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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh

   

THE HORNETS' NEST

In answer to Prentiss's early morning pleas for assistance, at 8:30 A.M., William Wallace advanced two of his brigades from their camps located west of the landing to the edge of Duncan's farm on the Eastern Corinth road. There Wallace's advance brigade under Col. James Tuttle struck the remnants of Prentiss's shattered division one and one-half miles southwest of the landing. Realizing that Prentiss's division had been defeated, Wallace's men (Tuttle's Iowa brigade and a portion of Col. Thomas Sweeny's brigade) quickly formed a defensive line to block further Southern advance up the Eastern Corinth road. Some 3,700 of Wallace's 5,800 available troops (the balance being held in reserve or sent under McArthur to support Hurlbut and Stuart) were placed along an old wagon road that connected the Corinth road with the Hamburg-Savannah road. In between Wallace's left, south of the Eastern Corinth road, and the right of Hurlbut's line located slightly southeast at Sarah Bell's field, the remnants of Prentiss's broken division (about 500 men), joined 575 members of the 23rd Missouri who had marched inland from the landing, took position after 10:00. In all, Wallace, Prentiss, and Hurlbut deployed about 5,700 Federal infantry along a small half-mile (north-south) section of the Union front. Supporting the Federal infantry massed along the "Sunken Road," as the old wagon road became known in the decades following the battle, were six batteries of artillery totaling twenty-five guns. Fronting four hundred yards of the northern half of the Union position, which faced west-southwest, was Joseph Duncan's large field. The southern half of this center section of the Union front ran through a dense thicket south of the field. At midmorning, Grant had personally inspected the position and ordered his division commanders to hold at all hazards.

THE OLD SUNKEN ROAD IN THE HORNETS' NEST AS PHOTOGRAPHED SHORTLY AFTER THE WAR. (LC)

FIERCE FIGHTING IN THE HORNETS' NEST AS THE 8TH IOWA INFANTRY AND HICKENLOOPER'S 5TH OHIO BATTERY REPULSE GIBSON'S BRIGADE. (BL)

As the Union center stiffened, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham personally led Col. William H. Stephens's brigade into position near the junction of the Hamburg-Purdy and Eastern Corinth roads, 450 yards southwest of the Federal center. "His [the enemy's] line extended behind a fence and occupied an abandoned road," reported General Cheatham. Following an hour-long artillery duel, the Southerners were ordered to advance into the dense underbrush on the double quick. They made it to within one hundred paces of the Union line before being driven back by a galling fire. Repulsed with heavy casualties, Cheatham retired the brigade and moved to join Breckinridge in the attacks on Hurlbut's front in Sarah Bell's field. As Cheatham extracted Stephens's cut-up command, several commingled Confederate commands, about 3,500 men under General Cleburne and Brig. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart and Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, attempted a second assault on the Federal center. As the Confederates started forward, Col. Robert Shaver discovered that his 2,000 men had run out of ammunition. Unable to proceed further, Shaver retired his brigade before the Southern line had advanced to within 250 yards of the Union front. Weakened by Shaver's rapid withdrawal, the remaining attacking Confederates were easily beaten off by the heavy volume of Union musketry and cannon fire.

THIS DEPICTION OF THE HORNETS' NEST WAS PAINTED BY THURE DE THULSTRUP. (LC)

At noon, Braxton Bragg arrived opposite the Federal center and assumed command of Confederates facing the thicket. Despite the two previous failures, Bragg continued to launch piecemeal Confederate attacks by ordering Col. Randall Lee Gibson's brigade of Louisiana and Arkansas troops into the Federal meat-grinder. Gibson's brigade, like those Confederate units who had earlier attacked the Union center, stumbled forward through a near impenetrable thicket lining the Eastern Corinth road south of Duncan field. Impressed by the sound of the enemy bullets and shrapnel cutting through the dense underbrush, which seemed to whizz and buzz like a swarm of hornets, Gibson's survivors dubbed the thicket the "Hornets' Nest." "The enemy reserved their fire until we were within about twenty yards of them," noted one of Gibson's men. The Yankees then simultaneously opened fire, "mowing us down at every volley."

