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Perry Cuskey

Hike #4 - Jackson's Attack

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One of the selling points of the anniversary hikes is that they take you to areas of the park that most people never see. And never is that description more appropriate than when applied to the fourth hike of the day, covering the fighting that took place in the woods and ravines to the east of the famous Peach Orchard. An area that it’s safe to say the vast majority of visitors to Shiloh never get out to.

For me personally, this is the hike that I have been looking forward to the most. In part, precisely because it will take us through an area that gets so little attention, and so few visitors. Something that always appeals to me for some reason. And also because I have not been out there in years. By the time this hike is over, it will bring the overall theme of the entire weekend into sharper focus for me.

The gathering spot for this hike is tour stop 13 - the Peach Orchard. By now it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and it’s getting pretty warm. The sunblock I thought I brought with me is safely locked inside my trailer back at the campsite, meaning I’ll be a true Oklahoma redneck by the end of the day. But I’ll have company. I’d guess there are between 30 and 40 people milling about, ready to get started. We will be tramping through some of the roughest terrain anywhere in the park.

We gather round Bjorn, our hike leader for this jaunt, as he gives us an overview of what we’re about to cover. As is the case for most of the day today, we’re going to be dressed in Rebel Gray, this time marching along as proud members of Jackson’s Brigade of Wither’s Division. The only Confederate division at Shiloh, as Bjorn tells us, that was able to maintain its cohesion during the battle.

We begin our northern advance by going to the south, marching out to Larkin Bell Field, where we invade the campsite of Union Colonel David Stuart’s brigade.

One hundred and forty six years earlier, at around 11:00 in the morning, the real Jackson’s brigade had arrived near this very spot, helping to drive back Stuart’s brigade and capturing the camp. Earlier that morning they had been approaching the Union line in Sara Bell’s Cotton Field south of the Peach Orchard, when along with Chalmers brigade they received orders to pull back and head off toward the right. Shortly after destroying Prentiss’ division, Johnston had received word of an unexpected enemy division out beyond his right flank. Since the goal was to turn the Union army’s left flank, two of the brigades in Wither’s division, Jackson’s and Chalmers’, were pulled out of line and sent to deal with this new threat.

The enemy “division” that Johnston had been warned about was in fact only Stuart’s small brigade of three regiments. But Johnston had no way of knowing that. Along with Jackson and Chalmers, he had also ordered his reserve division to this flank, two-thirds of which would arrive about noon. Johnston himself was soon on the scene, helping direct the action on his critical right flank.

We have arrived from the opposite direction as Jackson, many years and a few hours behind them. We stand in Stuart’s camp listening to Bjorn recount the story, as soldiers dressed in blue and gray hurry through our imaginations on their way to appointments with destiny.

Attacked by two enemy brigades, Stuart’s outnumbered troops guarding the extreme Union left quickly fell back. The 71st Ohio, on Stuart’s right, stampeded first and was quickly cut off from the rest of the brigade. Stuart and his officers managed to rally the remaining regiments, the 54th Ohio and 55th Illinois, and took up a new position northeast of their campsite. For the next few hours, they would be faced with the daunting task of holding off Chalmers Brigade.

Before he had been attacked, the only thing between Stuart’s right flank and the Union troops south of the Peach Orchard was trees. But by the time Jackson and Chalmers overran Stuart‘s camp, this gap had been filled by the timely arrival of Brigadier General John McArthur’s brigade.

It was McArthur’s troops that would square off against Jackson, while further to the east Stuart dealt with Chalmers. At stake was control of the Union army’s left flank, directly behind which lay Pittsburg Landing.

 

After overrunning Stuart’s camp, Jackson’s men moved forward into a ravine in their front, to take shelter from enemy fire. At around 2:00, after an extended long-range sniping with the enemy across the way, they finally moved out and attacked McArthur, forcing him to fall back several hundred yards. Stuart, on McArthur’s left, was also forced back at about the same time. The Union army’s left flank had finally been turned.

Fourteen decades and six years later, it is our turn to move forward, as we head off to attack the unseen Union monuments to the north.

On a side note, the house where Stuart set up headquarters belonged to a local resident named Noah Cantrell. An ancestor of Steve Cantrell, one of the gentlemen taking part in the hikes this weekend, including this one. As we head off in the footsteps of Jackson’s brigade, we will be walking across his family’s former property.

