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Hike Report: Sherman Defends the Union Right

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Below is Dan's report from the hike that followed McDowell's Brigade of Sherman's Division, and discusses the fighting on the far right flank of the Union army on the morning of April 6th. But first, here's a map showing the route this hike took, starting and ending at the Crossroads...


And now here's Dan's report of the hike titled, "Desperate Morning Fight: General Sherman Defends the Union Right."


We met with Bjorn Skaptason at tour stop 6 near the Crossroads for this hike. Before the main hike began Bjorn talked about the Shiloh National Military Park, the monuments and tablets and what they mean.

The national military park was established in 1894. At the time many of the politicians in power were Civil War veterans and wanted to see these places interpreted. At that time state commissions were established to assist in this project. However, not all southern states participated in the process.

At the time, decisions were made that often leave people wondering today. One of the ones that was mentioned was the establishment of the Shiloh National Military Park whereas the Battle of Stones River, which saw heavier fighting and more casualties, did not receive such a designation. Consequently, little of that battlefield remains today.

The leader of the Shiloh project and first historian of the park was Major David W. Reed. Reed was a historian by profession but was a private during the battle of Shiloh.

The park is interpreted in two ways. By monuments and by tablets. The monuments are located where the most significant action that unit was engaged in took place. The actual location of the monuments was determined by a group consultation by the battlefield commissions and Major Reed. However in the event of a dispute Major Reed had the ultimate say. Apparently to exercise some control the decision was made that the states would provide the monuments. However, the federal government would provide the bases and put them where they wanted.

Unlike the monuments, the tablets do not commemorate. They are only for information. The state commissions had no input on the tablets. Only the Shiloh Commission. Major Reed wrote the text for each one, and made decisions on placement in the park.

To his credit, if Major Reed did not know something to be factual it did not go on a tablet. As a result the tablets at the Shiloh Battlefield are right. Conversely, the lack of tablets did not mean that nothing happened at that location. But if something could not be verified, no tablet was put up.

One of the areas where this is most telling is the northwest side of the Crossroads. After the collapse of the Union line in this area on the morning of April 6th, this sector became a confused and bloody mess. However, no tablets exist in this area. The reason is that the details of the action could not be verified.

The same holds true for the lack of monuments. Monuments were placed at the point of first and most significant action.

From this discussion we moved into the real subject of our hike; following the route of McDowell’s Brigade through the morning of April 6th. 

On the morning of April 6th McDowell’s headquarters was located at Monument 12 at the corner of modern day Highway 22 and the Hamburg-Purdy Road. The mission of his brigade was to guard the bridge at Owl Creek, which is just a little west of the headquarters monument.


At the time of the Confederate attack, the three regiments of McDowell’s Brigade formed for battle just south of their camps. The 6th Iowa and 46th Ohio would remain there until about 10:00, but the 40th Illinois, on McDowell’s left, advanced across a ravine to the south, stopping at the site of marker 177, behind and to the right of the 72nd Ohio of Buckland’s Brigade.


The 40th Illinois engaged in some long range sniping with Preston Pond’s Brigade, although they were not seriously tested by the Confederates. And they could see the maelstrom of fighting by the 72nd Ohio just to their left.


The 40th Illinois was forced to retreat when Sherman’s line collapsed about 10 a.m. This collapse of the line effectively placed the 40th Illinois behind Confederate lines. This retreat forced the 40th to abandon their camp without a fight. McDowell and the 40th Illinois retreated through Crescent Field to Jones Field, where they were finally reunited with Sherman.

About the time Sherman’s line was collapsing, Behr’s Battery, stationed with McDowell's Brigade, was ordered to the Crossroads to help repel the Confederates. The wagon’s from McDowell’s camps were also ordered to the landing about this time, where they would be safe. This required them to go by way of the Crossroads to the Corinth Road in order to get to the landing.

What happened next can only be described as chaos. Behr’s Battery arrived at the Crossroads. Sherman’s men were falling back. The Confederates were in hot pursuit. Behr was shot and killed. The members of his battery abandoned their guns and ran. At this same time, Union troops were trying to form battle lines along the road. Just about the time you thought things could not get worse, they did. McDowell’s wagons arrived at the Crossroads in the middle of everything else. Sherman’s position gave way at all points along the same line. The whole area turned into one confused and bloody mess.


When McDowell’s Brigade arrived in Jones Field, things were chaotic. Sherman and McClernand had just arrived in Jones Field. With the arrival of McDowell, Sherman had what amounted to a small division. The decision was made to counterattack. No matter what, they would attack with what they had.


Thus began the only Federal counterattack of the first day. There was a problem. There were Confederates across the ravine on the Union right. The Union flank had to be protected. As the Union troops advanced, units would peel off facing west, fighting and keeping the Confederates off their flank.

This strategy is documented by monuments 128, 99, 125, & 60, along the west side of the advance.


The counterattack made its way to about halfway through Woolf Field before it ran out of steam. After holding for a while, the Federals were forced to return to Jones Field. The counterattack bought almost two hours of desperately needed time. The casualties were high and McDowell’s Brigade was almost destroyed.


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Dan and Perry,

Thanks a million for your excellent accounts of the anniversary hikes. 

As usual, I regret that I do not have time to really participate in discussions here, but I congratulate the whole group on the high level of friendly and fruitful discussions maintained here.

Dan successfully captured the sense of the McDowell program, but I will add a few things. 

If anyone wishes to learn more about the development of the park's interpretation, including controversies regarding monument placement and text, I highly recommend The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation (2008), and This Great Battlefield of Shiloh (2004), both by Timothy B. Smith of U. of Tenn., Martin, and formerly of Shiloh NMP.  The former book is stronger in providing a national context to the preservation and interpretation of the Civil War, and the latter, as we know, is a history of the early years of Shiloh NMP. 

