1862 April 30: An Account of Wisconsin’s Boys at the Battle of Shiloh
The April 30, 1862, issue of The Hudson North Star carried this article on the three Wisconsin regiments that participated in the Battle of Shiloh.
The Wisconsin Boys at Pittsburg.
The clearest and most condensed account we have seen, of the part which the Wisconsin regiments took in the Pittsburg battle, is given by W. T. Munson, sutler1 of the 16th, and published in a letter to the Wisconsin. We copy.
On Saturday night Gen. Prentiss [Benjamin M. Prentiss] ordered out the first four companies of the 16th to picket duty. Two companies of the Michigan 12th, and two of the Missouri 23d went with them.2 These were Prentiss’ pickets. These pickets were under Col. Moore,3 and were out a mile and a half. At half past four Sunday morning, they were ordered to advance and reconnoiter. They advanced about half a mile, when they came suddenly on the enemy’s pickets, stationed behind a fence. These pickets were, in fact, a force of about three thousand men. Our men were immediately fired on by the enemy, killing Capt. Saxe and Orderly Williams the first fire.4 This was the commencement of the great battle, and these were the first victims of the “great blunder.” The enemy then commenced advancing in force, the Whole army moving in a body at that time, and driving everything before them.
They advanced in the shape of a letter V, in columns eight deep, supported in the open rear by three heavy columns, which moved to the one side or the other of the V, as was thought necessary. The rebel army rapidly drove in our pickets to the lines of Gen. Prentiss’ division, in which the 16th had the front position. The first notice which the 16th had of this advance, was by Lieut. Col. Fairchild5 riding in and arousing them by saying, “For God’s sake, men, come to our relief!” riding in on a canter. This was about six o’clock. The 16th were immediately formed in line of battle, in good order, about thirty rods from the regiment’s tents. Col. Alban, of the 18th, who formed in line about the same time supported his left.6
At that time there was absolutely no conception of the heavy force advancing on them. About fifteen minutes elapsed before the terrible reality burst on them, as the full force of the enemy revealed itself coming on slowly and steadily, in fine order. The 16th opened the fire, when there commenced an awful fire from the rebel ranks on the whole division, steadily advancing all the time. As they advanced in the shape of a letter V, the reserved columns of the rebels were thrown out, outflanking our force, and surrounding our 18th. Against this terrible impact of the whole rebel army Prentiss’ division maintained a steady resistance for an hour and a half, although slowly retreating. This was done entirely without support from artillery or any infantry reinforcements. It was nobly done. A proportion of the 18th Wisconsin, and two whole regiments, with Prentiss himself, were taken, when the rebel flank movement we speak of was effected.
Col. Allen8 of the 16th was too good a general to be caught in that way, and when he was outflanked he would change his front in the most scientific manner, fire and fall back in good order. He rallied the 16th eight times, when he was wounded and carried off the field. About two hundred were left with Adjutant Sabin,9 Lieut. Col. Fairchild having been pre[v]iously wounded. He was in the front of the fight, leading his men nobly, until he received his wound. He was as cheerful as if on parade. He was wounded about 12 o’clock.
The officers and men did well, fighting like tigers. The loss in killed and wounded in regiment on Friday night was 261, as reported at headquarters. Colonel Allen had two horses shot from under him.
The camps of the 16th and 18th were the first which the enemy passed through destroying every thing [sic] except the tents.
The 18th fought in tolerable good order, and with great bravery, until the flank movement, which resulted in the capture of nearly half the regiment. Col. Alban was wounded by a rifle shot through the lungs, while nobly leading his men, about noon. He died on Wednesday, Lieut. Colonel Beall10 was shot before him, and carried off the field with a severe wound. Acting Adjutant Miller11 was killed on the field.
The last effort made to rally the broken remnant of the 18th was made by Capt. Kershaw,12 who rode along on the Colonel’s horse shouting, “Wisconsin against the world. Rally men.” But it was too late. I ought to have mentioned that Col. Allen net his old political leader Breckinridge [John C. Breckinridge] in the field, for it was his division that fought them.
The troops which fought our men were from Tennessee and Mississippi.
The 14th were brought down from Savannah on Sundy [sic] night, and came into the fight early Monday morning. The common remark on the evening after the battle was, “There go the 14th Wisconsin Regulars,” a reputation they earned by their hard, steady fighting. Col. Wood13 has been honored by appointment as Commandant at Pittsburg Landing.
1. A sutler was a civilian merchant who sold provisions to an army in the field, usually from the back of a wagon or from a temporary tent, which allowed them to travel with the army.
2. According to E. B. Quiner’s Military History of Wisconsin, Chapter 24 (16th Infantry), on the evening of Saturday, April 5th, “Companies A (Captain Saxe), B (Captain Fox), C (Captain Patch), and D (Captain Pease), were ordered out on picket duty, with two companies of the Missouri Twenty-first,” not the 23rd. (Available in the UWRF Archives E 537 .Q56 1866.)
3. David Moore was colonel of the 21st Missouri Infantry, which was in the 1st Brigade with the 16th Wisconsin.
4. Edward Saxe, from Saxeville, commissioned captain of the 16th’s Company A on November 8, 1861, was killed at Shiloh on April 6, 1862. John H. Williams, a sergeant from Berlin, had enlisted on October 21, 1861, and was killed on April 6, 1862, at Shiloh.
5. Lieutenant Colonel Cassius Fairchild, from Madison, commissioned October 10, 1861, will become the colonel on March 17, 1864, and breveted a brigadier general on March 13, 1865.
6. James Shane Alban (1810-1862), from Plover in Portage County, was commissioned on October 24, 1861. The 18th Infantry had left Wisconsin on the 30th, arrived in Saint Louis on March 31, and the next day were ordered to Pittsburg Landing. When they arrived on April 5, they were assigned to General Prentiss’ command. Colonel Alban was wounded on April 6 and died from his wounds on April 7, 1862. For more on Alban, see the May 19, 1992, Stevens Point Journal article by Justin Isherwood.
7. Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published under the direction of Redfield Proctor, Stephen B. Elkins, and Daniel S. Lamont, Secretaries of War, by George B. Davis, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph W. Kirkley, Board of Publication ; compiled by Calvin D. Cowles (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891-1895). Available in Special Collections, UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center (E 464 .U6); also available digitally at Ohio State University’s eHistory.
8. Benjamin Allen, from Pepin, was commissioned colonel of the 16th Wisconsin Infantry on October 10, 1861. He is wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and the wound will never heal properly, causing him to resign on July 17, 1863.
9. George M. Sabin, from Madison, was commissioned November 19, 1861, and mustered out when his term expired on December 20, 1864.
10. Samuel W. Beal, from Taycheedah, was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 18th Wisconsin Infantry on October 24, 1861, was wounded at Shiloh, and resigned on August 3, 1863.
11. There wasn’t an adjutant, nor any other field staff, named Miller in any of the three Wisconsin regiments at Shiloh.
12. William J. Kershaw, from Portage County, had been the 18th Regiment’s sergeant major, from January 18-March 14, 1862, when he was promoted to captain of Company K; he will resign on September 3, 1862. In 1864 he will re-enlist, serving from March 10-October 18, first as major and then lieutenant colonel of the 37th Wisconsin Infantry.
13. David E. Wood, from Fond du Lac, was commissioned colonel of the 14th Wisconsin Infantry on October 3, 1861, and will die from disease on June 17, 1862.