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Rhea Field- What Happened There

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Here is an article that I recently wrote for our reenacting newsletter. Wanted to share it with you guys.. Hopefully, it will generate some discussion,..

Rhea Field was the location of one of the opening battles during the Battle of Shiloh. It was the site of one the most shameful Union retreats during the battle while at the same time being a site where the Confederate forces involved lost high percentage of their attacking forces. Just what did happen on this field that caused this turn of events?

In 1862 the North end of Rhea Field looked much as it does today. [Click for modern-day picture of Rea Field. Initial view is from north end of field looking east. Hold down left mouse button and scroll mouse to pan photo 360 degrees.] However, in 1862 it was almost twice as long as today extending south almost to the Bark (modern day Reconnoitering) Road. The 53rd Ohio was camped on the north end of the field near Rhea Spring. The tents were arranged in ten rows and aligned east west. Officer and other necessary tents were aligned in front (parallel to) of the fencerow on the east end of the field. This arrangement made the "front" of the camp basically along the modern day path that leads to the CSA Burial Trench. It was in this area where the 53rd's troops assembled for inspection, drill, or as on April 6th when the long roll was sounded. [Map - 6:30 a.m., April 6th.] [53rd Ohio camp is just below "Sherman" on lower left-center of map. Note their isolated position relative to the other regiments.]

What is generally not known about the 53rd Ohio's occupation of Rhea Field was that they were not suppossed to be there. Upon their arrival the 53rd was ordered to camp between Waterhouse's Battery (Regimental Marker 37 on your Shiloh Map from Trailhead Graphics) and Prentiss's Division. Instead Colonel Appler opted to make his camp in Rhea Field where he could be nearer the water supply at Rhea Spring. This resulted in a huge hole between Waterhouse's Battery and Prentiss's Divisiion. A weakness that would be exploited by the confederates in the upcoming battle. (Author's note: Even if Appler had camped where instructed he had insufficient troops to connect with Prentiss. In short, the hole in the line would have still existed. It just would not hae been as big).

When General Sherman heard about the camp placement he made several uncomplimentary remarks about civilian commanders. However, because Shiloh was considered a camp and a staging area for the upcoming Cornith Campaign and not considered to be a potential battlefield he did not order the camp to be moved. The decision would prove to be costly.

What is more widely known is that Col Appler like General Peabody of Prentiss's Division was extremely nervous about the possibility of an attack and had made a pest of himself to both Sherman and Grant. The result was much ridicule including the well known "You must be awful scared down there" and the "Take your troops and go back to Ohio" incidents with Sherman.

Without a doubt Mr Appler's first hint that something was terribly wrong must have been the sites and sounds of Wood's Brigade attacking Prentiss's forces along the Bark Road. Not only could the sound of battle be heard but because of the open nature of the woods at that time CSA troops could be seen moving down the Bark Road toward Prentiss's camps and huge plumes of battle smoke could be seen rising above the trees.

With this Colonel Appler had the long roll sounded. The troops assembled in the front of the camp. Remember, this was along the path leading to the burial trench (modern day) The battle was actually raging to the 53rd's left and by this time rear. Appler ordered a change of front to the south side of the camp to meet this threat. The troops were barely assembled when another threat was detected. Cleburnes troops were attacking Rhea Field from what was now Appler's right and rear. The apperance of these troops caused the 53rd to again change their front. This time they positioned themselves in the fencerow (this fencerow still exists) behind their camp. They were in this position when General Sherman rode into the camp and was shot. [Map - 7:30 a.m.]

A quick look at the map reveals that the 53rd was in a rather tight spot. CSA troops were attacking down the Bark Road to the 53rd's left. Troops from the 6th Mississippi and 23rd Tennessee were approaching the front of the camp and Union forces were on the ridge to the 53rd's right. Essentially, the 53rd was between the line of battle with a force attacking to their front.