What Dan picked up on during our historiographical discussion that does not appear in Tim's books is the importance of understanding what it means when the park is not marked.  A lack of interpretation does not mean that "nothing happened here."  D. W. Reed's mania for accuracy provides us with a double-edged sword as we try to understand the battlefield.  On one hand, if there is a tablet marking a particular action, we can trust, with a high degree of confidence, that the information and the location are correct.  On the other hand, since Reed declined to place tablets where he lacked certainty as to events, locations, or times, we have some interpretive "holes" on the battlefield, such as the disposition of Sherman's division during the Crossroads fight.

Dan's notes about the McDowell hike are also very good.  I might add something I think we all suspect, even if we weren't there for the hike.  The terrain over which McDowell's brigade retreated and later attacked is very rough, with deep ravines that were choked with underbrush and filled with water and mud during the battle.  The ravines south of MdDowell's camps are deeper and wider than the same ravines south of Shiloh Church.  This is one major reason why McDowell's position was not tested early in the battle, and why the 10:00 a.m. retreat came as a surprise to McDowell and his men.  The same rough terrain to the north and northeast hampered the brigade's ability to conduct an orderly retreat, but also masked their positions as they slowly made their way out from behind Confederate lines.

When we arrived in Jones Field we discussed the important contingency that Dan noticed - that the Sherman-McClernand counterattack represented the only significant offensive launched by the Federals on the first day of battle.  That stroke, combined with the ferocious resistance before the 5th Division camp, drew large Confederate forces away from General Johnston's intended axis of advance - around the Union left flank.

Curiously, the only portion of the program that interpreted severe fighting was the last 1/2 hour and the last 1/2 mile.  Dan described, and Perry illustrated, the nature of McDowell's participation in the attack well.  they eventually deployed along a line that was roughly 90 degrees to the advance.  It seems ironic that most of the brigade supported the attack by defending the right flank, but that is how it worked out.  Only the 40th Illinois, under Colonel Stephen G. Hicks, came to grips with the enemy as the aggressor.  We finished the program by discussing Hicks' bloody contest with elements of Patton Anderson's Confederate brigade that resulted in heavy casualties among the Southern Illinois "Egyptians," including the colonel himself, who was badly wounded.

A final note on terrain - the area over which McDowell's brigade (supported by the 70th Ohio and 13th Missouri regiments) attacked was, at the time of the battle, open ground, not wooded as it is today.  The area was cleared in the weeks prior to the battle and served as the parade ground for McClernand's Second Brigade under Colonel C. C. Marsh.  The McClernand half of the counterattack, which deserves its own program someday, passed directly through Marsh's camp.

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Ron made a valuable observation on the discussion of Dr. Gentsch's hike that applies to the McDowell program.  I will respond here in hopes that it will contribute to Dan's report

Terrain was the most important of many factors that contributed to Shiloh's spasmodic, or episodic nature of combat.  Quite often bloody fighting would be occurring in one spot, while at another location nearby soldiers might be standing in complete peace.  The McDowell program provides an excellent example of this phenomena.

As we traced the retreat of the First Brigade from their camps we stopped in Crescent Field at marker #178.  This marker partially explains events that occurred in the area during the late morning.  http://www.shilohbattlefield.org/details.asp?WidePhoto=TN003T178L.jpg 

During the comedy of errors playing out in the Crescent Field the 40th Illinois deployed above Owl Creek, facing east, the 46th Ohio was unaccounted for, and the drunken commander of the 6th Iowa left half his regiment at the northern edge of the field while leading the other half back to the area of the marker.  Colonel McDowell promptly relieved Colonel Cummins of his command.  All the while the battle raged 400 yards to the east. 

Why didn't the Confederates notice this, and why didn't they react?  Standing at Marker #178 one reason was clear.  South Crescent field lies in a major field swale, dropping off about 15 feet west of the crest, which runs north to south along the east edge of the field.  Marker #178 sits near the crest of this swale.  With a deep ravine east of the crest, and with the battle raging near what is now the biggest Confederate Burial Trench, McDowell's 2,000 + yankees were as good as invisible to any Confederate commander that might have noticed them. 

They were in the area where Preston Pond's Brigade should have been operating, but as we also discussed at this point on the field, Colonel Pond's leadership at Shiloh could be described as unreasonably conservative considering the demands of the situation.  Much too slow.  Much of interest did occur in Crescent Field during this period, including some confused maneuvers by Pond and some probable Confederate fratricide.  Trabue's Kentuckians were slowly coming up in the area.  But one thing of importance did not occur.  The Confederates did not pin down and destroy McDowell's brigade when they had a chance to.

For this the Confederates would pay dearly in blood and time when McDowell's reorganized force faced off with Trabue across the ravine west of McClernand's parade ground.

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I think the study of terrain & what impact it had on any battlefield is immensely interesting. I think trees, bushes vegetation and ground cover also had an impact on the placement & movement of troops. It is hard to look at many battlefield as they stands today and visualize what the vegetative cover might have been during the battle & how this would have impacted the battle Another interesting thing about Shiloh is all the ravines. There is evidence there was lots of rain before the battle so how many of these ravines were filled with water. How did the undulating topography and ravines, the rain & the mud affect the placement & movement of artillery during the battle. Just too many unanswered questions.

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Well, Dan's reports, and Bjorn's additional information that he was kind enough to include here, are great examples of why folks should try to attend the anniversary hikes if they can. They are outstanding learning experiences, often in ways that you don't always expect ahead of time.


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