His brigade repulsed by the murderous Federal fire, Randall Gibson desperately appealed to General Bragg for artillery support, but the general only ordered another assault. When Col. Henry Wakins Allen, of the 4th Louisiana, questioned the order, Bragg snapped: "Colonel Allen, I want no faltering now." The wounded Louisiana colonel, shot in the mouth, a bullet having passed through both cheeks, waved his sword in one hand and, supporting the regimental colors in his other, shouted: "Here boys, is as good a place as any on this battlefield to meet death."

And meet death they did. In two short hours, the brigade was badly damaged in three, perhaps four, futile assaults into the well-defended thicket. About 2:30 Gibson withdrew his survivors to a position of support in the rear. Never accepting his role in ordering near suicidal frontal attacks against superior enemy forces occupying a position of great natural strength, Bragg later wrote his wife that Gibson was "an arrant coward."

With Gibson's brigade knocked out of action, Colonel Shaver's brigade, with three regiments (about 1,500 men) present and resupplied with fresh ammunition, was called forward from Prentiss's captured camp to attack the Federal center again. Surging into the thicket, Lt. Col. John M. Dean, of the 7th Arkansas, led the men of his regiment to within twenty paces of the enemy line occupying the old wagon road before falling under a hail of bullets. Finding his dead body, an Iowa captain respectfully placed a handkerchief over his face.

THE 44TH INDIANA INFANTRY IN THE HORNETS' NEST ENGAGE CONFEDERATES THROUGH THE SMOKE AND FLAME OF A BRUSH FIRE. FIRES ON THE SHILOH BATTLEFIELD BURNED TO DEATH MANY OF THE WOUNDED. (LC)

About 3:30, Patton Anderson's brigade redeployed from where it had been fighting for six hours on the Confederate left to a position opposite the Union center and proceeded to bash itself against the stubborn Hornets' Nest. In moving through the underbrush, Anderson met a portion of the 13th Louisiana Infantry of Gibson's brigade retiring from the dense thicket. "Its officer informed me that I could not get through the brush," Anderson reported. He nonetheless pushed his men on through a fierce fire until forced back. "The thicket was so dense that it was impossible for a company officer to be seen at platoon distance," stated Anderson, whose men, like several thousand Southern soldiers before them, were repulsed by the Federal firestorm.

From the Federal perspective the fighting was equally vicious. A soldier from the 7th Iowa, positioned on the Duncan field sector, described the action: "Soon the whole line was one blaze of fire. Our men stood their ground firmly and repelled four successive attacks. The storm of bullets was terrific." The next day Colonel Tuttle, commanding the 1st Brigade of William Wallace's division, revisited the portion of the field that had fronted his brigade on Sunday. "The ground was literally covered with the enemy's dead, the wounded having been taken away. In several places could be seen dead men and horses piled up with dismounted cannon," he noted.

Could the Hornets' Nest defense have been broken? If an early massed Confederate assault had been thrown forward from Prentiss's camp before the Federals had completely formed their line in the thicket, the position might have been smashed. As the battle unfolded following the early morning capture of Prentiss's camps, however, the attention and actions of nearly two-thirds of Johnston's army had been consumed in fighting a succession of massive engagements on the Confederate left. Meanwhile, most of the remaining third of the Southern army was shifted to the extreme Confederate right and there locked horns with the Union left under Stuart, McArthur and Hurlbut. This unfortunately left only piecemeal fragments of the Confederate army, an assortment of isolated brigades or detachments, to assault the Union center during the critical midday hours. With superior numbers and firepower, the Federals holding the Hornets' Nest thicket easily beat off Confederate attacks.