As the troops from Mississippi and Tennessee attacked Rhea Field their battle line became disorganized as it approached the field because of the wetlands and woods on the east side of the field. As they moved across the field three things happened that made life hard on the Confederates. First, they were coming under fire from Union troops posted along the top of the ridge to their left. This is the same ridge where Shiloh Church is located. Waterhouse's Battery was having a devastating effect on the attacking CSA forces from their position on the ridge. Secondly, there is a hump in the middle of Rhea Field. [see photo. Confederates advancing from right-rear of initial view.] This hump prevented the CSA troops from clearly seeing what was ahead of them. This included the 53rd positioned in the fencerow. Finally, as they were moving through the camp the attacking troops began moving down the company streets. this caused the CSA troops to bunch together. It was at this point that Col Appler gave the order to fire. As you can imagine, the results were devastating. The CSA troops were bunched together and a volley was fired down the company streets. Casulties were enormous. The CSA troops retreated back to the woods. Here the 6th Mississippi reformed for a second attack. The 23rd Tennessee could not be reorganized so the Mississippians made the second attack alone. The result was disasterous. Artillery fire from Waterhouse's Battery and another volley from Appler reduced the 6th Mississippi to a mere burial squad. Of the 425 men who started the attack 300 became casulties in Rhea Field. (70.5%). During the entire war only three other Southern Regiments suffered heavier causulties in a single battle.

Amazingly , it was athis point that even though the Union forces were winning Col Appler had a "meltdown". He panicked and began screaming "Run and save yourselves". At this point most of the troops of the 53rd Ohio broke and ran. Up to this point the 53rd was a 'cork" in the above mentioned hole in the Union line. Now this cork was gone and the overall effect was devestating. Though not immediatly apparent when the 53rd ran it cleared the way for the CSA forces to exploit the large gap in the Union line that was caused by the 53rd camping in Rhea Field. Actually, at this point Waterhouse's Battery was the right flank of Sherman's line. Once the confederates discovered this hole and exploited it Waterhouse's Battery was forced to withdraw. When this happend the Battle in the Shiloh Church sector was lost. It just took about two more hours for Sherman to realize it. One by one from left to right the Union units were forced to withdraw. When Barrett's Battery located near Shiloh Church was forced to withdraw the Union line could not be held. The battle for Shiloh Church was over.

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Hi Dan,

Good information, thanks. I hope you don't mind, but I've taken the liberty of adding a couple of map links and a photo link of Rea Field to your post, to help give folks a visual aid if they don't already have a map handy. The maps and photo are all from that Civil War Landscapes site you told me about. Good site. It might help to have a more detailed map of the action in and around Rea Field itself, but these give a good idea.

Good point about the location of the 53rd's camp, and the fact that they actually went against orders in camping where they did. Sherman's decision to basically do nothing about it reflects the general attitude throughout the Union army, prior to the battle, that there was no danger. The camps for each of the divisions were pretty well scattered in haphazard fashion, contrary to orders. But no one seemed to care, since no trouble was expected.

It is odd that Appler finally cracked when he did, just as his men were giving a good account of themselves. I think he would probably have been forced to fall back eventually anyway, given the isolated nature of his position and the fact he would have had enemy troops moving on his left-rear once Prentiss' line collapsed. But the manner in which they fell back and the timing weren't the best.

I think his isolation, along with just the mental strain of battle, was simply too much for Appler. He couldn't deal with it. He wasn't alone that day by any means, but he probably gets the most attention for it, for whatever reason.

In any case, good post, and good information.

Perry

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Hello Dan;

I have studied the battle of Shiloh for some time and have certainly noticed that the road names today are not the same as of the time of the battle. I further noticed that some of the road names of that time were different from earlier times of the battle. Example is the Bark road. As you know the Ridge road left Corinth along a ridge line (hence Ridge Rd) and becomes the Bark road, after Mickies I believe. The Bark road continues northeast and then east, crossing the Main Corinth road and continuing east, it turns north to become the Eastern Corinth road. The mention of the Bark road in several Official Reports caused me confusion as to what road they were referring to because the action they described was too far from the Bark road as we know it today. I now believe that the road called the Eastern Corinth road was the road to referred to as the Bark road by some of the participants. Even today, the intersection of the Bark road and the Eastern Corinth road is not clearly defined as to what is what. In fact, the larger and more important road is the one that comes from the west as the Bark road and continued north as the Bark road as I believe, or the Eastern Corinth road as most believe it to be today. The confusion of what road they meant is cleared up for me by using the Bark road name instead of the Eastern Corinth road. It seems to fit.