We head off into the woods walking along a ridge, and very soon we arrive at…the wrong spot. Oops. Hey, if the entire Confederate army can get turned around at Shiloh, so can we. We’re being historically accurate.

To get to where we’re supposed to be, over on the next ridge, the only way to go is down. Into the deep ravine that yawns before us. Someone points out what looks to be a good route, and says we can take the easy way. Bjorn states that in doing so, we’re doing exactly what the Confederates would have done during the battle - look for the best way through the difficult terrain. A good save on his part.

Someone else jokingly suggests that it would have been easier if they had just fought over by the monuments. Meaning the level, open ground near the Peach Orchard. Bjorn makes another good point by saying that for the most part that’s what happened, as the terrain tended to funnel most of the troops, and most of the fighting, out into the more open and level area just to the west of where we are. And where we are doing our level best not to get lost.

(It will be a losing battle for many of us, me included. At one point, sighting Wicker Field through the trees, I mistook it for Cloud Field. Locate the two fields on a map, and you’ll see how wrong I was. I soon realized my mistake, but I should have known better to begin with, so please don’t tell anyone about this.)

After wandering in the broken, cut-up wilderness that is this part of the battlefield, we arrive at the monuments marking the defensive line of McArthur‘s brigade. Or more precisely, what was their second defensive line, along a ridge between two of the surrounding ravines. McArthur’s first, temporary line had actually been in the ravine to the south. A position taken for the same reason that Jackson’s men had also hunkered down in a ravine at one point - to take shelter from all the angry pieces of metal flying around.

Just as the soldiers who fought out here had discovered, we are finding the going to be a bit challenging at times, as we climb up and down ravines and ridges, and cross our fingers before jumping across streams. But as with all the hikes, everyone does a good job of watching out for each other, and lending a helping hand when needed. Thankfully, unlike our distant counterparts, we have no need to hunker down and avoid flying metal.

By now we are walking along the ridge paralleling the Union line on the south side of the Peach Orchard. The fighting here in the woods between Jackson and McArthur had been desperate, as the casualty figures on the Union monuments we pass eloquently attest. Along with the troops on both sides of them, McArthur’s men had finally been forced to abandon this position and fall back to the north, taking up a new line near Wicker Field.

At this point, after hurling back McArthur, Stuart, and part of Hurlbut’s troops in the Peach Orchard, the Confederate advance stalled out. It was a story repeated throughout the battle’s first day. Exhaustion, disorganization, large casualties, lack of ammunition, all played a role in these delays.

It was during the attack that we have just retraced that Albert Sidney Johnston was mortally wounded. Some historians and students of the battle believe that his death was the cause of the delay that now occurred on this part of the battlefield. Others, including our hike leader Bjorn, do not agree. He, and they, believe it was basically the natural ebb and flow of the battle that brought about this temporary pause. In short, the Rebs needed a break. So, for that matter, did the Yanks they’d been fighting.

After our own brief pause, we advance to the attack once more, heading off to engage the new Union line near Wicker Field just as our Confederate counterparts had done before us. And it is at this point that the battle swirling around us is about to undergo a subtle but important change. 

By late afternoon Jackson and Chalmers were advancing once more, toward the new Union line east of Wicker Field. As they advanced toward and engaged this line, they also started to swing toward the northwest - away from Pittsburg Landing. As Jackson, Chalmers, and Withers no doubt believe, they are now starting to turn the Union left and sweep them away from the landing area. In fact, they are still well short of the landing. But their move around the Union left represents a major threat just the same.

There is some debate as to whether Johnston would have moved the attack straight ahead, toward the landing. But while I used to think this was a possibility, I've since come to believe that the battle here would have proceeded very much as it did in reality, and that Johnston would have attempted to swing around the Union flank and take it in reverse.

As the Union line begins to contract in response - “folding like a pocketknife” is how Bjorn will later aptly describe it - reserves begin to arrive on the left flank to contest the Confederate advance. As we will soon learn, the ability of the Union army to call upon reserve units at critical moments, and when the Confederate army had already committed all of its own reserves, would play an important role in the battle.

Among the Union reserves huffing and puffing their way toward the new line east of Wicker Field at this time is an entire brigade from Hulburt’s division, pulled out of line near the Hornet’s Nest and hurried over to the new position. The contraction of the Union line, Bjorn explains, has allowed Hulburt to withdraw this brigade, creating a reserve that can be sent to a more critical area.