Acting more like a unit commander than an army head, Johnston became obsessed with the fighting around the Sarah Bell peach orchard, to the southeast of the Hornets' Nest. Two brigades of Breckinridge's corps, those of Col. Winfield S. Statham and Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen, were ordered across the Hamburg-Purdy road to attack Hurlbut's division holding Sarah Bell's old cotton field and peach orchard and McArthur's brigade of William Wallace's division deployed east of the River road.

FIGHTING ON THE LEFT WING, GENERAL HURLBUT'S DIVISION AT THE PEACH ORCHARD. (LC)

In vain did Breckinridge's troops attempt to break the Federal left center. Johnston remarked to Tennessee governor Isham G. Harris, a volunteer aide: "Those fellows [Federals] are making a stubborn stand here. I'll have to put the bayonet to them." A frustrated Breckinridge rode up shortly and reported that a Tennessee regiment refused to fight. A stunned Governor Harris replied: "General Breckinridge, show me that regiment Harris rode off with Breckinridge and attempted to rally the 45th Tennessee.

Within a few minutes, however, an emotional Breckinridge returned, this time reporting that Statham's entire brigade refused to charge. "Then I will help you get them to make the charge," replied a determined Johnston. The army commander passed slowly along the battle line inspiring the troops and waving the tin cup he had earlier picked up in a Federal camp. Urging them to use the bayonet, he shouted: "I will lead you!" A concerted attack with five Southern brigades (from left to right the commands of Stephens, Statham, Bowen, Jackson, and Chalmers) surged northward astride the River road to collide with the Union left. The Federal front, weakened by Stuart's retreat on the extreme left, buckled under the onslaught. Hurlbut's and McArthur's men were forced to retire northward, back into the woods beyond the open field and the peach orchard. There, Hurlbut set about to establish a new line of resistance to block further Confederate advance up the River road.


Johnston had placed himself in harm's way while advancing into the Sarah Bell field. His uniform had been ripped by minie balls in several places and the heel of a boot cut away.

Johnston had placed himself in harm's way while advancing into the Sarah Bell field. His uniform had been ripped by minie balls in several places and the heel of a boot cut away. Pointing to his boot, he turned to Harris and commented: "Governor, they came very near putting me hors de combat in that charge." Harris anxiously asked if he had been wounded, but Johnston replied he had not.

In truth, unknown to either himself, or his staff, the Confederate leader had been mortally wounded. A bullet had entered Johnston's right leg behind the knee, cutting an artery. Although he was bleeding to death, the wound was masked by Johnston's high hoot. At about 2:00, Governor Harris, returning from conducting an errand for his general, saw Johnston "reel in his saddle." "General, are you wounded?" he asked. "Yes," replied Johnston, "and I fear seriously." Assisted by Capt. Lee Wickham, Harris guided the general's horse south to a nearby ravine. Placing the unconscious Johnston on the ground, the aides frantically tore open the general's shirt in search of a wound but found nothing. A simple tourniquet might have saved his life, but it was not to be. The general never spoke a word but continued to breathe for about a half hour. By 2:30 it was apparent that Albert Sidney Johnston was dead.

THE DEATH OF ALBERT SIDNEY JOHNSTON. (NPS)

About 3:00, Governor Harris reported to General Beauregard near Shiloh Church and informed him of Johnston's death. The fighting would continue under the Louisiana general's direction. Confederate forces on the left flank now experienced a series of ammunition shortages. At the same time Sherman's and McClernand's battered divisions withdrew across the wide and deep valley of Tilghman Branch ravine. There they formed a new front to protect the River road and the important Snake Creek bridge, where Lew Wallace's division was still expected to cross onto the battlefield.

After obtaining the much needed resupplies of ammunition for batteries and infantry commands, the majority of the Southern left flank units, which had until now grappled with Grant's right flank, redeployed and advanced southeast toward the right flank of the Union Hornets' Nest line. Confederate forces on the Southern right flank made slower progress, hindered by steep, overgrown ravines and continued stubborn resistance by Hurlbut's men.

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