As to the Reconnoitering road being called the Bark road, I never heard of that before. It is not called such on the Graphic map and Sword and Daniel also referred to the Reconnoitering road as such. In fact, the nature of the birth and use of this road indicates it be the Reconnoitering road. Also, it does not seem to fit to call it the Bark road, because the Bark road was opginial before the battle and the reconnoitering road was new and temporary to the camp sites and the battle only in 1862. Could you give me any further information concerning the name of this road. The two roads, Reconnoitering and the Bark roads may be confused with each other since they run in the same direction of east and then northeast and are only about 7/10 to less in spots of a mile apart.

An example of a name change in 1862 is the Savannah-Hamburg road, called that by everybody today, overlooks that it was called the River road by the locals before the battle. This info is verified by several mentions in several Official reports.

Ron

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Hi Ron,

A good point about the roads. Several of them do seem to be called by more than one name at various times. This seems to be the case in other battles as well, and I think to some extent it's simply due to the participants unfamiliarity with the area. What one person would call by one name, someone else would call by another, as you point out. I think that might be the case here with the Bark and Eastern Corinth Roads.

As you say though, the modern-day names aren't much help. The Bark Road heads out from Highway 22 (basically the Main Corinth Road at the time of the battle), heads mostly east, then joins with what's called Gladden Road, which turns north and changes to the Eastern Corinth Road in the park. The 'historic' Bark Road branches off from Gladden Road south of the park, and is now called Fraley Road.

I've found I can usually keep it striaght by remembering that this modern-day Fraley Road is the "original" Bark Road, or so I think of it, and is the road that Jackson and Chalmers were re-routed down to attack Stuart's brigade. But, it's a mess now and probably wasn't much better then for the troops entering the area for the first time.

As you say, even in the park some of the roads have double-names, which probably doesn't help. I tend to call the Savannah-Hamburg Road the Hamburg-Savannah Road, probably because that's how I've always known it. But where it runs, or ran, north of the park - that's the part I think of as the River Road. I manage it keep it all straight in my head, but if it was all new to me it would probably drive me a bit crazy.

I don't think the modern-day Reconnoitering Road was really a road, per say, at the time of the battle. I think it was more like an old dirt path through the woods, or so goes my understanding. There were a lot of these criss-crossing the area, along with the regular roads, or what passed for regular roads at the time.

Perry

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Good Morning:

I think Ron may be correct here.. The info about this being the Bark Rd actually came from last years battlefield hikes.. I went back to the tapes and there was a mention of what I believed what was the modern day Reconnotering Rd being the Bark Rd.. The way that statement was made still leads me to believe that was what the hike leader intended.. However when you look on the Shiloh Map it does show the historic Bark Rd being south of there.. In fact, by almost a mile.. I honestly did not double check the road name on the map when I wrote the article..

Perry, let's be sure and ask that question this weekend at the hikes and we can post a clarification on Monday..

Your Obedient Servant

Dan

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Perry asked one of the rangers the day of the hikes and the modern day Reconnoitering Road was at the time of the battle simply a farm road and not the Bark Road as I stated in my article. Good catch Ron. Thanks for correcting that.

Perry, we had a discussion on how to correct this little problem while we were at Shiloh. The subsequent posts contain a lot of good information. My vote is to let the article stand as written then someone can read it and the replies and see what occured. If we go in and try to edit the original post the subsequent replies are not going to make sense and all that information will be lost.

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Dan,

Yes, I think it's fine as is, all things considered. The only two issues that I see are the references to the Bark Road, which have been dealt with, and the inadvertent placement of Waterhouse's battery on Sherman's right flank instead of on the left flank. I didn't catch that the first time. Would have saved him and his men some grief though, had they been on the right flank at the time.

I also re-visited Rea Field for a bit on Sunday morning, and after looking around again I saw no reason to change anything in your post about Rea Field itself.

For now though, I think it's time for us to retreat and save ourselves. (Inside joke, for anyone not on the 53rd Ohio hike.)

Perry

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Just got around to reading this post. Thanks, means alot to me since this is probably the field my ancestor was killed or is buried in. We assembled at the end of the Shiloh filming in the same spot the 53rd assembled that fateful morning and received a moving speech about honoring our ancestors and the men who fought there. One by one we were called forward as ancestors of men who fought there and eventually as ancestors of men who were killed there. Brought tears to a bunch of men that day.

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