As we walk along in the woods where the Union line was located, we come to a monument to another unit that arrived on the scene at this time - the 57th Illinois of W.H.L. Wallace’s division, previously in reserve near Duncan Field. The regiment is poorly armed and quickly finds itself up against the crack brigade of General James Chalmers, armed with modern Enfield Rifles. Although they do their best, the Illinois troops are quickly shredded by their well-trained, better equipped  opponents, and are forced to retreat. Nearby we see the marker for their burial ground, giving more eloquent testimonly to the ferocity of the brief fight that took place where we now stand.

Just as with the 57th Illinios, all of the Union soldiers on this part of the field were soon forced to retreat. The advance of Jackson, Chalmers, and other units to their left will finally cause the entire Union line in and near Wicker Field to fall apart, as first Stuart, then McArthur, and finally Hurlbut are forced to order a retreat back to the landing.

But the brief stand made along this line has caused yet another delay in the Confederate advance. And as we follow the victorious Rebels across the Hamburg-Savannah Road into Wicker Field where they begin to surround the Hornet’s Nest, I realize that for me, this hike has defined the weekend’s main theme. What Bjorn in his summation will call the battle between attrition and annihilation.

Even though they may not have known it, to win this battle the Confederates had to defeat Grant’s army before sundown on April 6th. Buell’s army would be on the field by the next day, after which a Confederate victory was no longer possible. So it was today or nothing for the Rebels. What’s more, as were are reminded several times (with good reason), they were fighting a battle of annihilation. They mean to destroy Grant’s army. In contrast, Grant and his men are fighting a battle of attrition. Their goal is as simple as it is brutal - survive till sundown.

The way to do that is to delay the Confederates by any means possible, and as often as possible. They will spend this bloody, horrific day trading space for time. Forcing the southern army to stop and regroup, again, and again, and again. Delay, disrupt, “hold at all hazards,” do whatever they possibly could to slow down the Rebels until the sun went down or help arrived.

One aspect of the battle that allowed them to do this was the presence of, or the creation of, reserve units. Something that as the battle progressed, the Confederates no longer had. The analogy that Bjorn uses is that of a bullet. Once fired, the direction of a bullet can no longer be changed. It must go where it is fired. And once a division, brigade, or regiment of troops has been committed to battle, it can no longer be called upon to fight somewhere else.

Like a gun that has fired all of it’s ammunition, the Confederate army, splayed out across a wide front, had commited all of its reserves by mid-afternoon on April 6th. They were, in effect, out of bullets, and had no one else to call upon for a knockout blow.

In contrast, the Union army was able to call upon reserve units several times during the battle. Part of this was simply the way the battle evolved, while at other times it was the result of good decision making on the part of Union officers. But the cumulative effect was to repeatedly cause a delay in the Confederate advance, as these reserves were sent, like extra bullets pulled from a gun belt, to critical areas when it counted most.

Trading space for time. Trading the lives of soldiers to save the life of an army. Attrition against annihilation.

It’s the lesson we repeatedly learn all throughout the weekend, as we hear about the many and varied ways that Yankee attrition survived its fight with Rebel annihilation. The terrain, the tactics, the confusion, the decisions...all of it. What we are learning today is how and why all of these factors combined to affect the course and outcome of the battle.

It is the story of Shiloh’s awful first day. The story, and the lesson, we have learned on this memorable hike, through some of Shiloh's most daunting terrain.

Perry

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Guest 23rd tenn

another great report Perry, even though I was on this hike it was great to read your views on it.  I have to say again how Bjorn and Jeff both done such a great job showing that weekend how terrain played such a crucial part in the battle. even though I've read a considerable amount of information on this battle and have been to the field some many times, after the hikes on the 6th I'm throughly convinced that if the terrain wouldn't have been the way it was that the union army would possibly have been forced to surrender by noon that day.

Randy

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Perry;

Your report that you call "Jackson's Attack" is actually the crux of the 2 pm attack ordered and led by General A S Johnston.  I enjoyed your narration very much and find little to dispute since it is very accurate and I Have long believed this attack to have been the most important attack for the confederates in the first day's battle.

