National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh

   

SURRENDER IN THE CENTER

By midafternoon Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles who commanded a division in Bragg's corps, sensed the futility of further attacks on the heavily defended Hornets' Nest sector. He thus instructed staff officers to collect artillery in an attempt to hammer the position into submission. Likewise, Beauregard began to shift forces, including several batteries of artillery, from the left to the center, in response to reports of heavy concentrations of Union forces blocking the Southern advance there. In addition, individual Confederate battery commanders, without instructions by superiors, personally redeployed their field batteries to engage the stubborn Federal defense holding the Union center. The result of this hour and a half of shifting and deploying cannon was that by 4:30 all or parts of eleven Southern batteries had been assembled opposite the Hornets' Nest. Tradition, including General Ruggles himself, has placed the number at sixty-two, but fifty-three is probably a more accurate number of cannon employed at any one time in the resulting bombardment.

The thirty- to forty-five-minute barrage, heavy as it was in this largest concentration of field artillery yet experienced on any North American battlefield, may not have been as spectacular as often portrayed. The letters and diaries of several Confederate artillerymen whose batteries participated failed to mention the event. One ranking artillery officer, in postwar years, implied that the cannonade lasted only a few minutes. It did succeed, however, in driving off the remaining Federal batteries supporting the Union Hornets' Nest line.

OFFICERS AND NONCOMMISSIONED OFFICERS OF CAPTAIN ARTHUR M. RUTHLEDGE'S TENNESSEE BATTERY. THIS BATTERY JOINED ELEMENTS OF TEN ADDITIONAL CONFEDERATE BATTERIES TO BOMBARD THE HORNETS' NEST IN THE LATE AFTERNOON OF APRIL 6, 1862. (TENNESSEE STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES)

Although a significant portion of the Federal left under General Hurlbut made a stubborn temporary stand at Wicker Field, by 4:00 P.M. Grant's left was making a rapid fighting withdrawal toward Pittsburg Landing. This move exposed Prentiss's left flank in the Hornets' Nest, forcing him to refuse his left, which now faced to the southeast and engaged the Confederates swarming up the River road. A similar retirement occurred on William Wallace's right by John McClernand's Union division, leaving the Union forces holding the Federal center isolated. General Wallace was stunned to learn of the breakup of Colonel Sweeny's brigade on his right. Many of Sweeny's men had retreated with McClernand's troops. Sweeny's breakup permitted the Confederates moving on the left to turn the right flank of Wallace's line and penetrate into the Federal rear. At 5:00 both Wallace and Prentiss dispatched orders for their men to withdraw. But already, thousands of Southerners were advancing rapidly around both Wallace's and Prentiss's exposed flanks to threaten a complete envelopment of the Union center. In the ensuing confusion, some Union troops managed to shoot their way out and escape toward the landing through a narrow outlet along the Corinth road, but others never received orders.

About 5:30, after six hours of heavy fighting, the Hornets Nest defense finally collapsed. Most of the Federal units were surrendered individually by their field officers. William Wallace had been mortally wounded and left for dead on the field. Meanwhile, General Prentiss surrendered in a heavily wooded area dubbed "Hell's Hollow." In all, Confederates captured some 2,250 men. As the triumphant Southerners sent up a loud cheer, a still defiant Benjamin Prentiss said, "Yell, boys, you have a right to shout for you have this day captured the bravest brigade in the United States Army."

As white flags of surrender were raised throughout the smoke-filled forest, some Federal units attempting to escape still continued to fight. The situation was both confusing and deadly for several minutes. Other Union soldiers who had surrendered defiantly smashed their muskets against trees so that the weapons would not fall into enemy hands. Col. William T. Shaw, commanding the 14th Iowa Infantry, was nearly knocked insensible by a low branch as he attempted to escape. When he regained his wits, he looked up to see a major of the 9th Mississippi standing over him saying, "I think you will have to surrender." Meanwhile, a couple of Confederate cavalrymen snatched the flag of the 12th Iowa and dragged it unceremoniously through the mud.

Neither in his abbreviated battle report nor later in his memoirs did General Grant provide much insight or comment on the day-long stand made by the defenders of the Hornets' Nest. But the courageous stand made by Wallace's and Prentiss's men had gained the surviving Federal forces precious time. Since 4 P.M. the Hornets' Nest had occupied the full attention of the majority of Confederate forces still effectively engaged on the field. Now, with darkness casting a shadow over the field, the hour was getting late for Beauregard's Confederates.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture