here the rebels drove in the eastern flank of the sunken road defenders which directly led to the Hell's Hallow trap. 

The retreat of Hurlbut's, McArthur's and Stuart's troops was not an "orderly withdrawal" but at times took the appearance of a rout.  This movement was made rapidly by units disorganized with many stragglers absent.  The attempt by Hurlbut to set up a position in the Cloud field collapsed immediately when the advancing rebels came out of the woods on his left flank.  The rout continued back to the "final line".  There was no federal commander in overall charge of these troops at this time on the extreme union left flank so no one at hand to halt this retreat.  

Hurlbut's division did arrive at Grant's "final line" in fair condition with two brigades at hand and troops present and under command.  The division was put into position in the defense line.  He had a lower percentage of men taken prisoner because the division, despite losing all of their positions, retained their organization and leadership.  Still, the men needed rest, food, ammunition and a breath of air. 

 

7. Fifth paragraph. There was little that was orderly in WHL Wallace's retreat.  It may have started as such but quickly fell apart into a hasty panic as the road was outflanked by the rebels.  General Wallace was by now, mortally wounded.  Now occurred a major tactical mistake by the confederates that "instead of chasing after the retreating Hurlbut, the confederates turned attention to Prentiss's division".  Wither's division should have continued their attack north through the Cloud field towards Grant's final line.  This attack could have occurred at least 90 minutes sooner than the later Dill Creek attack.  But, that is another story. 

The now disorganized union troops trapped in the Hell's Hallow area were without a leader as General Prentiss no longer could control the situation.  The second wave of advancing rebels should have been used to complete the trap and capture of Prentiss and his troops.  There was plenty of rebels at hand about 4:00-5:00 pm for an attack on the Grant's army and to move against the Trapped Prentiss's position.  

 

Summary, I believe the union sunken road position fell to the rebels only after they halted frontal assaults and attacked and drove in the union right and let flanks.  General Johnston's 2 pm attack had placed a large body of confederate troops on this flank and pushed the attack which continued its forward movement.  The beauty of the plan and the resultant advances was marred by the mistake by the inward turn against the Hell's Hallow union group of soldiers.  Yes, this move trapped Prentiss on his east side.  The rebel attacks on the federal right flank was made by scattered rebel units and did not push the attack until McClernand withdraw and opened the door which trapped Prentiss on his west flank.

 

Why was it mistake to move on the Hell's Hallow trap of Prentiss?  Because by this time, Prentiss was no longer the great tactical objective.  The true object was Grant's army along the Landing road and the River road.  Prentiss had about 2,500 men while Grant had the entire army.  There was more to obtain in attacking Grant and the confederates by this time were more concentrated than any other time during the day, not even at the initial start of the battle.  

 

Now Ozzy, here is something to get your teeth into.  I look forward to any comments by any member. 

Regards

Ron                   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

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Ron

 

Thanks for your recent post. Reading through it, the passion you feel for the 'Battle of Shiloh,' and your desire for the truth to be told in its regard, are obvious. 

 

Passionately seeking the truth, making connections, understanding the importance and relevance of decisions and their outcomes (especially when related to 'how/why we function the way we do today?') -- all reasons I feel the study of history is not only important, but essential. And, as new information comes to hand, it must be made to 'blend and gel' with what we already know...

 

Yours in seeking the truth

 

Ozzy

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Professor Gentsch, on his battlefield geography hikes (2012 and1014) argues the significance of the roads at Shiloh is that they were covenient reference points.  The Sunken Road, then, is important because it allows the Federal forces to have a line upon which to rally, and the Hambrug-Purdy Road becomes a Confederate line on April 7 not necessariy because it is a powerful defensive position (I don't think that it has significant defensive advantages) but because it was a reference point upon which to form a line.

 

Professor Gentsch and others contend that the true defensive position at the Sunken Road is the ravine which is immediately adjacent to the Sunken Road and that the Federals used it as a kind of natural trench.

 

In my several visits to the battlefield, I have never been able to convince myself that the Sunken Road itself has any particular defensive advantages.  Certainly ,one can find quotes to the effect that it was several feet deep in places but certainly today it is not.  I don't know if it has eroded in the intervening century-and-a-half or if memories of the field exaggerated its depth.

 

My understanding is that the War Department made an extensive photographic survey of the battlefield in the 1890s.  Do we have any photographs from then  (admittedly, even in thirty some years the condition of the road could change significantly).

 

I've never walked from Ruggle's Battery directly to the Sunken Road.  Maybe I'll make that 'assault' on my April, 2015, visit.

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