The most enjoyable time I spent at Shiloh was on my second visit when I went into the back areas, in places where people normally don't go.  I was looking for the markers for the rebel artillery positions and I got into the deep woods, down into the Tilghman branch ravine and on the flanks of the battlefield.  It is weird to be struggling through the deep woods and come on a marker far far from the crowds.

Johnston's 2 pm was a vital very important event in the Battle of Shiloh and actually followed the battle plan formed by Johnston before the battle, of clearing the union left flank.  This attack started from the area of the Sarah Bell farm, west of the Hamburg-Savannah road (River road) and spread east across the road and into the wood and ravines where Withers' division had Chalmers' and Jackson's brigades.  Breckinridge's division straddled the River road with Bowen's brigade and a part of Statham's brigade east of the road.  West of the road was the majority of Statham's, Stephens' (led by Maney)and Gladden's (led by Adam's)brigades.  This was the attack led forward by Johnston himself with Governor Harris and General Breckinridge, the immediate past Vice-President of the United States.  I don't know of any other attack in the civil war ld by such an array of leaders as this attack. 

One point I wish to dispute is the description of Withers' division as the only confederate division to maintain their cohesion during the battle.  True that Withers and his two brigades, Chalmers and Jackson, did indeed remain intact during the fighting on Sunday but after dark when both brigades were trapped in the Dill Creek ravine, Chalmers was able to withdraw intact but Jackson's brigade fell apart in the darkness and he bivouacked that night on the Shiloh Church plateau with only Girardey's battery present with him. Actually, Breckinridge's division maintained their cohesion during the battle on both days and actually improved because Trabue's brigade rejoined the division on Sunday night.  On Monday morning, Breckinridge had all three of his brigades with him.  Sorry, but I'm speaking my mind again. 

Your description of the 2 pm attack remains very good and accurate as you continue the action into the Wicker field and the collapse of the union left flank.  This is another area of the battle that does not get is due since heavy fighting occurred here and in the ravines.  Remember the regiment with the largest loss during the battle was in this fighting east of the River road. 

I agree with Bjorn that, if a delay occurred after the death of General Johnston, it was for unrelated causes such as fatigue and being out of ammunition.  This delay actually was only for about 15 minutes and can be il;lustrated by referring to a time chart.  (won't do that here)  The rebels resumed their attack quickly and moved against McArthur's brigade and into Hurlbut's Wicker field position which you describe very nicely.  Hurlbut's position was formed quickly and like other union temporary positions, fell apart just as quickly.

Finally, I agree with you, Perry, that if Johnston was still leading the troops their direction of attack would still be diverted to the west against Prentiss' troops caught in the trap west of the Wicker field.  The prise of union troops was just to attractive for the rebels to resist but if Johnston was still in command, he may have realized more quickly than anyone else actually did and turn the rebels back to the north and just might have been able to attack the Dill Creek ravine at 5:30 instead of 6 pm.  Would this 30  inutes have been decisive?

Again, an excellent report and much enjoyed.  It makes me think I was on the Anniversary hike. 

Ron

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Thanks guys,

Ron, in reference to the statement about Withers division being the only one to keep it's cohesion - I think I got that part wrong. I don't think that's what Bjorn said or meant. He was talking about how many of the various divisions and brigades lost their cohesion during the battle, and that the term "division" really came to have little or no meaning for the Confederate army. He may have said something similar about brigades as well. He did indicate that Wither's division was an exception to this, and talked about how Jackson and Chalmers managed to stick together most of the day, but I think that's as far as he went with it. So that's my fault.

I also forgot to credit Dan for lending me the notes he took for this hike. They helped jog my memory about several things. Thanks Dan. :)

I titled the post after Jackson since that's who we were re-tracing, but you're certainly right about it being Johnston's attack, Ron.

Feel free to speak your mind at anytime, including calling me on something you don't think is right. Not a problem.

Perry

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Guest 23rd tenn

Perry,

What Bjorn did say about Wither's division is that by the time of this attack it was really the only action of the day where anything like a division was used together, minus his one brigade. I also think at this time that Chalmers and Jackson's brigades were the only units not committed. Remember that he said as units came onto the field Brigades were taken and sent to where they were needed.  So for most of Sunday brigade size attacks is about all there was with divisions  being scattered for the most part.

Now what Ron says about sunday night I'm in total agreement on, some commanders did attempt to bring their units back together, but way to many didn't.

 

Randy

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